The Brief History of Santiago de Chile
What follows is a very brief, chronological breakdown of the most important events that have led to the creation of Santiago, and also the Chile we know of today.
1500’s The Spanish, who conquered practically all of the America’s, had its colonial power based for South America, in the region in Lima, Peru. At that time Chile was then a backwater – not considered particularly important and only a place “yet to be explored”.
1536 Diego de Almagro led an expedition, on horseback, from Peru into Chile but did not get anywhere near to the future site of Santiago because the journey was fraught with difficulty.
1541 Pedro de Valdivia. The man bestowed with the honour of being the original Spanish conquistador was Pedro de Valdivia. In 1540 he led an expedition from Peru to Chile arriving in 1541 to the site of where Santiago is today.
Valdivia “founded” Santiago officially on Saturday 12 February 1541 and named the settlement “Santiago del Nuevo Extremo”, after the name of his hometown in Spain. The actual place for this ceremony was at the foot of the hill called “Huelen” (by the indigenous natives), but renamed “Santa Lucia” by the Spanish.
He organised a local form of government and set about mining in the areas that were rumoured to have had gold during the Inca period, but he and his men endured constant attacks from native Indians who were trying to repel them.
It was clear that a more secure base was required, and they set about building an infrastructure which led to the development of a fort and aptly named it the “Plaza de Armas” (Armed Plaza). Shortly after completion of the new plaza many of the buildings were destroyed by the rebellious, native Mapuche Indians.
Naturally, the new settlers set about rebuilding and stuck to within the limits of the natural boundaries of the Mapocho River and Santa Lucia hill. Urban development continued to grow for the next decade and began to resemble a colonial settlement of importance. However, the “Conquistadores” were here in search of mineral wealth and therefore “followed their noses” to the south of Chile to the area of Arauco, deserting Santiago which then became more of a staging post.
1553 A violent backlash from the southern Mapuche Indians forced the Spanish invaders to retreat back to Santiago, reigniting population growth in Santiago once again.
1586 Construction on the “Iglesia de San Francisco” (Church) began and continued over a 44-year period until 1630. The church holds an item, which is on display, that Pedro de Valdivia brought with him on horseback all the way from Peru. Chile was now governed from Lima under the Viceroy of Peru and forced to trade with Spain via Lima. Restrictions were put in place to forbid “Chile” (not yet a country in its own right) to trade directly with any other country, which resulted in uncontrolled smuggling.
The Spanish Crown, as “owners” of the land called Chile decides to divide up the agricultural land and large houses between the leading families in Chile who, as a result, became extremely powerful and rich. With large swathes of land being owned by so few people, including the Jesuit church, a new underclass was created and known as “inquilinos”. The “inquilinos” were only given permission to farm by the landowners if they worked for the landowner, thus creating a “serfdom” of workers who were at the mercy of the landowners they served.
Early economic demand focused on livestock and horses to generate leather and grease needed for the mines in Bolivia, as well as the continuing war against the Mapuche Indians in Chile.
In to the 1600’s
1626 There were around 500 houses and a population of 11,000 now in Santiago.
Earthquake & Land Prices
1687 A massive earthquake destroys the wheat crop in Peru, which then enabled the superior quality Chilean wheat to fill gap and supply the miners working there. This, in turn, led to a rise in the price of Chilean wheat, which determined the price of land in Chile throughout the 18th century.
Consequently, any person owning land had the opportunity to increase his wealth, whilst the workers only continued to be workers, receiving as little pay as the landowners could get away with.
On to the 1700’s
1740 Direct trade with Spain was now permitted.
1750 Chile is allowed to mint its own currency.
1760 It is accepted, or agreed, that tenants working the land should provide a son or daughter to the landlord for household duties i.e. a maid.
By the end of the 18th century, after 250 years of colonial rule, Santiago had virtually been destroyed, once by native Indians and twice by massive earthquakes. The population at this time was around 50,000 people.
1784 Construction on La Moneda Palace begins and takes 20 years to complete.
Independence and Political Unrest
1808 The French, under Napoleon, successfully invaded Spain resulting in confusion among the Spanish colonies as to where their allegiance lay, this in turn, weakened Spanish colonial military control, which led to the beginning of the independence movement.
1810 A local military “junta” was formed. This “junta”, along with patriots loyal to the Chilean independence movement fought many battles against troops loyal to the Spanish crown. These battles continued through to 1818.
The First President & Independence
1818 “President” Bernardo O’Higgins. The illegitimate son of a Peruvian Viceroy, Chile’s first elected leader following independence from Spain in 1818.
There were two key men who played a vital role in bringing independence to Chile. One was Bernardo O’Higgins, born in 1778 in Chillan (southern Chile) as the illegitimate son of an Irishman, Ambrose O’Higgins.
Ambrose O’Higgins rose through the Spanish colonial ranks to become Governor of Chile and then Viceroy of Peru. Ambrose sent Bernardo to London to be educated and during his time there he met with a number of exiles who were plotting to overthrow their own Spanish rulers.
In 1817, after his father died, Bernardo returned to Chile to inherit his father’s estate and take his surname: O’Higgins. Bernardo O’Higgins led his own army of men to take on the Spanish Royalists, but after one serious defeat he retreated over the Andes to nearby Mendoza, in Argentina, where he met up and joined forces with the other key player in the Chile independence movement: Jose San Martin de Los Andes.
San Martin de Los Andes had been planning to enter Chile from Argentina and overthrow the Spanish too. O’Higgins and San Martin de Los Andes joined forces and after winning a major battle in 1818 at Rancagua (just south of Santiago) O’Higgins was asked to be the “Supreme Director” of the newly independent Chile.
Independence was officially claimed in February 1818 with Bernardo O’Higgins as head of the first Chilean government. As you travel throughout Chile you will notice a street named after him in almost every Chilean city, town or village.
Independence Day is, however, celebrated on the 18 September each year and known as the “dieciocho”, which means 18.
After independence from Spain, which was 277 years after Pedro de Valdivia, first arrived at the Santa Lucia hill, Santiago began its journey to become a serious urban base.
1822 Valparaiso was declared a free port by the independent administration, which enabled it to develop into an important financial centre and principal through-fare for business connected to the booming nitrate mining in the north and successful cattle ranching in southern Patagonia. Also, at this time, over 30 canals were constructed in the fertile, central valley, to provide much needed irrigation to the crop and fruit farming in this area.
1848 La Moneda Palace becomes the residence and working place for the president of Chile (like the White House in the USA).
1851 The first vineyards begin to appear.
1857 17 Sep 1857 the principal theatre (at the time) of the country was inaugurated with the opera Errani performed by an Italian company.
1872 Benjamin Vicuña Mackenna initiated the change of the Santa Lucia hill by using 150 prisoners to dig, move rocks, shift earth and plant trees.
Northern Land Grab
1879 Arturo Pratt and “The War of the Pacific” Chilean naval hero who led the winning naval battle against Peru. On 21 May 1879 Pratt, on board the Chilean ship Esmeralda, beat the Peruvians in a maritime battle in the Pacific Ocean opposite the northern city of Iquique. This led to Chile gaining all the land north between Iquique and up to Arica, and in the process, also cutting off Bolivia from the sea.
On to the 1900’s
1900 The first significant fruit harvest is reaped. Santiago is booming from mining and agriculture. New constructions go up and areas are gentrified (Santa Lucia Park), but the vast majority of the population live as servants to the rich landowners.
With a growing economy people came to Chile to make money and live well. Large houses and mansions were built. The State commissioned the construction of a new Congress building and Municipal Theatre. It was the newly arriving Europeans who drove the pace as they set about recreating the kind of European environment they were used to but leaving the poorer natives and mix-raced peoples to fill in where they could, many flocking to Santiago in search of a better life, but often living in simple shacks and treated as second-rate citizens.
As Santiago entered the 20th century it expanded eastwards, towards the magnificent Andes mountains, creating new “barrio altos” (literally meaning “higher settlements” both in terms of new wealth and also higher altitude). Many large farming properties (haciendas), a result of land being handed down the family line from the days of the Spanish conquerors, get broken down into smaller holdings thus forcing agricultural workers to leave the land they worked, to look for more affluent work in the nitrate mines in the north as well as in Santiago. The Santiago population is now around 600,000 people.
Telephone lines go up. The Panamerican highway is constructed north and south from the capital. Hydroelectricity provides energy. Demand from the USA and Europe to fuel World War II provides a boost to the economy.
1920 The nitrate mining industry collapses, which leads into the 1920 great depression, which leads to social tension and unrest.
1925 The National Library is created and inaugurated.
1952 The population in Santiago reaches over 1 million people.
1970 Pressure is on to reform the land ownership problem (too few landowners with vast swathes of land but too many poor people with nothing to speak of).
1973 President Salvador Allende (democratically elected in 1970 as the first ever communist president of Chile) is ousted in a bloody military coup led by Augusto Pinochet, head of the army and lead figure in the military junta.
1975 The first metro line opens on May 15 operating from San Pablo to Central Station
The New Millenium 2000’s
1990 – Democracy returns to Chile with the election of President Aylwin when he assumes the presidency in March of 1990.
1992 – With the return of democracy to Chile the country is no longer considered a “pariah state” and international airlines begin flight routes to Santiago, foreign investment begins to flow in and the economy starts to post impressive growth figures.
1995 – More and more construction projects begin to take shape, new roads are built, old roads are resurfaced.
1999 – Various areas of Santiago, especially the sectors of Providencia and Las Condes see major infrastructure redevelopment with modern offices and apartments blocks being completed and new developments planned still.
2000 – Santiago airport has been redeveloped; many regional airports have been replaced by modern, new airport terminals.
2010 – A major earthquake hits the central part of Chile, but damages very little considering its ferocity. Although there was some damage to a few highways and some buildings and a tsunami claimed some lives further south, near Concepcion, it was impressive how the structures of the country resisted the major forces of energy.
2015 The Sky Costanera centre and tower are opened. Since the return of democracy, the country has undergone a radical redevelopment and Santiago, in its eastern suburbs, as well as other parts of the city, look like a fully developed, modern city. The figures that register poverty are down and there is an overall “good feel” about where Chile is heading.
2019 – Civil unrest suddenly erupts after the cost of metro ticket increases for use during the peak period and a Chilean government minister suggests that to avoid the increase people should get up earlier. The unrest spreads throughout the country with metro stations, churches, shops, and properties being torched and destroyed.
2020 – The Covid-19 virus hits Chile and the country invokes lock down controls and curfews to control the contagion.
2021 - Chile elects the youngest president in its history, 36 year old Gabriel Boric, a socialist politician. He takes office in early 2022.
2022 – Lock down ends and Chile begins to open its borders.
2023 - Present day Santiago and Chile as you see it.