Coastal defence of colonial Chile

In Colonial times the Spanish Empire diverted significant resources to fortify the Chilean coast as consequence of Dutch and English raids.[1] The Spanish attempts to block the entrance of foreign ships to the eastern Pacific failed due to the failure to settle the Strait of Magellan and the discovery of the Drake Passage. As result of this the Spanish settlement at Chiloé Archipelago became a centre from where the west coast of Patagonia was protected from foreign powers.[2] In face of the international wars that involved the Spanish Empire in the second half of the 18th century the Crown was unable to protect peripheral colonies like Chile leading to local government and militias assuming the increased responsibilities.[3]

Timeline of privateer and pirate activity

The following is a list of expedition and seafarers who landed or sailed in Chile with hostile intentions towards Spain or during times the country they served was at war with Spain.

Year(s) Commander Places attacked Details
1578–1580 Francis Drake Valparaíso, La Serena, Arica Francis Drake was one of the first corsairs to attack the Chilean coast. With his ship the Golden Hind Drake sailed north along the Pacific coast of South America, attacking Spanish ports and pillaging towns. Some Spanish ships were captured, and Drake used their more accurate charts. Before reaching the coast of Peru, Drake visited Mocha Island, where he was seriously injured by hostile Mapuche. Later he sacked the port of Valparaíso further north in Chile where he also captured a ship full of Chilean wine.[4]
1587 Thomas Cavendish Quintero Thomas Cavendishs' expedition begun once he sailed off Plymouth in 1586. He entered the Strait of Magellan and after finding the settlement of Ciudad del Rey Don Felipe abandoned, which he named Port Famine, he sailed north to the thriving Spanish settlements in Chile. At the ruins of Ciudad del Rey Don Felipe Cavendish rescued a survivor who later escaped and alarmed Spanish authorities of Cavendish's presence. Cavendish made a failed attempt at attacking the port of Quintero in Central Chile before he left Chile for Peru, Mexico and the Philippines.[5]
1593 Richard Hawkins None In 1593 English privateer Richard Hawkins led an expedition to Chilean waters. Viceroy García Hurtado de Mendoza sent a fleet to the Chilean Sea that successfully capture Hawkins. Hawkins was pardoned and deported back to England.[6][7]
1600 Olivier van Noort Santa María Island
1600 Simon de Cordes
Baltazar de Cordes
Castro In 1600 local Huilliche joined the Dutch corsair Baltazar de Cordes to attack the Spanish settlement of Castro.[8][9] While this was a sporadic attack the Spanish believed the Dutch could attempt to ally the Mapuches and establish a stronghold in southern Chile.[10]
1614 Joris van Spilbergen Santa María Island
1643 Hendrik Brouwer
Elias Herckman
Carelmapu, Castro The Spanish knew of the Dutch plans to establish themselves at the ruins of Valdivia so they attempted to re-establish Spanish rule there before the Dutch arrived again.[11] The Spanish attempts were thwarted in the 1630s when Mapuches did not allow the Spanish to pass by their territory.[11] The Dutch occupation of Valdivia in 1643 caused great alarm among Spanish authorities and triggered the construction of the Valdivian Fort System that begun in 1645.[12][13]
1680–1681 Bartholomew Sharp La Serena, Iquique, Arica In 1680 the English corsair Bartholomew Sharp raided in turn La Serena, Iquique, Arica to then continue to attack Spanish possessions in Peru. The Spanish governor José de Garro had foreknowledge of Sharps incursion and ordered Valparaíso, Concepción and Valdivia to prepare. In this view the raid on La Serena was a complete surprise for the Spanish. At the very last moment a militia was formed in La Serena but it was dispersed after a confrontation with Sharps troops. La Serena's inhabitants fled the city and Sharp occupied it for three days.[14]
1686 William Knight La Serena In May 1686 he landed in Tongoy near La Serena. The Spanish engaged the pirates who left. One pirate was taken prisoner and sent to Lima.
1686 Edward Davis La Serena In September 1686 Davis led a failed attack on La Serena. Upon meeting resistance pirates took up a defensive position in a local church. When finally leaving the city the pirates had lost 11 men, including a prisoner who died shortly thereafter.
1704 Thomas Stradling None Left Alexander Selkirk on Robinson Crusoe Island.
1709 Woodes Rogers None Picked up Alexander Selkirk on Robinson Crusoe Island.
1720 George Shelvocke None On 25 May 1720 the Shelvocke's ship Speedwell was wrecked on an island of Juan Fernández called Más a Tierra by the Spanish. Shelvocke and his crew were marooned there for five months but managed to build a 20-ton boat using some timbers and hardware salvaged from the wreck, in addition to wood obtained from locally felled trees. They left the island on 6 October to continue hostilities against the Spanish Empire.
1721 John Clipperton Arica
1741 George Anson
David Cheap
None The arrival of George Anson's expedition to Chilean waters happened at a time Spain and Britain were at war. After a troublesome passage into the Pacific from the Atlantic the remaining ships (Centurion and Tryal) regrouped in Juan Fernández Islands. HMS Wager wrecked in Guayaneco Archipelago leading to various searches by the Spanish after the survivors or any further British activity in western Patagonia.[2]
Drake 1580 Sharp 1681 Clipperton 1721
Sharp 1680
Drake 1578 Sharp 1680 Davis 1686
Drake 1578
Brouwer 1643
Cordes 1600 Brouwer 1643
Map with the attacks on Spain's Chilean positions by enemies.
Seven Years' War

As consequence of the Seven Years' War the Valdivian Fort System, a Spanish defensive complex in southern Chile, was updated and reinforced from 1764 onwards. Other vulnerable localities of colonial Chile such as Chiloé Archipelago, Concepción, Juan Fernández Islands and Valparaíso were also made ready for an eventual English attack.[7][15]

American Revolutionary War

With Spain and Great Britain at war again in the 1770s due to the American Revolutionary War local Spanish authorities in Chile received in 1779 the warning that a British fleet commanded by Edward Hughes was heading to Chilean coasts for an imminent attack. As consequence of this the Viceroyalty of Peru send economic aid to the garrisons at Valparaíso and Valdivia. The suspected attack did however never happen. In late 1788 suspicion of British attack rose appeared once again, this time stemming from observations of ships off the coast of Coquimbo. A defense plan where militias played a major role was hastily made up.[3]

Spanish initiatives

Preventing entry to the Pacific Ocean

In the 16th and 17th century Spain considered the Pacific Ocean a Mare clausum – a sea closed to other naval powers. As the only known entrance from the Atlantic the Strait of Magellan was at times patrolled by fleets sent to prevent entrance of non-Spanish ships. On the western end of the Pacific Ocean the Dutch threatened the Spanish Philippines.[16] To end navigation by rival powers in the Strait of Magellan Spanish viceroy Francisco de Toledo ordered Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa to explore the strait and found settlements on its shores.[17]

Building fortifications

In Colonial times the Spanish Empire diverted significant resources to fortify the Chilean coast as consequence of Dutch and English raids.[1] This was particularly true for the expensive Valdivian Fort System built after what would be the last Dutch incursion into Chile since Dutch rule in Brazil, from where the expedition to Chile was made, collapsed in 1645.[18]

A Spanish fort near Taitao Peninsula was manned for one and half year beginning in 1750 before being abandoned.[2]

Increased local participation in the defence

Spain's international wars at the second half of the 18th century evidenced the empire's difficulties in reinforcing its colonial possessions and provide them with economic aid. This led to an increased local participation in the financing of the defense and an increased participation in the militias by the Chilean-born. Such development was at odds with the ideals of the centralized absolute monarchy. The Spanish did also formal concessions to strengthen the defense: In Chiloé Spanish authorities promised freedom from the encomienda those indigenous locals who settled near the new stronghold of Ancud (founded in 1768) and contributed to its defense. The increased local organization of the defenses would ultimately undermine metropolitan authority and bolster the independence movement.[3]

New roads

In the last decades of the 18th century the Spanish set out to build roads between strategic places in the coast. One such road, Caicumeo, connected the "city-fort" of Ancud with Castro.[19][20] Another larger road came to connect Valdivia with the settlements at the northern shores of Chacao Channel providing a pathway for reciprocal military aid.[21]

Patrolling western Patagonia

The Spanish failure at colonizing the Strait of Magellan made Chiloé Archipelago assume the role of protecting the area of western Patagonia from foreign intrusions. In the aftermath of the wreck of HMS Wager (1741) in Guayaneco Archipelago a series of expeditions and patrolling was done in the coasts of Patagonia by the Spanish.[2] A book based on the Wager wreck published in 1748 in England exposed weaknesses of the Spanish rule in the Southeastern Pacific. This book together with rumors of a new British expedition made the Viceroy of Peru send expeditions to populate Juan Fernandez Islands, establish a fort in the island of Tenquehuén near Taitao Peninsula, and search for a frigate the British would supposedly have sent into the southeast Pacific.[2]

Depopulation and scorched earth strategy

As result of the corsair and pirate menace Spanish authorities ordered to depopulate Guaitecas Archipelago to deprive enemies of any eventual support from native populations.[22] This the led to the transfer of indigenous Chono population to Chiloé Archipelago in the north while some Chonos moved south of Taitao Peninsula effectively depopulating the territory in the 18th century.[22]

When the Spanish learned about the impeding Dutch expedition to Valdivia in the 1640s Pedro de Toledo, Viceroy of Peru, sent letters ordering local Spanish authorieties use a scorched earth strategy against the invaders.[23]

See also


  1. "Ingeniería Militar durante la Colonia". Memoria chilena (in Spanish). Biblioteca Nacional de Chile. Retrieved September 30, 2014.
  2. Urbina C., M. Ximena (2013). "Expediciones a las costas de la Patagonia Occidental en el periodo colonial". Magallania (in Spanish). 41 (2). Retrieved 27 January 2016.
  3. Ossa Santa Cruz, Juan Luis (2010). "La criollización de un ejército periférico, Chile, 1768-1810". Historia. 42 (II): 413–448. Archived from the original on 1 February 2016. Retrieved 27 January 2016.
  4. Cortés Olivares, Hernán F. (2005). "El origen, producción y comercio del pisco chileno, 1546–1931". Revista Universum (in Spanish). doi:10.4067/S0718-23762005000200005. Retrieved 25 October 2012.
  5. "Thomas Cavendish", Memoria chilena (in Spanish), Biblioteca Nacional de Chile, retrieved 30 December 2015
  6. "Richard Hawkins", Memoria chilena (in Spanish), Biblioteca Nacional de Chile, retrieved 30 December 2015
  7. "Lugares estratégicos", Memoria chilena (in Spanish), Biblioteca Nacional de Chile, retrieved 30 December 2015
  8. "La encomienda", Memoria chilena (in Spanish), Biblioteca Nacional de Chile, retrieved January 30, 2014
  9. Urbina Burgos, Rodolfo (1990). "La rebelión indigena de 1712: Los tributarios de Chiloé contra la encomienda" (PDF). Tiempo y espacio (in Spanish). 1: 73–86. Retrieved February 22, 2014.
  10. Clark Berger, Eugene (2006). Permanent war on Peru's periphery: Frontier identity and the politics of conflict in 17th century Chile (PDF) (Ph.D.). Vanderbilt University. p. 13. Retrieved 13 March 2014.
  11. Bengoa 2003, pp. 450–451.
  12. Robbert Kock The Dutch in Chili Archived 2016-03-03 at the Wayback Machine at
  13. Lane 1998, pp. 88–92
  14. "Bartolomé Sharp", Memoria chilena (in Spanish), Biblioteca Nacional de Chile, retrieved 30 December 2015
  15. "Ingeniería Militar durante la Colonia", Memoria chilena (in Spanish), Biblioteca Nacional de Chile, retrieved 30 December 2015
  16. Lytle Schurz, William (1922), "The Spanish Lake", The Hispanic American Historical Review, 5 (2): 181–194, JSTOR 2506024
  17. "Navegantes europeos en el estrecho de Magallanes". Memoria chilena (in Spanish). Biblioteca Nacional de Chile. Retrieved September 30, 2014.
  18. Lane 1998, p. 90.
  19. Sahady Villanueva, Antonio; Bravo Sánchez, José; Quilodrán Rubio, Carolina (2010). "Flandes Indiano Chiloense: un patrimonio invencible en el tiempo". Revista de Urbanismo (in Spanish). 23: 1–27. Archived from the original on 20 December 2016. Retrieved 30 January 2016.
  20. Urbina Carrasco, María Ximena (2014). "El frustrado fuerte de Tenquehuen en el archipiélago de los Chonos, 1750: Dimensión chilota de un conflicto hispano-británico". Historia. 47 (I). Retrieved 28 January 2016.
  21. Couyoumdjian, Juan Ricardo (2009). "Reseña de "La frontera de arriba en Chile colonial. Interacción hispano-indígena en el territorio entre Valdivia y Chiloé e imaginario de sus bordes geográficos, 1600-1800" de MARÍA XIMENA URBINA CARRASCO" (PDF). Historia. I (42): 281–283. Retrieved 30 January 2016.
  22. Ibar Bruce, Jorge (1960). "Ensayo sobre los indios Chonos e interpretación de sus toponimías". Anales de la Universidad de Chile. 117: 61–70.
  23. Lane 1998, p. 89.


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