(Diego Barros Arana, Historia general de Chile, 1999)
O'Higgins, Ambrose [Ambrosio] (c.
captain-general of Chile, later viceroy of Peru, and probably
the eighteenth-century Irish emigrant who attained the highest
position in the Spanish empire. Son of Charles O'Higgins and
Margaret O'Higgins of Ballinary, County Sligo, and later of
Summerhill, County Meath. Ambrose O'Higgins was educated in
Ireland, with an early instruction in mathematics, and later he
was trained to become a surveyor or draughtsman.
went to Spain around 1751 and worked for the Irish merchant firm
of Butler in Cádiz, on whose behalf he undertook a commercial
journey to South America in 1756. He visited his younger brother
William, who was living in Asunción, Paraguay, with a wife and
two children. In 1761 Ambrose O'Higgins was back in Spain, where
he joined the army as 'ingeniero delineador' (engineer
draughtsman, with the rank of lieutenant). Three years later he
was sent again to South America as assistant to the military
governor of Valdivia, the Irishman John Garland. On his first
journey across the Andes, O'Higgins conceived the idea of
improving the route by constructing a chain of brick-built
shelters, and by 1766 an year-round postal service was operating
between the Atlantic coast and Chile. He returned to Spain and
wrote the Description of the Realm of Chile, a memorandum
containing recommendations about the indigenous population,
agriculture, trade, and administration.
Chile in 1770, Ambrose O'Higgins was named captain,
lieutenant-colonel, and field-marshal. In the 1770s his troops
were engaged in wars with the Llanos and Pehuenches, indigenous
people of the region, and he was twice wounded. In 1780 he was
appointed commandant-general of the Spanish army in Chile,
defending the town of Concepción against the attacks of the
British army. O'Higgins' highest titles were attained in 1787 as
governor and captain-general of Chile, and in September of 1795
as viceroy of Peru. He was also granted the Spanish titles of Baron of Ballinary and Marquis of Osorno
by the king of Spain. Among his most important achievements was
the abolition in 1789 of the cruel 'encomienda' system, whereby
landowners kept indigenous labourers in conditions close to
slavery. He also pushed reforms in the Catholic church to
benefit the poor, eliciting the antagonism of the reactionary
Creole elite. He performed his duties as viceroy most ably for
nearly five years.
O'Higgins never married and his titles died with him. In his
late fifties he had a romantic and illegitimate liaison with
María Isabel Riquelme de la Barrera, an attractive
eighteen-year-old Chilean woman from a well-known local family.
Their son, Bernardo O'Higgins, was born in Chile and was
educated by, but not with, his father, with whom he was never on
intimate terms. Bernardo was a leading figure in the Chilean war
of independence and is remembered as the emancipator of Chile.
O'Higgins died on 19 March 1801 at Lima, Peru, where he was
buried in the church of San Pedro.
Rafael, El Baron de Ballenary (Buenos Aires: author's
- De Breffny,
Brian. 'Ambrose O'Higgins: An Enquiry into his Origins and
Ancestry' in The Irish Ancestor 2:2 (1970), pp. 81-89.
Ricardo. El Marqués de Osorno Don Ambrosio Higgins, 1720-1801
(Santiago: Publicaciones de la Universidad de Chile, 1941).