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Revista Interamericana de Bibliografía (RIB)
Número: 1
Título: 1998

The Araucanian Question in Chile

Chile was one of the few Latin American republics that still had a large, unassimilated Indian population. The Araucanians, also known as the Mapuche people, occupied a region the size of Connecticut in southern Chile, which they had defended from European invasion since 1550.7 Their own military prowess and Spanish ineptitude enabled the Araucanians to fight the invaders to a stalemate in 1600. Both sides agreed to end the war and co-exist peacefully in the Treaty of Quilín in 1641. The pact recognized the independence of the Araucanian people and fixed the Bio-Bio River as the boundary between the Indian and non-Indian realms. In return, the Araucanians accepted Jesuit missions in their territory and limited trade with Spanish settlements north of the frontier. The Mapuches would also defend the Crown’s interest in the event of foreign invasion. Although the Araucanians enjoyed political autonomy into the Republican Era, Spanish interlopers continued to violate the Spanish-Araucanian agreements. Slave traders, whose activities had been once sanctioned by royal provision, continued to raid Araucanian settlements, thus provoking Indian attack. By 1800 private slavers were replaced by a new threat to Araucanian autonomy: Chilean settlers who coveted the fertile and seemingly vacant lands that lay south of the Bio-Bio.

Independence threatened to alter Chilean-Araucanian relations. As successors to the empire’s Bourbon rulers, republican Chileans were obliged to not only respect existing agreements but keep intact Spanish laws and institutions which were not excluded by newly written constitutions. Obligations aside, Chilean leaders sought to incorporate the Araucanians into the nation. In 1819, the Supreme Director, Bernardo O’Higgins, granted them citizenship, an act that transformed them into private agents who could move freely throughout the republic and who could, more importantly, alienate their lands.8 But such legal changes had little effect as most Araucanians lived beyond the reach of the Santiago government.

In the ensuing decades, the Chilean government postured and threatened, but could achieve little in the way of a permanent solution to the Araucanian problem. In 1823, Minister of Interior Mariano Egaña proposed negotiations with the Indians to advance the frontier and construct a line of forts deep inside Araucanian territory. Once the region had been secured, the government could initiate Chilean colonization of newly liberated lands. The Chilean congress adopted Egaña’s plan, but withheld action until the last pockets of royalist resistance had been extricated from Indian territory.9 During the next decade the administration of José Joaquín Prieto (1831-1841) studied the feasibility of a massive military campaign. After a hasty and optimistic evaluation, Prieto rushed the measure through congress and began making preparations. Eventually, however, Prieto’s plan was pigeonholed due to Chile’s war with neighboring Peru and Bolivia in 1836.10 In the face of government inaction, Chilean settlement of the Bio-Bio accelerated after 1840.11

By 1845, the “Araucanian Problem” loomed on the political horizon. Illegal settlement touched off numerous conflicts between Indians and settlers, seriously undermining the political stability of the region. During this time literate Chileans began to reject the idea of a semi-autonomous Indian nation within the boundaries of the republic. They also hoped that the fertile lands of Araucanía would be opened to settlement, thereby enhancing Chile’s economic development. Of course, many believed that military conquest re- presented the only feasible solution. One southern senator went even further. After military conquest, he argued, the Araucanians should be repatriated en masse to the Atacama desert far to the north.12 Despite the growing anti-Indian sentiment, some Chileans doubted the prospects of a military force. The young republic, they argued, could not afford a protracted Indian war and should focus on more pressing matters such as stimulating Chile’s moribund economy and conducting foreign relations with its immediate neighbors. For them, it was preferable to continue the colonial policy of accommodation and gradual incorporation through peaceful means. The publication of Araucanía i sus habitantes in 1845 placed Domeyko at the forefront of this small, yet influential movement.