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Colonial Chile

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Title: Colonial Chile  
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Subject: History of Chile, Benei Sión, Conquest of Chile, Incas in Central Chile, List of Chile-related topics
Collection: Captaincy General of Chile
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Colonial Chile

In Chilean historiography Colonial Chile (Spanish: la colonia) is the period spanning from 1600 to 1810 that begins with the Destruction of the Seven Cities and ends with the onset of the Chilean War of Independence. During this time the Chilean heartland was ruled by Captaincy General of Chile. The period was characterized by a lengthy conflict between Spaniards and native Mapuches known as the Arauco War. Colonial society was divided in distinct groups including Peninsulars, Criollos, Mestizos, Indians and Black people.


  • Society 1
    • Societal groups 1.1
    • Sex and marriage 1.2
  • Political organization 2
  • Labour forms 3
    • Encomienda 3.1
    • Inquilinaje 3.2
    • Slavery 3.3
  • Economy 4
    • Agriculture 4.1
    • Mining 4.2
    • Trade 4.3
    • Alerce logging 4.4
    • Shipbuilding 4.5
  • War and defense 5
    • Arauco War 5.1
    • Pirates and corsairs 5.2
  • Notes 6
  • References 7
  • Bibliography 8


Societal groups

"Baile del Santiago antiguo" by Pedro Subercaseaux. Chile's colonial high society were made up by landowners and government officials.

The Chilean colonial society was based on a caste system. Local of criollos (American born Spaniards) enjoyed privileges like the ownership of encomiendas (Indian labour jurisdictions) and were allowed to access some public charges like corregidor or alférez. Mestizos made up initially a small group but came with time to make up the bulk of Chilean society becoming more numerous than indigenous peoples. Mestizos were not a homogeneous group and were judged more by appearance than by actual ancestry.[1] Indians enjoyed the lowest prestige among societal groups in colonial Chile, many of them were used as cheap labour in encomienda but their numbers decreased over time due to diseases and mestization. Pehuenche's, Huilliches and Mapuches living south of La Frontera were not part of the colonial society since they were outside the de facto borders of Chile.

For many years, Spanish-descent settlers and religious orders imported African slaves to the country, which in the early 19th century constituted 1.5% of the national population.[2] Despite this, the Afro-Chilean population was negligible, reaching a height of only 2,500 — or 0.1% of the total population — during the colonial period.[3] While a minority black slaves had a special status due to their high cost of import[4] and maintenance. Black slaves were often used as housekeepers and other posts of confidence. Peninsulares, Spaniards born in Spain, were a rather small group in late colonial times, some of them came as government officials and some other as merchants. Their role in high government positions in Chile led to resentment among local criollos.[5] Mixing of different groups was not uncommon although marriage between members of the different groups was rare.

During late colonial times new migration pulses took off leading to large numbers of Basque people settling in Chile mingling with landowning criollos, forming a new upper class.[6] Scholar Louis Thayer Ojeda estimates that during the 17th and 18th centuries fully 45% of all immigrants in Chile were Basques.[7]

In 1812, the Diocese of Concepción conducted a census to the south of the Maule river; however, this did not include the indigenous population — at that time estimated at 8,000 people — nor the inhabitants of the province of Chiloé. It put the total population at 210,567, of which 86.1% was native Spaniards and 10% were Indian, with a remaining 3.7% of Africans, mulattos, and mestizo descent.[8] Other estimates in the late 17th century indicate that the population reached a maximum total of 152,000, consisting of 72% whites and mestizos, 18% Indians, and 10% blacks and mulattos.[9]

Sex and marriage

Indigenous women in the colonial society were noted, from a Spanish point of view, for their sexual liberalism and engaged often sexually with men from other ethnicities.[10] The same was true for the black slaves who due to their "many" intercourses with other groups were strictly prohibited by law to engage in sexual activities with other ethnicities in order to avoid the proliferation of black individuals.[10]

16th century Spaniards are known to have been pessimistic about marriage.[10] Many of the initial conquistadores had left their wives in Spain and engaged in adultery in Chile.[10] Examples of this is Pedro de Valdivia who held Inés de Suárez as lover.[10] Adultery was explicitly forbidden for Catholics and the Council of Trent (1545–1563) made the climate prone for accusations of adultery.[10] Over the course of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries marital fidelity increased in Chile.[10]

Political organization

Labour forms


Beyond subsistence the 16th century economy of Chile was oriented towards large-scale production. Spanish colonizers used large amounts of indigenous labour following the slave labour system used in the sugar cane plantations of the Mediterranean islands and some Atlantic islands. This system of labour successively killed the production base leading to the imposition of the encomienda system by the Spanish Crown in order to prevent excesses. In Chile Spanish settlers managed to continue to exploit indigenous labour under slave like conditions despite the implementation of the encomienda. Rich Spanish settlers had over time to face opposition to their mode of production by Jesuits, Spanish officials and indigenous Mapuches.[11]

Over the course of the 17th century the indigenous population of Chile declined making the encomiendas less and less important.[12] Chilean encomenderos who had encomiendas in Cuyo, across the Andes, introduced to Chile indigenous Huarpes who they hired to other Spanish without encomiendas.[13]

The encomienda system was abolished in 1782 in Chiloé and in 1789 in the rest of Chile and in 1791 in the whole Spanish Empire.[14][15][16][17]




The collapse of the Spanish cities in the south following the battle of Curalaba (1598) meant for the Spaniards the loss of both the main gold districts and the largest indigenous labour sources.[18] After those dramatic years the colony of Chile became concentrated in the central valley which became increasingly populated, explored and economically exploited. Following a tendency common in the whole Spanish America haciendas were formed as the economy moved away from mining and into agriculture and husbandry.[12]

In the 1650–1800 period the Chilean lower classes grew considerably in size.[19] To deal with the poor and landless population a policy of founding cities[note 1] and granting lands in their surroundings was implemented.[19] From 1730 to 1820 a large number of farmers settled in the outskirts of old cities or formed new cities.[20] Settling as a farmer in the outskirts of old cities (La Serena, Valparaíso, Santiago and Concepción) was overall more popular than joining a new city since it secured a larger consumer market for agricultural products.[21] Chilean haciendas (latifundia) engaged little in the supply of Chilean cities but focused on international exports for revenues.[22]

Haciendas of central Chile are believed to had become labour-saturated by 1780 generating an "excess" population that could not be incorporated into their economy.[23] Some of this population settled in the outskirts of larger cities while other migrated to the mining districts of Norte Chico.[23]


Chile begun exporting cereals to Peru in 1687 when Peru was struck by both an earthquake and a stem rust epidemic.[25] Chilean soil and climatic conditions were better for cereal production than those of Peru and Chilean wheat was cheaper and of better quality than Peruvian wheat.[25][26] According to historians Villalobos et al. the 1687 events were only the detonant factor for exports to start.[25] The Chilean Central Valley, La Serena and Concepción were the districts that came to be involved in cereal export to Peru.[25] It should be pointed out that compared with the 19th century the area cultivated with wheat was very small and production modest.[26]

Initially Chilean latifundia could not meet the wheat demand due to a labour shortage, so had to incorporate temporal workers in addition to the permanent staff. Another response by the latifundia to labour shortages was to act as merchants buying wheat produced by independent farmers or from farmers that hired land. In the period 1700 to 1850 this second option was overall more lucrative.[27]

The 1687 Peru earthquake also ended a Peruvian wine-boom as the earthquake destroyed wine cellars and mud containers used for wine storage.[28] The gradual decline of Peruvian wine even caused Peru to import some wine from Chile as it happened in 1795 when Lima imported 5.000 troves (Spanish: botijas) from Concepción in southern Chile.[28][29] This particular export showed the emergence of Chile relative to Peru as a wine-making region.[28]


Compared to the 16th and 18th centuries Chilean mining activity in the 17th century was very limited.[30] Chile saw an unprecedented revival of its mining activity in the 18th century with annual gold production rising from 400 to 1000 kg over the course of the century and the silver annual production rising from 1000 to 5000 kg in the same interval.[31]

1744 engraving published in Relación histórica del viaje a la América meridional. The image shows cattle in the Chilean countryside including a square for cattle slaughter.


In the 17th century economy of the Viceroyalty of Peru, Chile's husbandry and agriculture based economy had a peripheral role, contrasting to ore-rich districts like Potosí and the wealthy city of Lima. Husbandry products made up the bulk of Chilean exports to the rest of the viceroyalty. These products included suet, charqui and leather. This trade made Chilean historian Benjamín Vicuña Mackenna label the 17th century the century of suet (Spanish: Siglo del sebo).[32] Other products exported included dry fruits, mules, wines and minor amounts of copper.[32] Trade with Peru was controlled by merchants from Lima that not only managed also the trade with Chile and Panama but also enjoyed protection by the authorities in Lima.[25] In addition to the exports to coastal Peru Chile also exported products inland to Upper Peru through the port of Arica.[32] Trade inside Chile was small since cities were tiny and self-sufficient.[32]

Direct trade with Spain over the Straits of Magellan and Buenos Aires begun first in the 18th century constituting primarily an export route for gold, silver and copper from Chilean mining. By the same time Spains trade monopoly with its colonies was successively weakened by smugglers from England, France and United States.[33]

Alerce logging

Generally the extraction of wood had little importance in colonial Chile but Chiloé Archipelago and Valdivia were exceptions.[34] These two areas exported planks to Peru.[34] With the destruction of Valdivia in 1599 Chiloé gained increased importance as the only locale that could supply the Viceroyalty of Peru with Fitzroya wood.[35] In 1641 the first large shipment of Fitzroya wood left Chiloé.[35]


In the 18th century the shipbuilding industry in Valdivia, one of the city's main economic activities, reached its peak building numerous ships including frigates.[36][37] Other shipyards of Chile included those of Concepción and Chiloé Archipelago.[38] The Chiloé shipyards constructed he bulk of the ships in Chile until the mid-18th century.[38] In 1794 a new shipyards was established the mouth of Maule River (present day Constitución).[38] Despite some navigators expressing that Valdivia had better conditions than Guayaquil in Ecuador, this last port was the chief shipyard of the Spanish Empire in the Pacific.[36][38]

War and defense

Arauco War

In 1550 Pedro de Valdivia, who aimed to control all of Chile to the Straits of Magellan, traveled southward to conquer Mapuche territory.[39] Between 1550 and 1553 the Spanish founded several cities[note 2] in Mapuche lands including Concepción, Valdivia, Imperial, Villarrica and Angol.[39] The Spanish did also established the forts of Arauco, Purén and Tucapel.[39]

Following these initial conquest by the Spanish the Arauco War, a long period of intermittent war, between Mapuches and Spaniards broke out. Contributing factors were the lack a tradition of forced labour like the Andean mita among the Mapuches who largely refused to serve the Spanish.[41] On the other hand the Spanish, in particular those from Castile and Extremadura, came from an extremely violent society.[42] Since the Spanish arrival to the Araucanía in 1550 the Mapuches frequently laid siege to the Spanish cities in the 1550–1598 period.[40] The war was mostly a low intensity conflict.[43]

A watershed event happened in 1598. That year a party of warriors from Purén were returning south from a raid against the surroundings of Chillán. In their way back home they ambushed Martín García Óñez de Loyola and his troops that were sleeping without any night watch. It is not clear if they found the Spanish by accident or if they had followed them. The warriors, led by Pelantaro, killed both the governor and all his troops.[44]

In the years following the Battle of Curalaba a general uprising developed among the Mapuches and Huilliches. The Spanish cities of Angol, La Imperial, Osorno, Santa Cruz de Oñez, Valdivia and Villarrica were either destroyed or abandoned.[45] Only Chillán and Concepción resisted the Mapuche sieges and attacks.[46] With the exception of Chiloé Archipelago all the Chilean territory south of Bío Bío River became free of Spanish rule.[45]

Pirates and corsairs

In 1600 local Huilliche joined the Dutch corsair Baltazar de Cordes to attack the Spanish settlement of Castro.[40][14] While this was a sporadic attack the Spanish believed the Dutch could attempt to ally the Mapuches and establish a stronghold in southern Chile.[47] 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.[48] The Spanish attempts were thwarted in the 1630s when Mapuches did not allow the Spanish to pass by their territory.[48]


  1. ^ These cities were often in fact more of villages or towns due to their size.
  2. ^ These "cities" were often in fact more forts than cities.[40]


  1. ^ Villalobos et al. 1974, p. 186.
  2. ^ Mellafe, Rolando (1959), La introducción de la esclavitud negra en Chile: Tráfico y rutas (in Spanish), Santiago de Chile: Universidad de Chile 
  3. ^ "Elementos de Salud Pública, section 5.2.6". University of Chile. 
  4. ^ Villalobos et al. 1974, p. 254.
  5. ^ Villalobos et al. 1974, p. 274.
  6. ^ Villalobos et al. 1974, pp. 257–259.
  7. ^ William A. Douglass, Jon Bilbao (2005). "Amerikanuak: Basques in the New World". University of Nevada Press. p.81. ISBN 0-87417-625-5
  8. ^ "INE - Censo de 1813. Introducción" (PDF). Retrieved 2011-09-22. 
  9. ^ Icarito - La Colonia:Población y sociedad
  10. ^ a b c d e f g Retamal Á., Julio (2005), "Fidelidad conyugal en el Chile colonial", in Sagredo, Rafael; Gazmuri, Cristián, Historia de la vida privada en Chile (in Spanish) 1 (4th ed.), Santiago de Chile: Aguilar Chilena de Ediciones, pp. 53–63,  
  11. ^ Salazar 1985, pp. 23-25.
  12. ^ a b Villalobos et al. 1974, pp. 160–165.
  13. ^ Villalobos et al. 1974, pp. 166–170.
  14. ^ a b (Spanish) Urbina Burgos, Rodolfo. La rebelión indigena de 1712: Los tributarios de Chiloé contra la encomienda.
  15. ^ (Spanish) La rebelión huilliche de 1712 El Llanquihue. Puplished in July 29, 2007. Retrieved 2012-05-26.
  16. ^ (Spanish) La encomienda. Memoria chilena. Retrieved 2012-05-26.
  17. ^ Villalobos, Sergio; Silva, Osvaldo; Silva, Fernando and Estelle, Patricio. 1974. Historia De Chile. Editorial Universitaria, Chile. p 237.
  18. ^ Salazar & Pinto 2002, p. 15.
  19. ^ a b Salazar 1985, p. 49.
  20. ^ Salazar 1985, p. 58.
  21. ^ Salazar 1985, p. 52.
  22. ^ Salazar 1985, p. 88.
  23. ^ a b Salazar 1985, p. 153–154.
  24. ^ Quoted in Diego Barros Arana's História general de Chile, Vol. 16 (Santiago, 1884–1902), p. 74.
  25. ^ a b c d e Villalobos et al. 1974, pp. 155–160.
  26. ^ a b Collier, Simon and Sater William F. 2004. A History of Chile: 1808-2002 Cambridge University Press. p. 10.
  27. ^ Salazar 1985, pp. 40–41
  28. ^ a b c Lacoste, Pablo (2004), "La vid y el vino en América del Sur: el desplazamiento de los polos vitivinícolas (siglos XVI al XX)",   [1]
  29. ^ del Pozo, José (2004), Historia del vino chileno,  
  30. ^ Villalobos et al. 1974, p. 168.
  31. ^ Villalobos et al. 1974, pp. 226–227.
  32. ^ a b c d  
  33. ^ Salazar & Pinto 2002, pp. 16–17.
  34. ^ a b Villalobos et al. 1974, p. 225.
  35. ^ a b Torrejón, Fernando; Cisternas, Marco; Alvial, Ingrid and Torres, Laura. 2011. Consecuencias de la tala maderera colonial en los bosques de alece de Chiloé, sur de Chile (Siglos XVI-XIX)*. Magallania. Vol. 39(2):75–95.
  36. ^ a b Guarda 1973, pp. 45-47.
  37. ^ Isabel, Montt Pinto (1971). Breve Historia de Valdivia. Buenos Aires-Santiago: Editorial Francisco de Aguirre. p. 55. 
  38. ^ a b c d León Sáenz, Jorge (2009), "Los astilleros y la indutria matitima en el Pacífico americano: Siglos XVI a XIX", Diálogos, Revista Electrónica de Historia 10 (1): 44–90 
  39. ^ a b c Villalobos et al. 1974, pp. 98−99.
  40. ^ a b c "La Guerra de Arauco (1550-1656)". Memoria chilena (in Spanish) ( 
  41. ^ Bengoa 2003, pp. 252–253.
  42. ^ Bengoa 2003, p. 261.
  43. ^ Dillehay 2007, p. 335.
  44. ^ Bengoa 2003, pp. 320–321.
  45. ^ a b Villalobos et al. 1974, p. 109.
  46. ^ Bengoa 2003, pp. 324–325.
  47. ^ Clark Berger, Eugene (2006). Permanent war on Peru's periphery: Frontier identity and the politics of conflict in 17th century Chile (Ph.D.).  
  48. ^ a b Bengoa 2003, pp. 450–451.


  • Salazar, Gabriel (1985). Labradores, Peones y Proletarios (in Spanish) (3rd ed.). LOM Ediciones. ISBN 956-282-269-9.
  • Salazar, Gabriel; Pinto, Julio (2002). Historia contemporánea de Chile III. La economía: mercados empresarios y trabajadores (in Spanish). LOM Ediciones. ISBN 956-282-172-2.
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