Tuesday, March 25, 2014

From rags to riches, or how an Irishman became Viceroy of Peru

by Anna Belfrage

In 1721, Charles O’Higgins of Ballynary, Ireland, was blessed with the birth of a son, Ambrose. I’m not sure just how much a blessing it was at the time, as Charles and his wife Margaret had lost their hereditary lands in Sligo, thereby being forced to become tenant farmers. A come down, one could say, even if over time the numerous O’Higgins family found gainful employment with one of the local lords.

Ambrose in his heyday
Clearly, living conditions were good enough to accord Ambrose an education, and being a man hungry for a better life than that of a servant, young Ambrose took employment with a trading house and ended up in Cádiz, Spain in 1751. Spain at the time did not quite offer the opportunities that Ambrose yearned for, and so in 1756 he took advantage of his Catholic faith and applied for permission to emigrate to Spanish America. (Protestants were not allowed. The faith had to be kept pure.) Permission was granted ASAP, and Ambrose took off across the oceans, probably hoping to sort of fall atop a pile of buried treasure. Not to happen; the Spanish Conquistadores had done a very good job of relieving the formerly so rich Indian kingdoms of whatever gold and valuables they had, and the gigantic silver mine in Potosí remained under firm Spanish control.

Ambrose may have sulked a bit at the lack of gold lying about to be stumbled upon, but having burnt most of his ships he decided to make the best of things, and so lived for some time in Venezuela, in Nueva Granada (present day Colombia) and in Peru. Unfortunately for Ambrose, he attracted the interest of the Inquisition, a force very much to be reckoned with in the Spanish Colonies. Maybe he was a tad too lax in his faith. Maybe he had that endearing Irish tendency to jest about serious matters, thereby making a priest or two frown. Whatever the case, the ground beneath our dear Ambrose’s feet became too hot, and he decided to leave Peru for somewhat cooler climes, which is how he ended up in La Plata, i.e. present day Argentina. (As an aside, the La Plata name is most ironic; upon seeing this broad, glittering river, the eager first arrivals named it “The Silver River”, so sure were they that they too would strike lucky and literally dig silver out of the ground with spoons. Didn’t happen…)

So now our Irishman – somewhat disheartened as he was pushing forty with no fortune in sight – tried to make a living for himself in his new homeland. Being anything if not intrepid, Ambrose decided to leave all this trading business behind. Instead, he offered to find a passable way over the Andes, thereby creating a safe passage between Argentina and Chile. I’m not quite sure what drove him to come up with such a mad idea – the Andes is NOT the friendliest of mountain ranges – but the powers that were in La Plata were thrilled, and so Ambrose, at the mature age of 39, joined the Spanish Imperial Army as a draughtsman and engineer.

Fortunately for Ambrose, he proved good at his new career, rising like a glowing star through the ranks. He succeeded in creating a permanent all-year-round connection between La Plata and Chile, and when enticed to move to Chile he did so, finding himself suddenly the commanding officer of a cavalry unit charged with doing battle with the fierce Araucanian Indians. Ambrose must have been born with a four-leaf clover in his mouth , or maybe his devoted mother sewed one into his baptismal gown, because yet again Ambrose rose to the challenge, proving himself a most capable officer.

Colonial High Society in Santiago de Chile
Ambrose enjoyed his years in Chile – and this is also where the man met the love of his life. At the ripe age of fifty-seven, Ambrose fell heads over heels in love with the pretty Isabel Riquelme, the very young daughter of a powerful Chilean criollo family. (Criollos were the upper class in Spanish America, people with undiluted Spanish blood in their veins. Well; more or less undiluted…) One could have assumed this would have led to wedding bells and joy – after all, Ambrose was by now quite the catch, and Isabel seemed as stricken by her elderly beau as he was by her. But. Bureaucracy is a bummer, isn’t it? An officer of the crown was not allowed to marry into the criollo families without the crown’s express approval, and for some reason Ambrose never requested such a permission.

By now young Isabel was pregnant. Tsk, tsk, not the done thing - especially not among the haughty criollos. Her family was most upset.Very upset. Not that it helped; Isabel gave birth to a son, Bernardo, in 1778, and despite Ambrose being very present in Chile, he never met his only son. He did, however, pay for Bernardo’s education, both in Chile, Peru and England. Maybe that was Isabel’s father twisting his arm, and maybe Ambrose wanted to meet Bernardo, but seeing as he had dishonoured Isabel, maybe the Riquelme family took their vengeance by keeping his son from him.

Isabel was soon wed elsewhere, and Ambrose returned to the world of manly pursuits, drowning the vestiges of his sad love affair in work, more work. Rebellions to be put down, treaties to be negotiated, more rebellions – Ambrose led a busy life. In the late 1780’s he was made Governor of Chile and he did such a good job that in 1796 he achieved the highest position available in Spanish America; our Irish adventurer was made viceroy of Peru, the second most important of the Spanish Colonies. Suddenly, Ambrose answered to no one but the king in faraway Spain.

At the time of his final promotion, Ambrose was 75 years old. He had lived most of his life very far away from his native shores, he rarely had an opportunity to speak his mother tongue. He was rich, he was successful, he was powerful – and rather lonely, I suspect. Ironically, Ambrose’s greatest achievement was to be the son he never met or formally acknowledged as his heir, the boy who never used his father’s name until Ambrose was dead.

Bernardo O'Higgins
In 1801, Ambrose O’Higgins died after a sudden illness. In his will, he bequeathed some of his land to his illegitimate son, Bernardo. Upon returning from his educational trip in Europe, Bernardo took possession of his land, changed his surname to O’Higgins, and went on to become one of the more colourful and powerful leaders in the Chilean Independence Wars. I’m not so sure his father would have approved – after all, Ambrose spent most of his life serving the empire Bernardo fought against. But maybe I’m wrong; maybe Ambrose would have swelled with pride at seeing just how capable a son he had sired. Truly a chip off the old block, was Bernardo.


Anna Belfrage is the author of four published books, A Rip in the Veil, Like Chaff in the Wind, The Prodigal Son, and the fourth book in The Graham Saga, A Newfound Land. Set in seventeenth century Scotland and Virginia/Maryland, the books tell the story of Matthew and Alex, two people who should never have met – not when she was born three hundred years after him. For more information about Anna and her books, please visit her website, www.annabelfrage.com.

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