‘¡Vivir con honor o morir con gloria!’

Chile’s half-Irish independence hero is commemorated in the London suburb of Richmond

Mothers chat idly, pushing buggies in one hand and cradling coffee in the other. Upmarket shops bustle; the rugby clubs of Old Deer Park hum with ale and cheer. This is Richmond-upon-Thames, a smart town on the south-west fringes of London.

Half-Irish Chilean independence leader, Bernardo O'Higgins

Half-Irish Chilean independence leader, Bernardo O’Higgins

Off to one side of the grand stone bridge, overlooking the rowers pulling along the river and the children running along the bank is a bust. It is a simple head and shoulders sculpture, set back a little way from sandy-cream stone steps leading gently down to the Thames.

It is of Bernardo O’Higgins. A memorable name, and he certainly is a memorable man. Born in Chile to an Irish father and a Chilean mother; a Latin Celt revolutionary who led his country to independence from Spain. He is commemorated all over Chile.

But what is this bust of him doing in this leafy part of London? He was born in Chillán, in the centre of the country. As a teenager, he was sent overseas to study. First in Peru, then Spain, and finally, aged 17, to Richmond, where he encountered several political activists, including Francisco de Miranda, a Venezuelan soldier who strove for independence for Spain’s colonies in the New World.

The bust overlooks the River Thames at Richmond

The bust overlooks the River Thames at Richmond

On returning to Chile, O’Higgins inherited his father’s properties and entered local politics, moving through activist circles to the nationalist movements. One of the crucial moments for Chilean independence came when Spain’s back was turned, during Napoleon’s peninsular invasion in 1808.

That left a gulf in the imperial administration that the Chilean separatists filled, creating a national congress. Spain’s royalist forces in the Viceroy of Peru wanted to quash this separatist rising and mounted loyalist attacks on the Chilean militia. O’Higgins was the military leader-in-chief who stood against them.

The Irish-Chilean independentist general began the military struggle for Chile on the back foot and lost at the Battle of Rancagua in 1814, which forced him over the border into Argentina with other Chilean nationalists to try to regroup and plan a comeback.

O'Higgins' military call to arms: "Vivir con honor o morir con gloria"

O’Higgins’ military call to arms: “Vivir con honor o morir con gloria”

At the battle of Chacabuco in February 1817 a combined ‘Army of the Andes’ of O’Higgins’ men and Argentinian forces under José de San Martín swept aside the troops in Chile loyal to the Spanish crown, and they took the capital, Santiago.

One of O’Higgins’ famous martial cries has passed into Chilean folklore: “¡Vivir con honor o morir con gloria!” (‘Live with honour or die with glory!’ – inscription visible in the photo above).

The decisive victory resulted in Bernardo O’Higgins being elected to the position which would cement his place in the history of his country. He became the ‘Director Supremo de Chile’, the country’s first independent leader.

He served for six years as de facto president, establishing the basic workings of a governmental administration and building a national navy. However, public consensus around him gradually disintegrated, as many of his reforms were opposed by the Church and elite.
He stepped down from the top job in 1823, under pressure from growing revolts across the country. Bernardo O’Higgins retired to Peru, where he lived in exile. Like his father he never married, but unlike him, he did know and live with his son.
His father, Ambrose O’Higgins, (who would become Ambrosio O’Higgins), was born in County Sligo, in western Ireland, and emigrated via Spain to what is now Peru and then became a colonial administrator in Chile. Bernardo was born in the late 1770s. It was an illegitimate birth as Ambrosio and his partner, the much younger Isabel Riquelme, were not married. O’Higgins senior eventually recognised Bernardo as his own not long before he died.
Bernardo O’Higgins lived in a large estate in Peru until his death in 1842, at the age of 64. His remains were repatriated and he is buried in Santiago and commemorated across Chile, and elsewhere in the world, including in a quiet spot overlooking the River Thames in London.