O’HIGGINS, Ambrose. Marquis of Osorno. Autograph Letter Signed dated at Lima October 29, 1800. Witnessed and signed by the Marquis of Osorno, Ambrose O’Higgins. Two pages quarto written on both sides and with other signatories. In this letter the writer directs that the sentence be deferred until the return of the Governor, Ambrose O’Higgins: “so that upon his return to the Province he examines with the possible exactitude the truthfulness of what he said about the acquisition of goods of that … in detriment of the Real Hacienda (Royal Treasury) and upon careful deliberation excluding all possible suspicion in relation to this matter ….”.
One of the most celebrated emigrant sons of County Sligo was Ambrose O’Higgins, the eighteenth century statesman and colonial administrator who became Governor of Chile and Viceroy of Peru, the most exalted office in Spanish America.
The career of Ambrose O’Higgins reads like a romance. He was born in the townland of Ballinary, or Ballynary, parish of Kilmactranny, in or about the year 1720. He was the son of Charles and Margaret Higgins (O’Higgins) and grandson of Roger Higgins (O’Higgins) of Ballinary. His great-grandfather Sean Duff O’Higgins held the Gaelic title of Tierna or Lord of Ballinary. Very little is known of Ambrose’s early life, but it appears he received a good basic education that stood to him all through life. According to one authority, and in view of his subsequent career in Spanish service, this seems very likely, he enlisted in the English forces as a young man but afterwards deserted when the promotion he felt he was justly entitled to was not forthcoming. In 1751, when about thirty years of age, he set sail for Spain and settled in Cadiz where he obtained employment with a commercial firm of Irish origin.
The ‘Wild Goose’ from Ireland appears to have been a rather restless individual for most of his life. Stories of the great wealth and unlimited opportunity that was to be had in the Spanish colonial empire influenced his decision to seek his fortune in the New World. With the financial assistance of a relative he purchased a small consignment of merchandise and a passage to Spanish South America.
O’Higgins landed in Buenos Aires in 1756 and succeeded in selling his wares. He then set out for countries of South America, crossing the Andes in what discomfort and with what adventures one can only guess in that primitive age. He finally reached Lima, in Peru, where he opened a small stall near the entrance of the Cathedral, and there eked-out his scanty living. Soon he became restless again. He threw over his stall and adopted the livelihood of a wandering pedlar, travelling here and there over the rugged country. These extended wanderings gained him little by way of fortune, but he acquired great experience and an intimate knowledge of the country and the people he was destined to rule in later life.
When weary and tired of wandering, Ambrose O’Higgins finally settled in Santiago. Undaunted by his lowly avocation and possessed of a keen Celtic intellect, he took up the study of engineering. With the active assistance of an Irish friend in the Spanish corps of military engineers, he obtained a commission in the Spanish army in 1761 as an engineer-draughtsman, with the rank of Lieutenant. On his first journey across the snowy heights of the Andes of Chile in the winter of 1763-64, O’Higgins conceived the idea of improving the route by constructing a chain of brick-built shelters, and this resulted in the establishment for the first time, of an all-the-year-round postal communication between the Atlantic coast and Chile. The Irishman’s talent soon became apparent to Governor Balmaceda, Captain-General of Chile, and he entrusted O’Higgins with a force of six hundred militia and twenty-five dragoons to chastise the Pehuenche Indians. Having successfully discharged this task, he was put in charge of a flying column for the protection of the frontier from further attacks. So successful were his efforts in this undertaking that in 1773 he was conferred with the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel and Commander of Cavalry.
O’Higgins possessed extraordinary influence over the various Indian tribes; he treated them with humanity and fairness, and, as a result, he succeeded in restoring peace to a frontier which hithertofore had always been disturbed. His success in this difficult mission not only gained him the rank of Commandant-General, but, in 1787, he was promoted to the exalted position of Governor and Captain-General of Chile, a remarkable achievement when one considers that he had entered the Spanish service only sixteen years previously, at forty-years of age.
‘Never was there a ruler more devoted to the Spanish interest, more zealous for the development of Chile, more remarkable for magnanimity and forgetfulness of self, than this man of Irish birth,’ wrote the French historian, Gay; ‘his enlightened policy reflects lustre upon the Spanish name, and the many great works accompanied by him are enduring proofs of his genius and activity’.
He obtained from the Ulster King of Arms, Dublin, a certified pedigree of descent going back through his parents, Charles and Margaret O’Higgins, to his grandfather, Roger, to John or ‘Shean Duff’ O’Higgins, styled ‘Baron of Ballinart’, in the County of Sligo. It was, undoubtedly, on the basis of this document that he was created Baron of Ballinary, in 1795, by the King of Spain. In the patent to the title it states the ‘Lieutenant-General of my Royal Forces, Don Ambrosio O’Higgins, having demonstrated to me in due form the antiquity and illustriousness of his family … because of this reason and because of the note-worthy merits and services which he has given and is continuing to give in the offices of Court, I confer upon him the grace of the particular title of Baron of Ballinary, in these my realms, for himself, his sons, heirs and legitimate successors.’
The dazzling climax in the Sligoman’s remarkable career came in 1795 with his appointment as Viceroy of Peru, the most exalted post in the Spanish colonial service. Peru was the richest colony of the whole Spanish Empire and this the Viceroyship the most
In the official instruction and appointment by the Spanish Crown, he is addressed as: ‘His Excellency, Don Ambrosio O’Higgins, Baron of Ballinary, Marquis of Osorno, Lieutenant-General of the Royal Forces, Viceroy, Governor and Captain-General of Peru.’ In the words of the French historian, already quoted:
“O’Higgins was invested with the highest rank in the New World thirty-nine years after landing on its shores as an obscure stranger, having risen step by step through force of talent and integrity, without friends or favour, nay, in spite of the jealousy all around him.”
After five years of active and useful rule, the ‘Great Viceroy’, as he was called, died on 18th March, 1801, aged about eighty-one years. The mortal remains of this famous Sligonian lie in the Church of San Pedro, in Lima.
Ambrose O’Higgins never married, although he fathered a son who subsequently became known to the world as the celebrated Bernardo O’Higgins (1778-1842), the Liberator of Chile.
Ambrose O’Higgins was, beyond doubt, one of the greatest Irishman that ever set foot in South America. In the annals of that Continent there has been no greater ruler, and few Irishmen in exile have shed greater lustre on their race or rendered greater service to their adopted country than did Ambrose O’Higgins.