*Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Three decades after conquistadors first arrived in the New World to build colonies and extract wealth, a small contingent of Spanish soldiers under the command of Pedro de Valdivia set up camp on the shores of what is today central Chile. A month later, on March 12, 1550, some 60,000 Mapuche tribesmen descended upon the fort Valdivia’s men constructed looking to expel the invaders at the Battle of Penco. The resulting victory for the Spaniards solidified the Europeans’ presence in South America and set up a three-century conflict with the natives in that region.
Contemporaries of the massive Inca Empire, the Mapuche maintained independence from their neighbors to the north despite having no real political organization. Fierce and determined to remain in control of their own affairs, the Mapuche likely saw the arrival of the Spanish in 1536 as merely another hurdle to clear in a long history of defending their territory.
When the two opposing forces met at the Battle of Reynoguelen, the Mapuche were perplexed by the Spanish horses and advanced weaponry. Unable to make headway despite numbering in the tens of thousands, the natives achieved a small victory: the Spaniards returned to Peru, disappointed in the lack of gold and impressed by the Mapuche appetite for combat. It would take a decade for the conquistadors to return.
After arriving in 1534 and serving as second-in-command to Francisco Pizarro, Valdivia turned his attention toward modern Chile in 1540, founding Santiago the following year. Five years later, he was on the doorstep of the Mapuche, the Bio-Bio River, where his countryman Diego de Almagro had abandoned his quest. Surprised by the natives’ fierceness, Valdivia opted to retreat — he did not have enough men to push on in the face of such resistance.
Convinced he would require significantly more soldiers and resources to annex the territory, Valdivia spent much of the next three years away from Chile. He returned to Peru, first looking to acquire resources and men, then fighting on the royal side to quell an uprising by Pizarro’s half-brother Gonzalo. When he returned to Chile as Royal Governor in 1549, Valdivia set out once again to build alliances with local tribes and expand his holdings further to the south. Moving along the Bay of Concepcion early the next year with support from a naval force off shore, the 200-strong Spanish expedition made it to the banks of the Bio-Bio in short order.
Running short on supplies, Valdivia followed the river out toward the ocean, dealing with harassment from the Mapuche the whole way. When the group camped beside the Andalien River on February 6th, Ainavillo, a Mapuche toqui (battle chief), sensed an opportunity to end the European nuisance once and for all. With a combined force of 500 Spanish and Mapocho soldiers, Valdivia managed to break the Mapuche attack — numbering as many as 20,000 — and left behind a pile of bodies, many of them crushed between the advancing Spanish and their fellow tribesmen behind them.
Pleased with the victory, the Spaniards marched for another five days, arriving at the coast and founding Penco on February 12, 1550. Over the following four weeks, Valdivia ordered the construction of a fort to protect his new settlement, receiving food and fresh soldiers from the fleet. The work proceeded quickly and peacefully, lasting until March 3rd without incident.
Out in the jungle, the Mapuche were doing work of their own. Frustrated by his loss at Andalien, Ainavillo asked his allies to help him end the European scourge. Insulted by Valdivia’s demand for submission, the native leader gathered a reported 60,000 men to attack the tiny settlement. (Modern scholars estimate the numbers to be closer to 6,000 owing to the tendency of Spanish writers to exaggerate.)
On March 12, 1550, the Mapuche arrived to fight the Battle of Penco. Outnumbering the defenders by at least ten to one — and maybe 120 to one — the natives gathered around the outside perimeter eager for a fight. What Ainavillo’s men had not anticipated, however, was the design of the Spanish defenses: a 12-foot-deep ditch left a gap between the attackers and the fortifications. The Mapuche could do little more than launch arrows and shout at Valdivia’s men.
Jeronimo de Alderete, fed up with what he perceived as Valdivia’s slowness to act, assembled the cavalry under his command and rode out into the disorganized Mapuche lines. Though Ainavillo’s men managed to close ranks and inflict some injuries, Valdivia’s response to Alderete’s reckless charge would seal their fate: the rest of the horsemen, under the command of Pedro de Villagra, soon joined the fray backed by the full might of Spanish rifles and artillery.
Many of the Mapuche fled the field, with thousands killed as the Spanish and their Mapocho allies moved through the stragglers. Opting to send a message following the victory, Valdivia told his men to remove the nose and one hand from each prisoner before sending the natives back into the jungle demanding surrender and subjection once again. This time, the Mapuche relented.
With Penco secure, Valdivia continued to solidify his hold on Chile against periodic skirmishes with other local tribes. In December 1553, the Mapuche rose up and overran a few lightly-protected Spanish garrisons on the southern edge of his territory. Rushing to reinforce his men, Valdivia was ambushed and executed on December 25th, just another Spanish casualty in a conflict with the Mapuche that would last until the Chilean War of Independence in 1810.
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