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Chapter 10

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
History of Chile

Luis Galdames

translated and edited by Isaac Joslin Cox
Russell & Russell
New York 1964

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 12

 p244  Chapter XI
Chilean Society in 1830

Life in the Cities

Regardless of the form of government, republican society had changed but little in the twenty years which followed the beginning of the revolution; it continued to be almost the same as colonial society during the last years of Spanish control. Nevertheless, the population had increased considerably, owing, no doubt, to the development of wealth and to immigration, which commercial freedom had attracted. From half a million at the beginning of the nineteenth century, it had already reached a million in population at the beginning of the stable period of the republic.

Cities were also growing rapidly — Santiago had more than forty-eight thousand inhabitants, and Valparaiso about half that number. Toward the south, Talca, Chillán, and Concepción, and, toward the north, Coquimbo, La Serena, and Copiapó were prospering in similar fashion. But all kept their old methods of building with crooked, narrow streets, in the Spanish manner, and low adobe houses of uniform construction, with very few windows; and this gave the dwellings the appearance of great warehouses. Only the principal cities (Valparaiso, Santiago, and Concepción) had brick sidewalks and streets paved with round cobblestones. Police protection was known only in these same centers and public hygiene had progressed but little. The streets were rarely swept, and on the outskirts of the cities were disease-breeding heaps of refuse thrown from the dwellings. Lighting at night was so scant that the people had to suspend traffic soon after dark.

Just as before, Santiago continued to be the center of social life. Customs were still very simple. A curious person who proposed to become acquainted with the city, and who in the morning set out to explore it with that purpose, would, no doubt, have gone first to the abasto, or market square. Here his attention would have been attracted, not so much by the noisy going and coming of the maid servants with their large baskets and bright-colored skirts and kerchiefs, purchasing articles for the family consumption, as by the extensive refuse heap which stretched to the Mapocho. Then, going a little toward the east, he could have witnessed the stone-throwing fights which the idle boys of the district of Chimba carried on with  p245 those of the Santa Lucía district across the river, to amuse themselves.

Returning to the center of the town he would see young women of social position and a few men entering the churches to hear the daily mass. The ladies, wrapped in black cloaks, would be followed by their respective maidservants, who carried for them straw mats and colored foot carpets. The men would be attired in loose dark trousers, a short coat, and a shirt with collar crossed by a broad rose-colored cravat. A light woolen hat and pointed shoes completed this costume.

Once in the principal plaza, he would observe a new commotion among the people. Many sellers of shoes, sandals, shirts, parched corn, pancakes, and other articles might be scattered about offering their wares. Purchasers would dispose of some of their old possessions by throwing them into an open ditch, in order to provide themselves with the new. Boys would collect the abandoned sandals and throw them at one another's heads, thus devising a game for their amusement. Some prisoners from the jail (where today stands the municipal building) would perhaps be starting to clean up the streets a little with some broad branches of hawthorn. They made little impression.

Before midday, the inquisitive one might see the worshipers from the mother church go out to the porticos on the south side (today Fernández Concha) in search of merchandise, or simply to see something new. Certainly the buildings along those porticos were not at all like those of today. They had two stories but were so low that in the earthquake of 1822 many people who were in the upper rooms fell to the ground and suffered no injury. As midday approached there would be absolute silence; everyone would be at breakfast (almuerzo). Our traveler would also breakfast in one of the inns or hotels of the city, and then he might go out to examine other streets, taking care not to go far from the plaza, for the uncleanly environs of the city would cause him much discomfort. On the north side of the river there were only four groups of sheds or thatched huts of very forbidding appearance. This district of Chimba was merely a suburb to which swarmed many idle people who were wont to engage in games of chance and in excessive drinking. The same thing occurred on the south side of the Alameda, beyond which rose a few homes of artisans, followed, farther on, by somewhat extensive suburban dwellings and estates. The district now known as Providencia, beginning at the east of Santa Lucía, and that of Yungay, extending from beyond the street of San  p246 Martín toward the west, were similar suburbs. As for the rest of the city, in the central streets activities were almost completely paralyzed from midday until three in the afternoon.

If our inquisitive visitor were traveling about on festival days or during Holy Week, he might come face to face with some penitents, barefoot, clothed only in a loose shirt and long white trousers, and wearing a crown of thorns on their heads. He would note that each was carrying a wooden cross on his left shoulder and a rope in his right hand. They prayed as they walked, groaning deeply, at the same time administering heavy blows to their own shoulders.

Our traveler might visit the capital in the spring. In the afternoon he would doubtless make his way to the Alameda de la Delicias to be present at the promenade of the girls and the young men of social rank. His attention would be called to the simplicity of the dress of the maidens: the short hoop petticoat, plain or with flounces, the little jackets with tight sleeves, the stayed waists, and the colored shawl on the shoulders. A few would be wearing gold brooches in their hair and at intervals one could catch a glimpse of their shoes with silver buckles.

In the shade of the poplars on the stone and brick benches, he would note some groups comfortably seated and engaged in pleasant conversation. It is very probable that he could even see there the most important public men of the time, who frequently showed themselves at the promenade and sat there to discuss their affairs. When it began to grow dark, all the promenaders would withdraw to their homes. Suddenly a bell would sound, at first gently, then more rapidly; it was the signal for prayer, pealing from the church towers. All would stop where they were, make the sign of the cross, and pray, while here and there could be heard the voices of acquaintances, saluting as they met:

"Good night!"

"May God grant the same to you!"

Night was falling. Possibly there would be a play at the only theatre of the city, where some comedy might be given, or where one could hear a concert of piano, harp, and guitar. Here the visitor could appreciate the luxury of the wealthy inhabitants of Santiago. The misses and matrons displayed their elegant fabrics, gauzes and laces; generous décolletés scarcely broken by a pearl necklace; fans of colored laces and fine kid gloves, so recently come into use; beautiful hair nets entwined with threads of gold and brilliants. The men wore Prince Albert dress coats of very ample proportions. Our visitor would not be able to stay long in the theatre. It was the  p247 custom to smoke there and, as the only light was that from tallow candles, the smoke and the accompanying evil odor might in a short time make him dizzy.

If there were no theatre, he might visit the home of an acquaintance. Very likely he would find the family in the vestibule seated on the bench there, taking the fresh air if the season permitted. On being shown into the reception room he would observe no little luxury. There would be in more or less profusion great mirrors of Venetian glass, rich tapestries from Flanders, draperies of rich materials, small tables, and chests of cedar or walnut. Perhaps, instead of paintings, he might observe on the wall the picture of some miracle-working saint. If he were well acquainted at the house and there were daughters, it is probable that they would play the guitar and sing. It is almost certain that they would not have a piano, because that instrument was not yet very common in Chile, and only a few wealthy families could boast of one. He would be invited to tea, and the table service of ornate silver would not fail to produce a good impression. He could also enjoy maté, sucking it through a silver bombilla.

He might chance upon a fiesta or family gathering on the occasion of the saint's day of some member of the household. On such occasions there would be dancing. The most aristocratic dance was the minuet; but, when enthusiasm reigned in the gathering, it was the custom to descend to the vigorous popular dances, such as the cueca and the zamba.​1 Often there were also rural excursions to the neighboring country houses and, as the only conveyance of any size was the carretón, a large cart, they made the journey in this. On the whole these expeditions were much enjoyed because they then treated one another with affability. In Santiago there was also a philharmonic society in which the young men who were fond of dancing and music met to entertain themselves and to organize public functions.

The tourist whom we have been following has not yet finished his excursion. He would have gone, no doubt, before leaving, to a café or wineshop, in which he would have been diverted with watching fifty or more idle men playing billiards or cards. It is worth while to observe that the very poor light in such places, tallow candles, did  p248 not prevent the people from enjoying themselves until midnight in games of chance. After this last expedition, our traveler would go to sleep in a small room in some tavern. In order to go about the streets, he had to be accompanied by a sereno or night watchman, who, while keeping him free from any attack, guided him through the intricate tangle of streets, amid the darkness which was broken only by an occasional lantern.

But this life of the highest class of society was not the life of all; the poor, the great mass, almost the entire populace, lived in a very different manner. In the suburbs of the city and even in some parts near the center were found their habitations — huts raised scarcely six feet above the ground, covered with thatch, surrounded by adobe walls, with earthen floors which were generally damp. Their food was beans and potatoes, and very seldom meat. Their utensils were earthern pots and dishes, wooden spoons, and some sort of steel knife. The clothing of the men consisted of trousers, a shirt, and a woolen blanket (manta), sandals, and a cap. The women wore a cotton sack like a large chemise, a kerchief about the neck, and sometimes sandals, when not barefooted. Clothing for the children was so scant that it scarcely covered the body. The system of tenantry in the country had not altered its program nor had living conditions changed since colonial times. Rural servitude continued to exist, attached like trees to the soil.

Popular amusements were not abundant; horse ra­cing and cock fighting were the most common, and were attended by people of all classes, because they played for money in these sports. The peons and the artisans were not satisfied with these spectacles but must gather in small dramshops (chinganas) where they drank until they were intoxicated, sang and danced, played cards or palitroque,​2 and settling up they were wont to resort to the bare dagger, even killing each other on the slightest pretext.

But the greatest enthusiasm usually prevailed at the patriotic festivals. On the twelfth of February and the eighteenth of September of each year came those celebrations which recalled the winning of independence. The cities were decorated. From the time of the dictator­ship of O'Higgins, the tricolor banner of today has been used; the present coat-of‑arms was adopted in the third year of the Prieto administration. In this way the symbols of national sovereignty were popularized before a quarter of a century had passed after the initial date of the revolution.

 p249  The names of the leaders of the revolutionary struggle, adorned with banners and coats-of‑arms, were placed on great placards in the public square. Military maneuvers were held and these were especially attractive to the multitude. And to the Te Deum, as an act of gratitude, great solemnity was given. The people, without distinction of class, abandoned themselves to the most open expressions of pleasure, and various groups went through the streets huzzaing for the fatherland. A dance in the government palace or a pageant in the theatre recalling the events of independence was the rule. Military bands or some improvised orchestra would play the national song, which was not the same as it is today. It was composed by Don Bernardo de Vera in 1819, and of this there has been kept only the chorus. It contained very insulting references to Spain:

Those monsters who bear within themselves

A character ignoble and base

How can they ever be compared

With the heroes of April the Fifth?​3

There were also innumerable private gatherings to celebrate the glorious days of emancipation. It was the custom to have grand banquets at which were uttered patriotic speeches, to show the path of progress which the republic should follow. In all towns, even in those of lesser importance, similar fiestas took place, with a program in which merely the occasion was celebrated, although in some there was emphasis upon local color.

Expansion in Wealth and Culture

There were reasons, indeed, for rejoi­cing over the work of the revolution. The prosperity of the country was an evident fact that showed itself chiefly in the development of wealth. Agriculture and cattle raising had advanced but little; but, on the other hand, commerce and mining furnished excellent returns. Under the protection of free trade, merchants from all over the world came to Chile to increase its production and particularly to secure precious metals. As a result of free trade, the northern district of the republic, a mine par excellence, was increasing its output of copper and gold. Silver, which had been until then scarce in Chile, became  p250 a large source of wealth with the discovery of the mines of Arqueros, near La Serena, in 1825, and those of Chañarcillo, near Copiapó, in 1832. This last discovery, by a simple woodcutter, Juan Godoy, yielded enormous quantities of silver and influenced in a most beneficial manner the general progress of the country.

Public education, the most constant concern of republican governments, was still in a very unsatisfactory state; but at any rate it was much above its former condition. In the primary grade the situation continued to be deplorable. The schools for the education of the people were very few; the town corporations maintained some; and, though Portales had commanded that one be opened in each convent, the order was only half obeyed and was without appreciable results. But in the secondary and superior grades considerable progress had been made. Three cities had liceos, or public high schools: Santiago, La Serena, and Talca. The most important was naturally the school in Santiago; namely, the old National Institute of former times that had been established in the capital as the center of public instruction.

Not less than ten private "colleges," or seminaries, for boys had arisen here under official sanction, by virtue of moderate subventions. The chief ones were the Liceo of Chile, founded by José Joaquín Mora, and the College of Santiago, which was founded by a French educator, but which reached its greatest prosperity under the direction of Andrés Bello. These two establishments had, however, like the others, a precarious existence. The National Institute absorbed almost all secondary and higher education.

Education for girls continued to be in the care of the nuns in their convents and was very insignificant. But there were also in that period several private "colleges" for girls, which soon met the same fate as those for the boys, among which might be noted the one founded by the wife of Mora. In the field of professional teaching there may be mentioned the beginning of instruction in engineering and the establishment of the School of Medicine and Pharmacy in 1833.

But in order to achieve such progress, the government had to employ the services of many learned foreigners who had come to the country under direct contract. Among them Mora and Bello held first place. Mora is still known for his political activity. Andrés Bello was a native of Venezuela, in whose capital (Caracas) he was born in 1781. After having rendered valuable service as a statesman in winning the independence of his fatherland, he was sent to serve in a diplomatic post in England in the employ of  p251 Colombia, the republic within which Venezuela was incorporated. There he also was entrusted with the post of secretary of the legation for Chile, and then he agreed to occupy a position in the country itself as chief of the ministerial section of foreign relations. In 1829, when he was about fifty years of age, he arrived in Chile.

He brought with him a considerable reputation as a litterateur and scholar, which he promptly and fully confirmed in Chile. In addition to the duties to which he was pledged, he took over the editing of the government periodical, El araucano, and, for a time, the direction of the College of Santiago. When this institution was discontinued, he began to give private lessons at his home, in law, Spanish literature, and philosophy. He exhibited such ability in this teaching and in his other occupations that soon he was considered the most eminent scholar that had ever been known in Chile. His prestige was established by the publication of his Principios de derecho internacional (Principles of International Law) in 1834, which was known throughout the civilized world.​4 [In politics he always tried to keep out of party struggles, as much because of his position as a foreigner as because of his lack of interest in that form of activity. He preferred the quiet of his study to the tumult of popular gatherings. Nevertheless, he contributed his modicum of talent to the service of the conservative party which was in control.]5

Of the other scholars who served Chile also at this time, it is fair to mention the Spanish mathematician, Andrés Antonio Gorbea, the real founder of the school of engineering in Chile; the English physician, William Blest, to whose initiative is due to a large degree the establishment of the school of medicine; Lorenzo Sazie, another famous physician, who took under his care the direction of that school; and Claudio Gay, the naturalist, French like Sazie, who was commissioned by Portales to make a complete survey of the land and products of Chile. This was an investigation too large for the strength of one man, as Gay doubtless realized at the end of twelve years of hard and continuous work. His great Historia  p252 física y política de Chile (Physical and Political History of Chile), published in the middle of the nineteenth century, was the result of his unceasing industry in the discharge of the commission which had been entrusted to him. In other respects the country presented few evidences of a state of enlightenment. It may be said that the labor of the government in its effort to raise educated men in Chile through the diffusion of instruction resulted only in preparing the way for future intellectual development.

Sanitary Conditions; Mendicancy and Delinquency

The progress related above was not achieved without encountering definite obstacles. The sanitary condition of the country was one of them. Smallpox had become endemic, and in the years 1831 and 1832 a terrible epidemic of scarlet fever visited the entire country, and especially the cities of Valparaiso and Santiago, where the crowding of dwellings rendered more intolerable the uncleanly habits and the general lack of hygiene particularly again the lower classes. In order to make headway against these scourges and improve the sanitation, a charity commission was created, entrusted with the direction of these services from the capital, with watching the hygiene in all public institutions, and with proposing to the government those measures which they judged conducive to public health.

But there were two other social evils which demanded no less attention: beggary and crime. The revolution and the republican regime were as far as from having extinguished misery as from ending ignorance and crime. The entire social order suffered from the consequences. Beggars thronged the streets and highwaymen terrorized the countryside. The various measures adopted to end mendicancy had no other result than its regulation, which consisted in obtaining permission of a parish priest before taking alms. In Santiago the number of beggars continued to be almost as great as in the last years of the colony.

Assassinations and robberies by armed bands were all too frequent, not only in the rural estates but even within the towns themselves. In 1828 a deputy affirmed that during that year there had been eight hundred assassinations in the capital and no one denied it. There were districts like the Hills of Teno (Cerrillos de Teno) in the province of Curicó, and the Slope of the Prado (Cuesta de lo Prado) west of Santiago which could not be crossed without an escort of gendarmes.

 p253  The severity that Portales visited upon offenders had been of no avail in suppressing those crimes. He had sent several parties of armed men against them, instructed to shoot without mercy. The hard labor on public works to which he condemned those arrested for minor offenses also availed as little; crime continued to be a terrible plague. There were no prisons in which to guard felons securely; most of them escaped with ease. Not even the prison of Santiago, situated on the Plaza de Armas, offered conditions favorable for this purpose. Police protection was lacking. Portales created a body of "vigilantes" or day police who, added to the serenos organized by O'Higgins, made a more or less regular service. But, few in numbers, neither one nor the other satisfied the many demands of the situation. In the rural districts, no ordered or permanent police existed.

Crime in this period had, as its greatest representatives, two brothers who were popularly nicknamed the Pincheiras (scullions). Natives of the province of Maule and brought up there, they had devoted themselves from childhood to adventures of the lowest sort, and had served for some time among the royalist guerrillas. When Benavides sought allies among the bandits to maintain the cause of the king of Spain and to plunder at will, they enrolled themselves in his ranks; and, after his death, they continued their career of plunder and crime in the central provinces of the country, from Curicó to Concepción, always under the pretext of upholding Spanish sovereignty. The headquarters of their bands were located near the cordillera in the steep valleys which the mountain ridges form as they open out toward the west, and assisted by the Pehuenche Indians of those districts, their depredations extended equally on both sides of the Andes. In one of their raids they even reached Mendoza and concluded with the governor a treaty of formal alliance as between powers, obtaining what they wanted.

They not only plundered but also assassinated, and in their band were individuals so bloodthirsty that they sacrificed victims of their depredations through pure caprice. It had been impossible to surprise those merciless wretches, even though for twelve consecutive years the various national governments had despatched contingents of troops in pursuit of them. Finally, in 1832, General Manuel Bulnes, well acquainted with the difficult topography of the district in which the malefactors were operating, was commissioned by President Prieto to capture them at all cost and, after a long campaign, he did get them; but, in order to accomplish it, he had to  p254 make use of a veritable army and to employ a varied strategy. The crueler brother was executed the moment he was taken prisoner, together with many of his comrades.

In 1830, then, the reforms and social improvements which had been hoped for at the fall of the Spanish regime had scarcely made a noticeable impression.​6 Colonial society remained static, with its organization, with its virtues and defects, in spite of twenty years of agitation and upheaval. What improvement could be seen was the economic expansion which benefited the upper classes — the landholders and miners and the traders and manufacturers. But the great mass of the people had to wait many years before obtaining their share in the advantages offered by the new order. However, it was then evident that education and culture, more widespread than before, were preparing the way for a greater collective well-being.

The Author's Notes:

1 The cueca or zamacueca was a lively popular dance, supposedly originating in Peru, but it may have been derived from Andalusia. The performance was usually accompanied by the harp or guitar, with singing and handclapping on the part of the spectators. The zamba was a more moderate dance popular in Argentina and Chile. See Espasa, Enciclopedia, LXX, 915, 916.

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2 Palitroque, a game played with cone-shaped sticks or pins, somewhat similar to bowling.

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3 The original stanza is as follows:

Esos monstruos que cargan consigo

el carácter infame y servil,

¿cómo pueden jamás compararse

con los héroes del 5 de abril?

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4 In addition to his earlier diplomatic experiences, Bello served as arbitrator in a dispute between the United States and Ecuador and in the following year in a dispute between Peru and Colombia. His Principios de derecho internacional (Santiago, 1832), while an elementary treatise, was well received and widely quoted. Bello was the first to point out the insufficiency of principles in the work of Vattier and he serves as a precursor to Wheaton. See Carlos Calvo, Le droit international (2 vols. 2nd ed., Paris, 1870‑1872), I, 85‑86; also consult Calvo's index. For other editions, see Bello's Obras completas (15 vols. Santiago, 1881‑1893), Vols. X, XV‑XVIII.

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5 The portion enclosed in brackets is omitted from the seventh edition.

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6 For brief sketches of the social life at the beginning of the nineteenth century, see Edwards Bello in Imágenes de Chile. Cf. p140, n. 13.

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