Alejo, the mestizo who led the Mapuches against the Spanish conquerors

The so-called Arauco War was a continuous headache for the Hispanic Monarchy, to the point that comparisons are sometimes made with what the Vietnam War meant for the US. Although the first Spaniards set foot in the region in the expedition carried out by Diego de Almagro in 1535, the harshness of the climate and landscape, the lack of precious metals, the scarcity of arable land, the absence of a civilization of the level of the Inca and the The hostility of the natives led them to abandon the place, to which they did not return until a few years later.

Specifically, it was in 1541 when Pedro de Valdivia undertook the first conquest campaign itself. Despite a victorious start, in which he managed to defeat and incorporate the Picunches into their ranks in an expedition to the south of the country, Araucania (located between the Itata and Toltén rivers), the Mapuches or Araucanians offered fierce resistance.

Cities such as the one that bears his name plus Concepción, La Imperial, Villarrica or Los Confines were founded, but in 1553 a disastrous defeat at Tucapel, in which Valdivia himself lost his life, marked a turning point.

The region was involved in a long and bloody war in which the conquistadors were unable to impose their authority nor the Indians to get rid of the invader. The caciques followed one another (Michimalongo, Colo-Colo, Lautaro, Caupolicán, Peteleguén, Loble, Millalelmo, Illanguelén), as did the Spanish commanders and governors (García Hurtado de Mendoza, Francisco de Villagra, Pedro de Villagra, Rodrigo de Quiroga ), alternating one and the other triumphs with defeats, periods of war with others of peace. In 1575, after one of the latter that barely lasted four tense years, he returned to arms.

The Spaniards then began a campaign in which they discovered an unprecedented phenomenon to date: several mestizo soldiers went over to the enemy ranks, unhappy with the delay they received when it came to promotions. Among them were Alonso Díaz (alias Paineñamcu, who came to be elected toqui -general, instead- by ​​the Mapuches) or Juan de Lebú (a captured and baptized Mapuche who escaped at the first opportunity), but there was still time to go before he entered scene the most famous.

It was already in the middle of the 17th century, during the reign of Felipe IV, after the successive campaigns led by Alonso de Sotomayor and Martín García Oñez de Loyola did not obtain definitive results and a new Mapuche rebellion in 1598 led to the Curalaba Disaster, in the one in which a Spanish camp was assaulted by surprise ending in a massacre and causing the entire country, inflamed, to rise up in arms. The Spanish had to evacuate several cities to the north of Bio Bío, the natural border, and put an end to their expansion to the south for a few years.

It was necessary to turn things around and to undertake the following campaigns a professional army financed by the Viceroy was created, the Tercios de Arauco, made up of around two thousand well-equipped and trained soldiers, many of them veterans of European wars. , who at the end of their service received land to settle. But even so, the Mapuches continued their resistance to the utmost until 1639, when weakened by the military pressure of Francisco López de Zúñiga and a series of epidemics, and discouraged by negative omens (the eruption of the Villarrica volcano), they agreed to negotiate.

In the so-called Parliaments of Quilín, between 1641 and 1646, it was agreed to recognize their independence and exempt them from both slavery and servitude, provided they admitted evangelization and the establishment of trade between both parties. In reality neither Spaniards nor Indians were sincere; the former took advantage of the period of peace to arrest several loncos (caciques) and the seconds to recover from adversity and rearm. That is why hostilities would break out again, as always followed by new negotiations. And in this context, the mestizo Alejo enters the scene.

He was the son of a lonco Mapuche and a Spanish woman who had been captured in an ambush of the encomendero Alejandro de Vivar del Risco, when he was returning to Concepción without escort after visiting his sister in one of the family ranches. The column was intercepted near the Laja river by a raidthat is to say, one of the raids that groups of Indians on horseback carried out sporadically in imitation of those made by the whites, who called them malocas.

Malón (by Mauricio Rugendas)/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

The woman’s name was Isabel and her captors gave her to Curivilú, cacique of Angol, a town in Araucania where Valdivia had founded the city of Los Confines and which was also the scene of the aforementioned Battle of Tucapel, in which he lost his life. Months later she had with him a child whom she called Alejo, short for Alejandro, who the Mapuches turned into Ñamku due to cacophonous similarity; the word meant eaglet.

It is estimated that the birth took place around the year 1635 and the little boy grew up with the natives for five years, until 1640, when a maloca Spanish killed the lonco and rescued Elizabeth and her son. Using the term ransom is very relative because, as is sometimes seen in some westerns, the presence of that woman in Concepción was not well received; Despite the fact that her coexistence with the Mapuches had not been voluntary, her concubinage with Curivilú and his fruit, Alejo, marked her in an infamous way. For this reason, she entered a convent and the child was left in the care of the Vivar del Risco family.

Thus, from a first indigenous education he passed to a Christian one. Being a mestizo, one of the lower castes of society, he probably did not have an easy youth and for this reason, when he reached a certain age, he opted to enlist in the army, a class where apparently the differences tended to be more blurred. As he was apparently intelligent, he learned the use of the arquebus and had an outstanding performance in the Battle of Conuco, fought on January 20, 1656 by the troops of the newly appointed governor Pedro Porter Casanate against the Mapuches of the area, inflicting heavy losses on them with the help, of course, of providence: the apparition of San Fabian, in whose honor a fort of the same name was built.

Illustration of a nineteenth-century edition of La Araucana/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

Alejo expected a promotion based on his merits, but he collided with the harsh reality that these were reserved for whites. It was the straw that overflowed his patience, after years of enduring the humiliations of him and his mother; he deserted from the Spanish ranks and went in search of the town where he was born. His father had died two decades earlier, but he was welcomed by another cacique friend, Huenquelao, at whose service he immediately placed himself. He recovered his indigenous name, Ñamku, and began to instruct the cones (warriors) in the military tactics of their enemies, just as Lautaro did a century before: how to protect oneself from firearms, how to confront cavalry and try to capture cannons from the adversary to take advantage of them.

Counting on his charisma and the experienced help of a boss cone called Huenchullán, he organized a real army and carried out a series of guerrilla actions during which he assaulted caravans, captured soldiers on patrol, stole weapons (or cattle) and even introduced a new and ingenious weapon: a slingshot with which to launch incendiary projectiles. . Thus, Ñamku became the first toqui (caudillo) who was not entirely Mapuche and was ready for his first battle.

Leading a thousand men, the result of achieving a coalition of mapuches with cuncos, pehuenches and picunches, he crossed the Bio Bío to confront the huincas, a name by which the Spaniards were known and which meant something like new Incas, alluding to the attempt of conquest that they had already carried out long ago. The clash occurred in San Rafael, falling on the two hundred soldiers of Pedro Gallegos. He entrenched himself on a promontory while waiting for reinforcements from Fort Conuco, but they could not arrive and in the end only a dozen Spaniards survived, destined to be sacrificed or exchanged for prisoners.

Epic of Chile (by Pedro Subercaseaux)/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

That resounding victory was followed in 1660 by that of Los Perales, in which he defeated the two hundred and a half troops of Bartolomé Pérez Villagrán. But there the streak ended. An attack on the forces of Bartolomé Gómez Bravo ended in failure and then the governor organized a column of 1,200 men with which he reinforced the garrison of Fort Conuco. With it he repulsed a massive Mapuche cavalry charge to later make a series of malocas in which he returned those first blows given by Alejo, who had to take refuge in the mountains.

At the end of 1660, the Mapuches accumulated more than six hundred casualties between those who fell in combat and those affected by a smallpox epidemic, so that the mestizo could only count on about three hundred. cones for a plan as ambitious as it was daring: to take the city of Concepción. Too ambitious, perhaps, and he didn’t make it; not because of the defense offered by Juan de Zúñiga, since his strength was numerically inferior and he fell in the attempt, but because of one of those mysteries that we have seen so many times throughout history.

Indeed, with Concepción at his mercy, he gave up attacking her, just as happened with Hannibal or Attila before Rome. As in these cases, legend and reality are confused and it is said that it was her own mother who left the convent to meet with him and beg him to give up on her goal. It is possible that, despite the victory over Zúñiga, he would have suffered too many casualties to take over an entire city, but Alejo’s decision was not liked and they say that he killed Huenchullán with his own hands when he publicly recriminated it. In any case, Concepción was saved; instead, the end of Alejo was approaching.

And it did not come from Spanish hands or in battle. It was in 1680, in a sad and pathetic death, murdered by two of his concubines who took advantage of his drunken sleep to stab him, jealous that he had turned two white hostages into new wives. Paradoxically, the perpetrators of the crime fled with the Spanish women and turned themselves in to the governor, who granted them a life pension. Meanwhile, Alejo was buried near the Laja river and was succeeded in command by another mestizo named Misqui; even another mestizo Alejo would rise in 1738.

The Arauco War would still rage, but Misqui’s swift capture and execution marked the beginning of the end. Smallpox and fatigue took their toll, and the royal decree of 1683 that exonerated the Araucanian Indians from slavery was also important, so that little by little the rebellions became more widespread. This does not mean that there were no violent outbreaks and there were several important ones, such as those of 1712, 1723, 1759, 1766, 1769 and 1792; but the tendency between Mapuches and Spaniards was to coexist, trying to drown out the tension as much as possible. Then came the Independence of Chile, but that is another story and not exactly a better one for the Indians.


Brief history of the conquistadors (Jose Maria Gonzalez Ochoa)/Chile’s history (VVAA)/General History of Chile (Diego Barros Arana)/The precursors of the independence of Chile (Miguel Luis Amunátegui)/Wikipedia