Bernardo O'Higgins Riquelme (Spanish: ; 1778–1842) was a Chilean independence leader who freed Chile from Spanish rule in the Chilean War of Independence. He was a wealthy landowner of Spanish and Irish ancestry. Although he was the second Supreme Director of Chile (1817–1823), he is considered one of Chile's founding fathers, as he was the first holder of this title to head a fully independent Chilean state.
Bernardo O'Higgins, a member of the O'Higgins family, was born in the Chilean city of Chillán in 1778, the illegitimate son of Ambrosio O'Higgins, 1st Marquis of Osorno, a Spanish officer born in County Sligo, Ireland, who became governor of Chile and later viceroy of Peru. His mother was Isabel Riquelme, a prominent local; the daughter of Don Simón Riquelme y Goycolea, a member of the Chillán Cabildo, or council.
O'Higgins spent his early years with his mother's family in central-southern Chile, and later he lived with the Albano family, who were his father's commercial partners, in Talca. At age 15, O'Higgins was sent to Lima by his father. He had a distant relationship with Ambrosio, who supported him financially and was concerned with his education, but the two never met in person. At the time of his son's birth, Ambrosio was only a junior military officer. Two years later, Isabel married Don Félix Rodríguez, a friend of her father. O'Higgins used his mother's surname until the death of his father in 1801.
Bernardo's father continued his professional rise and became Viceroy of Peru; at seventeen Bernardo O'Higgins was sent to London to complete his studies. There, studying history and the arts, O'Higgins became acquainted with American ideas of independence and developed a sense of nationalist pride. He met Francisco de Miranda, a Venezuelan idealist and believer in independence, and joined a Masonic Lodge established by Miranda, dedicated to achieving the independence of Latin America.
In 1798 O'Higgins went to Spain from Great Britain, his return to the Americas delayed by the French Revolutionary Wars. His father died in 1801, leaving O'Higgins a large piece of land, the Hacienda Las Canteras, near the Chilean city of Los Ángeles. O'Higgins returned to Chile in 1802, adopted his biological father's surname, and began life as a gentleman farmer. In 1806, he was appointed to the cabildo as the representative of Laja. In 1808 Napoleon took control of Spain, triggering a sequence of events in South America. In Chile, the commercial and political elite decided to form an autonomous government to rule in the name of the imprisoned king Ferdinand VII; this was to be one of the first in a number of steps toward national independence, in which O'Higgins would play a leading role.
On 18 September 1810, O'Higgins joined the revolt against the now French dominated Spanish government. The criollo leaders in Chile did not support Joseph Bonaparte's rule in Spain, and a limited self-government under the Government Junta of Chile was created, with the aim of restoring the legitimate Spanish throne. This date is now recognized as Chile's Independence Day. O'Higgins was a close friend of Juan Martínez de Rozas, an old friend of his father, and one of the more radical leaders. O'Higgins strongly recommended that a national congress be created, and was elected a deputy to the first National Congress of Chile in 1811 as a representative of the Laja district. Tensions between the royalist and increasingly pro-independence factions, to which O'Higgins remained attached as a junior member, continued to grow.
The anti-Royalist camp in Chile was deeply split along lines of patronage and personality, by political beliefs, and by geography (between the rival regional groupings of Santiago and Concepción). The Carrera family had already seized power several times in different coups, and supported a specifically Chilean nationalism, as opposed to the broader Latin American focus of the Lautaro Lodge grouping, which included O'Higgins and the Argentinian José de San Martín. José Miguel Carrera, the most prominent member of the Carrera family, enjoyed a power base in Santiago; that of de Rozas, and later O'Higgins, lay in Concepción.