By David Kier
During the years when most Latin American nations declared their independence from Spain (1810 to 1822), the enemies of Spain such as France and England helped the newly independent nations battle their common foe.
In December 1818, British Lord Thomas Cochrane was made an admiral of the Chilean navy. Cochrane and his small fleet first assisted neighboring Peru. Cochrane’s forces were made up mostly of European mercenaries seeking Spanish gold and silver. Only a few Chilean patriots and Indians were among the crew of his seven ships.
The 1819 blockade of Peru lasted several months and two ships were dispatched to seek food and wealth from other Spanish territories. The two ships were the Independencia with Captain Robert Wilkinson (and 44 sailors) and the Araucano with Captain Robert Simpson in charge of a crew of 28.
In December 1821, the Araucano arrived at Acapulco for supplies but the Mexican government declined to allow any trade. They even detained Captain Simpson for a few days before asking him to leave.
In February 1822, under orders from Admiral Cochrane, the two captains, Simpson and Wilkinson, sailed north once more and their target was the Baja California mission villages. Under the guise that they were helping Mexico defeat Spain, these ships set out to make opportunities anywhere Spain was still officially in charge.
Mexico had defeated Spain in a surrender on September 27, 1821, but the far-off provinces of the Californias were still considered Spanish in early 1822, awaiting the news. The following dates and details vary somewhat between sources but will provide a glimpse into how Chile briefly invaded Baja California.
On February 17, 1822, the crew of the Independencia attacked San José del Cabo and they took all that they could, including valuables from the mission church. A landing party of nine traveled north to Todos Santos and attempted to loot the mission there. Not content with what the mission provided, some of the men began to have their way with the local women. The town’s people had not interfered with the desecration of their mission but their outrage at this new activity exploded in a show of resistance. They inflicted five casualties and captured the remaining invaders. The prisoners were taken to San Antonio. However, with the threat by Captain Wilkinson that he would destroy both Todos Santos and San Antonio, the prisoners were released.
Early in March of 1822, the Araucano arrived at the Baja California capital of Loreto and requested to purchase cattle to butcher for meat. The people of Loreto were warned about these foreign invaders after what transpired to the south and many fled to the hills. Loreto could not produce the quantity of food the crew wanted and at that point many of the Chilean ship’s European crew mutinied and took to looting the mission, taking the pearls that had adorned the statue of the Virgin. Other buildings were sacked and many documents were also destroyed.
The last Spanish governor of Baja California, José Darío Argüello, escaped to San José de Comondú before the raiders could capture him. In his haste, a prized silver serving set was left at his residence. It was snatched up easily by the raiders.
The mutineers, led by Henry Good, sailed away as pirates leaving Captain Simpson and the loyal Chilean crew members behind. Simpson and several Chileans managed to escape, seize a small boat, and sail south to the Independencia which was anchored off San José del Cabo. The Independencia, now with both captains, sailed to Loreto. Wilkinson and Simpson convinced Loreto’s presidio commander, José María Mata, that Chile and Mexico were allies and gained the release of the remaining Chileans. Mata had recently learned of Mexico’s victory over Spain and was one of several officials in Baja California to pledge loyalty to their new nation.
The pirates on board the Araucano sailed south to Peru dropping off some crew not wishing to continue then west to Tahiti, arriving in June 1822.
This colorful chapter in Baja California’s history story is but another example of the discoveries that can be found when one explores Baja California’s past.
I wish to thank Brent C. Dickerson who is the author of a soon-to- be- published book for sparking my interest into this story during an informational email exchange. Other references on the Chilean Invasion include:
A Maritime History of Baja California by Edward W. Vernon, 2009
Pirates in Baja California by Peter Gerhard, 1963
A History of Lower California by Pablo L. Martinez, 1960
History of the North Mexican States and Texas by Hubert Howe Bancroft, 1889
The Pirates at Tahiti by Samuel Henry, 1822
David Kier is a veteran Baja traveler, author of 'Baja California - Land Of Missions' and co-author of 'The Old Missions of Baja and Alta California 1697-1834'. Visit the Old Missions website.