ON RIVERS AND PIRATESNot widely known by tourists, is one of the most charming cities inChile. This is a city suited for those travelers who want to know places plentyof history, anecdotes and legends; for those that once dreamed of being piratesor captains of a Spanish galleon.

This beautiful city is located in the middle of a luxuriant landscape of channels and rainy forests. It is a city that offers the tourist the opportunity to be a child once again. The chance of dreaming of firing canons and weigh anchors to start a daydream travel to the past.

Mapa Antiguo de Valdivia y los Fuertes


Even after many changes, product of progress and natural disasters, Valdivia maintains an interesting balance between human development and Nature, which makes it unique among Chilean tourist locations.

The city is located 15 kilometers from the sea to which connects by the Valdivia river. This river is formed by the confluence of rivers Calle-Calle and Las Cruces. This area has several islands of different sizes and shapes and the most important are: Teja Island, opposing the city; Del Rey Island, south of Valdivia River; and San Fernando Island. The river flows into the sea formaing a bay 4 kilometers wide and 6 kilometers long, in the middle of which the Mancera Island protects the area.

The Valdivia River final step into the sea is involved with several peninsulas and inlets. Furthermore, in its last segment the Valdivia River is shaped as a letter U. All these factors protect Valdivia City from direct sea attacks. These characteristics gave a tremendous strategic importance to this place. Today Valdivia is an industrial and commercial city, famous for its excellent German style beer, its university, and for the Valdivia cultural activities’ week, time when you can see a river carnival with allegoric ships' parade included.

Valdivia Origins

The city of Valdivia was founded by don Pedro de Valdivia, the Conqueror of Chile, in the summer of 1552. It was erected in its actual site dominating the rivers Calle-Calle and Las Cruces. It was once considered as the second most important city in Chile. It was abandoned and destroyed during the general Mapuche natives uprising of 1599.
Lord Cochrane

In 1600 Sebastian de Cordes, a Dutch pirate, took the City. Afterwards Elias Erckmans tried to install a Dutch base for the Pacific in here, but he desisted because of the Mapuche natives' lack of collaboration.

After these events, the Spanish crown decided to fortify the city defenses. The Chilean Kingdom was under the control of the Peruvian Viceroyalty and it was the viceroy who ordered to re-found Valdivia and built the forts. A new wall was erected around the city and the forts of Corral, Niebla and Mancera and several minor places were constructed.

Strangely enough, even after hundred of years preparing them for war, the Valdivian forts participated in only one big battle. And the Spaniards lose it. It happened during the war for the Chilean Independence, a time when Valdivia and Chiloe started to depend directly from Lima as military bases. In 1820 Lord Cochrane, working for the Chilean rebels, succeed in taking the Corral castle during a surprise attack that started in the Gonzalo hill - at the southern side of the bay. This battled broke the resistance of all the Spanish positions and forced the military loyal to the Spanish King to surrender.

Since the middle of the XIX century up to the beginning of the XX, Valdivia received large numbers of German immigrants who helped to develop manufacturing - especially in the beer and sausages industries. They influenced local customs, traditions and cooking.

Valdivia was one of the most progressive cities in Chile until May 22 of 1960 when a powerful earthquake - the strongest earthquake in modern history - and the tsunami that followed it destroyed the city. But Valdivia was rebuilt once again and today is one of the most attractive of Chilean cities.

People of Valdivia: Mapuches, Spaniards, Germans.

For thousand of years the American Man lived in the land of volcanoes and lakes where Valdivia stands today. The mixture between the native Mapuches, the Spaniards, plus the European immigrants is the origin of the Chilean people, independent since the beginnings of the XIX century.

The German presence in the Lake’s District is seen in the architecture, cooking and brewing of fine beers. In fact, the Valdivian beers, produced under German brand names is of such quality that today it is even exported to Germany itself.

Visiting Valdivia

Perhaps the best way to enjoy Valdivia and knowing about its past, is going aboard some of its riverboats. The boats travel around the channels making a full tour from Valdivia to the forts of Corral, Mancera and Niebla. The complete trip takes about six hours. Meanwhile you can take lunch on board and take walks to the forts in each stop of the tour.

The trip allows for enjoying the surprising river flora and fauna that surround Valdivia, plenty of birds such us ducks, pelicans and endemic species. It is also possible to see in there the famous black necked swan swimming quietly through the waterweeds.

On board the boat you can also look to ships sunken in the 1960 tsunami. These ships are not small ones, which give us an idea of the natural forces that sunk them. Farther away you can see small ferries that shuttle cars between Niebla and Corral.

In the fortresses, you can enjoy riding canons and listening the stories told by the guides. In Niebla Fort, there is a small museum where you can see the Spanish army daily way of life in those bygone times. In Corral Fort, local people represents Spanish army battles against pirates, with uniforms, flags and shooting included. In Mancera Fort, you can visit the cells where the prisoners stood, a really gloomy place that anguishes the heart of a sensible visitor.

And if you still have some energy, after a really exhausting tour, you can continue visiting the Valdivia City itself, a city that has the privilege of being the only riverside city in this region of the world. You can also enjoy its beaches located half between the river and the sea.

Near Valdivia there are also lakes and snowy volcanoes waiting to be visited. Briefly, Valdivia is a nice place to enjoy history and culture.

Valdivian Spanish Forts:


The Valdivian Spanish Forts were a very important defensive structure of Colonial South America.

The main fortresses were built on Mancera Island, Niebla and Corral and they consisted of artillery positions of fine stone-workmanship, specially designed to stand canon bombardment. The forts' structure and their general design are not unlike the European ones that were built for similar functions between centuries XVI and XVIII. As in Valdivia, in many other regions of Chile there were numerous castles built to protect the Colony of the attacks of both foreign pirates and rebellious natives. This large number of castles caused the Kingdom of Chile to be nicknamed the "Indian Flanders"

The forts were designed and constructed under the direction of military engineers that came directly from Spain. They were helped in their work by Chilean-born technicians and constructors, because at that time Chile has some important technical institutions. Prisoners coming from the whole Chile and occasionally from the jails of Lima and Quito, provided the manpower. Sometimes, but not frequently though, paid workers were used. In the construction there were not employed Native or Black slaves.
Dibujo de Fragata

During the second foundation of Valdivia in 1645 the construction of Mancera fortresses started. The same man who rebuilt the city, Antonio Sebastián de Toledo, directed this work in person. The architect of the fort was the military engineer Constantino de Vasconcelos.

There are not many antecedents on the architects who built Corral notwithstanding this fort appears mentioned in the documents of the time.

The Niebla Fort completes the main fortress of the Valdivian complex. Its construction was ordered by Governor Fernando de Bustamante y Villegas in 1658 and its builders were Sargent Major Martín de Praga and engineer Juan Buitrón y Mujica.  

1960's Earthquake


It was in May 22, 1960 when the history of Valdivia was darkened by tragedy. A tremendous earthquake of 9,5 degrees affected the cities of Valdivia and Puerto Montt. The quake originated 180 feet below the bottom of the sea and 100 miles into the Pacific Ocean.

There were not extremely large numbers of victims, for such an earthquake, because the population was alerted on that something was going to happen by previous shakes and underground noise. However, 2300 people lost its life in the quake and in the tsunami that followed it. 80 feet high waves devastated the Chilean and Peruvian coasts and they propagated at more than 200 miles an hour to the coasts of Hawaii, Philippines, and Japan, destroying everything on its way and killing many people.

In Valdivia, the stories of the earthquake are alive in people's minds. Immediately after the quake and knowing what will came next, the people of the lowlands run to the hills for protection. But not all of them follow those security measures. Meanwhile the tide started to retreat into the ccean, leaving the rivers dry.
Terremoto 1960

Afterwards the inevitable arrived, a huge 80 feet tidal wave devastated everything on its way, taking with it fishing boats and sinking large ships. The wave followed the river course and damaged the city's industrial zone leaving ruins that are visible even today. Then the wave returned to the sea carrying back small boats with fishermen and whole houses with people alive asking for help while in their fatal travel to the ocean. They were not to be seen again. The landslides blocked the rivers and they threaten to produce a major flood, which could have erased Valdivia from the map. Hardworking and sacrifice stop it from happening, sparing the city of a worst disaster.

Valdivia lost much with the earthquake, however the city was rebuilt and it is now one of the most beautiful of Chile. The ruins of industrial installations and sunken ships are the only testimony of such a tragic day.

The Serpents of the Sea and the Land

Time Magazine, July 4th, 1960:

Disaster would not leave Chile alone. Attempting to placate the gods they held responsible for the continuing quakes in southern Chile, Mapuche Indians beat a six-year old boy to death with sticks, tore out his heart and offered it to the sea. When police arrested two of the Indians, they explained: "We were asking for calm in the sea and on the earth."

Chile it is seismic country and it has always been since remote times, as the Mapuche legends tell us. They say that Chilean southern islands were created in the violent battle between the evil sea serpent Cai-Cai Vilu and the benign land serpent Treng-Treng Vilu, the last one a friendly protector of the Mapuche people. Cai-Cai, allied with the Pillanes - the volcanoes which in Mapuche myths are the sorcerers - , planned to flood the earth. They started producing earthquakes and rising the sea level. While the water rised, the people that fell on it got converted into the first whales and dolphins that came to be. Finally Cai-Cai and Treng-Treng engaged in battle and fragmented the Chilean territory south of Chiloe and created the lakes and lagoons of the south. Since then the natives were used to sacrifice animals - and only sporadically humans - to placate Cai-Cai anger.

In 1960 the myth was transformed in a tangible reality. Affected by the biggest earthquake in world's history and by the tsunami that followed, the geology of Valdivia changed forever. Large portions of land were flooded, changing the topography of the area. It was just a new episode more in the eternal fight between the Serpents of the Sea and of the Land.

Valdivia and the Spanish Empire


In contrast with Mexico and Peru, Chile lacks large pre-Columbian monuments. Only some ruins of a secondary character remain. Due to this, it was not until the establishment of the Spanish empire that large constructions began to appear in these remote lands at the bottom of the world.

Spanish Engineer

These constructions, these magnificent castles bring to mind times passed of pirates and empires, of galleons and of gold. Violent times in which the sword and the canon defined the innumerable skirmishes for land, treasure and the world.

Listening to the history of the Spanish empire from the point of view of their ancient enemies, the Anglo-Saxons, gives the impression that it had been a weak empire, or that it subjugated easily to the designs of its enemies and in the end, that it was a total failure. Nothing is further from the truth. After all, there are hundreds of millions of people in tens of countries throughout the world who share these ethnic and cultural roots. The Spanish empire was perhaps the most successful empire of all, since it brought the Hispanic culture to many corners of the planet where it still flourishes today.

It was not easy for the Spanish crown to maintain its dominions overseas. It was entangled for centuries in continuous wars with its western rivals as much in Europe as in America, from the southern part of the United States to Cape Horn, as well as its territories in the Philippines, North Africa and many others. These fights had their origins in economic factors as much as religious ones. And the two were often combined - the military force behind the weight of the Catholic church.

These continual struggles were hugely expensive and were financed in part by the treasures of the Philippines, Mexico and Peru and on the other hand with debts which provoked, in the end, the ruin of the Spanish empire. Another factor to take into account was the large impact that the wars and emigration had on the Hispanic population, which produced serious demographic upheaval in the country.

In the end, tired of fighting, Spain lost its colonies in America and Asia and was militarily humiliated.  Yet nevertheless, for three centuries they had managed to maintain the majority of the New World.

The precious metals of Peru and Bolivia were a very important financial source for the Spanish empire. The gold and silver from these regions served to buy silk in Manila, slaves in Africa and paid for voyages from Europe which brought new products to the colonies. Under no circumstances would the empire permit the loss of such a source of wealth.

Pirates, like Francis Drake, cruised the Magellan strait and appeared on the south coast of Chile. They targeted the most indefensible populations on the Pacific coast between Mexico and Chile and sporadically attacked communities and killed civilians on their short forays onto land. As their forces were small in number, working in this manner allowed them to take such territories in a definitive way.

They were, we must not forget, too far from Europe bases to begin battle in a direct form. In the Atlantic, pirates were successful in establishing strategic points in places like Jamaica and other places in the West Indies. From these they were successful in inflicting damage on Spanish trade with Europe. In the Pacific, nevertheless, the pirates lacked such enclaves from where they could launch their attacks.

The most suitable places in the Pacific for establishing bases were Chiloé and Valdivia on the  Chilean coast. This last was defended with painstaking care for the Spanish empire and its forts evoke these lost times of adventurers and empires. In fact, Chile was always a source of worry and expense for the Spanish empire, one which had to be maintained with a permanent force of men with the purpose of protecting the coasts from potential European enemies and to maintain a line against the rebellions of the indomitable indigenous Mapuches.
Instruments of the era

Technology of the age:The Military Spanish Heroes

Almost all the elements employed in the construction were made on site. From the rock and the mortar to the gun-carriages of the canons. All the engineering work and construction of the Hispanic forts was managed by Hispanic military engineers in the eighteenth century and who constituted the main body of the engineers of the king.

Spain, if a little behind in scientific investigation, it was certainly not so with military engineering. The challenge of American colonization and the needs of the military and civilians, as soon as the permanent fighting against their European enemies had driven the development of military technology aside from scientific study.

The art of designing rock structures, called stonecutting, was established in numerous publications of this age. They described the precise proportions to contruct forts, to cast canons and fire them, and many other civilian as well as military technologies of the age. All were made with the help of highly skilled plans and artistic skill and with the help of the maths, geometry and algebra of this time, adapted to the art of war.

In 1583 Emperor Felipe II funded the Academy of Mathematics in Madrid under whose auspices were some of the greatest geniuses of military theory in their time, such as: Cristóbal de Rojas (1555-1614), author of Teoría y Práctica de la Fortificación (Theory and Practice of Fortification), considered one of the most celebrated military engineers of the age; Bernardino de Mendoza, author of Teoría y Práctica de la Guerra (Theory and Practice of War) (1595) which was translated into German, French, Italian and English; and the mathematician Pedro Ambrosio de Onderiz, who translated into Castellano La Perspective Speculation (The Speculative Perspective) of Euclid and who wrote the treatise Uso de Globos. In America, military engineers produced a lot of work, some of which was truly spectacular. Highlighted among these were the Mexican aqueducts of Zempoala, Querétano and Xalpa, dams, forts and much more. They also studied the development of inter-oceanic canals in Nicaragua and Panamá, centuries before the idea was finally realized.

Royal Factories of Valdivia


For the foundation of metallic elements, bricks and tiles and also for the fabrication of gun-carriages, doors and other elements in wood, it was necessary to install workshops which were called Royal Factories. The most important was the installation on Valenzuela island which lies in front of Valdivia. Here, all types of things were produced, and used not only locally but taken to other places of the empire.

The forts were constructed mainly from rock but also from bricks and lime. This last came from Calera in the central zone which at this time was a Jesuit base.

Ballast and Canons


Many of the canons of Valdivia came directly from Spain or better from Peru, as in the earlier periods locally-cast pieces were of lesser quality. Over time, of course, the skill of the artisanship improved greatly. Part of the materials were produced locally, while the rest were brought from the capital.

One of the advancements were little ovens installed a small distance from the canons. These had the aim of heating the balls to the point of redness, a curious technique but highly effective against the wooden boats of this time; this is how it came to be named the red boat. The cannonballs were heated red before firing them at the enemy.

Valdivian Shipyards

Not all the boats of the Spanish Empire were constructed on the Iberian peninsula, many of them were armed directly in the colonies. This is the case with the famous galleons of Manila, which made the route between the Philippines to Acapulco, Mexico. In South America also, they constructed boats and in Chile the main shipyards were situated in Chiloé, with the secondary in Valdivia.


This last region, plain of fine-wooded forests and a considerable strategic advantage, lended itself very well to the construction of frigates and other medium-sized boats. These were used to complement the Pacific defenses and for commercial voyages.

It was from then therefore, that Valdivia began to contruct boats and still today it produces small boats for fishing or tourism. It is in Talcahuano - further north - where the drafts of large Chilean boats are formed.

Article: Omar Vega