Lantaro, The Boy Hero Of The Araucanians by Charles Morris

Story type: Literature

The river Biobio, in Southern Chili, was for centuries the boundary between liberty and oppression in South America. South of it lay the land of the Araucanians, that brave and warlike people who preserved their independence against the whites, the only Indian nation in America of which this can be said. Valorous and daring as were the American Indians, their arms and their arts were those of the savage, and the great multitude of them were unable to stand before the weapons and the discipline of their white invaders. But such was not the case with the valiant Araucanians. From the period of Almagro, the companion of Pizarro and the first invader of Chili, down to our own days these bold Americans fought for and retained their independence, holding the Biobio as their national frontier, and driving army after army from their soil. Not until 1882 did they consent to become citizens of Chili, and then of their own free will, and they still retain their native habits and their pride in their pure blood.

The most heroic and intrepid of the Indian races, they defied the armies of the Incas long before the Spaniards came, and the armies of the Spaniards for centuries afterwards, and though they have now consented to become a part of the Chilian nation, this has not been through conquest, and they are as independent in spirit to-day as in the warlike years of the past. Their hardy and daring character infects the whole of Chili, and has given that little republic, drawn out like a long string between the Andes and the sea, the reputation of being one of the most warlike and unyielding of countries, while to its people has been applied the suggestive title of “the Yankees of the South.”

It would need a volume to tell the deeds of the heroes who arose in succession to defend the land of Araucania from the arms of those who so easily overturned the mighty empire of Peru. We shall, therefore, confine ourselves to the exploits of one of the earliest of these, a youthful warrior with a genius for war that might have raised him to the rank of a great commander had not death early cut short his career. The second Spaniard who attempted the conquest of this valiant people was Pedro de Valdivia, the quartermaster of Pizarro, an able soldier, but one of those who fancied that a handful of Spanish cavaliers were a match for the strongest of the Indian tribes. He little knew the spirit of the race with which he would have to deal.

Southward from Peru marched the bold Valdivia with two hundred Spaniards at his back. With them as aids to conquest was brought a considerable force of Peruvians; also priests and women, for he proposed to settle and hold the land as his own after he had conquered it. Six hundred miles southward he went, fighting the hostile natives at every step, and on the 14th of February, 1541, stopped and laid the foundations of a town which he named St. Jago. This still stands as the modern Santiago, a city of three hundred thousand souls.

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We do not propose to tell the story of Valdivia’s wars with the many tribes of Chili. He was in that land nine years before his conquests brought him to the Biobio and the land of the Araucanians, with whom alone we are concerned. On the coast near the mouth of this river he founded a new town, which he named Concepcion, and made this the basis of an invasion of the land of the Araucanians, whom he proposed to subdue.

As it happened, the Araucanian leader at this time was a man with the body of a giant and the soul of a dwarf. He timidly kept out of the way of the Spaniards until they had overrun most of the country, built towns and forts, and had reason to believe that the whole of Chili was theirs. Valdivia went on founding cities until he had seven in all, and gave himself the proud title of the Marquis of Arauco, fancying that he was lord and master of the Araucanians. He was too hasty; Arauco was not yet his.

A new state of affairs began when the Araucanians, disgusted with the timid policy of their leader, chose a bolder man, named Caupolican, as their toqui, or head chief. A daring and able man, the new toqui soon taught the Spaniards a lesson. He began with an attack on their forts. At one of these, named Arauco, the invaders had eighty Indians employed in bringing them forage for their horses. The wily Caupolican replaced these laborers by eighty of his own warriors, who hid their arms in the bundles of hay they carried. On reaching the fort they were to attack the guards and hold the gates till their ambushed comrades could come to their aid.

This device failed, the garrison attacking and driving back the forage-bearers before Caupolican could reach the place. Foiled in this, he made a fierce assault upon the fort, but the fire of eighty cannons proved too much for Indian means of defence, and the assailants were forced to draw back and convert their assault into a siege. This did not continue long before the Spaniards found themselves in peril of starvation. Vainly they sallied out on their assailants, who were not to be driven off; and finally, hopeless of holding the fort, the beleaguered garrison cut its way by a sudden night attack through the besieging lines and retired to the neighboring fort of Puren. A similar result took place at another fort called Tucapel, its garrison also seeking a refuge at Puren.

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When news of these events reached Valdivia, he saw that his conquests were in peril, and at once set out for the seat of war with all his forces, amounting to about two hundred Spaniards and four or five thousand Indians. A small party of cavalry were despatched in advance to reconnoitre the enemy, but they were all killed by the Araucanians and their heads were hung on roadside trees as a warning to their approaching comrades. This gruesome spectacle had much of the effect intended. On seeing it many of the Spaniards were dismayed and clamored to return. But Valdivia insisted on advancing, and on the 3d of December, 1553, the two armies came in sight of each other at Tucapel.

Valdivia soon found that he had no ordinary Indians to deal with. These were not of the kind that could be dispersed by a squadron of cavalry. A fierce charge was made on his left wing, which was cut to pieces by the daring warriors of Caupolican. The right wing was also vigorously attacked. But the artillery and musketry of the Spaniards were mowing down the ranks of the Araucanians, whose rude war-clubs and spears were ill-fitted to cope with those death-dealing weapons. Driven back, and hundreds of them falling, they returned with heroic courage three times to the assault. But at length the slaughter became too great to bear and the warriors were ready to flee in dismay.

At this critical moment the first great hero of the Araucanians appeared. He was a boy of only sixteen years of age, a mere lad, who some time before had been captured by Valdivia, baptized, and made his page. But young as he was, he loved his country ardently and hated the invaders with a bitter hate, and it was this youthful hero who saved the day for his countrymen and snatched victory out of defeat.

Leaving the Spanish ranks at the moment the Araucanians were shrinking in dismay, he rushed into their ranks, called loudly on them to turn, accused them of cowardice, and bade them to face their foes like men. Seizing a lance, he charged alone on the Spaniards, calling on his countrymen to follow him. Inspired by his example and his cries, the Araucanians charged with such fury that the ranks of the Spaniards and their allies were broken, and they were cut down until the whole force was annihilated. It is said that of the entire expedition only two Indians escaped.

Valdivia, who had retired with his chaplain to pray, on seeing the fortune of war turning against him, was seized by a party of the victors and brought before Caupolican. The dismayed captive begged the chief for his life, promising to leave Chili with all his Spaniards. Seeing Lantaro, his late page, he asked him to intercede with the chief, and this the generous boy did. But the Araucanians had little faith in Spanish promises, and an old warrior who stood near ended the matter by raising his war-club and dashing out the captive’s brains. Thus tragically ended the career of one of the least cruel of the Spanish conquerors. He paid the penalty of his disdain of Indian courage.

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Lantaro, the boy hero, had the blood of chiefs in his veins, and was endowed by nature with beauty of person, nobleness of character, and intrepidity of soul. His people honored him highly in the festival with which they celebrated their victory, and Caupolican appointed him his special lieutenant, raising him to a rank in the army nearly equal to his own.

There was fighting still to be done. The leader of the Spaniards was dead, but he had left many behind him, and there were still strongholds in the Indian country held by Spanish arms. On hearing of the terrible disaster to their cause, the Spaniards hastily evacuated their forts beyond the Biobio and retired to the towns of Imperial and Valdivia. Here they were besieged by Caupolican, while Lantaro was given the difficult task of defending the border-land about the frontier stream. The youthful general at once fortified himself on the steep mount of Mariguenu, a fort made very strong by nature.

Meanwhile, the two Indians who had escaped from Tucapel brought the news of the disaster to Concepcion, filling the minds of the people with terror. The tidings of an attack on a party of fourteen horsemen, of whom seven were slain, added to the dismay. The fact that they were now dealing with a foe to whom artillery and cavalry had lost their terrors was not reassuring to the invaders of the land. Evidently their position was hazardous; they must fight to win or retreat.

Villagrau, who was chosen to succeed Valdivia, decided to fight. With a small army of Spaniards and a strong body of Indians he crossed the Biobio and marched upon Lantaro and his men, ascending Mount Mariguenu to attack the stronghold on its top.

Boy as Lantaro was, he showed the skill of an old soldier in dealing with his well-armed foe. While the Spaniards were toiling up a narrow pass of the mountain a strong force of Araucanians fell upon them, and for three hours gave them as sharp a fight as they had yet encountered. Then the Indians withdrew to the strong palisade, behind which Lantaro awaited the foe.

Up the side of the steep mountain rode a party of Spanish horsemen, with the purpose of forcing a passage, but near the summit they were met with such a storm of arrows and other missiles that it became necessary to support them with infantry and artillery. Lantaro, vigilant in the defence, endeavored to surround the Spaniards with a body of his warriors, but the success of this stratagem was prevented by the advance of Villagrau to their support. The battle now grew hot, the artillery in particular sweeping down the ranks of the Indians.

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At this critical juncture Lantaro showed that he was a born captain. Calling to him one of his officers, named Leucoton, he said, “You see those thunder-tubes. It is from them our trouble comes. There is your work. Do not dare show your face to me until you have made them your own.”

Leucoton at once rushed forward with his company and fell in fury upon the battery, driving back the gunners and capturing their cannon. This successful charge was followed by Lantaro with a fierce attack on the Spanish front, which broke their ranks, throwing them into confusion and putting them to flight. The defeat was ruinous, three thousand of the Spaniards and their allies being slain, while Villagrau was saved with difficulty and at the risk of their lives by three of his men, who picked him up where he lay wounded and carried him off on his horse.

In their flight the Spaniards had to traverse again the defile by which they had ascended. Lantaro had sent men to obstruct it by felled trees, and the few remaining Spaniards had a severe fight before they could escape. The Araucanians pursued them to the Biobio, fatigue preventing their following beyond that stream. The fugitives continued their flight until Concepcion was reached, and here the old men and women were speedily sent north in ships, while the other inhabitants fled from the city in a panic, and started for Santiago by land. All their property was left, and the victors found a rich prize when they entered the city. Lantaro, after destroying the place, returned home, to be greeted with the acclamations of his people.

We must deal more rapidly with the remaining events of the boy hero’s career. Some time after this defeat the Spaniards attempted to rebuild Concepcion, but while thus employed they were attacked and defeated by Lantaro, who pursued them through the open gates of their fortress and took possession of the stronghold, the people again fleeing to the woods and the ships in the harbor. Once more burning the city, Lantaro withdrew in triumph.

The “Chilian Hannibal,” as Lantaro has been with much justice called, now advanced against Santiago with six hundred picked men, as an aid to Caupolican in his siege of Imperial and Valdivia. Reaching the country of the Indian allies of the Spanish, the youthful general laid it waste. He then fortified himself on the banks of the Rio Claro and sent out spies into the country of the enemy. At the same time a body of Spanish horsemen were sent from the city to reconnoitre the position of their enemies, but they were met and driven back in dismay, being severely handled by the Araucanians. The news of their repulse filled the people of Santiago with consternation.

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Villagrau being ill, he despatched his son Pedro against Lantaro, and ordered the roads leading to the city to be fortified. Young Pedro proved no match for his still younger but much shrewder opponent. When the Spaniards attacked him, Lantaro withdrew as if in a panic, the Spaniards following tumultuously into the fortifications. Once inside, the Indians turned on them and cut them down so furiously that none but the horsemen escaped.

Three times Pedro attacked Lantaro, but each time was repulsed. The young Spanish leader then withdrew into a meadow, while Lantaro encamped on a neighboring hill, with the design in mind of turning the waters of a mountain stream on Pedro’s camp. Fortunately for the latter, a spy informed him of the purpose to drown him out, and he hastily retired to Santiago.

Villagrau had now got well again, and relieved his son of the task which had proved too much for him. At the head of a strong force, he took a secret route by the sea-shore, with the purpose of surprising the Araucanian camp. At daybreak the cries of his sentinels aroused Lantaro to the impending danger, and he sprang up and hurried to the side of his works to observe the coming enemy. He had hardly reached there when an arrow from the bow of one of the Spanish allies pierced him with a mortal wound, and the gallant boy leader fell dead in the arms of his followers.

A fierce combat followed, the works being stormed and the fight not ending till none of the Araucanians remained alive. The Spaniards then withdrew to Santiago, where for three days they celebrated the death of their foe; while his countrymen, dismayed by his fall, at once abandoned the siege of the invested cities and returned home.

A remarkable career was that of this young captain, begun at sixteen and ending at nineteen. History presents no rival to his precocious military genius, though in the centuries of war for independence in his country many older heroes of equal fame and daring arose for the defence of their native land against the Spanish foe.

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