Galvarino (died 1557), a warrior of the Mapuche tribe native to what is now Chile, was captured by Spanish soldiers and had both hands cut off as a lesson to other tribal warriors. In place of his severed hands, Mapuche tied knives to his stumps and continued to fight the colonial occupiers.
A Chilean folk hero, warrior Galvarino was a famous warrior of the Mapuche tribe, who participated in the Arauco War, a long-running attempt, started by Spain during the mid-1500s, to conquer the Araucanía area of South America. With fellow tribal warriors, Galvarino—who was also known as Mapuche cacique Galvarino—fought against the invading Spanish army in territory that is now located in southern Chile and Argentina. Now a young chieftan, he was taken prisoner, together with 150 other Mapuche tribesmen. Despite being tortured and mutilated by his European captors, he returned to the battle and inspired his tribe to stand up to invasion.
After having subduing the Inca Empire (based in modernday Peru) by executing its leader Atahualpa in 1533, Spanish conquistadors commanded by Francisco Pizarro traveled south, their intent to discover gold and other valuable resources for King Charles I of Spain and also conquer indigenous peoples and colonize the territory. The roots of the Arauco War date to 1531, when Spain's Don Diego de Almagro entered Chile on a military mission. The Aztec Empire in Mexico had been subdued by Hernân Cortez in only three years (1519–1521), and the Inca Empire was on the brink of destruction. The Spaniards believed, therefore, that the indigenous people of South America were unwilling to fight to maintain their independence. This assumption was put to the test when Spanish forces from Peru continued southward.
A large and powerful tribe, the Mapuche inhabited the area between the Toltén and Itala rivers, where the lived in agricultural communities and clustered in extended family groups. Referred to as “Araucanos” by the Spanish invaders, the Mapuche had their own language, Mapudungun, and were know for the colorful textiles they both used and traded with other tribes. During times of war, Mapuche family groups would mobilize around their chief, or lonko, and their warriors would be mobilized under a single leader, or toki, who would lead them in battle. When the Spaniards encountered the northernmost Mapuche settlements in the late 1540s, their progress was undeterred. Under Pedro de Valdivia (1497–1553), the first royal governor of Chile, their armies moved further south, hoping to conquer all in their path between the recently established Santiago to the southernmost point on the South American continent, the Straits of Magellan.
The Mapuche were a proud people, and they refused to serve the conquering Spaniards as the conquistadors made inroads into their lands. Problems accelerated when a new governor, García Hurtado de Mendoza (1535–1609), was appointed their Spanish overlord. Caupolicân, the Mapuche toki and a strong and charismatic man, was determined to expel these intruders. According to legend, Caupolicân earned the position of toki by standing erect and holding the trunk of a large tree on his shoulder for three days and nights. Forming a militant band, he began to attack Spanish settlements and mobilize the Mapuche people, beginning in 1553, aided by Lautaro, the tribal lonko.
The Mapuche tribal warriors were well seasoned, as they had once battled and fended off the Incas. The Spaniards, with their weaponry and horses, proved superior in battle, however, and during the first battle of the Arauco war, at Reynogüelén near the Itala River in 1536, they repelled a force reported at over 20,000 Mapuche armed with bow and arrow and sharpened pikes. Although the natives were defeated, their aggressiveness prompted the Spanish expedition to return north, especially since the region appeared to yield no gold or silver.
After another native tribe, the Mapochoes, were led by their lonko Michimal in a successful attack on Santiago, de Valdivia realized that military action was required. News of the victory had invigorated the Machupes and other regional native tribes, which believed it would be possible to rid their lands of these outsiders. The Arauco War began in earnest in 1546, when de Valdia ventured southward to the Bio-Bio river. His entourage included 60 horsemen and thousands of native soldiers loyal to Spain. When the Mapuches attacked, showing superior strength, he retreated. While Spanish victories would come during further battles, the Mapuches eventually captured de Valdivia and executed him. About eight years later, on February 24, 1554, the Mapuche took another significant victory over the Spanish army, now led by Captain Francisco de Villagra. Afterward, the war continued and included many battles. It seemed to be a war without end. Periods of hostility were interrupted by brief interludes of truces and peace.
According to legend, after his right hand was cut off by the Spanish, Galvarino boldly held up his left hand, offering it up for his captives to amputate. He displayed no emotion as it was cut off, and his facial features recorded no pain. The Spaniards ordered him to return to Caupolicân and urge him to surrender. Instead, Galvarino returned to his toki, raised his mutilated arms, and urged his people to continue their war with the Spanish.
A second clash between Mendoza and the Battle of Millarapue took place weeks later, on November 30, as the Mapuche attempted a dawn ambush of Mendoza and his encampment. Leading his own men among the 3,000 Machupe warriors, Galvarino helped to direct the assault with his bladed arms and even joined in the fighting, cutting down the Spanish squad's second in command. Ultimately, the surprise attack failed; in just over an hour, Mendoza emerged victorious despite the fact that the Spaniards were outnumbered more than two to one. Not only were the primitive Machupe weapons no match for Spanish crossbows and rifles, but the Spaniards had time to pelt the Machupe with cannon and utilize their cavalry.
The Battle of Millarapue was a terrible rout for the Mapuche; the few hundred warriors who survived were captured, including Galvarino. The Spanish only suffered a few casualties, some minor injuries, and the loss of some of their horses. Surviving the battle, Caupolicân became the tribe's lonko when Lautaro died that same year, and he was captured and killed in 1558, impaled while his wife was forced to watch.
With their fate in the hands of the brutal Spaniards, Galvarino and his fellow Mapuche captives were sentenced to hang. According to La Araucana, an epic poem by Alonso de Ercilla, who accompanied the conquistadors, the Spanish offered Galvarino a more lenient sentence, but he refused. Before the execution, Ercilla attempted to intervene on behalf of the disfigured warrior, suggesting that he join the enemy, to which he responded that he would rather die. Guillermo I. Castillo-Feliu, writing in Culture and Customs of Chile, reported that “Galvarino, displaying his mutilated arms, until then covered by a shawl, refused Ercilla's offer to commute his death sentence and said that he only wished that he could tear his enemies apart with his teeth.”
Descriptions of the method of Galvarino's execution differ. He was thrown to the dogs, impaled, or hung. One report claims that Galvarino killed himself to rob his captors of the pleasure of putting him to death. The most accepted version is that Galvarino died by hanging.
Although Mapuche efforts against the Spaniards ended with the death of Caupolicân, the Arauco War continued for over 200 more years, and continued on until it was overshadowed by the Chilean War of Independence (1810–1818). Five hundred years after the war began, the Mapuche continued to claim ownership of their lands, and they fought whenever they were threatened. In consequence, they were treated unfairly and often with extreme cruelty by Spanish-born immigrants. Long after his death, Galvarino served as an inspiration to his people, symbolizing their demonstrable courage and tenacity when it came to defending their rights and their lands. In 1825, Chile declared its independence, even though Spanish put up resistance to this declaration. The Mapuche people never gave in and were one of the few indigenous South American tribes able to preserve their traditions.
Castillo-Feliu, Guillermo I., Culture and Customs of Chile, Greenwood Press, 2000.
Course, Magnus, Becoming Mapuche: Person and Ritual in Indigenous Chile, University of Illinois Press, 2011.
de Ercilla, Alonso, La Araucana, edited by Hugh Chisholm, Cambridge University Press, 1911; available on Wikisource.
Spanish War History website, http://www.spanishwars.net/ (December 1, 2016), “The Arauco War.”❑