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The Grand Araucanian Wars 1541-1883, in the Kingdom of Chile:

The Mapuche Infantry & Cavalry, vs The Spanish Conquerors

Por Eduardo Agustin Cruz - 20 April 2008

Spanish Cavalry: Horses were particularly useful in the 16th century as a weapon of war for the conquistadors. When these Spanish warriors came to the Americas and conquered the Aztec and Inca empires, horses and gunpowder provided a crucial advantage. Because the horse had been extinct in the Western Hemisphere for approximately 10,000 years, the Indigenous peoples of the Americas had no warfare technologies that could overcome the considerable advantage provided by European horses and weapons. Ever since the conquest, historians have perplexed over one question in particular.

How did so few Spanish manage to conquer such a huge territory and so many people? Even today, the answers to this question are diverse contested, and are highly dependent on the perspective one accept.

The Mapuches accomplished what the mighty Aztec and Inca empires failed so overwhelming to do- to preserve their independence and keep the Spanish invaders at bay. The Mapuche infantry played a vital role in the Araucanians war, from the initial of the conquest in 1541 to 1883. The Mapuche Infantry, taking full advantage of Terrain forest, mountains peaks, and swiftly running rivers made every Spanish advance difficult and costly. The cost to the Spanish army during the campaign of the “Araucanian war “were around 50.000 soldiers, and an estimate 60.000 auxiliaries Indians killed. In letter of 1664 to the king of Spain, Jorge Leguía y Lumbe informed that in Chile " until then 29,000 Spaniards had died in the war and more than 60,000 auxiliaries Indians" (letter reproduced by Ricardo E. Latcham: La capacidad guerrera de los antiguos Araucanos, p.39, Santiago, 1915).

Because Valdivia had burned their villages, because he had ignored their pleas for mercy for women and children, because Valdivia sent to cut the noses and the right hand to four hundred mutilated prisoners, because his cruelty increased with his successes, the Mapuches unleash an attacked him with unbelievable savagery.

Don Pedro de Valdivia, governor of the kingdom of Chile a distinguished member of the Spanish Tercios[1], was a member of the military order of the Knights of Santiago, had an abundant military experience in Europe, in the service of Carlos V, in its fight with the French, In Flanders fought under the order of Enrique Nassau. Pedro de Valdivia and the entire Spanish forces perished in Chile in1553, they were no survivors. (and the 2500 Auxiliaries Indian)

The goals of this book: this paper has three goals:

  • To provide an overview of the military aspects weaponry, armory, the horse, and tactic, strategy facing the Mapuches; at the beginning of the Spanish conquest.

  • To provide an overview, of the military superiority enjoyed, by the Spanish army, in addition, the role of the Auxiliary Indian.

  • To point out how, by military innovations, and adaptation in the face of Araucanians war, the Mapuches managed to resist Spanish military campaigns, for over 300 years.

The book analyses, the military response to the Spanish conquest, of the Mapuches of Chile. The role of the Mapuche infantry, and cavalry: [2]

According to Ignatius Molina[3], at present, the army of the Mapuches is composed of both cavalry and infantry. The army initially consisted entirely of foot soldiers; but in their first battles with the Spaniards, perceiving the vast advantage derived by their enemies from the employment of cavalry. They soon applied themselves to procure a good breed of horses; insomuch that in 1568, only seventeen years after their first encountering with the Spaniards. The Mapuches had several squadrons of cavalry; and by the year 1585, the Araucanian cavalry was regularly organized by the toquis Nancunahuel and Codehuala.

The Mapuche infantry divided into regiments of a thousand men, and these into ten companies of an hundred men each. The cavalry divided in a similar manner; but the numbers in the regiments and army troops are not always the same. Each body of horse and foot has its particular standard; but all bear a star, which is the national device of the Indians. The soldiers are not clothed in uniforms, but all have cuirasses of hardened leather below their ordinary dresses, with shields and helmets of the same material. The cavalry armed with swords and lances; and the infantry with pikes, bow and arrow and clubs pointed with iron.

Mapuche Unit Strength    Possible Western Equivalents.
5- 10-20  25  Section-Squad- Corporals
20-60  25-60 2+ quads, sections- Platoon (warrant officer and first or
    second lieutenant (each platoon three sections)
160-250  To Change Squadron-cavalry divided into companies of about 100
    men who commanded by captains as well as by officers Spanish cavalry ranks was no more than 60 horsemen, it was usually deploy it in three ranks that is 180 men and horse.
100-    100  Company (each company of three platoons)
500-    500-1000 Battalion or battalion (each regiment ten companies)
To change-  2500-15.000  Each Regiment, ten companies (each brigade four regiments or battalions)
3000 to 80.000[4]     20.000-100.000  Army Division (each division three brigades)
To change  42.000 Army corps (each corps should contains three division, at least four regiments of cavalry, eight to twelve batteries)

The western equivalents are relative; their definition depends on the era and country of organization. It is important to clarify, to those who have not served in an infantry battalion; the complexities of its internal organization must remain largely unsuspected. Apparently, it appears to be a mass of undistinguished soldiers. In actuality, a Regiment is an organism of complex internal sophistication. 

Canadian regiment for example (1939-1945) was composed of roughly nine hundred men and officers. There were four rifle companies, each consisting of three platoons; each platoon composed of three sections of ten men led by a corporal. These companies called Able, Baker, Charlie, and Dog, and they were the striking force. After a company, come a battalion and then a brigade, next a division, finally the corps.

As Bonilla illustrated in page 99.In principle in the beginning of the conquest the Mapuche army was of around 80,000 men, that would go gradually diminishing by the effects of the fight, the hunger and the plagues, until the times would arrive in which to join 3000 warriors was a prodigy.

To compare the Mapuche Infantry army with one of the days of 1888, we quote very comprehensive calculations of Harry Pratt Judson, Cesar’s Army page 51. These are conservative estimates. Supposed we take as a maximum figure and army corps composed all told of a corps of 42.000 men. Were it able to march close up, on a single road, it would stretch out, at the least calculations, about eighteen miles. If roads were all broad enough and in good condition in Chile, columns could march with a far greater front, and the depth be vastly reduced. Except that in Chile in the Araucanians territory at least, there is no roads. There is jungle terrain, mountains where there is room for a column of greater width than a set of fours to move and leave sufficient space.

The Mapuche army marched on columns depended the number of men, on different columns- different roads. The marched to vary or decided according to the circumstances.

Defensive Arms

For protection, the Mapuche wore helmets and coats of sealskin or whalebone and carried thick skin shields. Ercilla[5] mentions them wearing armor; in 1603 "strong double corselets, completely made of leather and something like a skirt (sayete - a halberd?). Which is more commonly used, even if its usage is more recent: greaves poldrons (shoulder plates), cuysses (thigh pieces), vambraces (fore-arm armor), gantlets, gorgestts and morions armbands, throat guards, and caps of diverse forms, made of hard leather which not even sharp steel can damage” This armor was supplemented by that taken from the Spanish.

Under normal circumstance, Mapuche infantry in line were helpless against Spanish cavalry and could be massacred, as happened in the beginner of the conquest. Their only protection was the square, a bristling hedge of pikes impenetrable, to form square quickly demanded some precision, and they forts.

The Mapuche’s fortifications or pucará the Mapuche call Malal, were perfect from the militarily point of view.[6]

  1. Clear view in front Vanguard

  2. Obstacles or impediment, trenching in front

  3. At least one flank support

  4. Free communication in the whole line of combat

  5. Communication with the rear of the army.

R. B. 1926 Cunningham Graham state in the preface of his book Pedro de Valdivia. “No other Indians warred for hundred years against their conquerors, adopting all the tactics of their enemies, their horses, and their arms. None of the races that the Spaniard ever encountered in the Americas had such highly disciplined and well-drilled forces. None were so chivalrous, and none gained the respect and admiration of their enemies, as did the Araucanians“. All the authorities, Ercilla, Gongora de Marmolejo, Bascuñan, and Figueroa, speak of them in term of admiration. Traditionally it accepted that a defending force has a 3:1 advantage over an attacker. In other words, a defending force for instance the Spanish can hold off three times its own number of the Indians attackers. Imagine then, that the defensive line is four units in length, so that a single defending companies or battalion can hold each portion of the line. Assume that they can take on the oncoming Infantry on equal terms (with pre-prepared battalion artillery fire plans etc.) and that they have had time to dig in. This single unit should be able to hold of three times it own number. With the attacking force having only two Infantry units, the defenders should have the advantage. Valdivia's System of fortresses, in 1645, the Viceroy of Peru, Antonio de Toledo, Marquis of Mancera, started the execution of a patiently designed defensive plan, the fortification of Valdivia. Also known as the Key of the south sea, it is a set of fortifications placed in Corral, Niebla and Isla Mancera, At Valdivia's bay. It was one of the biggest fortifications built by the Spaniards in America.  In 1655 Uprising general of the Mapuches commanded by el mestizo Alejo Puante Gutierrez the Mapuches also coordinated their rebellion with Indians Huarpe of Mendoza and San Juan. 'The Spanish Crown formally opposed the indigenous slavery, but justified if the Indians were captured in war. The Indians destroys all the Spanish settlements south of the Bio-Bio River.

-Fort Niebla is located in, northern edge of the bay. It was constructs it in 1671 and named in honour of the viceroy of Peru, Conde de Lemus; it was part of the fortification of Valdivia. When a colonial power took over an overseas territory, one of their first tasks was to build a coastal fortress, both to deter rival naval powers and to subjugate the natives.

For the Mapuches do not like the existence of Spanish forts within its territory, and therefore were subject to constant attacks and obliteration, as occurred during the Araucanians War. To destroy the fort was a strong temptation, which was latent in the Indians and a permanent invitation to attack the enemy. For instances the siege of Villarica was one the longest blockade site that covers the history of Americas. (1599 to February 1602). In the Araucanians war the sieges were common, sieges were sometimes quite formal, with the besieger’s (the Indians) heralds demanding surrender or given the besieged (the Spanish) a deadline for a decision. Depending of the strength of the fortress, fort, castle or town, the besieger might then encircled it with men, and with ditches or fence, to cut it off from food supplies and stop anyone from getting out. If the Indians had time, they could then sit and hoped to starve out the defenders, if disease did not break out in his camp first.

The Mapuche army used, circumvallation siege line to provide opposition to the besieged, circumvallation is a line of fortifications, built by the attackers around the besieged fortification facing towards the enemy fort (to protect itself from sorties by its defenders and to enhance the blockade.

Also the Mapuches used contravallation. In cases where the besieging Spanish army threatened by a field army allied to the enemy fort, the besieging army may construct a contravallation, a second line of fortifications behind the circumvallation facing away from the enemy fort. The Contravallation protected the besiegers from attacks by allies of the city's defenders and enhances the blockade of the enemy fort by making it more difficult to smuggle in supplies.

The Mapuches were accustomed to assail Spanish fortress in three ways, -by blockade, -by assault, and -and by formal siege.

  1. Blockade was used against fortress of great strength, especially if poorly provide with provisions; and further if the location allowed a completed surroundings.

  2. Assault was executed on fortress of smaller importance, with weak fortification, and artillery. Also if the fortress was well supplied with food and water. Certainly, emergencies might lead to the same method of attack on very strong fortress.

  3. Formal siege was alternative resorted to against positions that were strongly fortified and well provisioned, so that neither of the preceding methods was of   advantage for the Mapuches.

Proceeding to the Spanish invasion the Mapuche people lacked the horse and did not work iron metals. Their weapons were wood, with stone edges or tips or of woven fibers or cane. The capacity of displacement of the natives by its territories increase with the used if the horse, when mobilizing itself to by foot-walking, calculated in fifty kilometers to the day, and it could hardly repeat it, by many days. The use of the horse as of transport extended its capacity 155 kilometers to the day, which could repeat changing of mount.

The Araucanian cavalry appeared in appearance formidable, well-armed special long range lances steel-spearheads (armor piercing bodking point), conducted regularly, and showing the riders, ease and no small gallantry.

The Indians charged the Spaniards shouting and striking the mouth rhythmically with the palm of the hand. The cavalry was disposed in two lines on each wing. The Spaniards were amazed of the good order kept by the Mapuche Cavalry, even when they had to beat a speedy retreat. All Mapuches warriors went to battle on horseback, but those who formed the center of the line dismounted and fought as infantry- mounted infantry while others Indians took care of theirs horses a short distance to the rear. They were very quick in their ferocious operations, of exceeding speed, and fond of surprising their enemies.

It is important to explain that their own chieftains and leaders led the natives, and historically as rules, the loss of a chief in battle produced a demoralizing effect on them. Mapuches warriors always fought extreme heroically as long as their chief was unharmed, but on many occasion a battle going well for the Natives was lost because the chief was killed or severely wounded.

One of the tactics of toqui Lientur, The feigned retreat was apparently one of the most common subterfuges employed by the Mapuches forces. But Lientur changed a little; in an unforeseen moment the Mapuches, as they had trained from Lientur, returned engaged the attackers decisively counter-attacked exceed by the flanks. The Spaniards were left surprising surrounded and pinned down, and if they cannot be helped by reinforcements, they had to fights for theirs life.

The Mapuches knew the art of attacking outflank and enveloping the rearguard of the enemy backs, to break the power of the enemy offensive, and pinned down the troops inside their fort and towns. Without allowing help to other relief enemy centers attacked. Creating logistical problems, which because of aborigines is worthy of admiration. In other part of Americas did not take advantage of attack in the rearguard of the enemy, they utilize only frontal attacks.

The vast majority of historians believe that Pelantaro historically as the second major strategist of Araucania, after Lautaro, proved a brilliant military vision, which enabled him to outline a strategic plan that had an ultimate objective to expel the Spaniards of Araucania. The general rebellion of 1598, after the disaster Curalaba meant six years of war incalculable loses that, led to the definitive end of the Spanish military power in the Araucania; both races exhausted by the long struggle. The accumulation of weapons and horses solved Mapuches logistical problems, allowed them to concentrate their forces, and launch attacks in distant places in their mobile warfare fronts of operation.

According to Bernardo Berdichewsky[7] the most important of these confrontations in the Mapuches wars were the battles at the end of the 16th century, especially in 1598 when the Indians defeated the Spanish, and destroyed seven cities: Valdivia, Angol, Osorno, Arauco, La Imperial, Santa Cruz y Villarica, and killed the Governor, Martin Garcia Oñez de Loyola. It was a total disaster for the Spanish forces.

Kollellaullin Martial art Karate of origin Mapuche, that means in mapudungun “waist of ant or power of the ant “ talking about to the physical power of this able insect of loads very superiors to its own weight. Another explanation was the state in which it was the soldier after he was place under this training, wide back with muscular torso and small waist like the one of an ant. The Kollellaullin martial arts remained a closely guarded secret. In modern’s times, it is only now that there is a general revival of interest in mastering combated techniques from this ancient Mapuche martial art.

The skilful and agile arm of the conqueror did not make indentation in the soul of steel of the Araucanians. By means of the exercises, the Indian soldiers arrive at the adult age transformed into the true soldier, in the intrepid soldier, reckless and intelligent. According to professor Vitale, from the military point of view, the Araucanian deed is an irregular war. One of the variants of this war is the combined mobile warfare with the rural war of guerillas. The Araucanians war was a mobile warfare, because, great masses of Indians attacked and they moved, to enormous distances, as the Spaniards attested who admired of the rapidity whereupon the Mapuches concentrated and dispersed. This mobile warfare combined with some tactics of the war of guerillas; in the majority of the cases, nevertheless, it is not essentially war of guerillas. The basic thing is a not small group of guerilla Indians. The guerilla is to the service of the mobile warfare of great masses of Indians who attack and they move, essential characteristic of the military fight of the Mapuches. The mobile warfare advocate, the content of which is quick-decision offensive warfare on exterior lines in campaigns and battles, includes positional warfare in a supplementary role, "mobile defense" and retreat, without all of which mobile warfare cannot fully carry out.

The Araucanians war would not have managed to stay ignited without the current arrived of human contingents from Peru and Spain, and the necessary military equipments and the indispensable money to finance them. It was not, then, one war in which the conquering society only participated, already the Spanish state contribution was being gradually elevated, insofar as the internal incapacity, or the lack of interest of the Chilean encomenderos, it increased.

The successful resistance of the Mapuches caused the Spanish crown great apprehension and cost a large amount of money required for supplies and troops, which have to dispatch to save Chile, it colony. Not only did the Spaniards fail to conquer the Mapuche, they had to conceive an effective, and expensive, means of preventing their being overrun by them.

The Spanish advantage in the technology of war was, in fact, a vital factor in their striking military victories in the beginners of the conquest. Explosive shells or bombs were known by the end of the 16th century. Smaller cannons, that fired nails and scrap iron in canvas bags, positioned in front of the infantry. Which decimated the Indians Infantry ranks costing heavy casualty?

It’s important to highlight that steel armor and shield magnified the advantages of Spanish slashing and thrusting weapons and permitted greater aggressiveness in close combat by the Spanish conquerors. Harquebusiers were superior to Indians missile weapons in range and lethality. According to Professor Jose Bengoa, he quoted for Lenz; the plains Pampas served also as the great initiatory test for reaching maturity as a man and a fighter;” going to Argentina to settle" was the best challenge to strengthen the soul, exorcising the fear and make bold nod to the powerful death. Inclusively, there came into existence a magical place named Kuramalal, house of stone) was a cave site of rites of passage, which crowned the previous tests had exceeded the warrior. Under the protection of supernatural beings, "it seems that there can be the gift of being invulnerable." We are in the presence of a military society and the sacred of the war. The educational aspect of these rites of transition is to communicate some secret information concerning supernatural beings, whose mission is to govern the universe. (Melville Herzkovitz.) Nahuelchen expect something similar, and it seems that he want to move with his friend, the song of Nahuelchen states.

Song Nahuelchen.

Brother, my dear brother,
Let’s go to Curamalal,
Let’s extract remedy from the portal
Then, then we shall be valiant
Brother of mine, dear one,
If we extract the remedy from the portal,
Then we shall be valiant,
Brother of mine, dear one. In Bengoa, pp102

As we already described, from the middle 19th century onward, technology changed the face of battle. Weapons achieved accuracy when barrels were rifled (cut with spiralling grooves) and rate of fire increased with breech loading (back loading). Black powder was replaced by smokeless powder, and new high explosives enhance the effect of shells. Machine guns developed into mobile weapons, which provided the concentrated firepower of infantry. It took the Chilean army some time to assimilate the effect of the new technology, but the firepower revolution eventually changed tactics and strategy in how to fight a war.

The Chilean army defeated military both countries, Peru and Bolivia, and then concentrate on to converge on the Mapuches with the new military technology. The Chilean army utilization of coordinated technologies - including the railways and the telegraph permitted to defeat the Mapuches forces in 1883. Though the telegraph permitted the Chilean army to be controlled even when they were hundred and thousand of kilometers apart. The railroads therefore allowed distribute the transport of troops and their supplies to Mapuche territory. Defeat that explained not by the weakness of Mapuches as combatants, but by the inferiority of its arms in front of the technology of rifles of repetition and modern artillery. -Up till now, on November 5, 1881, the Mapuches arose one last time in a general insurrection. According to José Bengoa, it was the first time in their entire history that all the groups of the very decentralized Mapuche had joined in a single insurrection. They did not engage in this act to secure their political and military independence -that was now lost beyond recovery. As Bengoa notes, 'the Mapuche knew perfectly well that they were going to lose and that the majority of them would die in this general insurrection.' So why did they make the effort? The last insurrection was 'a cultural imperative that obligated (the Mapuches) to appear with their lances, in front of the huinca fortress the Mapuche word for non-Indians forts and cities and say: We are still an independent people and we will cease to be such only in a ritual act of combat and death.'


  1. Bonilla Tomas 1988. La gran guerra Mapuche. TT.GG. Instituto Geográfico Militar de Chile. Printed in Chile. Tomo I-. See page 69.

  2. Strategy is the art of distributing and applying military means, such as armed forces and supplies, to fulfill the ends of policy. Tactics means the dispositions for, and control of, military forces and techniques in actual fighting’s.

  3. The Abbe Don J Ignatius Molina.1809. The Geographical, Natural, and Civil History of Chile. Vol II. Printed for Longman, Hurst, Bees, and Orme. Paternoster Row page 71-72.

  4. Ibíd. Bonilla, page 99 tomo I

  5. Ercilla Alonzo. La Araucana. 1993. Ediciones Cátedra. Madrid. Hereafter cite. Page 84 Chapter I

  6. Téllez I.1944  Una Raza Militar ( hereinafter Téllez )

  7. Berdichewsky Bernardo 1975. Abipon,” “Ashluslay”, Araucanians. Three South American Indian Tribes. Library of congress cataloging in publication data. USA.


Copyright@ Eduardo Agustin Cruz
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