Bust of Lautaro
Maule Region, Chile
|Battles/wars||Battle of Tucapel|
Lautaro (Mapudungun: Lef-Traru "swift hawk") (1534?–April 29, 1557) was the young Mapuche military commander in the four-year Arauco War (Araucanian War) in Chile. His people undertook to expel the Spanish colonizers. The army under Lautaro's command inflicted crushing defeats and huge death tolls on Spanish forces despite having far inferior weaponry. He was close to final victory when he was killed in battle at around 23 years of age.
Lautaro was the son of a Mapuche lonko (a chief who holds office during peacetime). He is thought to have been born in 1534. In 1546, he was captured by some Spanish colonizers. He became the personal servant of Don Pedro de Valdivia, Spanish conqueror of Chile and now its Captain General. Lautaro learned the military ways and skills of the Spaniards' army by observation. He was witness to atrocities committed by the Spanish on captive Mapuche warriors.
According to the Chilean novelist Isabel Allende in her historical novel, Inés del Alma Mía, the boy Lautaro had deliberately allowed himself to be captured by the Spanish in order to learn their secrets, and made no attempt to escape until he felt he had learned enough. In any case, he fled twice, in 1550 and for good in 1552. In 1553 (the year Lautaro turned 19), the Mapuches convened to decide how to respond to the Spanish invasion. The convention decided upon war. The toqui Caupolicán chose Lautaro as vice toqui because he had served as a page in the Spanish cavalry, and thereby possessed knowledge of how to defeat the mounted conquistadors. Lautaro introduced use of horses to the Mapuche and designed better combat tactics. He organized a large, cohesive army—a military formation unfamiliar to the Mapuche.
Battle of Tucapel
With 6,000 warriors under his command, Lautaro attacked Fort Tucapel. The Spanish garrison couldn't withstand the assault and retreated to Purén. Lautaro seized the fort, sure that the Spaniards would attempt to retake it. That is exactly what Governor Valdivia tried to do with a reduced force, which was quickly surrounded and massacred by the Mapuches on Christmas Day, 1553. The Battle of Tucapel would be Pedro de Valdivia's last, as he was captured and then killed.
After the defeat at Tucapel, the Spanish hastily reorganized their forces, reinforcing the defenses of Fort Imperial and abandoning the settlements of Confines and Arauco in order to strengthen Concepción. However, Mapuche tradition dictated a lengthy victory celebration, which kept Lautaro from realizing his desire to pursue the military advantage he had just gained. It was only in February 1554 that he succeeded in putting together an army of 8,000 men, just in time to confront a punitive expedition under the command of Francisco de Villagra.
Battle of Marihueñu
Lautaro chose the hill of Marihueñu to fight the Spanish. He organized his forces in four divisions: two charged with containing and wearing down the enemy, a third held in reserve to launch a fresh attack as the Spanish were about to crumble, and the last charged with cutting off their retreat. Additionally, a small group was sent to destroy the reed bridge the Spanish had erected across the Bío-Bío River, which would further disrupt any attempted retreat of Villagra.
The Spanish attack broke the first Mapuche lines, but the quick response of the third division maintained the Mapuche position. Later, the wings of this division began to attack the Spanish flanks, and the fourth division attacked from behind. After hours of battle, only a small group of Spanish managed to retreat. Despite this fresh victory, Lautaro was again unable to pursue the opportunity due to the celebrations and beliefs of his people. By the time he arrived at Concepción, it was already abandoned. He burned it, but his remaining forces were insufficient to continue the offensive, so the campaign came to an end.
In Santiago, Villagra reorganized his forces, and that same year of 1554, he departed again for Arauco and reinforced the strongholds of Imperial and Valdivia, without any interference from the Mapuches, who were dealing with their first epidemic of smallpox, which had been brought by the Spanish.
In 1555, the Real Audiencia in Lima ordered him to reconstruct Concepción, which was done under the command of Captain Alvarado. Upon learning of this, Lautaro successfully besieged Concepción with 4,000 warriors. Only 38 Spaniards managed to escape by sea the second destruction of the city.
Peteroa and the Battle of Mataquito
After the second rout at Concepción, Lautaro desired to attack Santiago. He found scant support for this plan from his troops, who soon dwindled to only 600, but he carried on. In October 1556 his northward march reached the Mataquito River, where he established a fortified camp at Peteroa. In the Battle of Peteroa he repulsed attacking Spanish forces under the command of Diego Cano, and later held off the larger force commanded by Pedro de Villagra. Being advised that still more Spaniards were approaching, Lautaro retreated towards the Maule River. With the Spaniards in hot pursuit he was forced to retire beyond the Itata River. From there he launched another campaign towards Santiago when Villagra's army passed him by on the way to the save the remaining Spanish settlements in Araucanía. Lautaro had chosen to give Villagra's force the slip and head for the city to attack it.
Despite the Mapuches' stealth, the city's leaders learned of the advance and sent a small expedition to thwart it, buying time for word to be sent to Villagra to return to the city from the south. The Spanish forces met in the field, and from a member of the local ethnos, the Picunche, they learned the disposition of Lautaro's camp. At dawn, on April 29, 1557 the conquistadors launched a surprise attack from the hills of Caune, obtaining a decisive victory in the Battle of Mataquito in which Lautaro was killed early in the fighting. After the defeat of his army, his head was cut off and displayed in the plaza of Santiago.
Alonso de Ercilla, an officer in the Spanish forces during the Araucanian war (and as it happened, only one year older than Lautaro), in the following decade composed the masterpiece of Spanish literature, the historical epic poem, La Araucana, which became a major literary work about the Spanish conquest of America. Ercilla made Lautaro its protagonist.
Lautaro has come to be acclaimed by Chileans as the first Chilean general for his revolutionary strategies and his achievements in uniting the dispersed Mapuche people. He inflicted many crushing defeats on Spanish armies armed with lances, muskets and horses even though his own army was armed with only spears and axes.
His name was used by Francisco de Miranda when he founded the Logia Lautaro (Lautaro Lodge), a Latin American independence society of the end of 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century. In the 20th century, Chilean author Pablo Neruda, the future Nobel Literature Prize laureate, wrote a poem about him.
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