From the 15th century onward, most of the conflicts fought between European colonizers and Native Americans were swift and brutal. Millions of indigenous people were killed by diseases that colonists brought over to the New World, and others were unable to respond to the guns and steel armor of the Europeans.
The Arauco War, fought between the Spanish and the Mapuche, an indigenous people located in modern-day Chile and Argentina, was no such flash of violence. Rather, it was a centuries-long slow burn of oppression and revenge that ended up taking more Spanish lives than any other conflict in the New World—and some would argue it’s not over yet.
In the early 16th century, the Spanish looked beyond the Inca Empire to the gold deposits of southern Chile. The plan was to use the local indigenous population—the Mapuche people—for slave labor to mine the gold. In the Andes, the Spanish had benefited from mit’a, a tradition of mandatory public service in the Inca Empire, that eased the transition to forced labor. But the Mapuche had no such traditions, and they refused to serve the Spanish as their northern neighbors had done.
In 1536, thousands of Mapuche warriors ambushed a band of Spanish soldiers and their auxiliaries led by Diego de Almagro. Confused by their opponent’s horses, weapons, and armor, the Mapuche suffered heavy losses while only killing two Spaniards and some auxiliaries. However, de Almagro found the Mapuche’s ferocity alarming, and coupled with a disappointing lack of silver, retreated to Peru the following year.
The Arauco War began in earnest in 1546 with Pedro de Valdivia’s campaign into the region of Araucanía, where many Mapuche people lived. Again, after a fierce battle against the Mapuche, de Valdivia realized it was futile to continue into such hostile territory with only 60 men—54 after the casualties from the battle—and returned to Santiago.
A new expedition was launched four years later. Valdivia was able to make progress, winning several decisive battles and constructing a fort at what is now the modern-day city of Penco. Many tribes in the area submitted, and after Valdivia received reinforcements from the Viceroy of Peru, a third expedition was launched in 1553.
More forts were established, and some Mapuche people were forced to work in the gold mines. The Mapuches held a council to discuss the growing Spanish menace in the area, and a toqui, a wartime chief, was elected: Caupolican, said to be an exceptionally strong warrior. His second in command was chosen as well: a former auxiliary named Lautaro, whose insights on the Spanish would prove to be vital.
Lautaro immediately proved his worth by attacking the fort at Tucapel, routing the Spanish and razing the fort. Valdivia arrived with a counter-force of 55 Spaniards and a few thousand Inca warriors. His forces were decimated. All the Spaniards were killed, along with most of the Inca auxiliaries. Valdivia himself was captured and promptly executed at the hands of the Mapuche.
The Spanish scrambled to reorganize their position, abandoning a couple of forts in order to reinforce others. Lautaro wanted to attack while the Spanish were still weak, but Mapuche tradition dictated a lengthy celebration followed a victory. He was finally able to lead another battle in February 1554, and was again victorious. Only a handful of Spaniards managed to escape his wrath, and the artillery they left behind fell into Mapuche hands.
Retaliation from the Spanish was swift and brutal. Villages were razed by the Spanish and their indigenous allies, and no lives were spared. Hunger and disease spread. Smaller rebellions by neighboring tribes who were inspired by the recent Mapuche victories were quickly put down. The thorn in the Spanish side still remained, however, in the form of Lautaro.
In 1555, the city of Concepción began its reconstruction following Mapuche attacks; in 1556, Lautaro returned to destroy it for a second time, killing about half of the Spanish colonists. Their forces grew after the Promauces, one of the peoples who had their rebellion squashed, offered supplies and men for a joint attack on Santiago.
The alliance with the Promauces was not entirely successful. Lautaro himself showed no mercy to those that refused his aid, sending indigenous refugees fleeing into Santiago. After he established a base and fought off a siege from the Spanish, he was forced to retreat in the face of a second wave of attack. More of his men were lost crossing the Maule River.
Spanish captain Juan Godiñez punished the Promauces who had helped Lautaro. Reinforcements led by Pedro de Villagra advanced towards Caupolican’s army, and Lautaro decided to head to the relatively undefended Santiago. However, the consequences of Lautaro’s previous actions soon caught up to him.
Members of a local tribe abused by Lautaro revealed his plan to Villagra, who sent word to Godiñez. Lautaro was ambushed and killed, and his army was destroyed and dispersed. The execution of Caupolican followed not long after.
The Spaniards figured this would be the knockout blow in their efforts to subjugate the Mapuche, but the tribe was not so easily deterred. Decades of skirmishes and brief campaigns followed, until 1598’s Battle of Curalaba, a decisive Mapuche ambush that killed the Chilean governor. This brought about a wave of Mapuche uprisings, known as the Destruction of the Seven Cities, over the course of a years-long conflict.
After another major rebellion in 1655, the Spanish decided to go for a slightly more diplomatic approach, in which Mapuche chiefs were admitted to parliaments. The odd rebellion here and there still reared its head over the years, yet the bloodiest years of the Arauco War had passed.
That’s not to say the Arauco War is entirely over, however. The modern-day Mapuche conflict sprouted in the 1990s after Chile threw off authoritarian rule and transitioned to democracy. Carried on by the descendents of the Mapuche, the movement is inspired by the centuries-long resistance of their ancestors and the ultimate goal of achieving freedom and independence for indigenous people.
Conflicts still arise over the recovery of ancestral lands and the issue of modern-day oppression, with Mapuche activists protesting against the violence their communities have faced. Even public figures like the pope have called for a peace now nearly 500 years in the making, but the Mapuche people’s fight for independence seems to transcend generations.