Before the arrival of European settlers, southern Chile was the home of the Mapuche, a people known for their fighting ability. The Incas of Peru dominated much of the north.

 The first European to reach Chile was the Portuguese navigator, Ferdinand Magellan, in 1520. Thirty years later, the Spaniards, who had conquered Peru, began to establish settlements in Chile. The colonists took up farming and forced the indigenous people to work for them. The Mapuche Indians resisted Spanish conquest but gradually the Spanish established themselves as settlers.

Chile declared independence from Spain in 1810. It took more than 15 years of struggle until Spain recognized its independence. In 1818 Bernardo O'Higgins became Chile's first leader. He tried to reduce the power of the landowners and the Catholic Church.

 Chile fought and won the War of the Pacific from 1879 to 1883 against Peru and Bolivia and gained control of the copper and nitrate deposits of the Atacama Desert. The earnings from exporting nitrates (which are used to make explosives and fertilizer) fuelled the country's economic growth.


Chile was neutral in the First World War and the country's economy boomed because of the demand for nitrates. A period of instability and mass unemployment followed the war because Germany started exporting synthetic nitrates and the Chilean nitrate industry collapsed. During the Second World War, Chile once again supplied nitrates, copper and other wartime materials.

 In 1970, Salvador Allende was elected President, the first Marxist to head a government in the Western hemisphere. He began a series of economic and social reforms that included placing many industries and some banks under government control. He tried to carry out land reform and to improve the lot of the poor.

Military leaders overthrew the Allende government in 1973 and formed a junta (military government) led by General Augusto Pinochet. Although many Chileans supported Pinochet, Chileans who publicly opposed the junta were imprisoned or exiled. Thousands disappeared, never to be heard from again.

 Pinochet privatized state-owned industries, imposed wage and labour controls and increased exports of fruit, forestry and sea products. Although Chile's economy grew under the junta, the gap between the rich and poor increased. 

In 1988 Chileans voted Pinochet out of office in a plebiscite. In 1989, a civilian president and a two-house legislature were voted into power. Eduardo Frei Ruz Tagle took over the presidency in 1993.