Chilean hero hides in Israeli forest

In the JNF's Eshtaol Forest near Beit Shemesh is a recreation area in honor of Bernardo O'Higgins, the first leader of independent Chile.

Jerusalem forest 88 (photo credit: )
Jerusalem forest 88
(photo credit: )
Tucked away in the JNF's Eshtaol Forest near Beit Shemesh is a recreation area of picnic tables and playgrounds in honor of Bernardo O'Higgins, the illegitimate son of an Irish engineer and a Chilean aristocrat. For those Chilean ex-pats in Israel who celebrate their former country's Independence Day in September, the O'Higgins recreation area would be the most natural place to honor the colorful character who became the first leader of independent Chile, and whose image is engraved on the face of a giant coin embedded in a rock at the Eshtaol site. The red haired Irish-Chilean Bernardo O'Higgins was born August 1778 in Chillan, Chile. Ambrose O'Higgins, his engineer father was in the service of the Spanish crown and originated from County Sligo in Ireland, while his mother Isabel Riquelme hailed from an illustrious family of Spanish aristocrats. O'Higgins, who refused to marry Isabel, eventually became Governor of Chile and further down the line of his success, viceroy of Peru. Although Bernardo remained with his mother and had little connection with his father, Ambrose O'Higgins contributed financially toward his son's upkeep and education, which was undertaken in Peru and Richmond, London. There is a statue in O'Higgins honor on the banks of the River Thames in Richmond and a blue heritage plaque on the outer wall of Clarence House (the official residence of The Prince of Wales, his second wife, the Duchess of Cornwall, and his sons William and Harry) a short walk from the river where he lived during his student days. From Britain, where he became involved in revolutionary political thinking with regard to the South Americas, O'Higgins moved to Spain and befriended Jose de San Martin who was to become the liberator of Argentina. He inherited his father's estates and became a gentleman farmer for a period, but was also involved in public life. Eventually, he used his inheritance to form two cavalry companies from among the workers on his estates to fight against royalists in 1813. O'Higgins's call to "Live with honor or die with glory - he who is brave, follow me," lives on in Chilean history much in the same way as the last words of Israeli hero Yosef Trumpledor, "It is noble to die for our country." Eventually the nationalists were defeated and O'Higgins found refuge in Argentina, later to return to Chile and become the first leader of independent Chile ruling for six years, but was eventually exiled to Peru where he died in l842. Twenty-seven years later his remains were reburied in a national monument in Chile. On a recent visit to London and having had my curiosity about O'Higgins aroused through the JNF park memorial, I decided to look up the Chilean revolutionary's statue in Richmond. I first popped into the Town Hall information office to find out where it was. The two young ladies behind the counter had no idea who he was or where his statue could be found. After an hour of walking up and down the river bank and asking locals if they knew where I could find the Bernardo O'Higgins statue, I sat down for a well deserved coffee in a riverside caf garden. I just happened to glance behind where I was sitting and spotted a rather large statue at the top of some steps. On closer inspection, lo and behold - there was Mr. O'Higgins on a large white pedestal. As I stood by Clarence House about to take a photograph of the blue heritage plaque, a car stopped a few yards away and two gentlemen alighted with cameras in their hands. "Why are you taking photographs of that sign?" asked the 30-something rather aggressively, in a heavy South American accent. I told him that I am a journalist and interested in O'Higgins. He asked me where I am from. When I replied 'Israel,' he became excited and told me that he had visited Tel Aviv and Haifa some years before. When I explained that there was a memorial and recreation area in a forest in Israel in Bernardo O'Higgins name he became even more excited and danced up and down on the spot, in front of the Clarence House one-time abode of the Chilean revolutionary. "I am from Chile and Bernardo O'Higgins is my hero," explained the gentleman, who was in London on business. The Chilean did not know anything about the statue of his hero down by the Thames, and after being pointed in the right direction went off to find it. Upon return to Israel I asked a young Chilean member of my kibbutz if she knew anything about a Bernardo O'Higgins. Her eyes lit up and she looked at me somewhat scornfully. "Of course I do," she snapped back, "he's a Chilean hero." Did she know there was a Jewish National Fund O'Higgins recreation area in the Eshtaol Forest? Now that was another matter.