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First settled by the Mapuche people about 10,000 years ago, the people of central and southern Chile successfully fended off the invading forces of the Inca Empire that swept the continent in the 16th century, holding them back at the Battle of the Maule and ending their conquest at the Maule River. European settlers arrived soon thereafter and engaged in a gradual conquest of the Incas’ land, though they too faced heavy resistance from the indigenous population. Successful revolts by these indigenous people led to abolition of slavery there by the Spanish crown in 1683, and gradually drove the southern border of the Spanish-controlled territory further and further north. That territory—known by then as Chile—was defined by the borders imposed by the mountains, the desert, the sea and the territories controlled by the enemies of the Mapuche and Spain.
Chile’s drive toward independence began in 1808 with the usurpation of the Spanish throne by Napoleon’s brother Joseph. A national junta was formed in 1810 that proclaimed Chile an autonomous republic within the Spanish monarchy, and a movement for total independence soon gathered strength. Warfare continued until 1817, and an independent republic was declared in 1818, with its capital in Santiago. The final decades of the 19th century saw the Republic of Chile expand its borders through a war with Bolivia to the north and through the suppression of the indigenous people to the south. A civil war in 1891 resulted in Chile’s adoption of parliamentary-style democracy.
In the 20th century, Chile underwent alternating periods of stability and turmoil and saw its government and overtaken by Marxists and overthrown by military coups. By the end of the 1980s, Chile had begun to move toward a free market economy and its government began to allow its citizens greater measures of social, economic, and political freedom. (In 2006, Chile elected its first woman president, Michelle Bachelet Jeria.)
Today, with its combination of a thoroughly modernized economy and rich agricultural resources, Chile is one of the most stable and wealthy nations in South America.
A third of Chile's 16 million people reside in and around Santiago, which rests at the confluence of the Mapocho and Maipu rivers, surrounded on all sides by Andean peaks. To be sure, it's a breathtaking setting for a capital that has witnessed a remarkable history, from its settlement by the Incas, Arucanians, and Spanish conquistadors (in 1541), to the Marxist, military and, finally, democratic governments of the 20th century.