At the start of 1808, the Captaincy General of Chile – one of the smallest and poorest colonies in the Spanish Empire – was under the administration of Luis Muñoz de Guzmán, an able, respected and well-liked Royal Governor. In May 1808 the overthrow of Charles IV and Ferdinand VII, their replacement by Joseph Bonaparte and the start of the Peninsular War plunged the empire into a state of agitation. In the meantime, Chile was facing its own internal political problems. Governor Guzmán had suddenly died in February of that year and the crown had not been able to appoint a new governor before the invasion. After a brief interim regency by
Juan Rodríguez Ballesteros, and according to the succession law in place at the time, the position was laid claim to and assumed by the most senior military commander, who happened to be Brigadier Francisco García Carrasco.
García Carrasco took over the post of Governor of Chile in April and in August the news of the Napoleonic invasion of Spain and of the conformation of a Supreme Central Junta to govern the Empire in the absence of a legitimate king reached the country. In the meantime, Charlotte Joaquina, sister of Ferdinand and wife of the King of Portugal, who was living in Brazil, also made attempts to obtain the administration of the Spanish dominions in Latin America. Since her father and brother were being held prisoners in France, she regarded herself as the heiress of her captured family. Allegedly among her plan was to send armies to occupy Buenos Aires and northern Argentina and to style herself as Queen of La Plata.
Brigadier García Carrasco was a man of crude and authoritarian manners, who managed in a very short time to alienate the criollo elites under his command. Already in Chile, as in most of Latin America, there had been some independence agitation but minimal and concentrated in the very ineffectual Conspiracy of the Tres Antonios back in 1781. The majority of the people were fervent royalists but were divided into two groups: those who favored the status quo and the divine right of Ferdinand VII (known as absolutists) and those who wanted to proclaim Charlotte Joaquina as Queen (known as carlotists). A third group was composed of those who proposed the replacement of the Spanish authorities with a local junta of notable citizens, which would conform a provisional government to rule in the absence of the king and an independent Spain (known as juntistas).
In 1809, Governor García Carrasco himself was implicated in a flagrant case of corruption (the Scorpion scandal) that managed to destroy whatever remnants of moral authority he or his office had left. From that moment on the pressure for his removal began to build. In June 1810 news arrived from Buenos Aires that Napoleon Bonaparte's forces had conquered Andalusia and laid siege to Cádiz, the last redoubt against the French on Spanish soil. Moreover, the Supreme Central Junta, which had governed the Empire for the past two years, had abolished itself in favor of a Regency Council. García Carrasco, who was a supporter of the carlotist group, managed to magnify the political problems by taking arbitrary and harsh measures, such as the arrest and deportation to Lima without due process of well-known and socially prominent citizens under simple suspicions of having been sympathetic to the junta idea. Among those arrested were
José Antonio de Rojas,
Juan Antonio Ovalle and
Bernardo de Vera y Pintado.
Inspired by the May Revolution in Argentina, the autonomy movement had also propagated through the criollo elite. They resented the illegal arrests and, together with the news that Cádiz was all that was left of a free Spain, finally solidified in their opposition to the Governor. Brigadier García Carrasco was suspended from office and forced to resign on July 16, 1810, to be in turn replaced by the next most senior soldier, Mateo de Toro Zambrano Count of la Conquista, even though a legitimate Governor, Francisco Javier de Elío, had already been appointed by the Viceroy of Peru.
Count Toro Zambrano was, by all standards, a very unorthodox selection. He was a very old man already (82 years old at the time) and moreover a "criollo" (someone born in the colonies) as opposed to a "peninsular" (someone born in Spain). Immediately after his appointment in July, the juntistas began to lobby him in order to obtain the formation of a junta. In August the Royal Appeals Court (Spanish: Real Audiencia) took a public loyalty oath to the Regency Council in front of a massive audience, which put added pressure on the Governor to define himself. After vacillating for some time over which party to follow, Toro Zambrano finally agreed to hold an open Cabildo (city hall) meeting in Santiago to discuss the issue. The date was set for September 18, 1810 at 11 AM.