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The Once and Virtual King

Deborah Scoblionkov Email09.28.98

Most of the indigenous Mapuche Indians live in poverty herding sheep, goats, and cattle on their ancestral lands in the Andes. Few have electricity. Fewer have ever seen, let alone used, a computer. And fewer still have ever heard of King Orelie-Antoine I, who briefly ruled Araucania and Patagonia, the kingdom of their ancestors.

Now the 19th-century monarch is emerging from obscurity as the focus of online study, discussion, and debate. Plugged-in historians are fascinated by the tale, while a hardy band of latter-day monarchists extol his brief, if quirky, reign.

By the mid-19th century, the fierce Mapuche were the only indigenous South Americans left unconquered by the Spanish conquistadors. Orelie-Antoine de Tounens was a Frenchman, a lawyer from Dordogne who was inspired by the Mapuche struggle. He traveled to South America, where he befriended their leaders. In 1860, the Kingdom of Araucania and Patagonia was created and Orelie-Antoine, who must have made some pretty influential friends, was elected king by parliamentary vote.

A year later, Orelie-Antoine was kidnapped by Chilean forces, declared insane, and deported to France. Three times he mounted expeditions to try and regain his throne, and three times he failed. He died a pauper in France in 1878, and his kingdom was eventually absorbed by Chile and Argentina.

In the annals of royalty, Orelie-Antoine is something of an enigma. Was he a madman or a noble freedom fighter? A usurper or a legitimate monarch?

Scholars and civilians have been debating these questions in online newsgroups (, soc.culture.chile and soc.culture.argentina) for a few years now. In 1995, Dan Morrison, a writer and PhD candidate in philosophy, founded the North American Araucanian Royalist Society (NAARS) to create a forum for scholarly discussion of Orelie-Antoine.

Morrison credits the Internet with popularizing his pet project. "In the cyber universe, there is the illusion that Araucania is equal to other royalist causes," he says. "That works on our behalf and helps make this story more well-known in the English-speaking world.

"In cyberspace, geographical separation doesn't count, so an organization that focuses on an arcane interest can flourish," says Morrison. The downside is that on the Internet, it's hard to distinguish between what is real and unreal. Many people think Araucania is an Internet fantasy."

More than 10,000 people around the world have visited the site to learn more about this odd monarch, according to Morrison. At least 280 of them, from 17 countries, have seen fit to become dues-paying members of the society. They're overwhelmingly professional males, academics, and either French- or Spanish-speaking. Most share an interest in history and geography; a few are diehard monarchists, who zero in on Orelie-Antoine's royal connection.

"The Web site provides an introduction to Araucania," Morrison says. "So, the inquiries I receive are generally more advanced. Occasionally I get crackpot questions, like 'How can I become a citizen of Araucania?'"

The story of the eccentric French adventurer who traveled to South America in the 1800s to be declared king of the Mapuche nation might have been lost in the mists of time, had not Morrison come across a reference to the kingdom in a 19th-century travel book.

"In some circles, the King of Araucania and Patagonia is considered a joke," Morrison says. "But at the time that Orelie-Antoine was in Mapuche territory, it was an independent sovereign with a parliament of Mapuche chieftains who elected him to be their king. I consider that a legitimate exercise of their sovereignty."

Curious, Morrison searched for more information and eventually tracked down a living heir to the throne, Prince Philippe d'Araucania.

Morrison has twice traveled to France to meet with the prince in exile. Ten years later, he formed NAARS and created the Web site to exchange information with people who share an interest in the obscure kingdom. NAARS also publishes a quarterly journal of scholarly research on the subject, called The Steel Crown.

Morrison has no illusions that the monarchy will ever be restored. His purpose is merely to increase awareness of the Mapuche (more than 1 million Mapuche live on land that is now part of either Chile or Argentina) and to keep alive the memory of their lost kingdom. In gratitude for his service, Prince Philippe awarded Morrison several commemorative medals and decorations from the Kingdom of Araucania.

Every year, NAARS holds a memorial dinner to honor King Orelie-Antoine. This year's event, held last weekend in New York City, was attended by two dozen members and curiosity seekers. A screenwriter also turned up, hoping to bring the story of Orelie-Antoine to film. It also attracted the attention of the Monarchist League, an organization that supports the cause of monarchism throughout the world.

"I honestly have to say that the story of Orelie-Antoine is very moving," comments Stephen Stephanau, a real estate attorney, who describes himself as one of the most active members of the New York chapter of the Monarchist League. "It's particularly interesting because the Americas don't have a monarchist tradition."

Morrison acknowledges the irony that the Mapuche remain, for the most part, oblivious to his efforts. "There are very few Mapuche on the Web," Morrison admits. "They're largely an illiterate people living in the Andes mountains who still travel in ox-driven carts. "The only Mapuche who've contacted us are educated exiles, living primarily in Europe, who have access to the Internet. Yet, resurrecting this part of Mapuche history can only help their struggle against oppression."


North American Araucanian Royalist Society