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Uruguay - Colonial History

When the Spaniards found the territory of present day Uruguay in 1516, they found only a rolling prairie populated by groups of Indians living in primitive conditions. When confronted by the Spaniards, the Indians fiercely defended their freedom and their independent way of life. Their continued ferocious resistance to Spanish conquest, combined with the absence of gold and silver, discouraged settlement in this region during the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.

Colonization by Spain began to increase when Portugal showed an interest in expanding Brazil's frontiers to the Rio de la Plata Estuary in the late seventeenth century. Indeed, the early history of Uruguay is dominated by the struggle between Spain and Portugal and then between Brazil and Argentina for control of the Banda Oriental (as Uruguay was then known), the eastern side, or bank, so called because the territory lies to the east of the Rio Uruguay, which forms the border with Argentina and flows into the Rio de la Plata.

In 1680 the Portuguese, seeking to expand Brazil's frontier, founded Colonia del Sacramento on the Rio de la Plata, across from Buenos Aires. Forty years later, the Spanish monarch ordered the construction of Fuerte de San Jose, a military fort at present-day Montevideo, to resist this expansion. With the founding of San Felipe de Montevideo at this site in 1726, Montevideo became the port and station of the Spanish fleet in the South Atlantic. The new setdement included families from Buenos Aires and the Canary Islands to whom the Spanish crown distributed plots and farms and subsequently large haciendas in the interior. Authorities were appointed, and a cabildo (town council) was formed.

The conquistadors imported cattle, which were well suited to the region, with its abundant pastureland, temperate climate, and ample water supply. Cattle soon became the main source of wealth and consequently the main attraction of the region, and the territory was opened up by hardy pioneers and gauchos, or cowboys, whose wide-ranging way of life contributed in no small part to the spirit of independence that has long characterized Uruguay. Montevideo was founded by the Spanish in the early eighteenth century as a military stronghold. The Spanish fleet used its natural harbor, which soon developed into a commercial center competing with Buenos Aires, the Argentine capital established on the opposite shore of the Rio de la Plata.

Montevideo was on a bay with a natural harbor suitable for large oceangoing vessels, and this geographic advantage over Buenos Aires was at the base of the future rivalry between the two cities. The establishment of the Viceroyalty of the Rio de la Plata in 1776, with Buenos Aires as its capital, aggravated this rivalry. Montevideo was authorized to trade directly with Spain instead of through Buenos Aires.

It has been claimed that the Uruguayan came originally from the Basque provinces and the Canary Islands, while the Argentino came chiefly from southern Spain, and that the former brought with them, and still retained, a sturdier, less facile, but more dependable, more thoroughgoing character than the latter.

Montevideo's role as a commercial center was bolstered when salted beef began to be used to feed ship crews and later slaves in Cuba. The city's commercial activity was expanded by the introduction of the slave trade to the southern part of the continent because Montevideo was a major port of entry for slaves. Thousands of slaves were brought into Uruguay between the mid-eighteenth and the early nineteenth century, but the number was relatively low because the major economic activity livestock raising was not labor intensive and because labor requirements were met by increasing immigration from Europe.

Throughout the eighteenth century, new settlements were established to consolidate the occupation of the territory, which constituted a natural buffer region separating Spanish from Portuguese possessions. To combat smuggling, protect ranchers, and contain Indians, the Spanish formed a rural patrol force called the Blandengues Corps.

Uruguay has not always been a small country, nor, for that matter, a country at all. In the olden days the Banda Oriental, or "Eastern Bank," of the River, Uruguay was a province of the viceroyalty of Buenos Aires. To-day the official name of the country is "La Republica Oriental del Uruguay," and the people still call themselves "Orientals." When, therefore, one hears or uses that word in South America, it does not mean a Turk or a Hindu, but a citizen of the smallest and most progressive republic on the continent.

In late 1806, Britain, at war with Spain, invaded the Rio de la Plata Estuary to avenge Spain's recapture of Buenos Aires from the British. The 10,000-member British force captured Montevideo in early 1807 and occupied it until that July, when it left and moved against Buenos Aires, where it was soundly defeated.

In 1808 Spanish prestige was weakened when Napoleon invaded Spain and installed his brother Joseph on the throne. The cabildo of Montevideo, however, created an autonomous junta that remained nominally loyal to Ferdinand VII as the king of Spain. Montevideo's military commander, Javier Elio, eventually persuaded the Spanish central junta to accept his control at Montevideo as independent of Buenos Aires. In 1810 criollos (those born in America of Spanish parents) from Buenos Aires took the reins of government in that city and unseated the Spanish viceroy. The population of the Banda Oriental was politically divided. The countryside favored recognizing Elio's junta in Buenos Aires; the authorities in Montevideo wanted to retain a nominal allegiance to the Spanish king.

In 1800 the whole "Eastern Bank" had only forty thousand inhabitants, of whom fifteen thousand lived in Montevideo. When Napoleon overran Spain, the viceroyalty of Buenos Aires revolted, but the Banda Oriental remained loyal, thus opening the first breach between the two parts of the colony.

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Page last modified: 18-05-2017 19:43:32 ZULU