A Short History of Uruguay – Part 1


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.Myself By T.V. Antony Raj

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While researching for a forthcoming series of articles on the Tupamaros, the urban guerrillas of Uruguay, I gathered many interesting extraneous materials about Uruguay, in South America. Here is my attempt at composing a short history of the formative years of that nation.

Map of uruguay
Map of present-day Uruguay

Uruguay, officially the Oriental Republic of Uruguay (Spanish: República Oriental del Uruguay), is a country in the southeastern region of South America. It is bordered by Argentina to its west and Brazil to its north and east, with the Atlantic Ocean to the south and southeast.

With an area of about 176,000 square kilometers (68,000 sq. miles), Uruguay is geographically the second-smallest nation in South America after Suriname.  As of July 2013, Uruguay is home to an estimated 3.3 million people of whom 1.8 million live in the metropolitan area of its capital and largest city, Montevideo.

When compared with other Latin American countries, no significant vestiges of civilizations existed in the regions of contemporary Uruguay before the arrival of European settlers. Fossilized remnants dating back 10,000 years have been found in the north of the country, belonging to the Catalan and Cuareim cultures. They were probably hunters and gatherers. More people arrived in the region 4,000 years ago belonging the Charrúa, a small tribe driven south by the Guaraní of Paraguay and the Tupí-Guaraní indigenous to regions in Brazil. Other, lesser indigenous groups in Uruguay included the Yaro, Chaná, and Bohane.

In the early sixteenth century, Spanish seamen were searching for the strait that linked the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans. In 1516, Juan Díaz de Solís, a 16th century navigator and explorer, navigating in the name of Spain, inadvertently entered the Río de la Plata and discovered the region. The Charrúa Indians attacked the ship as soon as it arrived and killed everyone in the party except for one boy, rescued a decade later by Sebastian Cabot, an Englishman in the service of Spain.

In 1520, Ferdinand Magellan, a Portuguese captain, cast anchor in a bay of the Río de la Plata at the site that would become Montevideo.

In 1535, Don Pedro de Mendoza y Luján (c. 1487 – June 23, 1537), a Spanish conquistador, soldier and explorer, sailed up the Río de la Plata and founded Buenos Aires on February 2, 1536 as Ciudad de Nuestra Señora Santa María del Buen Ayre (literally “City of Our Lady Saint Mary of the Fair Winds”) after Our Lady of Bonaria, Patroness Saint of Sardinia.

Mendoza founded a settlement in what is today the San Telmo district of Buenos Aires, south of the city center.

Other expeditions reconnoitered the territory and its rivers.

Early colonizers were disappointed to find no gold or silver in the region. In 1603 Hernando Arias de Saavedra, the first Spanish governor of the Río de la Plata region, discovered the rich, well-irrigated pastures in the area and introduced the first cattle and horses which became a source of wealth in the region – a different kind of wealth. However, English and Portuguese inhabitants of the region, initiated an indiscriminate slaughter of cattle to get leather.

In 1624, the Spanish founded their first permanent settlement at Soriano on the Río Negro. Uruguay then became a zone of contention between the Spanish and the Portuguese empires.

In 1680, the Portuguese, expanded Brazil’s frontier by founding Colonia del Sacramento on the Río de la Plata. Seeking to limit Portugal’s expansion, Spain increased colonization of the region.

About 40 years later, in 1726, the Spanish monarch ordered construction of Fuerte de San José, a military fort at present-day Montevideo and founded San Felipe de Montevideo on this site making it the port and station of the Spanish fleet in the South Atlantic. The new settlement included families from Buenos Aires and the Canary Islands to whom the Spanish crown distributed plots and farms and later large haciendas in the interior. Authorities were appointed, and a cabildo (town council) was formed.

Montevideo is on a bay with a natural harbor suitable for large oceangoing vessels. This geographic advantage over Buenos Aires soon developed Montevideo into an important commercial center when salted beef began to be used to feed ship crews. This became the base of the future rivalry between the two cities. In 1776, establishment of the Viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata with Buenos Aires as its capital aggravated this rivalry. Montevideo was authorized to trade directly with Spain instead of through Buenos Aires.

With the introduction of the slave trade to the southern part of the continent, Montevideo became a major commercial port of entry for slaves. Between the mid-eighteenth and the early nineteenth century, thousands of slaves were brought into Uruguay. Since livestock raising, the major economic activity in the region, was not labour intensive and the requirements of labour met by steadily increasing immigrants coming from Europe, the use for slaves in Uruguay itself was relatively low.

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

The Battle for Buenos Aires

Map of the Río de la Plata, between Argentina and Uruguay in South America.
Map of the Río de la Plata, between Argentina and Uruguay in South America.

In the mid 1770s, the British government had an idea of spawning a presence in ‘Hispanic America’ in the resource-rich region of the Río de la Plata for commercial benefits. They envisaged to weaken the Spanish empire by their presence in the region, and  prevent any French plans to do the same. High-level officials in London identified Buenos Aires as a strategic site to control the Río de la Plata estuary. With prevailing consensus at that time, the British thought the local populace would welcome British rule over the Spanish crown.

Next  A Short History of Uruguay – Part 2

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