Uruguay FROM PRE-COLUMBIAN TIMES TO THE CONQUEST
Source: The Library of Congress Country Studies
Two gauchos in Tachuarembó Department
In contrast to most Latin American countries, no significant vestiges of civilizations existing prior to the arrival of European settlers were found in the territory of present-day Uruguay. Lithic remains dating back 10,000 years have been found in the north of the country. They belonged to the Catalan and Cuareim cultures, whose members were presumably hunters and gatherers.
Other peoples arrived in the region 4,000 years ago. They belonged to two groups, the Charrúa and the Tupí-Guaraní, classified according to the linguistic family to which they belonged. Neither group evolved past the middle or upper Paleolithic level, which is characterized by an economy based on hunting, fishing, and gathering. Other, lesser indigenous groups in Uruguay included the Yaro, Chaná, and Bohane. Presumably, the Chaná reached lower Neolithic levels with agriculture and ceramics.
In the early sixteenth century, Spanish seamen searched for the strait linking the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans. Juan Díaz de Solís entered the Río de la Plata by mistake in 1516 and thus discovered the region. Charrúa Indians allegedly attacked the ship as soon as it arrived and killed everyone in the party except for one boy (who was rescued a dozen years later by Sebastian Cabot, an Englishman in the service of Spain). Although historians currently believe that Díaz de Solís was actually killed by the Guaraní, the "Charrúa legend" has survived, and Uruguay has found in it a mythical past of bravery and rebellion in the face of oppression. The fierce Charrúa would plague the Spanish settlers for the next 300 years.
In 1520 the Portuguese captain Ferdinand Magellan cast anchor in a bay of the Río de la Plata at the site that would become Montevideo. Other expeditions reconnoitered the territory and its rivers. It was not until 1603 that Hernando Arias de Saavedra, the first Spanish governor of the Río de la Plata region, discovered the rich pastures and introduced the first cattle and horses. Early colonizers were disappointed to find no gold or silver, but well-irrigated pastures in the area contributed to the quick reproduction of cattle--a different kind of wealth. English and Portuguese inhabitants of the region, however, initiated an indiscriminate slaughter of cattle to obtain leather.
During the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, the Charrúas learned the art of horsemanship from the Spaniards in adjacent areas, strengthening their ability to resist subjugation. The Indians were eventually subdued by the large influx of Argentines and Brazilians pursuing the herds of cattle and horses. Never exceeding 10,000 in number in eighteenthcentury Uruguay, the Indians also lacked any economic significance to the Europeans because they usually did not produce for trade. As a result of genocide, imported disease, and even intermarriage, the number of Indians rapidly diminished, and by 1850 the pureblooded Indian had virtually ceased to exist.
In 1680 the Portuguese, seeking to expand Brazil's frontier, founded Colonia del Sacramento on the Río de la Plata, across from Buenos Aires. Forty years later, the Spanish monarch ordered the construction of Fuerte de San José, 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 settlement 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.
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 Río de la Plata in 1776, with Buenos Aires as its capital, aggravated this rivalry (see fig. 2). Montevideo was authorized to trade directly with Spain instead of through Buenos Aires.
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.
In late 1806, Britain, at war with Spain, invaded the Río 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 Elío, 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 Elío's junta in Buenos Aires; the authorities in Montevideo wanted to retain a nominal allegiance to the Spanish king.
Data as of December 1990
NOTE: The information regarding Uruguay on this page is re-published from The Library of Congress Country Studies. No claims are made regarding the accuracy of Uruguay FROM PRE-COLUMBIAN TIMES TO THE CONQUEST information contained here. All suggestions for corrections of any errors about Uruguay FROM PRE-COLUMBIAN TIMES TO THE CONQUEST should be addressed to the Library of Congress.