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History of Uruguay

Early History

In contrast to most Latin American countries, no significant vestiges of civilisations 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 characterised 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.

16th Century & Colonisation

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 colonisers 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 16th and early 17th 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 harbour 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. Montevideo was authorized to trade directly with Spain instead of through Buenos Aires.

18th & 19th Centuries

Montevideo's role as a commercial centre 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-18th and the early 19th century, but the number was relatively low because the major economic activity--livestock raising--was not labour intensive and because labour 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.

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