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    The Galapagos Islands and Ecuador are home to incredible wildlife, such as the famous Galapagos Turtle and the lesser known, but more common Red Rock or Sally Lightfoot crab (pictured). Begin Your Journey!

  • Chile!

    Chile: Torres del Paine National Park. Go Now!

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History of Uruguay

It's not known when the first people arrived to the region of Uruguay, but the Charrua people arrived in about 2000 BC (they were not the first settlers). The Charrua were the people present in the region when the Spanish arrived, but relations quickly moved from bad to worse so little is known about these people or any other indigenous people in the region.

The Charrua had no hesitation in fighting and killing early Spanish explorers and the Spanish responded by killing nearly every Charrua in the region. Of the few survivors, most of them or their descendants have married the Spanish and today there are likely no full blooded Charrua left. So their lives and culture remain a mystery, although their spirit and fight lives on as the people of Uruguay today call themselves Charruas and this is viewed positively as a warrior who never quits.

The first European settlers arrived in the region of Uruguay in 1516, but little effort was made to colonize the region at the time. The local people fought the arrival of the Spanish and Portuguese, while these Europeans saw little economic value in the region as it lacked gold, silver, and other natural materials.

The Europeans primarily left the region and the people alone until the early 1600s when the Spanish introduced cattle ranching. Due to the wide open fields and grasslands, the Spanish found the lands to be ideal for cattle ranching so settlers began to slowly arrive. These new settlers created a culture similar to rural Spain as many aspects were brought from Spain, such as the language, religion (Catholicism), and food. On the other hand, many aspects of Spanish urban life were absent, such as organized government on a local level.

At this same time the political sphere was changing as Uruguay found itself on the border of Spanish and Portuguese claims and hence this rural region became a hotly contested land. The Spanish began settlements in the early 1600s, leading to the construction of Portuguese forts in the late 1600s. These moves by the Portuguese only encouraged Spain to more aggressively settle the lands to prevent the spread of Brazil.

The growth in political presence also led to an improved economic state in Uruguay. In the early 1700s the Spanish built the city of Montevideo as a military fort, but the natural port instead turned the city into a thriving economic hub. This relatively increased the wealth in the country as the cattle ranchers gained a more structured and efficient distribution system.

By the early 1800s Uruguay found itself in an ideal situation to seek independence. Spain was taken over by France and had lost all control over the country and their colonies, giving Uruguay, and all the other Spanish colonies, a perfect opportunity to seek independence. Uruguay, led by Jose Gervasio Artigas, quickly defeated the Spanish in 1811 and declared independence as the country of Rio de la Plata in 1814; a country that also included the current lands that make up Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, and parts of Bolivia.

As Spanish colony after Spanish colony in South America claimed independence, Portugal felt threaten their colony of Brazil would also seek independence. Instead of solidifying their borders, they took action to guarantee that thoughts of independence didn't spread to Brazil. Portuguese Brazil attacked and took over Uruguay in 1817, ending all resistance in 1821 when Uruguay was annexed by Brazil.

The Brazilians had much influence in the region prior to this as numerous Portuguese had called the region home, especially near the Brazilian border. This invasion and take over (although brief) led to greater Brazilian and Portuguese influence in Uruguay. However the political state only lasted briefly as in 1825 the Uruguayans, with help from the Argentines began to re-claim Uruguay. This war, the Cisplatine War, ended in 1828 with an Uruguayan victory and complete independence.

With independence came a number of issues, the most noticeable and emotional of which was the large cultural divide between the rural and urban life. The rural ranchers and farmers had dominated the culture for some time, but with the growth of Montevideo beginning in the early 1700s and expanding in the early 1800s, the country had a huge urban population by 1830. The wealthy city-dwellers tended to make a living off of trade and other business. Although both sides needed each other, their differences in culture divided the people in the political realm.

These tensions eventually led to a civil war, known as the "Great War" in 1839 between two political parties that roughly represented these two groups. Both groups turned to foreign help as the urban party gained the favor of France and Argentine exiles, while the rural party gained the support of the ruling Argentine government. As the war escalated and Montevideo was under siege, more international involvement arrived as the British, French, and Brazilians all got further involved in the battle to protect their trade interests. Eventually these foreign powers forced the rural party and their allied Argentine government to surrender in 1852.

This led to many changes in the country and in the laws of Uruguay. The rural people lost many things they favored, first among them being slavery. The ranchers and farmers depended on this labor, but with it being outlawed they lost much of their income and the country' economy as a whole suffered. This change also gave these former slaves freedom, allowing them to move throughout the country and hence altering the landscape.

The freeing of slaves in Uruguay didn't have as much of an impact as it did in many other South American countries since the number of slaves in Uruguay was relatively small. Despite this, the people brought Uruguay new influences from Africa, such as arts, foods, dance, often called tambo or tango, and music, which is commonly known as candombe.

Although much of the African influence has lasted, many of the people have not. Conflicts continued between the political parties in Uruguay into the 1860s and often times the soldiers in these battles were ethnic Africans. Between these wars and a yellow fever outbreak in the 1800s, few ethnic Africans survived and today Uruguay has relatively few ethnic Africans.

In 1864 the government was overthrown, again with foreign assistance. This led to a war between Paraguay on one side and Uruguay, Brazil, and Argentina on the other. Although the Uruguayan side won, most of the people were not happy with the war and the head of both parties were murdered at war's end; in 1870 both sides agreed to peace, although numerous uprisings and attempted revolutions continued.

In the late 1800s Uruguay also became an immigrant destination as a huge number of people arrived from Spain and Italy, along with other countries. During this time over half of the country's population consisted of first generation immigrants. These immigrants changed the country in many ways as they brought new technology and knowledge with them. These immigrants built up the economy in both the business arena through cooperation and technology, as well as in the rural lands as new healthcare and education gave the herders and farmers greater success rates in animal husbandry.

These immigrants didn't just improve the economy though; they also introduced new cultural aspects to the country, especially Montevideo, which is where most of these people settled. The language, dress, and food were all altered and even today Italian influences and foods can easily be found in the capital.

As these immigrants changed the landscape, so too did the technology they brought with them, most of which arose from the Industrial Revolution. The urban centers began growing in Uruguay as machines took the place of most people. This led to worsening working conditions and as the cities grew so too did the number of diseases (although on relative terms, Uruguay was in very good shape). This led to massive social changes in the country in the early 1900s; laws were created to protect workers, while healthcare and infrastructure were also improved.

The early 1900s were also a time when the people's focus began to slowly shift from work to more leisurely activities. The economic state guaranteed the people had enough money to survive so they began to spend money on "wants" instead of just on "needs." Sports, entertainment, and other forms of enjoyment became more common and in 1930 Uruguay actually hosted and won the first World Cup.

Despite the improving state of living, this was also a time of war and uncertainty on the world stage and this chaos made its way to Uruguay in many ways. Although not directly involved in World War II, Uruguay had many German immigrants on its soil so they resisted choosing sides until 1942 when they broke diplomatic relations with Germany.

After the war, as much of the world was improving economically, Uruguay was struggling. Their agricultural-based economy was outpaced by other countries and civil unrest arose in the country. Violence escalated throughout the region and soon the government seemed to have lost control over the state of affairs. This led to a military junta in 1973, which led to a dictatorship that lasted until 1985.

The dictatorship further hurt the economy, so when an elected government was installed in 1985, the first order of business was to help the economy recover, which has come with mixed results. Many people also wanted trials for the past military rulers, who were viewed as having done numerous wrongs, but it seems few want the potential struggles and battles that may arise from those trials, beginning with the government. Despite the struggles economically and politically, Uruguay seems to be moving forward in all spheres, although slower than many citizens would like.

This page was last updated: February, 2013