Colonial rule

Throughout the colonial period the Argentine territories were an outlying part of the
Spanish empire and of minor importance since Spanish colonial settlement and government
was based in Peru, busy exploiting the vast mineral wealth of Potosi in Alto Peru (and
large supplies of forced indigenous labour). Argentine lands offered only sparse population
and little mineral wealth by comparison. Also, the nomadic nature of many indigenous groups made any attempt at control difficult, whereas in Peru, Spanish rule was more readily superimposed on the centralized administration of the defeated Incas.

Buenos Aires failed to become an important port because apart from the fact that the port wasn't deep enough to welcome large ships, from 1543 all the Spanish territories in South America were governed from Lima, the Vice-Regal capital, and trade with Spain
was routed via Lima, Panama and the Caribbean. Buenos Aires trading was prohibited, however, the Paraná delta north of the city near Tigre provided ample opportunity
for smuggling British and Portuguese goods into the city, and it rapidly expanded as a centre for contraband. By 1776 the city's population was 24,000, double the size of any of the cities of the interior. However, the Governorship of Tucumán was more important as a centre, due to the success of the
encomienda
system, in which lands belonging to indigenous peoples were seized and redistributed to Spanish settlers. The idea was that the
encomenderos
in charge would exchange work done for religious education, but in reality the majority of these men were ruthless exploiters of slave labour and offered little
in the way of spiritual enlightenment or even food. In the Valles Cachaquiés the substantial
indigenous population resisted conversion by Jesuit missionaries, and was effectively wiped out when they rose up against the Spanish landowners. Settlers in the northeast of the country also had their conflicts with the indigenous population. The Pampas and Buenos Aires province were dangerous areas for white settlement, since in these lands wild cattle had long been hunted for their hides by Tehuelches and Mapuches. They drove cattle to Chile over the Andes for trade, and their violent armies, or
malones,
clashed regularly with newly arrived settlers. Around the early 18th century, the figure of
the gaucho emerged, nomadic men of mixed
criollo
(early Argentine settlers) and indigenous origin, who roamed free on horseback, living off cattle. Once the Argentine state started to control land boundaries, these characters became emblematic of freedom and romanticized
in important fictional works,
Martín Fierro
and
Don Segundo de los Sombras.
The gaucho is still a much admired figure all over Argentina today, though less wild and certainly no longer an outcast.

Jesuits came to civilize the indigenous population under the protection of the Spanish crown in the late 16th century. They quickly set up missions, which employed the reasonably pliant Guaraní residents of the upper Paraná in highly organized societies, with a militant component, equipped to resist the frequent raids by Portuguese in search
of slaves. The Guaraní were compelled to comply with their educators since this exempted
them from working in the silver mines, and as many as 4000 Guaraní lived in some missions, also producing
yerba mate
and tobacco as successful Jesuit businesses. The Jesuits and their faith were, however, expelled from Argentina by King Charles III of Spain in 1767. The remains of their handsome architecture can be admired in Córdoba city and province, as well as at San Ignacio Mini in Misiones.

Buenos Aires at last gained some considerable power when the new viceroyalty of the River Plate was created in 1776, with the rapidly growing city as head of the large area and now able to trade with Spain and her other ports. However, as the trade of contraband into the city increased, flooding the market with cheaper European-produced goods, conflict increased between those advocating free trade, such as Manuel Belgrano, and those who wanted to retain a monopoly. The population of Buenos Aires increased enormously with the viceroyalty, along with its economy, as
estancias
sprang up to farm and export cattle, instead of rounding up the wild beasts, with great success.

The Wars of Independence

The drive for independence in Argentina was partly a response to events in Europe, where Spain was initially allied to Napoleonic France. In 1806 and 1807 the British, at war with Napoleon and attracted by what they thought were revolutionary tensions in Buenos Aires, made two attempts to seize the city but were defeated. In 1808 Napoleon invaded Spain, deposing King Ferdinand VII, and provoking widespread resistance from Spanish guerrilla armies. Throughout Spanish America the colonial elites debated where their loyalties lay: to Napoleon's brother Joseph, now officially King? To Ferdinand, now in a French prison? To the Viceroy? To the Spanish resistance parliament in Cadiz?

On 25 May 1810, the
cabildo
of Buenos Aires deposed the viceroy and established a junta to govern on behalf of King Ferdinand VII, when the city's people gathered in front of the
cabildo
(which you can still see today) wearing pale blue and white ribbons, soon to become the colours of the Argentine flag. This move provoked resistance in outlying
areas of the viceroyalty, Paraguay, Uruguay and Upper Peru (Bolivia) breaking away from the rule of Buenos Aires. Factional rivalry within the junta between supporters of independence
and their opponents added to the confusion and instability. Six years later, in July 1816, when Buenos Aires was threatened by invasion from Peru and blockaded by a Spanish fleet in the Río de la Plata, a national congress held at Tucumán declared independence. The declaration was given reality by the genius and devotion of José de San Martín, who
boldly marched an Argentine army across the Andes to free Chile, and embarked his forces for Peru, where he captured Lima, the first step towards liberation. San Martín was aided by an extraordinary feat from a local
caudillo
in the north, Martín Miguel de Güemes, whose army of gauchos was later to liberate Salta.
Caudillos
were local warlords who governed
areas far larger, even, than today's provinces, organizing their own armies of local indigenous
groups and gauchos. The
caudillos
did not recognize the Tucumán declaration, but so it was on 9 July 1816 that the United Provinces of the River Plate came into being.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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