Conquest and colonial rule

The end of the Inca Empire was signalled by the landing of Francisco Pizarro in Peru in 1532. The imperial capital, Cuzco, fell in 1535 and soon afterwards the Spanish began the conquest of Bolivia. Diego de Almagro travelled south with an army of Spanish and native forces through Bolivia to the Chilean coast and in 1542 the entire area was annexed as the Audencia of Charcas of the Viceroyalty of Peru.

During the Spanish colonization, towns were founded and grew rapidly. In 1538 La Plata, now Sucre, was founded and, in 1559 became capital of the Audiencia de Charcas (it is still the official capital of Bolivia). Another administrative centre, La Paz, was founded in 1548. In the eastern lowlands the colonization process was rather different. Like the Incas before them, the Spaniards experienced enormous difficulties in conquering the native peoples of this region. Apart from a number of Jesuit mission settlements , the Spanish presence here remained limited to the town of Santa Cruz.

At first the Spanish left the existing socio-economic structure more or less intact. They also adopted the system of compulsory labour (
) which the Incas had imposed, though much more forcefully. Spanish colonial rule was always motivated by greed and over time became more and more aggressive. The barter economy and communal working of the land were replaced by a society based on the extraction and exportation of wealth through the ownership of haciendas (large estates) and mining.

Bolivia's destiny was shaped in 1545 with the discovery of silver at Cerro Rico (Rich Mountain) in Potosí . Charcas became one of the most important centres of the Spanish colonial economy, sending a constant supply of silver to Spain. The mining town of Potosí grew rapidly and by 1610 had a population of over 160,000, making it for a long time, by far the largest city in Latin America. Potosí's opulent extravagance became legendary and for decades a favourite Spanish description for untold wealth was 'vale un Potosí' (worth a Potosí).

Together with precious metals from smaller mining centres such as Oruro, silver from Cerro Rico was crucial to the maintenance of the Spanish empire and financed their wars in Europe. Many hundreds of thousands of local indigenous people were forced to work in the mines, in the workshops of the crown mint or on the haciendas.

The Spaniards regarded the local peoples as inferior and cared little for their welfare. The suppression of indigenous culture went as far as making it compulsory to wear Spanish-style dress. According to popular belief this is the origin of many of Bolivia's distinctive hats and the
skirts . The mortality rate among the indigenous people was high, because of appalling working conditions in the mines and the arrival of European infectious diseases, against which they had little resistance. By the mid-17th century the indigenous population had been almost halved.

During the 18th century many of Potosí's rich silver veins became exhausted and the colony of Alto Perú (as Bolivia was known) lost much of its influence.

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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