Colombia was inhabited by various indigenous groups before the Spanish conquest. The most highly developed were the
, who had settlements along the Atlantic coast and on the slopes of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. The Tayronas had a complex social organization, with an economy based on fishing, agriculture and commerce. They built paved roads, aqueducts, stone stairways and public plazas for ceremonies.

Another major group were the
, a Chibcha-speaking people who dominated the central highlands of Colombia at the time of the conquest. Muisca and Chibcha can be considered the same language. Philologists identify the 'Chibchan' language to refer to a series of dialects extending from Nicaragua in Central America to Ecuador, almost all of which have now disappeared. Carbon dating places their earliest settlements at around BC 545. Their village confederation was ruled by the
at Bogotá, and the
at Hunza (now Tunja). The Zipas believed that they were descended from the Moon, and the Zaques from the Sun. Their livelihood came from trading at markets in corn, potatoes and beans. They were also accomplished goldsmiths, and traded emeralds, ceramics and textiles with other societies.

had their chiefdoms in the present-day Department of Córdoba and parts of Antioquia and Sucre. They farmed yucca and maize on artificial mounds in the local marshlands with complex drainage systems to make the best use of high and low water levels. They also cultivated reeds used for textiles and basket-weaving, as well as working with gold. Much wealth was plundered from their tombs, known as 'guacas', by the Spaniards during the conquest.

inhabited parts of the Valle del Cauca. They had a class system, and a society similar to that of the Muisca and Tayronas, except that some evidence suggests they practised ritual cannibalism.

' is a term used to classify the other indigenous groups living in the department of Valle del Cauca. They include the
(based near present-day Cali) and the
(based in the Cordillera Occidental). They were organized into small chiefdoms with economies based on fishing, hunting, beans, yucca and corn. They traded in gold, salt, textiles and slaves. Two other significant groups prospered in San Agustín and Tierradentro, in what is now the south of Colombia. Both left fascinating monuments but they had disappeared well before the conquest.

Spanish colonization

The first permanent settlement in Colombia was established in 1500-1507 by
Rodrigo de Bastidas
(1460-1526). He reached the country by sailing south along the Caribbean coast. After his return to Spain to face trial for insubordination, he was given permission to establish a colony. In 1525 he founded Santa Marta and named the river Magdalena. Cartagena was founded in 1533 by
Pedro de Heredia
and used as a central stockpile for the growing Spanish collection of treasure. Massive fortifications were built to protect it from pirate attacks. Santa Fe de Bogotá was founded by
Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada
(1499-1579) in 1538. He arrived in Santa Marta in 1535 and continued up to the Sabana de Bogotá with his men: 200 made the trip by boat, 670 by land.
Sebastián de Belalcázar
(1495-1551), the lieutenant of Francisco Pizarro, was given instructions to explore southern Colombia and the Cauca Valley in 1535. He founded Cali and Popayán in 1536, and was made governor of Popayán in 1540.
Nicolás Federmann
(1506-1541), acting on behalf of the Welser financiers of Germany, led an expedition east to Coro and Cape Vela, then back to Barquisimeto and Meta. He arrived in the Sabana de Bogotá in 1538, where he met Belalcázar and Jiménez de Quesada.

Jiménez de Quesada named the territory he had conquered Nuevo Reino de Granada, because it reminded him of Granada in Spain. Santa Fe de Bogotá was named after the city of Santa Fe in Granada. The first secular government to be established after the conquest was the Audencia de Santa Fe de Bogotá, in 1550. After 1594, it shared ruling authority with the president of the New Kingdom of New Granada, the name given to the whole conquered area, which included Panama. The presidency was replaced in 1718 by a viceroyalty at Bogotá, which also controlled the provinces now known as Venezuela; it was independent of the viceroyalty of Peru, to which this vast area had previously been subiect.

Independence from Spain

In 1793, a translation of the Rights of Man was published in Colombia by
Antonio Nariño
(1765-1823), an administrator and journalist, known as 'el Precursor' for his important role in the independence movement. He was imprisoned in Spain in 1794, but escaped and returned to Nueva Granada (as Colombia was then called) in 1797. He joined the patriot forces in 1810 and became president of Cundinamarca in 1812. He led a military campaign in the south in 1813, and was again imprisoned by the Spanish. Meanwhile
Simón Bolívar
(1783-1830) was leading a campaign for Venezuelan independence. Following the collapse of the First Republic of Venezuela in 1812, he joined the independence movement in Cartagena and had early successes in his 1812 Magdalena Campaign, which ended in Caracas, where the Second Republic was proclaimed. Again, the patriots lost control and Bolívar returned to Colombia, but was forced to flee to the West Indies when
General Pablo Morillo
launched the Spanish re-conquest.

Changes in Europe were also to affect the situation in Colombia. In 1808, Napoleon replaced Ferdinand VII of Spain with his own brother Joseph. The New World refused to recognize this, and several revolts erupted in Nueva Granada, culminating in a revolt at Bogotá and the establishment of a junta on 20 July 1810. Cartagena also bound itself to a junta set up at Tunja.

Simón Bolívar returned to the Llanos in 1816 and formed a new army. Their campaign for liberation involved a forced march over the Andes, in the face of incredible difficulties. After joining forces with
Francisco de Paulo Santander
's Nueva Granada army, he defeated the royalists at the Battle of the Pantano de Vargas in July, winning the decisive victory at the Battle of Boyacá on 7 August. From 1819 to 1828 Bolívar was president of Gran Colombia, the new name for the union of Colombia, Venezuela, Panama and Ecuador, which lasted until the 1830s.

After the fall of Napoleon in 1815, the Spanish set about trying to reconquer the independent territories. The main Spanish general behind the task was Pablo Morillo (1778-1837), known as 'the Pacifier'. During his reign of terror (1816-1819), more than 300 patriot supporters were executed. Morillo set up the 'Consejo de Guerra Permanente' and the 'Consejo de Purificación'. The latter's aim was to punish crimes of treason. There was also a board of confiscations known as the 'Junta de Secuestros'. Morillo was linked to the re-establishment of the Inquisition, which saw many priests tried in military courts in South America.

The Spaniards left behind a considerable legacy in Colombia. Their main objective was to amass riches, notably gold, and ship them back to Spain. Protecting what they had collected from their English, French and Dutch rivals led to the massive fortifications of their main port, Cartagena. Most of what they built is still intact and has to be seen to be appreciated. However, they also brought with them culture and lifestyle, and some of their best colonial public and domestic architecture can be found in Colombia. They left their language and their religion and many institutions, including universities, continue to thrive today. The towns they planned and built are now being preserved. What they did not leave, however, were political institutions, and the search for a durable formula continues, 200 years after the Spaniards left.

Gran Colombia

La República de Gran Colombia was established by the revolutionary congress at present- day Ciudad Bolívar (Venezuela) on 17 December 1819. A general congress was held at Cúcuta on 1 January 1821, and it was here that the two opposing views that later sowed such dissent in Colombia first became apparent. Bolívar and Nariño were in favour of centralization; Santander, a realist, wanted a federation of sovereign states. Bolívar succeeded in enforcing his view and the 1821 constitution was drawn up, dividing Gran Colombia into 12 departments and 26 provinces. New laws were introduced to abolish the slave trade and allow free birth for the children of slaves born in Colombia, to redistribute indigenous lands and to abolish the Inquisition. This constitution lasted until 1830 when, following the breakaway of Venezuela and Ecuador, a new constitution was drawn up.

The next president after Bolívar was Francisco de Santander, from 1832 to 1837. Formerly the vice-president, he led a campaign of dissent against the alleged dictatorship of Bolívar, culminating in an assassination attempt on Bolívar on 25 September 1828. Santander went into exile but was later recalled for the presidency. His played an important role in establishing the administrative structure of the new republic of Colombia, and went on to become leader of congressional opposition from 1837 to 1840.

Colombia's civil wars

The new country was the scene of much dissent between the centralizing pro-clerical Conservatives and the federalizing anti-clerical Liberals. The Liberals were dominant from 1849, and the next 30 years saw countless insurrections and civil wars. In 1885 the Conservatives imposed a highly centralized constitution that was not modified over 100 years. Civil war had a disastrous effect on the economy, leading to the Paper Money Crisis of 1885, when Colombian currency suffered a dramatic fall in value and circulation had to be reduced to 12 million pesos in notes. Gold was not established as the standard for currency until 1903.

A Liberal revolt of 1899 against the rigidly partisan government of the Conservatives turned into the 'War of the Thousand Days', also known as 'La Rebelión'. It lasted from 17 October 1899 to 1 June 1903. The first Liberal victory was at Norte de Santander in December 1899, when government forces were defeated by rebel leader General Benjamín Herrera. The Battle of Palonegro, 11-26 May 1900, was won by the government forces, led by General Prospero Pinzón. This proved to be the decisive victory of the 'War of a Thousand Days'. 100,000 people had died before the Liberals were finally defeated.

During the independence wars, Panama remained loyal to Spain. Although it had been a state in Nueva Granada since 1855, it was practically self-governing until 1886, when the new Colombian constitution reduced it to a mere department. A bid for independence in 1903 was supported by the USA. The revolution lasted only four days (3-6 November), and by 18 November, the USA had signed a treaty allowing them to build the Panama Canal.

The authoritarian government of General
Rafael Reyes
(1850-1921), from 1904 to 1909, was known as the Quinquenio dictatorship. He created his own extra-legal national assembly in 1904. His territorial reorganization and his negotiations with the USA over Panama increased his unpopularity, leading to an assassination attempt in 1906. The new president from 1910 to 1914,
Carlos Eugenio Restrepo
(1867-1937), restored a legal form of government and began negotiations with the USA for the Urrutia-Thomson Treaty of 1914. This resulted in a US$25 million indemnity payment to Colombia over US involvement in the Panamanian revolution.

Colomobia was also engaged in a dispute with its southern neigherbour, Peru, over Leticia, capital of the Comissariat of Amazonas. Peru had repudiated the Lozano-Salomon Treaty of 1922 by occupying Leticia, a part of Colombia according to the treaty. The dispute was submitted to the League of Nations in 1933, who took over the Leticia area and handed it back to Colombia in 1934.

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