History of Colombia

THE SPANISH CONQUEST

The Pre-Columbian Era

Long before the arrival of the first Spanish explorers, Indian groups had settled in the area of present-day Colombia. The Mesoamericans (Indians originally inhabiting Central America), who arrived in approximately 1200 B.C., introduced the cultivation of corn. They were followed by a second wave of Mesoamericans in 500 B.C. Artifacts from a number of distinct cultures, such as those in the areas around San Agustín (in present-day Huila Department), Tierra Dentro (Cauca Department), and Tumaco (Nariño Department), are believed to date from this period. Between 400 and 300 B.C., the Chibchas traveled from Nicaragua and Honduras and reached Colombia, shortly before the Arawaks arrived from other parts of South America, such as Brazil, Uruguay, and Paraguay. Near the end of the first millennium A.D., the Caribs migrated from the Caribbean islands. These warlike newcomers supplanted the Chibchas in the lowlands and forced them to move to higher elevations.

By the 1500s, the most advanced of the indigenous peoples were the Chibchas, who were divided into two principal tribes: the Muisca, located in the plateaus of Cundinamarca and Boyacá, and the Tairona, who settled along the northern spur of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta (in present-day La Guajira Department). The Muisca were the more prominent of the two groups and based their economy on agriculture, especially the cultivation of corn and potatoes. The Muisca centered their social organization on the cacicazgo, a hereditary form of leadership following matrilineal succession. Two large Muisca confederations existed at the time of the Spanish conquest: Bacatá/Bogotá and Hunsa/Tunja. A chieftain known as a zipa headed Bacatá/Bogotá, whereas a zaque governed Hunsa/Tunja.

The Tairona formed two groups, one in the Caribbean lowlands and the other in the Andean highlands. The lowlands Tairona fished and produced salt, which they traded for cotton cloth and blankets with their counterparts in the highlands. The Tairona of both groups lived in numerous, well-organized towns connected by stone roads.

Exploration and Conquest

The group of Spaniards that first came to the New World consisted of conquistadors, administrators, and Roman Catholic clergy. The adventurous conquistadors were risk-taking entrepreneurs, financing their own expeditions in the expectation of being able to get rich quick. The administrators were appointed by and represented the crown in the colonies and sought to maintain the New World colonies as a source of wealth and prestige for the Spanish Empire. The clergy sought to save the souls of the native Indians, and in the process they acquired land and wealth for the church. The conquistadors, who felt they owed nothing to the crown, often came into conflict with the latter's attempts to centralize and strengthen its authority over the colonies.

In what became present-day Colombia, the conquistadors explored and began to settle the coastal areas. The first explorers to round the coast of the Guajira Peninsula and enter Colombian territory were Alonso de Ojeda in 1499 and Rodrigo de Bastidas in 1500. In 1510 Ojeda founded Santa María la Antigua de Darién (present-day Acandí) on the western side of the Golfo de Urabá. Bastidas established Santa Marta in 1525. In 1533 another explorer, Pedro de Heredia, organized Cartagena after pacifying the Indians in the area. These coastal cities served as havens from Indian attacks and as bases for exploratory expeditions into the interior. In addition, Cartagena linked the colonies with the motherland and became a focal point of intercontinental travel.

Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada, Nikolaus Federmann, and Sebastián de Belalcázar figured prominently in the exploration of the interior. In 1536 Jiménez de Quesada set out in search of a path to Peru. During the course of his journey, he encountered the Muisca in the Sabana de Bogotá and in 1538 founded the city of Santa Fe de Bogotá (present-day Bogotá)--the eventual power center for the colony of New Granada. Federmann explored the eastern plains, crossed the Cordillera Oriental, and arrived at Bogotá in 1539. Traveling northward from Peru, Belalcázar established the cities of Popayán and Santiago de Cali (present-day Cali). Other members of his group traveled northward and founded Cartago and Anserma. In 1539 Belalcázar arrived in Bogotá, where the three conquistadors negotiated the division of the newly explored territory.

The expeditions that these men led provided the basis for the settlement of the highlands interior that played a significant role in the future life of the colony. To an even greater extent than in Peru and New Spain (present-day Mexico), many of the population centers established during the conquest were located in remote intermontane valleys and plateaus. This contributed to New Granada's becoming one of the most isolated of all the colonies of the Spanish Empire in the New World.

Colombia History Contents

SOURCE: Area Handbook of the US Library of Congress