History of Colombia


Colonial society relied on "purity of blood" as a basis for stratification. The elites at the top of the social pyramid were peninsulares, persons of Spanish descent born in Spain. Peninsulares held political power and social prestige in the society. Below them were the criollos, those of Spanish descent born in the colonies. This group had limited access to the higher circles of power and status. For generations the criollos accepted a position of inferiority to the peninsulares, but in the late eighteenth century their acquiescence was transformed into a resentment that ultimately led to their fight for independence. Next in importance and the most numerous were the mestizos, persons of mixed Spanish and Indian descent who were free but relegated to positions of low prestige. Most Indians gradually became absorbed linguistically or lost their identity through mixture with other peoples; by the late 1980s, Indians constituted only 1 percent of the Colombian population. Black African slaves and zambos, persons of mixed African and Indian descent, were at the bottom of the social scale and were important only as a source of labor.

Colonial Administration

The administrative structure paralleled the social pyramid in that peninsulares appointed by the crown generally controlled the higher jurisdictional levels, and criollos could compete only for the lower posts. Two councils in Spain presided over the colonies. The House of Trade (Casa de Contratación) controlled all overseas trade. The Supreme Council of the Indies (Consejo Supremo de las Indias) centralized the administration of the colonies and had legislative, executive, and judicial functions. As the king delegated increasingly more authority to this council, it effectively became the ruler of the colonies.

The viceroyalty, headed by a viceroy, was the highest authority in the colonies. The next level of jurisdiction was the audiencia, a regional court consisting of various judges and a president. The Real Audiencia de Santa Fe, which presided over present-day Colombia, was instituted in 1550. The audiencia had jurisdiction over the governorships, which in turn controlled the cities. Governors, appointed by the crown, had administrative and judicial functions and, in areas considered dangerous, military duties. Cities, the lowest jurisdictional level, were run by city councils, or cabildos. Cabildos initially were elected by popular vote, but later seats were sold by the crown, and positions on the council thus lost their democratic character. Despite their low position on the administrative pyramid, cabildos had the greatest impact on the day-to-day lives of citizens in the local municipalities.

The cabildos became the first effective agency of civil government, regularizing the processes of government and tempering the authority of the governor, even though their membership was composed of his subordinates. They included a varying number of magistrates or aldermen, depending on the size of the community, and two mayors. The mayors on the cabildo were elected annually and initially acted as judges in courts of first instance with criminal and civil jurisdiction. Appeals from their decisions could be taken to the local governor or to a person functioning as his deputy and finally to the royal court of jurisdiction. During times of crisis, the town citizens of importance might be invited to sit with the cabildo in what was called the open council. By increasing criollo participation in government, the open council contributed to the movement leading to the war for independence.

The royal courts in the colonies, unlike their counterparts in Spain, performed administrative and political as well as judicial functions. The courts were empowered to limit the arbitrary use of power by the viceroy or any subordinate official in the New World. Major courts existed in the higher jurisdictions, such as the viceroyalty; subordinate courts existed at lesser administrative levels. Under the Supreme Council of the Indies, the viceroys, as the direct representatives of the sovereign, exercised royal authority in all civil and military affairs, in the secular aspects of church affairs, and in the supervision of the administration of justice. Subject to the overall supervision of peninsular authorities, the executive officers also exercised a degree of legislative power.

Two additional governmental practices designed to oversee the colonial authorities were the residencia (public judicial inquiry) and the visita (secret investigation). The residencia was performed at the end of an official's term of office by a judge who went to the chief seat of the jurisdiction of the official in question to hear anyone who wished to make charges or to offer testimony concerning the official's performance in office. The visita could take place at any time without warning during an official's tenure

The Colonial Economy

The Spanish system encompassing the audiencia was extractive and exploitative, relying heavily on cheap native labor. Domestic industry was constrained during the colonial period because the audiencia was bound to Spain as part of a mercantile system. Under this arrangement, the colony functioned as the source of primary materials and the consumer of manufactured goods, a trade pattern that tended to enrich the metropolitan power at the expense of the colony.

Because Spaniards came to the New World in search of quick riches in the form of precious metals and jewels, mining for these items became the pillar of the economy for much of the colonial period. Indeed, the extraction of precious metals--such as gold and copper--in the American colonies formed the basis of the crown's economy.

Spain monopolized trade with the colonies. The crown limited authorization for intercontinental trade to Veracruz (in presentday Mexico), Nombre de Dios (in present-day Panama), and Cartagena. Direct trade with other colonies was prohibited; as a result, items from one colony had to be sent to Spain for reshipment to another colony. The crown also established the routes of transport and the number of ships allowed to trade in the colonies. Merchants involved in intercontinental trade had to be Spanish nationals. Finally, the crown circumscribed the type of merchandise that could be traded. The colony could export to Spain only precious metals, gold in particular, and some agricultural products. In return, Spain exported to the colonies most of the agricultural and manufactured goods that the colonies needed for survival. Domestic products supplemented these items only to a minor degree.

Agriculture, which was limited in the 1500s to providing subsistence for colonial settlements and immediate consumption for workers in the mines, became a dynamic enterprise in the 1600s and replaced mining as the core of the Colombian economy by the 1700s. By the end of the 1700s, sugar and tobacco had become important export commodities. The growth in agriculture resulted in part from the increasing exhaustion of mineral and metal resources in the seventeenth century, which caused the crown to reorient its economic policy to stimulate the agricultural sector.

As commercial agriculture became the foundation of the Colombian economy, two dominant forms of agricultural landholdings emerged--the encomienda and the hacienda. These landholdings were distinguishable by the manner in which the landholders obtained labor. The encomienda was a grant of the right to receive the tribute of Indians within a certain boundary. In contrast, the hacienda functioned through a contract arrangement involving the owner--the hacendado--and Indian laborers. Under a typical arrangement, Indians tilled the land a specified number of days per week or per year in exchange for small plots of land.

The encomendero, or recipient of the encomienda, extended privileges to de facto control of the land designated in his grant. In effect, the encomendero was a deputy charged by the crown with responsibility for the support of the Indians and their moral and religious welfare. Assuming that the land and its inhabitants were entirely at its disposal, the monarchy envisioned the encomiendas as a means of administering humane and constructive policies of the government of Spain and protecting the welfare of the Indians. The encomenderos, however, sought to employ the Indians for their own purposes and to maintain their land as hereditary property to be held in perpetuity. Most encomenderos were private adventurers rather than agents of the empire. The remoteness of the encomiendas from the center of government made it possible for the encomenderos to do as they pleased.

Under the influence of church figures such as Bartolomé de las Casas, the crown promulgated the New Laws in 1542 for the administration of the Spanish Empire in America. Designed to remove the abuses connected with encomiendas and to improve the general treatment of Indians, the laws called for strict enforcement of the existing regulations and freedom for the enslaved Indians, who were placed in the category of free subjects of the crown. They further provided that encomiendas would be forfeited if the Indians concerned were mistreated; that the tribute paid by Indians being instructed in religion should be fixed and in no case required in the form of personal service; and that public officials, congregations, hospitals, and monasteries could not hold encomiendas. Additional provisions-- especially resented by the encomenderos--prohibited the employment of Indians in the mines, prevented encomenderos from requiring Indians to carry heavy loads, forbade the granting of any future encomiendas, ordered a reduction in size of existing encomiendas, and terminated the rights of wives and children to inherit encomiendas.

Encomenderos opposed the royal government's attempts to enforce these regulations. A formula was adopted according to which the laws would be "obeyed but not executed." The encomenderos also had the opportunity to send representatives to Spain to seek modifications of the laws-- modifications that the crown eventually granted. The tensions between the royal authority and the colonists in the new empire were never entirely removed.

The institution of the hacienda with its associated mita (ancient tribute) system of labor began in the late sixteenth century. After 1590 the crown started to grant titles of landownership to colonists who paid the crown for the land and reserved the right to use Indian labor on their haciendas. Under an agrarian reform in 1592, the crown established resguardos, or reservations, for the Indians to provide for their subsistence; the resulting concentration of Indians freed up land to be sold to hacendados. The purchase of land as private real estate from the crown led to the development of latifundios.

The new hacendados soon came into conflict with the encomenderos because of the ability of the latter to monopolize Indian labor. The Spanish authorities instituted the mita to resolve this conflict. After 1595 the crown obliged resguardo Indians to contract themselves to neighboring hacendados for a maximum of fifteen days per year. The mitayos (Indians contracted to work) also were contracted for labor as miners in Antioquia, as navigational aides on the Río Magdalena, and as industrial workers in a few rare cases. Although the mitayos were considered free because they were paid a nominal salary, the landowners and other employers overworked them to such an extent that many became seriously ill or died.

Because the mitayos could not survive their working conditions, the crown sought an alternate source of cheap labor through the African slave trade. The crown sold licenses to individuals allowing them to import slaves, primarily through the port at Cartagena. Although the crown initially restricted licenses to Spanish merchants, it eventually opened up the slave trade to foreigners as demand outstripped supply. The mining industry was the first to rely on black slaves, who by the seventeenth century had replaced mitayos in the mines. The mining industry continued to depend on slave labor into the eighteenth century. Despite the decline of the mining industry, slavery remained the key form of labor; from the second half of the seventeenth century through the eighteenth century, plantation-style agriculture rose in prominence and raised the demand for slave labor on sugar plantations and ranches. Minor segments of the economy also supported slavery and used slaves as artisans, domestic servants, and navigational aides.

Slaves had no legal rights in the colonial system. The crown enacted laws to separate the slaves from the Indians so that the two groups would not join against the Spanish and criollo ruling classes. Slaves, however, often revolted against their subhuman living conditions, and many escaped to form palenques (towns) high in the mountains where they could maintain their African customs. These palenques separated themselves from colonial society and thus were among the first towns in Spanish America to be free of Spanish authority. The palenque movement was strongest in the eighteenth century. At this time, there was a crisis in the institution of slavery as it existed in the Spanish colonies. By the end of the 1700s, the high price of slaves along with increasing antislavery sentiment in the colony caused many to view the system as anachronistic; nonetheless, it was not abolished until after independence was achieved.

The Colonial Church

The Roman Catholic Church served as both agent and opponent of the colonial government. The church desired a system, supported by the state, within which it might proselytize; at the same time, it opposed many of the secular aims of government that appeared to be in conflict with Christian morality. The church acted to restrain secular excesses and despotism, particularly those of the early conquistadors.

From the outset, the clergy became a vital element of colonial life. Missionaries and conquistadors arrived simultaneously in the New World during the late 1400s. From 1520 to 1550, the church began methodical evangelization among the Indians. The Franciscans, Dominicans, Capuchins (members of the Order of Mercy), and later the Jesuits and Augustinians were all important in the country's colonial history. The first two orders arrived in Bogotá with the first judges: the Franciscans established monasteries in Vélez and Cartagena, and the Dominicans established them in Bogotá, Pamplona, and Popayán. In 1534 the church established the dioceses of Santa Marta and Cartagena, and in 1546 it established the diocese of Popayán--the first such dioceses in the New World. The church organized further between 1550 and 1620, creating the diocese of Bogotá in 1562. The Tribunal of the Inquisition, installed in Cartagena in 1611, sought to ensure that African culture did not contaminate Spanish culture in the colonies as a result of the importation of African slaves. The Jesuits, who formally were allowed to enter the colonies in 1604, sought to improve the economic standing of the Indians with whom they worked and established self-sufficient villages for Indians in the eastern plains.

In addition to bringing the Christian religion to the Indians, the church spread the ideas and institutions of Western civilization and had responsibility for establishing and maintaining almost all of the schools of the colonial period. In 1580 a monastery founded the University of General Studies, the first in the territory. The Jesuits established two additional universities in 1622 and 1653.

In its role as the patron of education, the church made an unintended but significant contribution to developing a local spirit of independence among the colonists. Church and state attempted to control the intellectual life of the New World. Throughout the eighteenth century, the church engaged in controversy with the country's leading intellectuals, who were influenced by the political ideas of the Enlightenment in Europe and by the concepts of positivism and empirical scientific investigation. The education system also fostered opposition to Spain's sovereignty over its American empire and provided the groundwork for the intellectuals whose activities the church opposed.

Although the Roman Catholic Church influenced educational and intellectual development in the colonies, the crown ensured its own influence over the colonial church. Several papal bulls in the 1490s and in the first decade of the 1500s strengthened the ability of the Spanish kings to influence church affairs in the New World. In addition, the Holy See granted to the Spanish state the papal rights governing the administration and the personnel of the church and of bishoprics being created in the New World. In addition to common economic interests, this closely bound the church to the state during the colonial period.

Developments Leading to Independence

Throughout the colonial period, events in Spain affected the political, economic, and intellectual state of the colonies. One such event was the ascension of the Bourbons to the Spanish throne in 1700. Upon the death of Charles II--the last in the line of the Spanish Hapsburgs--the Austrian Hapsburgs and Charles's nephew Philip of Anjou, a Bourbon and the grandson of French king Louis XIV as well the designated heir to the Spanish throne, contended for the Spanish throne. The War of the Spanish Succession (1702-14) ended in the triumph of the Bourbons over the Austrians, and the Treaty of Utrecht recognized the Bourbon succession in Spain on the condition that Spain and France would never be united under one crown.

Beginning with Philip of Anjou, now known as King Philip V (reigned 1700-46), the Bourbon kings placed themselves in more direct control of their colonies, reducing the power of the Supreme Council of the Indies and abolishing the House of Trade. In 1717 Philip V established the Viceroyalty of New Granada (present-day Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, and Ecuador), and in 1739 Bogotá became its capital. Other Bourbon kings, particularly Charles III (reigned 1759-88), tried to improve the profitability of the American colonies by removing restrictions that had hindered Spain's economic development in the 1500s and 1600s. Such measures included the liberalization of commerce with the colonies and the establishment of additional authorized ports. In 1774 the crown allowed free exchange among the colonies of Peru, New Spain, New Granada, and Guatemala. These reforms allowed the crown control over the de facto trade among the colonies that previously had been illicit. When Charles III declared war on Britain in 1778, he levied taxes on the colonies to fund the war. These fiscal decrees affected imports and exports, the sale of general items--especially tobacco and alcohol--and the production of silver and gold. The crown demanded tribute from Indians and the church and expected the general population to fund the naval fleet that patrolled the Spanish American coast. Excessive and increasing taxation in the late 1700s contributed to the discontent of the criollos with the Spanish administration, which manifested itself in the Comunero Revolt of 1781, the most serious revolt against Spanish authority before the war for independence. The rebellion was a spontaneous but diffuse movement involving many towns. The most important uprising began among artisans and peasants in Socorro (in presentday Santander Department). The imposition of new taxes by the viceroy stimulated the revolt further.

Almost without exception, the rebels expressed their loyalty to the king and the church while calling for a repeal of new taxes and a modification of government monopolies. The rebels succeeded in getting government representatives to abolish the war tax, taxes for the maintenance of the fleet, customhouse permits, and tobacco and playing-card monopolies; to reduce the tribute paid by the Indians and the taxes on liquor, commercial transactions, and salt; and to give preference to those born in the New World for appointments to certain posts. Later, however, government negotiators declared that they had acted under duress and that the viceroy would not honor the agreements. The leaders of the rebellion were subjected to severe punishments, including death for the more prominent among them. The rebels had not sought independence from Spain, but their revolt against the king's administration and administrators, despite protestations of loyalty to the king himself, was not far removed from a fight for independence. In this light, the rebellion was a prelude to the struggle for freedom.

In the late 1700s, the Enlightenment served as a second major influence in the struggle for independence. After the Comunero Revolt, the outlook of the local upper-class and middle-class criollos changed as the ideas of the Enlightenment strengthened their desire to control their own destiny. This movement criticized the traditional patterns of political, economic, and religious institutions and as such was a threat to both the central state and the religious authorities. The North American and French revolutions also contributed intellectual foundations for a new society, as well as examples of the possibilities for change.

A third major event of the late colonial period that may have led to the struggle for independence was the Napoleonic invasion of the early 1800s. In 1807 Napoleon Bonaparte made his brother Joseph the king of Spain, forcing Charles IV to abdicate and his son Ferdinand VII to renounce the throne. In exile, Ferdinand VII organized royalist supporters under the Central Council Junta Central) of Seville, later called the Council of the Regency (Consejo de Regencia). This council constituted a provisional government for Spain and the colonies.

Both Napoleon and the royalists competed for support of Spain's colonists in the New World. Napoleon wrote a liberal constitution for Spain in which he recognized the colonies as having rights equal to those of Spain. In competition for the colonies' loyalties, the Central Council offered them certain privileges, such as participation in Spanish courts. Colonists, however, were not satisfied with the council's measure because of the larger representation accorded the representatives from Spain. Despite conflict with the peninsulares holding colonial authority in the viceroyalty, additional concessions to criollos to win their support resulted in the creation of a criollo governing council in Bogotá on July 20, 1810. The new local government passed reforms favoring power-sharing by the criollos and peninsulares and loosened the economic restrictions previously placed on the colony. Most of the old Spanish laws remained in effect, however. The establishment of other criollo governing councils laid the basis for the first attempts at independence from Spain.

Colombia History Contents

SOURCE: Area Handbook of the US Library of Congress