Modern Argentina represents an important part of South American, Spanish, and colonial history. It is a large country (the 8th largest in the world) and covers many different biomes, cultures, and geographic locations. In terms of population, it is a sparse country, with the vast majority of the population centered around the capital, Buenos Aires, and its surroundings. As such, much of the history of Argentina has centered around Buenos Aires too.
Argentina’s history can be defined in four distinct phases: the pre-Columbian era, the colonial era, the era of the struggle for independence, and the modern era. The era of colonial Argentina from the early 16th century to the early 18th century forms a significant part of Argentina’s history, intrinsically linked to the formation and conduct of the modern country, as does the early 19th-century struggle for independence.
Spanish Discovery & the Beginnings of Colonial Argentina
Europeans first visited the area of Argentina in 1502 during the voyages of Amerigo Vespucci. Of primary importance to the region of colonial Argentina was the Río de la Plata, the river that feeds into the estuary that separates Argentina and Uruguay. In 1516, the first European to sail up these waters was Juan Díaz de Solís doing so in the name of Spain. For his efforts, he was killed by the local Charrúa tribe. It was clear to the Spanish that colonization of the area would be a challenge.
The city of Buenos Aires was founded in 1536 as Ciudad de Nuestra Señora Santa María del Buen Ayre, but the settlement only lasted until 1642, when it was abandoned. Native attacks had made the settlement untenable. Thus, colonial Argentina was off to a very bad start.
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After the Spanish conquest of the Incas, governorates were established across the continent. Spanish South America was neatly divided into six horizontal zones. The area encompassing modern-day Argentina lay across four of these zones: Nueva Toledo, Nueva Andalucia, Nueva León, and Terra Australis. In 1542, these divisions were superseded by the Viceroyalty of Peru, which subdivided South America more pragmatically into divisions known as “audencias.” The northern part of colonial Argentina was covered by La Plata de Los Charcas, while the southern part was covered by the Audencia of Chile.
A second, more permanent attempt to colonize the area was conducted in 1580, and Santísima Trinidad was established, with the settlement’s port being named “Puerto de Santa María de Los Buenos Aires.”
From the very beginning, Buenos Aires suffered from a difficult economic position. High rates of piracy meant that, for a port city like Buenos Aires that relied on trade, all trading vessels had to have a military escort. This not only increased the time of transporting goods but significantly drove up the prices of doing business. As a response, an illegal trade network emerged that also included the Portuguese in their colony to the north. Port workers and those who lived by the port, known as porteños, developed a deep distrust of Spanish authority, and a rebel sentiment blossomed within colonial Argentina.
In the 18th century, Charles III of Spain tried to remedy the situation by easing trade restrictions and turning Buenos Aires into an open port, to the detriment of other trade routes. The French Revolution, as well as the American War of Independence, had affected the colonists in Argentina, specifically Buenos Aires. Anti-royalist sentiment continued to grow within the colony.
In 1776, the administrative region covering Buenos Aires and its surroundings was redrawn and became the Viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata. Nevertheless, the city thrived and became one of the biggest cities in the Americas.
In the late 18th century, the Spanish also tried to found settlements along the Patagonian coast in the South, but these settlements experienced harsh conditions, and many were eventually abandoned. A century later, an independent Argentina would clear Patagonia of native settlements, but the region would remain sparsely inhabited till the present day.
The Napoleonic Wars Come to Argentina
Since the beginning of the 18th century, the British had drawn up plans to establish possessions in South America. One plan called for a full-scale invasion of ports on both sides of the continent in a coordinated attack from the Atlantic and the Pacific, but this plan was scrapped. In 1806, Spain and its colonies were under the control of the French Empire of Napoleon Bonaparte. Buenos Aires was thus a target of value for the British Navy, who now had an excuse to try to take the colony.
Having captured the Cape Colony in South Africa from the French-controlled Batavian Republic (Netherlands) at the Battle of Blaauwberg, the British decided to attempt the same action on the Río de la Plata against Spanish assets in colonial Argentina and Uruguay (both part of the Viceroy of the Río de la Plata). With most of the line troops deployed in the north to deal with an indigenous revolt led by Túpac Amaru II, Buenos Aires was poorly defended. The Viceroy was adamant about not arming creoles in the city and thus had few soldiers to defend the city. He also decided that it was more likely that the British would take Montevideo to the north of the Río de la Plata and dispatched his troops there. The British encountered very little resistance, and Buenos Aires fell on June 27.
Less than a month later, the colony led a successful counterattack with Buenos Aires line troops and militia from Montevideo and managed to occupy the entrances to the city to the north and west. Realizing their untenable position, the British surrendered. The following year, however, they would return in greater numbers. The colonial Argentines had little time to prepare.
On January 3, 1807, the British returned with 15,000 men and attacked Montevideo in a joint naval and military action. The city was defended by 5,000 men, and the British had to make short work of capturing the city before Spanish reinforcements could arrive from Buenos Aires. The fighting was fierce, with both sides taking around 600 casualties, but the Spanish were quickly forced to surrender the city to the British invaders.
Santiago de Linier, a French officer in Spanish service, organized the defense of Buenos Aires. He had also been instrumental in defeating the British the previous year. The British met stiff resistance from the local militia, which included 686 enslaved Africans. Unprepared for the style of urban warfare that awaited them, the British fell prey to pots of boiling oil and water thrown from windows, as well as other projectiles thrown by the local inhabitants. Eventually overwhelmed and suffering severe casualties, the British surrendered.
The Road to Independence & Modern Argentina
With very little help from their colonial masters in Spain, the Argentines (United Provinces) were buoyed by their victories against their British foes. Revolutionary sentiment rose to new levels, and militias were formed as the people of colonial Argentina realized the power of their own agency.
From 1810 to 1818, the Argentines were locked in a war for freedom against their colonial masters, but there were also civil conflicts about how the state should be run after independence was achieved. The rebels were not simply fighting against Spain but also the Viceroyalties of the Río de la Plata and Peru. This meant that the revolutionaries were not operating on a single front but had to expand the revolution through conflict in many areas in South America.
Although the early campaigns of 1810 and 1811 were a failure for the Patriots against the Royalists, their actions inspired Paraguay to declare independence, adding another thorn in the side of Royalist efforts. In 1811, the Spanish Royalists suffered setbacks too, suffering defeat at Las Piedras, being defeated by the Uruguayan Revolutionaries. The Royalists, however, still held the Uruguayan capital of Montevideo.
A renewed offensive against the Royalists in the northwest of Argentina began in 1812 under the command of General Manuel Belgrano. He turned to scorched-earth tactics to deny the Royalists any means of resupply. In September 1812, he defeated a Royalist army at Tucumán and then achieved a decisive victory against the Royalists at the Battle of Salta in February the following year. The Argentine Patriots, however, were unhappy with their leadership, and in October 1812, a coup deposed the government and installed a new triumvirate more committed to the cause of independence.
One of the government’s first tasks was to build a naval fleet from scratch. An improvised fleet was built, which later engaged the Spanish fleet, and against all odds, won a decisive victory. This victory secured Buenos Aires for the Argentine Patriots and allowed the Uruguayan Revolutionaries to finally capture the city of Montevideo.
In 1815, the Argentines tried to press their advantage and, without proper preparation, launched an offensive against the Spanish-held north. With little discipline, the Patriots suffered two defeats and effectively lost their northern territories. The Spanish could not, however, capitalize on this and were prevented from occupying these territories by guerilla resistance.
In 1817, the Argentines decided on a new tactic to defeat the Spanish Royalists in the north. An army was raised and dubbed “The Army of the Andes” and was tasked with attacking the Viceroyalty of Peru via the territory of Chile. After winning a victory against Royalist forces at the Battle of Chacabuco, The Army of the Andes took Santiago. As a result, Chile declared independence with Supreme Director Bernardo O’ Higgins at the helm.
The new nation of Chile then took the lead in suppressing the threat from the Viceroyalty of Peru. On April 5, 1818, the Royalists suffered a crushing defeat at the Battle of Maipú, effectively ending all serious threats from the Viceroyalty of Peru. Small, sporadic battles happened along the border until December 1824, when the Army of the Andes finally crushed the Royalists at the Battle of Ayacucho and ended the threat to Argentinian and Chilean independence once and for all.
The successful emergence of colonial Argentina as an independent nation was not the end of difficulties for the people of the former Spanish colony. Decades of civil wars followed that involved many breakaway countries, as well as other nations such as Brazil, France, and Britain. Relative stability was gained in 1853 with the ratifying of the Argentine Constitution, but low-intensity skirmishes continued until 1880 with the federalization of Buenos Aires. Despite this, Argentina would continue to grow in strength with waves of immigration from Europe.
By 1880, the borders of Argentina were relatively the same as they are today. It is the eighth largest country in the world, and throughout the 19th century would rise in prominence, playing important parts in the history of South America and the entire world.