South America: Chapter XIV

(by William Henry Koebel)

The Northern Colonies


It is, to a certain extent, difficult for one familiar with the South America of to-day to realize the New Granada of the Spanish colonial period.


From Guiana westward along the northern coast was an extensive and, for the most part, unexploited stretch of territory, devoid of such arbitrary boundaries as characterize it to-day, and limited only on the north and west by the sea, and on the south by the Portuguese colony of Brazil and the great Spanish territory of Peru. Venezuela, Colombia, and Ecuador, and the sharply defined limits these names represent, are, of course, modern creations, comparatively speaking.

For centuries the landward boundaries of Spanish New Granada remained shadowy, indefinite limits.
There was a Viceroyalty of New Granada, so named from the resemblance between the plains around Bogotá and the Vega of the Moorish capital, and there was a Captain-Generalship of Venezuela.

New Granada was estimated as comprising all the country between 60° and 78° west longitude, and between 6° to 15° north latitude.
In this was included Venezuela, under which name was comprised an extent of territory far less important than is at present the case.


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As has been related, Ximines de Quesada, together with Benalcazar, the Governor of Quito, conquered the district of Bogotá, and founded that city in 1538.
After this followed the banishment of Quesada by the Spanish authorities, his return and his wise rule of the country - over which he was appointed Marshal - from 1551 onwards. Later, after his appointment as Adelantado, he devoted three years of toil and an enormous amount of wealth to the quest of El Dorado.
Three hundred Spaniards, 2,000 Indians, and 1,200 horses set out on this quest; 24 men and 32 horses only returned.

The costly myth of El Dorado, from the earliest days of its conception, was insatiable in the matter of human lives.


Quesada died, like one or two other great figures of medieval times, of leprosy, after having founded the city of Santa Aguda in 1572.

He left behind him a will in which he requested that no extravagant monument should be erected over his grave - a rather superfluous request as it turned out, since he also left debts to the value of 60,000 ducats!
The city of Bogotá holds his remains, which were conveyed to that city after his death.


The value of New Granada in the eyes of Spain lay in its being the chief emerald-producing centre of the world.

The conquistadores of Peru had met with emeralds, and had gathered the impression that the real emerald was as hard as a diamond, a belief which led them to submit all the green gems they found to the test of hammering - with disastrous results to the stones.

The loss occasioned by this procedure was intensified by the fact that for a long while it was found impossible to discover the mine from which the Incas had procured their emeralds.
It was not until the discovery of New Granada that the source was revealed from which the stones had been obtained.


The wealth of the land did not end here.
From Popayan and Choco, provinces of the north-west, "placer" gold was obtainable in fairly large quantities by the simple expedient of washing.

Thus, on the whole, New Granada promised the Spaniards ample supplies of the minerals which they coveted, and which they sought without intermission.

By reason of these things the Spanish Government, ever fearful of undue colonial strength, came to the conclusion that the Viceroyalty of Peru was quite powerful enough and wealthy enough without these newer possessions.


In the year 1718 the limits of the Viceroyalty of New Granada were defined, rendering the tract of land which now forms the republics of Venezuela, Colombia, and Ecuador, quite independent of the Peruvian Viceroyalty; for, notwithstanding the fact that the Peruvian authority had every claim to the retention of the inland province of Quito, that also was assigned to the newer government.

The conquests of Quesada and Benalcazar had established centres of Spanish influence, but they had not gone far towards organizing the control of the country.
Consequently, the establishment of a central authority at Bogotá, independent of all but the Spanish Crown, was a decidedly advantageous move.

As was the case elsewhere in the Continent, one of the chief evils requiring stringent treatment was that of smuggling.
It was said, for instance, that in the early days half the great gold output of the colony was smuggled abroad by way of the Rivers Atrato and Hacha.


The first Viceroy of New Granada caused forts to be erected on these and other streams, with a view to stopping the illegal traffic, and this measure mitigated the evil which nothing - in view of the half-settled state of the country - could quite subdue.

So little under control was the greater part of New Granada, that the good results of establishing a separate Viceroyalty only became apparent slowly.

The conquest of the Chibchas, effected as it was with all the refinements of cruelty familiar to the conquistadores, had added fierce resentment to the natural racial antipathy already existing in the savage tribes of the country, and communication between provinces and towns was difficult in all cases, while in many it was altogether impracticable.

There remained numerous bands of roving savages, fierce and predatory, to render travel unsafe; and though the efforts of the missionaries and others brought gentler ways to some in course of time, the whole of the colonial era was characterized by the presence of utterly fierce and vindictive bodies of aboriginals, while sufficient reprisals were indulged in by the Spaniards to keep alive the flame of hostility.


An island passage on the river Amazon
An island passage on the river Amazon. From the "Narrative of a Journey from Lima to Para, 1836."

There is something in the transportation of the European to tropical climates and the control of an inferior race which, in certain circumstances, appears to loose and to intensify all the most cruel instincts and desires of which humanity is capable.

In reckoning up the racial contests in New Granada, reader and historian alike must give the aboriginal his due.
He was by no means the gentle savage such as he is frequently depicted.

Indeed, many of his native customs were completely brutal.
Nevertheless, it is necessary to debit against the invader numerous excesses and deeds of cruelty directed against the inferior or subject race.

And since popular feeling, which ranges on the side of the oppressed to-day, was undoubtedly on the side of the oppressor during the earlier centuries, there can be little doubt that the ferocity of the Indians of New Granada, and their hesitating acceptance of the missionary's doctrine, were not without excuse.


Although the soil of New Granada offered endless possibilities to the colonists, the cost of transport and the difficulties attendant on this necessary commercial operation rendered agriculture in the interior of little importance as an industry.

Each settlement grew sufficient for its own needs, and no more.
Other factors in the slight use made of the rich soil were the natural indolence and the improvident habits of the people - habits not yet quite eradicated, since at the present day Venezuela, although it possesses some of the richest and best maize-growing lands in the world, still imports maize from the United States.


From the creation of the Viceroyalty onward, attempts were made by the Spanish authorities to make the people industrious and thrifty, but these met with scant success.

The power and character of the aboriginal tribes may be estimated from the fact that, up to the end of the colonial period, Spanish authority in the immense territory of Quito was only exercised over a valley, formed by two spurs of the Andes, which reached some eighty leagues in length, with an average breadth of fifteen leagues.

At the beginning of the eighteenth century a number of towns were established by Catholic missionaries on the Atlantic coast and on the rivers emptying into the Gulf of San Miguel; but the Indians destroyed them all, and remained so little dominated by the white race that a treaty of peace, concluded between Spaniards and native chiefs in 1790, contained a clause by which the Spaniards consented to abandon all their forts in Darien.


Beyond these there were other foes to be feared, quite as grim and even more dangerous.
In 1670 the famous buccaneer, Captain Morgan, destroyed the castle of San Lorenzo at Chagres.

This, of course, was in addition to his feat of capturing and burning the town of Panamá.
Ten years later another party of buccaneers captured the city of Santa Maria, in consequence of which the mines of Cana were closed in 1685.

Towards the end of the seventeenth century William Paterson established a Scottish colony on the Bay of Caledonia, at Puerto Escoces, but the venture scarcely proved a success.
Ill-fate seems to have pursued most of the attempts at settlement in New Granada while the Spanish rule lasted.

Yet the town of Santa Fé de Bogotá flourished, and has continued to flourish to this day, so that no less an authority than Mr. R.B. Cunninghame Graham has described it as the chief literary centre south of Panamá.


The town is set at the foot of the hills, facing a vast plain, and towards the end of the colonial period was represented as a city of 3,250 families - a population of upwards of 16,000.

It was the centre of archiepiscopal authority, with jurisdiction over the Dioceses of Cartagena, Santa Marta, Panamá, Caracas, and Quito.
The route from Bogotá to Europe lay by way of Cartagena, 300 miles distant from the capital.


Next in order of importance was Quito.
The immense province was - and is at the present day - made up for the most part of dense jungle growth, alternating with marshy and desert stretches, with nomadic tribes inhabiting the more open areas.

The city of Quito itself, set in perpetual spring, is considered one of the most beautiful spots in the world, almost its only drawbacks being the tremendous violence of the tropical storms to which it is subject, and occasional earthquake shocks.

The poverty of the mines of Quito freed the Indian inhabitants from mining labour, a form of industry which, under Spanish rule, depopulated so many native centres.
In consequence of this Quito was reputed to be the most thickly populated province of South America.


Various manufactures were pursued, and there were several towns with populations of over 10,000.
The products of the land were exchanged for wine, oil, and other extraneous products, but so inefficient was the colonial administration that in 1790 Quito was one of the poorest of South American cities.

The article of chief value - for rubber had not then come into prominence - was the quinquina, or cinchona bark, at first considered peculiar to the territory of Loxa, but subsequently found to exist at Bogotá, Riobamba, and many other parts of New Granada.

It was first introduced to Europe by the Jesuits in 1639, and after its use had been established at the Spanish Court in 1640, it commanded a price of 100 crowns a pound.


In these circumstances quinquina was, as a matter of course, subject to adulteration and substitution - practices which brought their own reward, since the quinine of Loxa, at one time considered of the highest quality, fell into disrepute when the gatherers in that province mixed with the real article the bark of other trees.

Perpetually increasing demand led to more careful search for supplies, and the New Granada of the colonial era owed almost all its prosperity to the exports of the famed bark, for the output of minerals dwindled almost to vanishing point.

The Captain-Generalship of Venezuela was chiefly noteworthy for the Spanish settlements on the Orinoco, where over 4,000 Spaniards were contained in a dozen or so of villages rather indolently engaged in cattle raising.

Together with tributary Indians, the settlers made up a total population of nearly 17,000, with over 70,000 head of cattle among them.
Their trade was with the Dutch of Curaçoa, who supplied goods in exchange for cattle, hides, and tobacco.


Caracas was then, as it is now, the head-quarters of the colony, which was separated from the Viceroyalty of New Granada in 1731.
Three years previously - in 1728 - some merchants of Guipuscoa obtained exclusive trading rights with Caracas, conditionally on their putting an end to the trade with Curaçao, and landing all cargoes at Cadiz.

So successfully did they fulfil these conditions, and to such an extent did they increase the development of the colony, that it was deemed necessary to separate it from New Granada, and form an entirely new administration.


Potosi, Bolivia.The famous centre of the silver-mining region which supplied the Spanish Empire with bullion for three centuries.
Potosi, Bolivia. From a seventeenth-century engraving.

Yet the climate, or some obscure effect of the mingling and cross-breeding of conquerors and conquered, seems to have paralyzed human effort in these colonies of the northern coast.

The land was something of an earthly paradise, and men were tempted to doze in it rather than to develop its resources.
The cacao of Venezuela takes first place in the markets of the world, and has done so since its initial cultivation there; but not one-tenth of the area available for the growth of the bean has ever been utilized.

Caracas itself, earthquake shaken from time to time, was never - even in the most favourable periods of colonial rule - a flourishing city, but rather a centre of trade for scattered settlements.


The town could claim little literary or educational movement to mark it as the capital of a potentially rich country.

It was concerned, moreover, with scarcely a trace of the social and erudite development that characterized Bogotá almost from the time of its foundation by Quesada. In so far as it had to be, Caracas existed, but there its ambition ended.

Except for some isolated centres, this was true of the whole of New Granada and Venezuela. Under Spanish rule the Viceroyalty and its dependent Captain-Generalship formed a great area into which Spaniards had come to hunt for mineral wealth, and while that wealth was obtainable there was a vast amount of activity.

The aborigines, save for the Chibcha race, numbered among them some of the lowest types on the Continent, and where gold or emeralds or other valuable minerals were to be obtained these unfortunates were pressed into service, or rather into slavery.


When the minerals were exhausted, enterprise ceased.
Sufficient cultivation for material needs - an easy matter in this productive land - was carried on, and in certain districts a definite amount of cacao growing was practised.

For the rest, little was achieved, while farther south development was proceeding along the lines which have brought into being the great republics of to-day.

Then Venezuela gave to South America Simon Bolivar, and the storm of revolution which swept the Continent shook these northern dependencies into transient wakefulness and energy, until the great day of Boyaca dawned, and New Granada and Venezuela, as Spanish colonies, ceased to be.


Fit or unfit as they might have been for self-government at the time, these peoples set out to make histories as independent States, and the Spanish colonial era, having lasted over two and a half centuries, came to an end.



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