South America: Chapter VII

(by William Henry Koebel)

The Colonization of the South

It was natural that after the first occupation of the New World the tendency of the explorers should have been to turn their attention to the south and to the still undiscovered lands.

At the first glimpse the aspect of the Atlantic coast to the south of Brazil gave little promise of the wealth - that is to say, of the gold - sought by the pioneers, since its shores were low, marshy, and alluvial.

In 1515 Juan de Solis sailed to the mouth of the River Plate, and landed on the coast of Uruguay.
His party were immediately attacked by Charrúa Indians, and the bodies of De Solis himself and of a number of his crew were stretched dead on the sands.
This ended the expedition, for the survivors left the place in haste and returned to Spain.

In 1526 Sebastian Cabot explored the River Plate, and, sailing up-stream, investigated the Paraná, and discovered the waters of the Paraguay River itself.
In these inland waterways his fleet was met by that of another pioneer, Diego Garcia.

This latter, doubtless from chivalrous motives, gave the pas to Cabot, and turned the bows of his vessels down-stream.
It was Cabot's intention to establish himself permanently on the shores of this great river system.

Near the present site of the town of Rosario he built the fort of Sancti Spiritus.
Seeing, however, that his appeals to Spain for assistance remained unanswered, he eventually abandoned his attempt. There seems little doubt that he withdrew practically all his forces from the River Plate; but there are legends of some survivors who remained in the district after the main expedition had left.
Some old historians allege that these underwent strange experiences and hardships, but the veracity of such narratives is more than doubtful.

Atahualpa. The last Chief of the Incas.

It was in 1535, the year when Valdivia marched southward from Peru to conquer Chile, that the conquest and actual colonization of the River Plate was first seriously undertaken.

Pedro de Mendoza, a soldier of fortune, ventured on the attempt.
Mendoza's career as a mercenary soldier had proved quite unusually profitable even for those days, and he had acquired a large fortune at the sack of Rome alone.

His purse provided a really formidable expedition.
The voyage to the mouth of the River Plate on this occasion was more productive of incident than was usual, even in those days of adventurous pioneers.

The halts at Teneriffe and at Rio de Janeiro had resulted in some dissensions among Mendoza's men, and the execution by the orders of the Chief of one of his most popular leaders had all but caused open mutiny at the latter place.

Nevertheless, when his forces landed at the site of the present town of Buenos Aires, they constituted a formidable company of men, admirably equipped with everything that the science of the age could devise for the purpose of conquest and colonization, particularly the former.

Having founded his settlement, Mendoza set himself to deal with the Indians and to bring them into subjection.
In a very short while he found out that it was a very different tribe of aborigines with which he had to deal to the peace-loving inhabitants of Peru and the north-west.

The agile, hardy, and fierce Pampa Indians, having once fallen foul of the invaders, allowed them no respite.
Attacked by day and night, deprived of all supplies of food, Mendoza's troops began to suffer from exhaustion and hunger, to say nothing of the wounds inflicted by their enemies.

In the end, the leaders had to admit to themselves that the place was no longer tenable.
Nevertheless, neither Mendoza nor his men had any intention of abandoning permanently these fertile plains through which ran the great rivers.

The scarcity of minerals in these districts had now become sufficiently obvious to them; yet even to men in quest of little beyond gold the extraordinary fertility of the alluvial soil was not altogether lost.

With a courage and pertinacity which does the adventurers every credit, they determined, instead of abandoning the river and putting out to sea, to sail far up-stream into the unknown, and to seek their fortune inland.

Mendoza's expedition first of all established itself for a while on the site of Sancti Spiritus, Cabot's old abandoned fort, which they now rechristened Corpus Christi.

Shortly after their arrival at the place, Mendoza himself, who had doubtless suffered many disillusions concerning the gold and precious stones of these districts, and whose health had given way beneath the stress of the hardships and of the numerous precarious situations in which he had found himself, set sail for Spain.

It was to be his fate never to return to his native land, since he died on his way home.

Juan de Ayolas was now left in command of the Spanish force.
He was an able commander, and a man of determined character, eminently fitted to conduct an expedition such as this.

Without hesitation, the new leader purposed to make his way farther up the stream.
He got together the ships once again, and, manning them, he made his way from point to point along the great river system, attacked here and there by the Indians on the banks, and occasionally challenged by flotillas of canoes, which boldly came out to assume the aggressive.

But in every case the lesson taught the Indians was a severe one, and, undeterred by the hostility shown him, Ayolas sailed inland until he came to Asuncion in Paraguay. At this spot the expedition came to a halt, and the weary pioneers landed, and immediately became lost in admiration of the fertile and delightful country in which they now found themselves.

There is no doubt that to the new-comers the country in the neighbourhood of Asuncion, with its pleasant valleys, rolling country, and forest-covered hills, must have come in the shape of a relief after the apparently interminable passage of the plains.
It was the spot at which the pioneer would naturally halt, and endeavour to found his settlement.

The Guaraní Indians extended but a cold welcome to the daring adventurers.
Their temperament was by nature far less warlike than that of the savage and intrepid natives in the regions of the coast.

These Guaraní Indians, nevertheless, made some show of aggression, and would doubtless have been glad to scare away these undesired strangers.

Owing to this, a collision between the two forces occurred; but so crushing was the defeat of the Indians that they resigned themselves submissively to the Spaniards, and henceforth became a vassal tribe, lending assistance to their white masters in both civil and warlike occupations.

Immediately after the victory, the Guaranís were set by the Spanish to assist in the construction of the new town, which was to be the head-quarters of the Imperial power in the south-east of the Continent.

Once definitely settled here, the conquistadores set themselves to extend the frontiers of their dominions, which in the first place were confined to the neighbourhood of the new town of Asuncion itself.

The tribes in the immediate neighbourhood were now more than merely friendly: they were actively servile.
But the case was different with the other native peoples, more especially with the Indians in the Chaco, the wooded and swampy district on the opposite side of the river.

These showed themselves fiercely inimical to the new-comers, and it was seldom that the Spaniards were without a feud of some kind to suffer at their hands.

The new colonists had now time to look about them.
Much had happened since they had first landed on the shores of the River Plate, but the main object of the expedition still remained clear to them.

This was the discovery of a road from the south-east to Peru. Ayolas determined to take up this fascinating quest in person.
Accompanied by a number of men, he sailed up the river until he came to a spot at which he judged that an attempt at the overland journey might well be attempted.

Leaving Domingo Martinez de Irala, his lieutenant, in charge of the ships and of a force of men, Ayolas marched into the forest and disappeared into the unknown.
It was his fate never to return.
His company, ambushed and cut up by a tribe of hostile Indians, perished to a man.

It was months before Irala learned of the catastrophe.
In the belief that his chief was still in the land of the living, he waited with his ships and men at the point where Ayolas had disembarked, varying his vigil from time to time by a cruise down-stream in search of provisions. The news came to him at length, shouted out by hoarse defiant voices from the recesses of the forest on the banks.
For a while the Spaniards would not believe the surly message of death given by the unseen Indians.

In the end, however, its truth could not be doubted, and Irala assumed command of the party.
Returning to Asuncion, he was unanimously appointed Governor by the settlers of the place.

Sugar making
Sugar making. A seventeenth-century representation. From "Historia Antipodum".

The character of Domingo Martinez de Irala was eminently suited to the post he now held.
His courage was high, his determination inflexible, and his energy abundant.

It is true that, in the same manner as his colleagues of the period, he was frequently totally careless of the means employed so long as the end was achieved.
Nevertheless, he was in many respects an ideal leader, and his vigorous personality kept in check both the ambitions of the Spanish cliques and the dissatisfaction of the less friendly Indians.

Irala was destined to undergo many vicissitudes in the course of his Governorship.
Very soon after he had been elected to this post it was his fate to be superseded for a while.Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca, having obtained the appointment in Spain itself, came out by Royal Licence to govern the new province of which Asuncion was the capital.
Cabeza de Vaca was essentially a humanitarian Governor, who proved himself extremely loth to employ coercion and the sword, which means, in fact, he only resorted to with extreme reluctance as a very last resource.

His courage and determination were evidenced by his overland journey; for, instead of sailing up the great river system from the mouth of the River Plate, he brought his expedition overland from Santa Catalina in Brazil, advancing safely through the numerous tribes and difficult country which intervened between the coast and Asuncion.

The temperament of Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca, however, was of too refined and trusting an order to deal with the turbulent and somewhat treacherous elements which abounded at Asuncion.

After a while a revolt occurred, brought about probably by the Governor's objection to the wholesale plundering and enslavement of the Indians by the Spaniards.
The populace turned strongly against the Governor.
Cabeza de Vaca was flung into prison, and sent a prisoner to Spain, after which drastic procedure Irala was once again elected Governor by the colonists.

Doubtless Cabeza de Vaca possesses the chief claim to sympathy of all those who had to do with Paraguay at this early period of its existence; yet at the same time it is impossible to refrain from admiration of the sheer determination and willpower with which Irala pursued his career.

For years Irala's position remained utterly precarious.
He was the chosen of the colonists, but not of the Court of Spain, which alone possessed any legal right to appoint a person to so high an office as his. No exalted personages were more jealous of their privileges than these.
Several times Irala was on the point of losing his Governorship, but on each occasion the measures he adopted, aided by good fortune, tided him over the crisis, and left him continuing in the seat of authority.

In the end, after undergoing innumerable anxieties, Irala at last succeeded in obtaining the Royal Licence for the Governorship of Paraguay.

All the while his energy continued undiminished, and it was due to him that the colonization of the country made such rapid strides. The means by which this end was effected were, from the modern point of view, entirely dubious, for it was Irala who instituted in Paraguay encomiendas, or slave settlements, into which the natives of the country were congregated in order that their labour might be employed in agriculture and similar occupations. This, however, was the ordinary procedure of the period, and, as historians have already pointed out, Irala's faults, although serious enough, were really nothing beyond those of his age.

In any case, his name stands as that of one of the most powerful of the conquistadores.
During the later years of his office a comparatively undisturbed era obtained, and he held the reins of the Paraguayan Government with a firm hand till his death, which occurred at the age of seventy-one.

On Irala's death, it was only natural that those elements of discord and jealousy which his strong personality had kept in check should break out, and cause no little confusion and strife.
For a while the Governorship of Paraguay was sought by many, and the conflicting claims led to numerous disputes, and even occasional armed collisions.

One of the most notable of the Governors who succeeded Irala was Juan de Garay.
It was this conquistador who was responsible for the second and permanent founding of the city of Buenos Aires.

Garay was a far-seeing man, who, having established a number of urban centres inland, saw clearly the importance of a settlement at which vessels from Europe could touch on their first arrival at the Continent.

So the stream of white men, having been in the first instance swept by the force of circumstances rather than its own desire from the coast in a north-westerly direction, began now to roll back towards the coast once again, without, however, yielding up any of the territories which it had occupied in the interior.

In 1580 Juan de Garay determined that the supreme effort should be made.
He led an expedition down the stream, and on the spot where Pedro de Mendoza had founded his first ill-fated settlement he built the pioneer structures of the second town of Buenos Aires.

The wisdom of this move was evident to all, provided the place were able to withstand the attacks of the surrounding Indians.
In this the garrison succeeded, and Buenos Aires, having now taken firm root, began the first slow growth of its development, which eventually made of it the greatest city in South America.

In the meantime much had been effected towards the colonization of the land to the west of the Andes.
As has been related, Almagro's unfortunate expedition returned, dejected and diminished in numbers, from the apparently inhospitable soil in the south.

This disaster lent to Chile an unenviable but entirely undeserved notoriety.
Pedro de Valdivia was the next to venture into these regions.

Valdivia naturally enjoyed several advantages over his predecessor, for he knew now, by the other's experiences, the dangers and perils against which he had to guard. In consequence of this his expedition met with considerably more success than had been anticipated.

Marching southward across the great Atacama Desert, he penetrated to the fertile regions of the land, and founded the town of Santiago.

All this was not effected without encountering the hostility of the local Indians, and the inhabitants of the new town carried their lives in their hands for a considerable while after the foundation of the city.

Perhaps, indeed, no pioneers experienced greater hardships than did those of Chile.
For the first few years of its existence every member of the new colony became accustomed to live in an unceasing condition of short rations, and it was on very poorly furnished stomachs that the garrison was obliged to meet and to repel the attacks of the natives.

In the end, however, the seeds which had been brought by the adventurers took root and grew.
Provisions became fairly abundant, and the settlements in the neighbourhood of Santiago were now firmly established.

Valdivia, determined to extend his frontiers, marched to the south.
It was in the neighbourhood of the Biobio River that he first encountered the Araucanian warriors of the true stock.

Here his forces met with a rude awakening.
In discipline and fighting merit the companies of the Araucanians stood to the remaining tribes of South America in the same relation as did the Zulu regiments to the other fighting-men of Africa.

A furious struggle began which was destined to last for generations and for centuries.
But at no time were the fierce Araucanians subdued, although it fell to their lot to be defeated over and over again, as, indeed, proved the fate of the Spaniards likewise.

Some notion of the tremendous vigour with which these wars of the south were waged may be gathered from "La Araucana," the magnificent epic written by Ercilla, the Spanish poet, who composed his verses hot from the fight, his arms still weary from wielding the sword.

One of the first of the notable Spanish victims in the course of these wars was Valdivia himself.

Attacked by furious hordes of Araucanians and overwhelmed, the intrepid European and his army perished to a man; while the Araucanians in triumph swept northwards, to be hurled to the south again by the next wave of battle which chanced to turn in favour of the Spaniards.

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