Early Argentine history is complex because of multiple currents of European exploration and settlement. The Florentine Amerigo Vespucci’s 1501 expedition, in the service of Portugal, brought what were probably the first Europeans to enter the Río de la Plata estuary, followed by Cristóbal de Haro (1514); Juan Díaz de Solís (1516), who died at the hands of the Charrúa on the Uruguayan side of the river; and Sebastian Cabot (1527), who went some distance up the river and returned to Spain with small amounts of Peruvian silver—giving the river the name that has survived to the present.
Solís’s crew, who landed on Isla Martín García, was probably the first European group to actually set foot in what is now Argentina. Ferdinand Magellan’s legendary 1519 expedition, though, spent the winter of 1520 in San Julián, Santa Cruz Province; Magellan himself died before returning to Spain on the first circumnavigation of the globe, but his Italian chronicler Antonio Pigafetta aroused European imaginations with exaggerated tales of Patagonian “giants.”
Cabot’s expedition, combined with the first news from wealthy Cajamarca and Cusco, spurred Pedro de Mendoza’s massive expedition (1535), which founded Buenos Aires on the right bank of the river. Mendoza’s effort failed within five years due to poor planning, supply shortages, and stiff resistance from the native Querandí, whom the Spaniards treated with disdain. A contingent of Mendoza’s forces had headed north to Asunción, Paraguay, where the Guaraní proved more receptive to the Spaniards; in 1580, moving south from Asunción, Juan de Garay reestablished Buenos Aires. In the meantime, more momentous events in the central Peruvian Andes were to have a greater impact on Argentina.
From the North
Christopher Columbus’s so-called “discovery” of the “New World” was, of course, one of global history’s signal events. While Columbus may have bungled his way into fame—according to geographer Carl Sauer, “the geography in the mind of Columbus was a mixture of fact, fancy, and credulity”—the incompetently audacious Genovese sailor excited the interest and imagination of Spaniards and others who, within barely half a century, brought virtually all of what is now known as Latin America under at least nominal control.
Europeans had roamed the Caribbean for more than three decades after Columbus’s initial voyage, but the impulse toward conquest in South America came from Mexico and especially Panama, which Francisco Pizarro and his brothers used as a base to take Perú. From there, in 1535, Pizarro’s partner/rival Diego de Almagro made the first attempt to take Chile by traveling south through Jujuy, Salta, and Catamarca. Crossing the 4,748-meter Paso de San Francisco from the east, Almagro’s expedition ended in grisly failure as most of his personnel, retainers, and even livestock died, but this marked the start of Spain’s presence in Argentina.
The Spanish Imposition
Spain had contradictory goals in the Americas. Most Spaniards came to get rich, but there were also Christian idealists who sought to save the souls of the millions of people they found in highland Mexico, Perú, and elsewhere (ignoring, for the moment, that these millions already had their own elaborate religious beliefs).
Consequently, the Spanish Crown obliged its forces to offer their opposition the option to accept papal and Spanish authority in lieu of military subjugation. Whether or not they accepted, the result was the same—they became subject to a Spanish colonial system that was overwhelmingly stacked against them.
Many prisoners of war became Spanish slaves and were shipped elsewhere in the Americas. Others who remained were obliged to work for individual Spaniards through forced-labor systems like repartimiento and geographically based tribute systems like the encomienda. In principle, the Spanish encomendero (holder of an encomienda) was to provide Spanish-language and Catholic religious instruction, but this was almost unenforceable. The encomienda, it should be emphasized, was not a land grant, though many encomenderos became large landholders.
Spanish institutions were most easily imposed in areas that had been under Inka influence, as a long history of hierarchical government made it possible for the Spaniards to place themselves atop the pyramid. Subjects accustomed to paying tribute to the Inka’s delegate now paid it to the encomendero, the Spanish Crown’s representative. This was different, though, with the unsubjugated Araucanians of the south.
The Demographic Collapse and Its Consequences
One of the invasion’s perpetual mysteries, at least on its face, was how so few Spaniards could overwhelm such large indigenous populations in so little time. Spanish weapons were not markedly superior to their indigenous equivalents—it took longer to reload a harquebus than a bow, for instance, and the bow and arrow were probably more accurate. Mounted cavalry gave the Spaniards a tactical edge in open terrain, but this was only occasionally decisive. Certainly the Spaniards took advantage of indigenous factionalism, but that was not the entire story either. The Spaniards’ greatest allies may have been microbes.
From the time the Bering Strait land bridge closed, the Americas had been geographically isolated from Europe and Asia. Diseases that had evolved and spread in the Old World, such as smallpox, measles, plague, and typhus, no longer took a catastrophic toll there, but in the New World they encountered immunologically defenseless populations and spread as the plague did in 14th-century Europe. In some lowland tropical areas, fatal infections reduced the population by nearly 95 percent in less than a century.
In the cooler, drier highlands, disease spread more slowly and less thoroughly but was still devastating. In some places disease even preceded direct contact with the Spaniards—the Inka Huayna Capac’s death may have been the result of European smallpox spread indirectly. For this reason, historian Murdo Macleod has called introduced diseases “the shock troops of the conquest.”
While the population was numerous, encomiendas were a valuable source of wealth for those who held them (including the Catholic church). As the population plummeted, though, encomiendas lost their value—dead Indians paid no tributes. Without large indigenous populations to exploit, Spaniards took economic refuge in large rural estates, or haciendas, though they struggled to find labor to work them.
European settlement, then, proceeded south from Lima (capital of the Viceroyalty of Perú) and the silver-rich highland town of Potosí (in present-day Bolivia). Before Juan de Garay reestablished Buenos Aires in 1580, southbound Spaniards had founded Santiago del Estero (1553); San Miguel de Tucumán (1571), which supplied cloth, food, and mules to high, cold, barren Potosí; and Córdoba (1573). Salta (1582), La Rioja (1591), and Jujuy (1593) soon followed. Spaniards from Chile settled the Cuyo cities of Mendoza (1561), San Juan (1562), and San Luis (1596), which produced wine and grain. Remote Buenos Aires, legally barred from trade with the mother country except overland through Lima, suffered in isolation from the viceregal capital.
In the southern lakes region, on both sides of the Andes, mobile Araucanians staved off the Spaniards and then the Argentines and Chileans for more than three centuries. In far-off Patagonia, the situation was even more tenuous, as tentative Spanish colonization efforts failed disastrously because of poor planning and extreme environmental conditions.
© Wayne Bernhardson from Moon Argentina, 3rd edition