Today's Uruguay was sparsely populated before
the arrival of the Spaniards in the 16th century. After
the liberation from Spain, it was temporarily
incorporated with Brazil before independence was
proclaimed in 1825. The first decades were troubled, but
towards the end of the 19th century stability increased.
Immigration from Spain and Italy accelerated and exports
of agricultural products made the economy grow.
There are very few remains of the civilizations that
existed in the area before the arrival of Europeans in
the 16th century. However, it is evident that there were
occasional groups of people living off hunting and
fishing. For several thousand years, the nomadic people
of charrúa are considered to have moved between the
coast and inland, and guaraní inhabited the forests to
the east and north.
Comprehensive guide to and popular abbreviations of Uruguay, covering history, economy, and social conditions.
In 1516, a Spanish expedition arrived under the
leadership of Juan Díaz de Solis. The Spaniards came
primarily to search for a river link between the
Atlantic and the Pacific. Most of the members of the
expedition were killed by the charrúa who then lived
there. As no gold and silver deposits were found, the
Spaniards lost interest in the area for some time, and
in the late 17th century the Portuguese made an initial
attempt to capture it.
The Spaniards founded the present capital Montevideo
in 1726. The city soon developed into an important
commercial center. For more than 50 years, the battle
between Portugal and Spain continued over the Banda
Oriental (East Coast), which was called Uruguay. In
1776, Banda Oriental became part of the Spanish Viceroy
Río de la Plata, which also included Argentina, Paraguay
Although the area was never exploited in the same way
as the rest of Latin America, colonial times have left
their mark. The indigenous population was almost
completely eradicated and when the colonial authorities
distributed land during the 18th century laid the
foundation for the power of a few large landowners over
the majority of people.
The Viceroy of Río de la Plata fell apart after Spain
was weakened by the Napoleonic Wars in Europe in the
early 1800s. It became the beginning of the inhabitants'
struggle for liberation from colonial power. The
independence struggle was led by the country's national
hero, José Gervasio Artigas, whose army captured
Montevideo in 1815 and established an independent
The following year, Banda Oriental was occupied by
Brazilian troops and later incorporated with Brazil.
Following Brazil's release from Portugal in 1822, a
group of revolutionaries proclaimed Banda Oriental
independence in 1825.
The Declaration of Independence prompted Brazil to
attack. The British, who were interested in establishing
an independent state as a buffer zone between Argentina
and Brazil, managed after three years to get these
countries to give up their demands on the Banda Oriental
and withdraw their troops. As a result, the area became
independent. In 1830 a constitution was adopted and
Banda Oriental changed its name to Uruguay.
The first decades after independence came to be
characterized by civil war and war with neighboring
countries. The warlords in the civil war were grouped
into two loose groups: the liberal, Brazil-friendly
Colorados (the red) and the conservative, Argentinian-friendly
Blancos (the white).
The situation became calmer since Blancos and
Colorados in 1872 concluded a power sharing agreement.
But the contradictions remained on the political level
between the groups' respective parties. The Blanco Party
had its roots in the countryside, among the conservative
landowners and the church, while the Colorado Party was
supported by the emerging middle class in the cities,
which took the impression of liberal ideas from Europe.
Increased immigration from the 1870s also contributed
to stability. Immigrants, who came mainly from Spain and
Italy, were in many cases outside the traditional
conflicts. At the same time, the economy gained momentum
as demand for wool, meat and hides from Latin America
increased in Europe.
However, in the late 1800s, armed fighting broke out
again between Blancos and Colorados. In the last civil
war of 1904, Colorados won.
The year before, José Batlle y Ordóñez of the
Colorado Party had been elected president. He launched
ideas that came to lay the foundations for a modern
democracy and a social welfare state, unique in Latin
America. Among other things, the education system was
expanded, health care became free of charge and eight
hours of working day were introduced.
Batlle y Ordóñez was president in 1903-1907 in the
first round and then 1911-1915. His political, social
and economic ideas influenced subsequent generations of
politicians. With the exception of a short-term
totalitarian regime in the 1930s, when the country was
hit by the global economic depression, Uruguay emerged
as a stable democracy with respect for civil rights. The
country was early on, among other things, separating
state and church, giving women the right to vote and
introducing unemployment benefits.