Colombia: History to 1858

History to 1858

Prior to the Spanish conquest, Colombia was inhabited by Chibcha, sub-Andean, and Caribbean peoples, all of whom lived in organized, agriculturally based communities. After the Spanish conquest, which began in 1525, the area of present-day Colombia formed the nucleus of New Granada (for colonial history, see New Granada). The struggle for independence was, as in all Spanish-American possessions, precipitated by the Napoleonic invasion of Spain. The revolution was, however, foreshadowed by the rising of the comuneros.

Prominent among the first revolutionary leaders was Antonio Nariño, who took part in the uprising at Bogotá on July 20, 1810. The revolution was to last nine years before the victory of Simón Bolívar at Boyacá (1819) secured the independence of Greater Colombia (Span., Gran Colombia). The new state Bolívar created included what is now Venezuela, Panama, and (after 1822) Ecuador, as well as Colombia. Cúcuta was chosen as capital. While Bolívar, who had been named president, headed campaigns in Ecuador and Peru, the vice president, Francisco de Paula Santander, administered the new nation. Political factions soon crystallized. Santander advocated a union of federal sovereign states, while Bolívar championed a centralized republic.

Although Bolívar's authority prevailed by and large in the constitutional assembly (1828), Greater Colombia soon fell apart. In 1830, Venezuela and Ecuador became separate nations. The remaining territory emerged as the republic of New Granada. Through the 19th cent. and into the 20th cent. political unrest and civil strife reappeared constantly. Strong parties developed along conservative and liberal lines; the conservatives favored centralism and participation by the church in government and education, and the liberals supported federalism, anticlericalism, and some measure of social legislation and fiscal reforms. Civil war frequently erupted between the factions. During the 19th and early 20th cent. three statesmen stand out—Tomás Cipriano de Mosquera, Rafael Núñez, and Rafael Reyes. While Mosquera was president, a treaty was concluded (1846) granting the United States transit rights across the Isthmus of Panama.

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