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The History of Argentina

Ancient History

The area of present-day Argentina has been inhabited by humans for ages, and archaeological remains some 11,000 years old have been found. The mighty Inca Empire did not penetrate far into Argentina, but by 1480 did control parts of Northwestern Argentina. When the Spanish arrived in the early 1500’s, they found only a handful of independent tribes, mostly in the western foothills of the Andes.

Exploration and Colonization

The first to visit the region may have been Italian navigator Amerigo Vespucci during his 1501-1502 voyage, but no one knows for certain how far down the coast he made it before turning back. Other expeditions followed, including Sebastian Cabot’s 1526-1529 journey which extensively explored the Platte River and founded the first (and short-lived) European settlement in present-day Argentina. It was during this time that an explorer met a local chieftain who was wearing silver jewelry and named the river “Rio de la plata” (“The silver river”).

In 1536 Pedro de Mendoza founded a settlement at the site of present-day Buenos Aires, but ferocious native attacks caused the site to be abandoned. The settlers moved to nearby AsunciĂłn, in present-day Paraguay. The city of Buenos Aires was founded again in 1580 and this time it lasted.

The Colonial Period

The “River of Silver” turned out to not really have much silver, and Buenos Aires remained a tiny backwater, occasionally beset by Indian attacks and later by British and Dutch pirates. It did grow slowly, however, and in 1617 was allowed its own town council and in 1620 it welcomed its first bishop. The great grasslands, or pampas, proved perfect for cattle ranching, and by the eighteenth century Argentina had a booming cattle industry. At first, only the leather was exported, but later advances in salting and refrigeration made it possible to export the meat as well.

Buenos Aires boomed and in 1776 it was named capital of the Viceroyalty of the Platte River, giving it nearly equal status with Mexico City and Lima, the other viceroyalty seats.

British attacks and Independence

The early nineteenth century was turbulent for Argentina. Spanish monarchs Charles IV and Ferdinand VII were weak and allowed themselves to be bullied by Napoleonic France, which caused them to neglect Spain’s New World colonies. In 1806-1807 Great Britain took advantage of the chaos in Spain and twice tried to seize Buenos Aires but was defeated by patriotic creoles. Spain did nothing to help.

Disappointed, Argentina declared partial independence in 1810 when Napoleon invaded Spain. This was known as the “May Revolution” and is still celebrated today: creole leaders basically said that they would rule themselves until such time as Spain was once again capable of administering its colonies. This taste of independence proved too delicious for the Argentines, however, and they formally declared themselves a sovereign nation in 1816.

The Struggle for Independence

Around 1810, Spanish New World possessions from Mexico to Chile were declaring independence. Spain did not have the manpower to send forces to every rebellious province or city and so focused mostly on trying to save the wealthiest territories, namely Peru and Mexico.

Remote Argentina was home to some royalist forces and Patriot general José de San Martín, in charge of Argentina’s small army, fought several engagements between 1814 and 1817. Buenos Aires did not see any fighting and the people of Argentina suffered relatively little during this turbulent time. San Martín eventually crossed into Chile to help with the struggle for independence there.

The charismatic San MartĂ­n went into exile in Europe after the wars, leaving a leadership vacuum in Argentina. For a decade or so chaos reigned and Bolivia and Uruguay split off from Argentina in 1825 and 1828 respectively; Paraguay had gone its own way in 1811.

The Rosas Years

The chaos in Argentina basically rose from a profound disagreement about rule among its citizens. The nation was divided into Unitarians and federalists: Unitarians favored a strong central government, weak provincial government and strict separation between church and state. The federalists were just the opposite: they wanted the church very involved in state affairs and preferred a weak central government and a great deal of autonomy for the provinces.

This conflict may not sound like much, but it did lead to years of bloody warring in the streets between Unitarians and federalists. By 1829 federalist strongman Juan Manuel de Rosas had risen to the top and he brutally cracked down on all dissent. Prominent liberal intellectuals went into exile in Chile and Uruguay. Rosas established the first secret police force in Latin America, the dreaded Mazorca. In 1852, he was finally defeated and spent the rest of his life in exile.


Argentine intellectuals such as Domingo Faustino Sarmiento and Juan Bautista Alberdi returned to the nation and produced the country’s first Constitution. Argentina continued to grow although occasional tension between liberals and conservatives continued to plague the young nation.

In 1865 Argentina became embroiled in the War of the Triple Alliance, which pitted Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay against Paraguay. Paraguay was eventually defeated and was left in shambles.

Wealth and Immigration

Argentina began to boom in the last part of the nineteenth century. The cattle industry was bringing in a lot of money and Buenos Aires was beginning to industrialize. The doors of the nation were opened to immigration and thousands of immigrants came, mostly Italians and Spanish. When railroads into the interior of the nation were built, the boom grew as remote cattle ranches could get their products to market quickly. By 1900 Argentina was one of the ten or fifteen wealthiest nations in the world. Buenos Aires developed a taste for European style: much of the impressive architecture of the city dates from this period.

There was an ugly side to all of this, however: Starting in the 1870’s, Argentine leaders decided that the semi-civilized Indians living in the western part of the nation were a detriment to modernization and wars of genocide were initiated to wipe them out. The front-line soldiers were often conscripted “gauchos,” mestizo horsemen who lived in the vast pampas. These wars were successful in the sense that there are very few Argentines with native ancestry today.

The Perons

Argentina sat out the World Wars, although it formally joined the Allies in March of 1945, one of the last neutral nations to commit. In 1946, General Juan Perón was elected president. Perón was a liberal and a populist, who worked to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor. His greatest ally was his popular wife, Evita, who was considered a saint by Argentina’s poor until her death in 1952.

Social programs are expensive, however, and PerĂłn overspent. The economy tanked, and PerĂłn was driven from office in 1955. PerĂłn spent years in exile before a triumphant return in 1973 when he was once again elected President. He died in 1974, leaving his incompetent Vice-President and wife Isabel PerĂłn in charge.

The Dirty War

Ever since the 1959 success of the Cuban Revolution, would-be Fidel’s and Ché’s from Mexico to Chile had been trying to overthrow governments and replace them with Cuban-style Marxist states. Argentina was no exception, and several rebel groups, most notably the ERP (People’s Revolutionary Army) were fighting a full-fledged urban guerrilla war against the government. Isabel Perón proved to be an incompetent leader, which shouldn’t have been a surprise, as she was a nightclub dancer by trade: Perón had picked her up in Panama during his exile.

In March of 1976 she was removed by a military coup. The new rulers of Argentina turned up the pressure on the ERP and by 1977 the rebels had ceased to be a serious threat to Argentina. Unfortunately, it didn’t stop there. The military government continued to hunt for rebels, illegally detaining and torturing thousands of ordinary Argentine citizens. Many were murdered: some estimates say as many as 30,000 Argentines may have been killed by their own government from 1974 to 1983.

There were other atrocities as well: hundreds of pregnant women who were imprisoned were allowed to give birth before being executed and their babies were adopted by strangers. The “Dirty War” as it became known only ended with Argentina’s return to democracy in 1983.

Modern Argentina

Since the end of the Dirty War, Argentina has taken great strides to become a modern nation. A nation of artists, it is not only home to the tango, but is also known for literature, culture and film.

In spite of a huge economic collapse in 2001, it has continued to modernize and is a political and economic leader in South America. Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, the wife of a former president, was elected in 2007.

Here are some related tips to help plan your trip to Argentina: Las Cautivas, History, History, Che Guevara: Rosario’s Native Son, History, The Dirty War, History, The Patagonia Rebellion, Convento San Bernado and History .

By Christopher Minster
I am a writer and editor at V!VA Travel guides here in Quito, where I specialize in adding quality content to the site and also in spooky things like...
24 Apr 2009

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