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The History of Colombia



The geographical area of present-day Colombia has been inhabited for centuries, since at least 10,000 BC. Various cultures came and went, many of them centered in the Magdalena River valley. At the time of the Spanish conquest, the two most important ethnic groups were the Muisca culture, which was an advanced but small culture near Bogot√°, and the Tayrona people on the Caribbean coast. Neither culture was able to hold off the Spanish conquest for long and subsequent revolts by the Tayrona caused the Spanish to almost completely stamp out their culture. Some fled into the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, where their descendants yet maintain their traditions. The Muisca, in spite of years of repression, have managed to maintain some of their original culture.


The Conquest

When Spanish forces under the command of Sebastián de Belalcázar and Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada arrived in the area in the late 1530s, the Muisca were feuding. Rival Zipa and Zaque people were fighting over land and salt mines. Because of this division, the Muisca culture was easily divided and conquered. The gold artifacts found near Guativita fueled the Spaniards’ search for El Dorado, and many towns in the south were founded as base camps for their explorations.


The Colonial Era

By 1549, the strategic location of Colombia had been recognized by Spain, and Santa Fe de Bogot√° was named an audiencia, which was a certain form of legal district with a court. It thus became the most important city in the region, which was then referred to as Nueva Granada. Nueva Granada contained Colombia, Venezuela, Panama and part of Ecuador, and was elevated to the status of Viceroyalty in the early 18th century. Even when it was raised to the status of Viceroyalty, Nueva Granada was considered something of a backwater in comparison with wealthier Lima and Mexico City.



Bogot√° was one of the first places in the Americas to declare independence from Spain, in July 1810.The definitive moment for Colombian independence came in August 1819, when a large force of rebel Colombians and Venezuelans, reinforced by the British Legion of almost 1,000 British and Irish volunteers, clashed with royalist forces at the Battle of Boyac√° and defeated them.


Gran Colombia

In 1819, the historic Congress of Angostura established the nation of Gran Colombia, which included all of present-day Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador and Panama and parts of Brazil, Costa Rica, Peru and Guyana. Gran Colombia was the brainchild of Simón Bolívar, who saw it as the first step to his dream of a united South America that would compete with the United States and Europe as a world power. Unfortunately for Bolívar, the petty ambitions of local leaders and logistics (the mountains, rivers and dense jungles of northern South America which made communication and government very difficult) doomed Gran Colombia from the start. By 1831 it had dissolved into the smaller nations that we see on the map today.


The Republican Era

From 1831 to 1863, the new nation was known as the Republic of New Granada. It changed its name in 1863 to the United States of Colombia and in 1886 it changed once again to the Republic of Colombia, a name it retains to this day. In 1843, the new Constitution for the Republic turned it into an Authoritative Regime under President General Pedro Alcántara Herrán, in order to control the nation’s first civil war, the War of the Supremes.


During the 19th century, the citizens of Colombia fractured into two competing ideologies: Conservatives and Liberals. The Conservatives believed in a strong central government, limited voting rights for citizens and strong ties to the Catholic Church. The Liberals were just the opposite: They wanted the right to vote for all citizens, an absolute division between church and state, and stronger regional government. The Liberals had strong support from the coffee plantation owners, who favored their looser taxes and controls.


The conflict between Conservatives and Liberals would become a long-running and violent one, erupting into the Thousand Days War (1899-1902), the nation’s second civil war. By some estimates, as many as 100,000 people were killed as Liberal and Conservative armies fought each other all over the nation. The result was a nominal victory for the Conservatives, but in reality the war simply devastated the nation.


The 20th Century

In 1902, The United States picked up the Panama Canal project abandoned by the French a few years earlier. When Colombia rejected the U.S.’ terms for future administration of the canal, the United States encouraged wealthy Panamanian families to separate from Colombia…and backed them up with several warships. At that time, Colombia was still reeling from the Thousand Days War and had little choice. Panama formally became independent from Colombia in November 1903, although Colombia did not officially recognize this until 1921.


El Bogotazo

Tensions between Conservatives and Liberals continued to smolder during the first half of the 20th century. They erupted once more in 1948, after extremely popular Liberal presidential candidate Jorge Eli√©cer Gait√°n was assassinated in Bogot√°. Much like other political assassinations, such as that of John F. Kennedy, conspiracy theories abound as to the architects of the murder. Among the common ‚Äúculprits‚ÄĚ are the CIA, the Soviet Union, the Conservatives and even Fidel Castro, who had a meeting scheduled with Gait√°n on the day he was killed.


The city, already swollen with impoverished people from the countryside who had come looking for work and saw Gaitán as a savior, went mad. Radio stations urged listeners to take the streets, blaming the Conservative Mariano Ospina Pérez government for the murder. The crowd broke into hardware stores and even police stations looking for weapons. Liberal leaders and the Conservative government tried to work together to stop the violence, which by then had spread to all of Colombia’s other large cities. But there was nothing they could do. By dawn Bogotá was in ruins, and many institutions and buildings had been burned to the ground. Almost every store in the city had been looted, and informal markets had sprung up on the outskirts of the city. All in all, over 3,000 people were killed in the uprising, and it launched the period known as La Violencia.


La Violencia

Following the murder of Gait√°n and the Bogotazo, Colombia descended even further into chaos and its third civil war. The Conservative government clamped down on civil liberties, and every major political entity began forming its own death squads. These squads operated in every city, town and village in Colombia, murdering any and all who disagreed with them. The weapons of choice were clubs, knives and machetes, and became it was common to find hacked-up bodies in the streets. Institutions such as the press were afraid to speak up against the violence for fear of reprisal, and the Catholic Church was openly siding with the Conservatives, telling followers to kill Liberals. By the time La Violencia came to an end around 1958, between 180,000 and 300,000 Colombians had been killed. This horrific period closed when a military administration was replaced by a moderate compromise government formed by Liberals and Conservatives. In a way, Colombia is still suffering the effects of La Violencia: It was during this time that the revolutionary groups that would become the FARC, which still operates in Colombia, were formed.



With rise of the international popularity of marijuana and cocaine in the 1970s, Colombia grew into a major producer and exporter of the two drugs within the next decade. During the 1980s, Colombia became a battleground between two rival drug cartels: Cali, controlled by the Orejuela brothers, and Medell√≠n, under the command of Pablo Escobar. Up until the early 1990s, Colombia would suffer as the two cartels fought for control of all aspects of the trade, from production to exportation‚ÄĒincluding of the police forces, politicians and media‚ÄĒthrough bombings, kidnappings, assassinations and other acts of intimidation. Against this backdrop, the guerrilla armies‚ÄĒthe FARC, ELN and M-19‚ÄĒgrew in strength and in response, paramilitary armies were formed under the auspices of Antioquian land owners.


THE 1990s

The 1990s brought about a period of relative peace for Colombia. Many of the smaller rebel groups, including the once-feared M-19, laid down their arms in favor of legal change, although other groups (most notably the FARC) remained. With Escobar dead, the cartels lost a lot of their power and mainly fought among themselves. By the time the cartels collapsed, the guerilla and paramilitary armies had carved out a chunk of the lucrative drug trade for themselves.


The era was far from utopian; election fraud and government corruption were still extremely high. Since the late 1990s, Colombian leaders have been trying to modernize the economy, crush the drug cartels and improve human rights in Colombia. The U.S. has been a vital partner in their efforts, giving billions of aid to help destroy the drug lords and the FARC. In 1998, in an effort to negotiate with the FARC, President Andrés Pastrana ceded 42,000 square kilometers (16,216 sq mi) of land to the guerrilla movement as its territory, Farclandia, deep in the Llanos. But because of stalled peace negotiations, Pastrana threw in the towel with this novice approach in 2002 and declared an all-out war on the FARC.


The New Millenium

In 2002 √Ālvaro Uribe was elected president. He adopted a very aggressive, hard line against the drug lords and the FARC. He pushed for a constitutional amendment allowing presidents to serve a second term of office; he was reelected and served until 2010. His policies included military strikes not only within his own country, but also inside of neighboring Ecuador in early 2008 which killed several important FARC leaders but caused an ugly international incident. Since leaving office, he has faced allegations of corruption, human rights abuses and ties with paramilitary organizations.


Despite efforts to allow it, Uribe was ruled ineligible to run for third term in 2010. His former defense minister, Juan Manuel Santos faced Green Party candidate Antanas Mockus in run-off elections. Santos won. Since then, Uribe has accused Santos of becoming too lenient with the rebel groups.


Here are some related tips to help plan your trip to Colombia: History of G√ľic√°n, Cartagena History, History, Tayrona Culture, Laguna de la Cocha History, Pacific Coast History, History of Buenaventura, History of Nuqu√≠, M√°laga History and Cartagena Neighborhoods.

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...
27 Sep 2011

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