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Ecuadorian History


Although the earliest evidence of man in Ecuador can be traced back to 10,000 BC, there are few concrete facts about the country’s history before the invasion of the Inca in the mid-15th century. Research is ongoing, and the Museo Nacional in Quito has some fascinating artifacts that are laid out to chart the probable development of the country before the Inca, from the age of hunter-gatherers to the dawn of pottery and ceramics, agriculture and fixed settlements. By 1480, dominant indigenous groups included Imbayas, Shyris, Quitus, Puruhaes and Cañaris in the highlands; and the Caras, Manteños and Huancavilcas along the coast.


The Inca began dominating present-day Peru in the early 13th century, but it was not until the mid-15th-century that they began to expand into what is now Ecuador. Pachacútec led the invasion with his son Túpac Yupanqui. Native resistance was fierce, particularly in the north, but they eventually arranged peace terms with one dominant group in the south, the Cañari. Túpac Yupanqui extended the empire further after the death of his father, establishing himself at Ingapirca before conquering the Quitu-Caras nation at present-day Quito. He then built an impressive network of roads stretching the length of his empire from Cusco in southern Peru all the way up north to Quito. Some of these roads survive today and are popular with hikers. Túmac Yupanqui was succeeded by his son, Huayna Cápac, who had been born at Tomebamba (also called Tumipampa; modern-day Cuenca), who established another administrative seat at Quito, where his son Atahualpa was born. Problems arose when Huayna Cápac died, setting off a war of succession between two of his sons, Huáscar and Atahualpa. Huáscar, Huayna Cápac’s eldest son, was based at Cusco, while Atahualpa, Huáscar’s younger brother, governed his half of the empire from Quito. Both brothers were power hungry, and soon after their father’s death civil war broke out. In 1532, Atahualpa secured victory over his brother.


The Inca ruler Atahualpa governed for less than a year before the Spanish arrived, led by Francisco Pizarro. Atahualpa—foolishly as it turns out—thought of Pizarro and his band as an innocent bunch of foreigners. He welcomed them into his empire and befriended them, only to be captured and held hostage by them. Fearing for his life, Atahualpa offered a huge ransom of gold and silver in return for his release. Pizarro accepted, then beheaded the leader anyway. Knowing that the Spanish had assassinated Atahualpa, the Inca, led by General Rumiñahui, chose to destroy Quito rather than leave it in the hands of the Conquistadores. Within one bloody year, hundreds of thousands of Incas had been slaughtered and the whole empire had fallen to the Spanish.

Pizarro founded his capital at Lima, Peru, while his lieutenants Sebastián de Benalcázar and Diego de Almagro founded San Francisco de Quito in 1534, on the charred remains of the Inca city. Following a local legend of great riches in the lands to the east, Pizarro sent an expedition down into the Amazon Basin in 1540. Pizarro placed his brother, Gonzalo, in charge of the expedition, which departed from Quito. Having found nothing after several months, and running out of food, Gonzalo Pizarro sent Francisco de Orellana ahead to see what might be found. Orellana never returned. Instead he had floated down the entire Amazon River, through Brazil, out to the Atlantic Ocean. This marked the first crossing of the continent by a white man in a canoe, and the event is still celebrated in Ecuador today.

Meanwhile, the Spanish had been busy dividing up Ecuador’s land among themselves. The encomienda system was established by the Spanish crown to reward conquistadores by granting them huge estates upon which they could force the indigenous people who happened to occupy the land into slavery. In exchange for their back-breaking labor, the slaves were given room, board and religious instruction. The food was so meager and the work so hard that many starved to death or died from diseases. As a result, the indigenous population decreased dramatically. About half of Ecuador’s Indian population was forced to live in this manner for centuries.

Although the encomienda system was theoretically outlawed in the 17th century, in practice, the oppression of the indigenous population continued under various guises until 1964 when the Agrarian Reform Law was passed. Two sectors of the indigenous population escaped the encomienda system. Some were rounded up to live in specially constructed indigenous towns and forced to work in textiles or agriculture (it is for this reason that Otavalo became so famous for its weaving), or lived so deep in the Amazonian lowlands that they completely escaped all the implications of Spanish rule, both good and bad. One positive legacy of this troubled time is Ecuador’s beautiful haciendas, elaborate country mansions built by the wealthy Spaniards. Today, many of these haciendas have been converted into some of Ecuador’s most memorable and unique hotels.


Spanish rule continued with relative peace until the late 18th century, when creole (Spanish born in the New World) leaders started to resent Spain for its constant interference and its demand of high taxes. The creoles began working toward independence. When Napoleon placed his brother Joseph on the throne of Spain in 1807, many creoles saw it as the opportunity for independence they had been waiting for. After a couple of failed attempts to defeat the Spanish armies, the first real victory was won at Guayaquil, which gained independence in October 1820. At this point an urgent request for backup was sent to the South American liberator, SimĂłn BolĂ­var.

To help prevent the Spanish from regaining power, Bolívar swept into action by sending his best general, Antonio José de Sucre, to take command of the rebel army based in Quito. Sucre and his forces won the pivotal battle of Pichincha on May 24, 1822, ending Spanish rule in Ecuador. Bolívar declared Quito the southern capital of a huge new nation, Gran Colombia, which included present-day Ecuador, Colombia, Panama and Venezuela. His dream was to make the whole continent into a single, independent nation. However, his idea went down badly with the residents and in 1830 the Quito representatives won independence for their own republic, calling it Ecuador because of its location on the equator.


Fresh disputes emerged between the conservative residents of the highlands, who were content with Spanish rule, and the liberal costeños, who wanted complete independence. To some extent this rivalry still continues, albeit in the form of lighthearted teasing: The coastal residents call the highlanders boring and backward, and the highlanders call their coastal counterparts monos (monkeys) and tease them for being loud and obnoxious. In the mid-1800s, different cities and areas attempted to declare their own set of rules. Guayaquil gave itself over to Peruvian rule, and much of Ecuador was close to being taken over by Colombia. However, in 1861, Gabriel García Moreno, a fearless leader and devout Catholic, became president. The most significant legacy of his rule was to turn Ecuador into a Catholic republic and force his beliefs on all of its residents by denying official citizenship to those who rejected Catholicism.

Moreno was assassinated in the streets of Quito by political rivals in 1875. After Moreno’s death, the equally fearsome but liberal president, Eloy Alfaro, took over and immediately started undoing Moreno’s work by secularizing the state and education. His decades-long reign came to a bitter end in 1911, when he was overthrown by the military. The following year, while leading a revolt, he was captured found guilty of treason. His body was dragged through the streets of Quito and publicly burned. This event marked the beginning of a 50-year battle for power between the liberals and conservatives, which cost the country thousands of lives and numerous presidents (some of whom lasted only days). Taking advantage of Ecuador’s weakened state, Peru challenged Ecuador in a border dispute from 1941 to 1942, which resulted in Ecuador losing almost half of its land to Peru in a 1948 treaty.


Ecuador went through a relatively peaceful period in the 1950s and 60s, helped by both the popular president, Galo Plaza Lasso, and the beginning of the banana boom, which created thousands of jobs and had a positive impact on the economy. It was during this period that the Agrarian Reform Law put a halt on the virtual slavery that the indigenous people had been subjected to since the 16th century. Unfortunately, in the 1960s, banana exportation was abruptly nullified by a fungal disease that affected the country’s entire crop, evoking a short period of economic decline in Ecuador.

This decline ended when large oil reserves were found in the Oriente in 1967 by Texaco, an U.S. oil company. The Ecuadorian military, led by General Guillermo RodrĂ­guez Lara, managed to block the swarms of money-hungry oil companies waiting to pounce on the land and negotiated fair contracts for oil extraction. Though at the cost of ghastly damage committed on the environment, the economy began to prosper and new wealth was being pumped into education, health care, urbanization and transport. Even with the new oil money, Ecuador was unable to pay off its enormous debts, and foolish decisions by Lara to overcome this problem (such as raising taxes to absurd levels) resulted in his overthrow in 1976. A stable democracy was reinstated soon after.


From 1979 until 1996 a string of governments attempted (and failed) to stabilize the delicate economy—which swung dramatically back-and-forth due to fluctuating oil prices and severe debt. The perilous state of the economy provoked the indigenous people to rise up against the government through their new organization, Confederación de Nacionalidades Indígenas del Ecuador (CONAIE).

In 1998, the situation worsened. Ecuador suffered its most severe economic crisis; the GDP shrank dramatically, inflation rose and banks collapsed. The citizens of Ecuador were furious with their leaders, whose corruption and ineptitude had contributed to the crisis. Roads were blockaded and virtually the entire country went on strike.

In 1999, then-President Jamil Mahuad decided nothing could be done to protect the national currency, the sucre, from failing completely, and he concluded that the only answer was to transfer to the U.S. dollar. Although this move had the immediate desired effect of stabilizing the economy, it brought numerous other problems for the Ecuadorian people. The cost of living skyrocketed and poverty worsened. The indigenous population suffered greatly, and in 2000, thousands of protesters stormed Congress, backed by the military, and ousted Mahuad from office in just three hours. He was replaced immediately by his vice-president, Gustavo Noboa, under whom the economy slowly started to recover. On April 20, 2005, President, Lucio Gutiérrez, elected in 2002, was overthrown by popular protest and a vote in Congress, and was replaced by his vice-president, Dr. Alfredo Palacio.

In 2006, Rafael Correa, an economist, was elected president. Since his election, he has shown signs of leaning to the left like fellow South American leaders Hugo Chávez (Venezuela) and Evo Morales (Bolivia). Popular among poor Ecuadorians, Correa is seen as something of a loose cannon by the middle and upper classes. In 2007 a constitutional convention was called, and a new magna carta was adopted by popular elections in 2008. Correa won the elections once more in 2013 and is currently functioning as Ecuador's Head of State.

Here are some related tips to help plan your trip to Ecuador: Ecuadorian-Peruvian Border Dispute, History of the Galapagos Islands, Human History of the Galapagos Islands, The Islanders Take Over, Famous People From Quito, Natural History of Galapagos and Manuela Sáenz.

23 Apr 2013

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