II. The colonial formation of Venezuela

The entire Ibero-American colonial period can be succinctly described as that of the formation of the proto-nations which later became the Ibero-American republics. Ibero-America includes Brazil. Latin American refers to the ex-colonies of Spain plus Haiti. Each one of these countries has its own characteristics despite the tendency in the rest of the world to lump them into one big world group or region. These national traits evolved from the following circumstances and conditions: (1) the native populations on the arrival of Europeans and their degree of political and cultural evolution; (2) the character of Spanish conquest and settlement and the origins of the conquerors and settlers; (3) the geography of Ibero-America; (4) the gradual establishment of local administrative and political institutions; and (5) the impossibility of establishing centralized colonial administrations, except in the case of Brazil. Everything about the conquest of Ibero-America was ad hoc and improvisatory and it is not easy to make generalizations. Some historical landmarks, however, are fairly self-explanatory.

            In the course of the four trips during which Christopher Columbus explored the Caribbean basin in search for a passage to Asia (1492-1498), his brother Bartholomew founded Santo Domingo (1496) on the island of La Española (Hispaniola), where Spain established the first audiencia or tribunal in the New World in 1527. By then, there had been much navigation between Europe and America. In 1500, Pedro Alvares Cabral claimed Brazil for Portugal. The name America is undoubtedly attributed to the Florentine Amerigo Vespucci, who sent letters describing his travels to his homeland. But now it is doubted that he was with the Bulgarian-descended Alonso de Ojeda when the latter entered Lake Maracaibo and presumably gave the territory the name “Little Venice” or “Venezuela”, because of the dwellings on stilts of the Amerindians. (The ending “uela” in Spanish is generally condescending or pejorative.) The colonization of Ibero-America was at first very tentative, particularly slow in Brazil. The Spaniards’ original destinations were the islands of La Española, Puerto Rico, and Cuba. The Spanish crown devised the system of encomiendas (assignments) which had two purposes: to lure settlers to America and to Christianize the natives. The latter aspect was never observed. And as to settlement, the newcomers came from a continent where intensive agriculture had been going on for centuries whereas they soon discovered that Tropical lands were not particularly propitious for plowing, so they enslaved the Amerindians to work for them but this resulted in their rapid extermination. For that reason or unreason, in 1501 the Catholic Kings of Spain, Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile—the latter had been Columbus’ financier—authorized the importation of African slaves, a measure that it is usually said, unfairly, that the compassionate friar Bartolome de las Casas proposed to reverse in some manner the genocidal process against Amerindians. Portugal had been in the Slave trade from the moment it began to explore the western coastline of Africa and its extension to America was a historical inevitability. The encomienda system was generalized in the Spanish-American empire and it did Christianize Amerindians (often syncretically), but it remained in essence an instrument for economic exploitation.

            The Spaniards who crossed the Atlantic to the Spanish possessions were seeking to make their fortunes. They were usually landless in their places of origin and thus, when the new lands proved to be little or not productive at all, they initiated the era of the conquistadors. There had to be gold or something more valuable in the mainland than what the Caribbean islands had to offer. The first of the conquistadors was Balboa, but he only gained fame with his discovery of the Southern Sea or the American shores of the Pacific ocean. The real gold rush began when Hernan Cortes invaded México and destroyed the incipient Aztec empire. This war lasted from 1519 to 1521, and it was hard fought, although losses were disproportionately on the Amerindian side. However scant the forces the conquistadors led, they were facing only stone-age weapons. If México resisted, it was because of its valor and organization. The next great conquest was that of Perú, where, unlike Cortes, Francisco Pizarro in 1531 found a divided and vulnerable Inca Empire. Both México and Perú yielded considerable riches in precious metals, and it was this, rather than the legend of El Dorado, which only became current with the conquest of the Bogotá plateau in 1537—the Chibcha natives were excellent gold artisans—that drove conquistador energies during the first half of the 16th century, the heyday of the conquest. In the decade from 1531 to 1541, Spaniards had explored and founded cities (originally villages of course) in all the future Ibero-American republics. The gold-driven conquest of America probably ended in 1542 with the astounding but profit-less expeditions of Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, who traveled as far north as Kansas, and Francisco de Orellana, who navigated the Amazon river to its delta. In lieu of quick fortunes, the Spaniards and the Portuguese had to settle for being land owners, which was not that demanding as they still had the surviving Indians to work for them and also the African slaves who were being imported in large numbers to the Caribbean and Brazil. The Spanish and Portuguese colonial administrations for the Western Hemisphere were already roughly in place. The obvious sites for viceroyalties as political centers were México city (1535) and Lima in Perú (1542), because of the higher density of indigenous populations and the skills that they possessed. It was in the viceroyalty of Perú that the Spaniards found the real El Dorado, which were the silvers mines of Potosí (1546), in Alto Perú, today’s Bolivia. México, which was named New Spain, also had precious metals though not as plenteous as in Perú. In theory, México and Lima were the capitals of the Spanish New World. The Portuguese had first settled an area near modern Sao Paulo, but in 1539 founded Salvador de Baia, in the hump of Brazil, as the capital of the colony divided into twelve captaincies.

            The Spanish viceroyalties were the exception rather than the rule. The rest of Spanish America was politically marginal in varying degrees. In places where the viceroyalties had to make the Spanish military presence strong because of native resistance or because of difficult accessibility, captaincies-general (sometimes called kingdoms) were created, specifically in Guatemala, Chile, Bogotá, and Yucatan. Despite fronting the Caribbean along one thousand miles, Venezuela was definitely marginal, but for that very reason more characteristic of Spanish America over all after the conquistadors had done their work. Cumaná, in eastern Venezuela, was the first Spanish foundation on the South American land mass (1522). In 1527, it was followed by Coro in the west. Venezuela, which was the first country named by Europeans in the South America continent, was so little valued by the Spanish crown that in 1529 it was ceded as a concession to the German Welser banking family. It was a Welser governor, Nicolas Federmann, who first founded Maracaibo as New Nuremberg. The Germans were hated by the Spanish settlers, who later re-founded the city with the name it bears. No one knows its etymology, although a historian once proposed, or more likely guessed, that there existed an Amerindian village named something like Maracayibo. The German concession was effectively revoked in 1540 and legally in 1556.

            Apparently, there were sufficient Spaniards in Venezuela for the country to start having its own contours. El Tocuyo, in west central Venezuela, was founded in 1545 and the Venezuelan Andes were explored between 1557 and 1561. Jurisdictionally, Venezuela was first assigned to the audiencia in Santo Domingo, but, with the rise of New Spain, the latter was abolished, or simply languished from inactivity, and Venezuela was attached to the audiencia in Bogotá, the capital of New Granada (today’s Colombia), founded in 1548. Despite this seeming backwardness, Venezuela was sufficiently organized to run to ground and execute the rebel Lope de Aguirre, who arrived there in 1561 after sailing down the Marañon and Amazon rivers and along the Atlantic Guiana coast. Aguirre could be the considered the last conquistador, but for that he was insane and he did not really know what he wanted to do with the company of men he commanded. Honor was part of his madness and before being captured he killed his own daughter so that she would not be vilified as the “daughter of the tyrant”. Otero Silva, whom we already mentioned, considered Aguirre the first American revolutionary. For lack of something bigger or better, Coro was the Venezuelan capital during these years, although the Spanish colonial administration was so muddled that Cumaná was considered to be capital of a different province, whose exact rank was never clearly defined, sometimes called New Andalusia and sometimes New Cataluña.

            The start of the province of Venezuela occurred with the relatively late foundation of Caracas in 1567, in fact the last of the large Ibero-American cities (Brasilia excepted) to come into existence. The reason for this might seem trivial, but it really wasn’t. The Amerindians of the valley of Caracas, then mostly jungle, managed to keep Spanish penetration away for many decades. In Venezuela, it is traditional to honor the bravery of the cacique Guaicaipuro, who led the Amerindian resistance, but so many legendary caciques have been mythified there in modern times—one for each of the regions the Spaniards first settled—that Guaicaipuro’s real feats are lost in the mass of inventions. Guaicaipuro was tracked down by Diego de Lossada, the founder of Caracas, and slaughtered, but before that any Spaniard who entered the valley was in peril of his life. If we consider that it took years to conquer Chile and Yucatan (despite the latter’s nearness to México), Guaicaipuro’s ability to resist armed Spaniards does not sound so exaggerated. What’s more, in 1926 Standard Oil of Venezuela was forced to postpone exploration in the heavily forested lands of the Amerindian Motilones, who in addition killed with their six-foot long shafts a Swiss topographer, member of a commission charged with demarcating the Venezuelan-Colombian border in that zone.

            One of the tokens of potential nationhood in the Spanish American colonies, was their endowment with audiencias, although sometimes these were created for purely circumstantial considerations. Panama had an audiencia in 1538, which is explicable because it was the transit point from Lima to the Atlantic ocean. It was easier to cross mule tracks at the Central American isthmus narrowest part than to go from Lima to Buenos Aires. New Spain was so important in every sense that it had an audience in Guadalajara in 1548 in addition to the one in México city. Potosí grew to a population of 200,000 very quickly and Charcas, today Sucre, in Bolivia, had an audiencia in 1559. Quito, which as one of the most important provinces of the Inca empire, had the status of presidency from the start, and it had its own audiencia in 1565, at the same time as Chile, which in its central temperate-climate region was well peopled and relatively remote. Buenos Aires acquired an audiencia in 1666. Despite its relative insignificance, the political destiny of Venezuela was determined, more than those of any other Spanish dependency, by specific important events that transpired in Europe. Starting with the establishment of the Bourbon dynasty in Spain—to which king Juan Carlos, Spain’s actual king, belongs—as a result of the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714), everything that happened in Venezuela can be traced to the political situation in Spain, although at first the colonial reforms introduced by Philip V Bourbon applied to all of Spanish America. New Granada was made a vice-royalty in 1717 and Buenos Aires, as La Plata, in 1776. Philip introduced the intendencia system, which functioned in each Spanish American dependency as a ministry of commerce and economy in general, and liberalized trade, previously restricted by laws which were more honored in their breach than in their observance.

            In 1717, Venezuela was formed as a province. Before, it was constituted by the separate provinces of Mérida-Maracaibo, Guayana, Cumaná, Margarita, and Venezuela proper, all subordinate to New Granada. What its constitution as a province did, was to centralize colonial authority in Caracas. More than any other South American country, Venezuela’s political cohesion was due more to its geographical isolation than to other influences, although this relative isolation also fostered social traits that were proper to the country, and yet again the Venezuelan Andes were closer in many respects to New Granada than to the rest of Venezuela. You could say, then, that it was the geography that most mattered and this sounds curious for a country with such a large maritime border. On the east, there is no arguing against geography, for Venezuela there was separated by impenetrable jungles from the Guiana colonies, a barrier that also extended along the south where the Amazon river basin and its tropical forests reached to the Venezuelan frontiers. The Venezuelan llanos (plains) were identical to those in New Granada, but this vast region was more developed in Venezuela, where Barinas was a prime grower of cacao beans. New Granada neglected them whereas the central Venezuelan llanos were closely linked to Caracas. In the north west, mountain ranges and jungles were the Venezuela-New Granada frontier. That left the Andes which was the one important connection that Venezuela had with New Granada. But even here there was a noticeable difference and any one who has crossed the Andean border from Venezuela to Colombia immediately understands why. The proper high Andes end in Colombia in a dip to a geological depression around the earthquake-prone city of Cúcuta and rise again but moderately in Venezuela, where they form narrow and sloping valleys. Eastern New Granada’s access to the sea was easier via Lake Maracaibo than to its own coasts. Despite this economic symbiosis, when the time came to define the borders of the province of Venezuela, the Venezuelan Andes, which formed a province of their own with Mérida as its capital, were included in it. And then something happened that was to make Venezuela more political cohesive than it was before.

            During the War of the Spanish Succession, which was partly fought in Spain itself, the Basque provinces had backed the Bourbon claimant and eventual gainer of the throne. As a reward for their loyalty, the Guipuzcoana—Guipuzcoa is the most important Basque province—or Caracas company was given the monopoly of the Venezuelan economy, which later had its own intendencia. This was like a repetition of the Welser concession, which, as we saw, contributed to the first stirrings of a sort of Hispano-Venezuelan “proto-national” awareness, but this time the consequences were to be momentous. To conclude the colonial consolidation of Venezuela as a political unit in its own right, Venezuela was raised to the rank of captaincy-general in 1777, with the right to have its own militias, and in 1786 it was granted its high court (audiencia), where previously legal matters were handled at the local level and appeals went to Bogotá. By then, all of the Ibero-American proto-nations had been constituted. We can roughly classify them with the standards or the bases for the distinctness of each one of them that we listed before.

            In all of these proto-nations, there had bee ethnic mixing, from which resulted the pardo class, everywhere in a third social rung below the peninsulares or Spaniards properly speaking and the Creole or Criollo class of Spanish-descended whites. In México, Quito, Perú (including Bolivia), Paraguay, and Guatemala, Amerindians were a majority of the population. They were in the fourth social rung—the fifth were the slaves—but  basically they were segregated in different ways. After their initial extermination in the islands of the Caribbean, Spain had taken measures to protect them through the creation of Amerindian communities with their ejidos or communal lands. The unlucky Amerindians were still being exploited mercilessly, as in the mines of Potosí. The pardos, more commonly called mestizos (mixed-bloods), were a majority of the inhabitants, often the vast majority, in the rest of Ibero-America except in Argentina, Chile, Costa Rica, and what later would be Uruguay, where the Creoles had a demographic edge over the pardos. The origins of the Spanish settlers is a complex issue on which there is little literature. But there are some facts that can be established. Very few Castilians settled in Spanish America, except as rulers and administrators of one sort or another. The Caribbean basin was mostly settled by people from Andalusia and the Canary islands. The presence of Andalusians is explicable because Cádiz, which is part of Andalusia, was the only port that the Consejo de Indias, the administrative body for Spanish America, which functioned in Seville from 1524 to 1714, was the only port authorized for trade with the Americas, although, given the patchwork of colonies and the omnipresence of smuggling, this was an illusion except during the 16th century and part of the 17th century. The Bourbon reforms were partly implemented to face this historical reality. The Canary Islands were a frequent if not necessary stopover for the galleon fleets that plied trade with America. Like Castilians, few Aragonese, Catalonians, or Valencians emigrated to the New World. But many conquistadors and their followers were from Estremadura, where latifundia made even the lesser nobility not to mention the mass of peasants landless, and landlessness, when all is said and done, was what drove the Spanish settlement of America, as it had driven the Crusading nobility in the 11th and 12th centuries. Galicia and probably Asturias contributed a significant quota to the emigration to America, which never was a mass movement of population.

            It is observable that some Spanish surnames are more common in the individual countries of Spanish America than in the others, sometimes even exclusive to some of them. But statistics here are not to be found, apart from the fact that, as with the English Smiths and Joneses, some Spanish surnames, such as Gonzalez and Fernandez, are very common. (In Venezuela, after the Guipuzcoana took over, many Basques went there, so that today Basque surnames are common in all classes of society. The name Bolivar itself is Basque although the Liberator’s family emigrated to Venezuela in the 17th century.) Yet it is from the places of origin of Spanish settlers and their inter-action with the natives that every Latin American state has its sing-songs or accents, with dialectical characteristics such as the meaning and the formation of words. Thus, any Latin American can recognize a Mexican or a Cuban or an Argentine accent. And within the countries themselves, there are different accents, which their populations, and even other Latin Americans, can readily identify. In Colombia, the Andeans, known with some slight pejoration as cachacos, speak with a markedly different accent than the costeños, or the people from the Caribbean coast. And even the cachacos speak with slight variations the further south you go in the country.

            In a very general overview of pronunciations, Latin Americans can be classified according to how close to the original Spanish of the settlers they speak. In México, in Andean countries and regions, and in Argentina, the Spanish sounds are basically intact, except for the Spanish “c”, which is like the English “z”, and was substituted by the “s” phoneme all over Latin America. The elision of the final “s” sound is a giveaway in this, as I say, very rough classification. It is in the Caribbean basin and in the gulf coast of México that spoken Spanish is most different from Castilian, the linguistic model for Spanish in all its versions (and even in Spain there are countless differences from region to region). There the final “s” sound was dropped with a vengeance and where most Spanish speakers would say “mas agua” (more water), caribeños convert the “s” into an “h” and you get the Amerindian-sounding “mahagua”. The only exceptions to the linguistic Spanish-American diversification that I know of are the Argentines and Uruguayans, who have identical accents, and the Panamanians and coastal Colombians, who have very similar accents.

            We already did a summary of the Venezuelan boundaries. This applies also to most of the rest of Spanish America. Argentina had the La Plata estuary as epicenter and its natural frontier to the west were the Andes, which also define Chile’s curiously elongated physiography. To the north, Argentina’s fertile pampas (plains) gradually turn into the barren Chaco flatlands and the Paraguayan and Brazilian forests and swamps. Paraguay came to be because of a tyrant who shut the country off from the rest of the world, but this is another story. Argentina contested Uruguay with Brazil but in the end there were more Spanish-speakers than Portuguese-speakers. Chile is separated from Perú by the Atacama desert, a shelf of the Andes and one of the driest in the world. Bolivia was an integral part of Per and its existence owes less to geography than to a political compromise during the wars of Independence, as we shall see. The long coast of Perú is arid, though not as much as the Atacama, because it is watered along valleys by the western runoff of the Andes. The Andes valleys are discontinuous between Perú and Ecuador. There was no such discontinuity between New Granada and Quito and here political circumstances were also crucial. Panama was attached to New Granada and remained part of Colombia until the USA, almost literally, engineered its separation so that the canal cut be cut and the Canal Zone become an American colonial dependency. But Panama is separated by land from Colombia by the still daunting Darien swampy jungle. The one colony to which Spain paid less heed than to Venezuela was Costa Rica, where the Spanish-descended population is nothing like that of next-door Panama, which has large black and pardo components, or like that of its northern neighbor, Nicaragua, which with Honduras and El Salvador are largely mestizo countries. But in Central America as a whole nations came to be because of few white rulers. Guatemala’s geography, which is very mountainous, made all the difference with México. Before the viceroyalty of New Spain became México, it extended far into the western USA, but this situation was untenable and the Mexican border was largely defined by its more powerful neighbor. With such a diverse geography, from the northern semi-deserts of México to the frigid Land of Fire (a sub-Antarctic island shared by Chile and Argentina), it was impossible to create one central colonial authority, so the appurtenances of proto-nationhood were the regional authorities that Spain created ad hoc, such as making isolated Chile and volcano-studded Guatemala captaincy-generals, or granting Quito a special political status, or relegating Venezuela to a congeries of minor governorships. The evidence of proto-nationhood is most palpable in the creation of the vice-royalties of New Granada and La Plata. Even the creation of the province and later captaincy-general of Venezuela indicates that Spain knew how diverse its American empire was. Its ethnic, economic, geographic, and linguistic diversities and the political super-structures that made their consolidation inevitable were to be of the highest importance when these proto-nations wanted to become fully independent states. This is what are called the Latin American wars of independence. Brazil followed a wholly different political pattern, but it is relevant to our story only insofar as its frontiers abutted on those of the Spanish American republics whose territories overlapped the Andes to the Amazon basin, which Brazil considered the utmost limit of its sovereignty but had to compromise for reasons that can only be considered on a case-by-case basis, as, for instance, in the decision of New Granada early on to conquer the llanos, which it barely exploited economically and very lightly peopled but still gave it right of sovereignty.


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