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Settlement & Colonization

Well before the arrival of Europeans, several distinct indigenous groups populated the area now called Argentina. The Incas had made inroads into the highlands of the Northwest. Most other groups were nomadic hunters and fishers, such as those in the Chaco, the Tehuelche of Patagonia, and the Querandí and Puelche (Guennakin) of the Pampas. Others (the Diaguitas, of the Northwest) developed stationary agriculture. The Mapuche Indians, a warrior tribe based at the very bottom of Patagonia in both Argentina and Chile, were the only Indian tribe never conquered by the Spanish.

The Argentina we know today took shape only after repeat attempts at colonization by the Spanish. Much of Spain's effort was initially aimed at staving off Portuguese expansion in what today is Brazil. The first European known to have laid eyes on the area that would become Buenos Aires was Juan Díaz de Solís, who sailed up what is now the Río de la Plata and named it the Mar Dulce, or Sweet Sea. Ferdinand Magellan retraced the route in 1520, thinking he had stumbled upon a passageway that would take him to the Pacific Ocean. Sebastian Cabot returned on a treasure-hunting expedition in 1526. An exchange with local Indians yielded trinkets of gold and silver, and so Cabot renamed the Mar Dulce the Río de la Plata, or River of Silver, in expectation of riches he hoped to find. Then he returned to Spain to convince the crown that more wealth was to be had in the region.

In 1535, Spain -- victorious after having conquered Peru, yet aware of Portugal's presence in Brazil -- sent an expedition, headed by Pedro de Mendoza, to settle the region. Mendoza was initially successful in founding Santa María del Buen Aire, or Buenos Aires (1536), but the lack of food proved fatal. Mendoza, mortally ill and discouraged by Indian attacks, sailed for Spain with a hundred of his men in 1537. He died on the way, and his body was cast out to sea.

The Spanish had greater success in other parts of the country. In 1573, Jerónimo Luís de Cabrera founded Córdoba in central Argentina. The city was a Jesuit stronghold, and the religious order established the Universidad Nacional de Córdoba in 1613, one of the oldest universities in South America. Córdoba remained an important city through much of colonial Argentina. To this day, it's Argentina's most important education center, where one out of five residents is a student.

Mendoza, in the shadows of the Andes, was settled in 1561 by Pedro del Castillo. He had pushed into the region from an expedition based out of Santiago, in modern Chile. In 1535, the Spaniards began exploring the Northwest, as they expanded down through the recently conquered Inca Empire, and founded the city of Salta in 1582.

In 1580, Juan de Garay resettled Buenos Aires. His expedition sailed from Asunción, in Paraguay, down the Paraná River. At the time, Asunción was a significant city within the Spanish Empire, and Jesuit missions on the border of what is today Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay thrived, providing economic output and the ability to control the frontiers. Garay had with him about 45 men and, uniquely, one woman, Ana Díaz. Díaz's role has been obscured by time, and it is unknown whether she was a prostitute from Asunción who accompanied the troops or whether she should be exalted as a female conquistador. In any case, a woman's touch on the expedition proved to be the charm. Upon the second attempt to colonize, the city continued to grow into a permanent, though small, colonial establishment. Ana Díaz's colonial landholdings were on what is today Calle Florida.

While today Buenos Aires is the cultural and political capital of Argentina, it was a backwater region for a long time during the colonial period. More important were Córdoba, Salta, the Jesuit missions, and other parts of the country closer to Lima and Asunción, the centers of power in the Spanish Empire. Buenos Aires was logistically important in defending the lower half of the Spanish Empire from the Portuguese. Constant skirmishes continued between the two empires, with neighboring Uruguay as a disputed territory. Tiny Colonia, across the Río de la Plata from Buenos Aires, passed back and forth, and its buildings reflect the styles of the two ruling powers. With access to the Río de la Plata and the open Atlantic, however, it was inevitable that Buenos Aires -- at first a lonely outpost on the edge of the vast Pampas -- would grow to be one of the continent's most important cities.

Independence & Warfare

All revolutions are political as well as economic, and Argentina's was no exception. By the late 1700s, Buenos Aires was the preeminent port within the region, and cattle hides became a major component of the economy. The trade, however, was heavily taxed and strictly regulated by the Spanish crown, so smuggling and circumventing became the norm, along with illicit trade with the British. Downtown Buenos Aires is still riddled with underground tunnels. Many of them opened directly to what had been the port area along the Río de la Plata, and cargo passed untaxed through them during this time period. To this day, it is not clear whether the Jesuits may have built them, even farther back, as secret passageways. In any case, the merchants' desire to end taxation began to foment, feeding a greater drive for overall political independence.

Indirect trade was not enough for the British. Sensing that the Spanish Empire was weakening, they attacked Buenos Aires in 1806 and 1807. The battles were known as the Reconquista and the Defensa. These battles are memorialized in the names of the streets of Buenos Aires that feed into the Plaza de Mayo, which were the routes the Argentine armies used to oust the British. Able to defend themselves without the aid of Spain, many Argentine-born Europeans began to debate the idea of self-government in Buenos Aires.

The Revolution of Buenos Aires was declared on May 25, 1810, marking the beginnings of the independence movement. On July 9, 1816 (Nueve de Julio), Buenos Aires officially declared its independence from Spain, under the name United Provinces of the Río de la Plata. Several years of hard fighting followed before the Argentines defeated the Spanish in northern Argentina, and the Europeans remained a threat until Perú was liberated by General José de San Martín, considered the national hero of Argentina, and later by Simón Bolívar, from 1820 to 1824. With Lord George Canning as their main representative, Britain officially recognized Argentina's independence. Argentina's relationship with this European world power, however, would remain tenuous.

Spain's defeat, however, did not mean that Argentina had peace. Boundaries and the power structure were still unclear. Strongmen with private armies, called caudillos, controlled remote regions, as was the case in other areas of South America after independence. Even with a national constitution, the territory that now constitutes modern Argentina was frequently disunited until 1860. The national debate included the question of whether Buenos Aires would be the new capital.

The internal and external struggles were brutal, changing both the physical and ethnic structure of the country. In 1864, the War of the Triple Alliance (also known as the Paraguayan War), broke out between Paraguay and an alliance of Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay. Paraguayan president Francisco Solano López saw himself as an emperor and hoped to give the country an Atlantic port. The war, which devastated Paraguay, lasted 6 years, and was among the bloodiest fighting ever on South American soil.

Of the three countries fighting Paraguay, Argentina recovered from the war quickest, and it served as an impetus for unification. From this point on, Argentina was the most powerful and wealthiest country on the continent -- and remained so for nearly 80 years.

Modern Argentine historians dispute this subplot, but the Argentine army fought its battles by placing black soldiers at the front lines, where they faced immediate slaughter, ahead of white soldiers. For this reason, Argentina, unlike much of South America, is home to few descendants of slaves brought from Africa.

Argentina's ethnic makeup was further altered in the late 1870s by General Julio Argentino Roca's Campaign of the Desert. Essentially, he drew a line out from Buenos Aires and slaughtered virtually every Indian within it. He claimed to do so in the name of national defense and the economy, in light of the fact that some Indian populations stole cattle and attacked the various estancias and forts within the Pampas and Upper Patagonia. The destruction of the native population further consolidated Buenos Aires's control of the hinterlands, and led to a wave of new ranches and estancias, and the unimpeded development of the railroads. Now only within the north and the very south of Argentina (areas untouched by Roca) do Indians exist in any substantial numbers.

It was these two specific genocidal policies -- toward descendants of African and indigenous South American folk -- that laid the ground for the largely white and European culture that Argentina was to become. Needless to say, however, Argentines have a sensitive relationship with this period and often gloss over it in historical accounts. Many historians account for the lack of an African population by arguing that blacks died out naturally or simply intermarried with the millions of white immigrants until pure Africans no longer existed.

The fact that Africans existed in Argentina is most evident, however, in the nation's most important cultural contribution to the world -- the tango. Like all musical and dance forms native to the Americas, it owes its roots to slave culture. Photographs of gauchos from the late 1800s also show that many were clearly of African descent. The overwhelmingly white society of greater Buenos Aires that tourists see today was not simply the proud result of millions of Italians and Spaniards descending from boats after a long Atlantic voyage, but was instead the result of a deliberate government policy of genocide.

Buenos Aires, The Capital

Genuine unification of Argentina did not occur until 1880, 300 years after the permanent founding of Buenos Aires. On this anniversary, the city was officially made the capital. The return of San Martín's body that year, to a permanent tomb within the Catedral Metroplitano on Plaza de Mayo, solidified and symbolized the city's absolute authority.

From then on, Buenos Aires experienced a period of explosive growth and wealth, laying the foundations for the glory days that Argentines remember about their country. Trade with Europe expanded, with cattle and grain from the newly conquered hinterlands serving as the main exports. Millions of immigrants came from Italy, Spain, and other countries, filling the city's slums, primarily in the southern sections of La Boca and San Telmo. To this day, there are almost as many Italian last names as Spanish in Argentina. Even the language spoken in Argentina seems almost like Italian-accented Spanish, with its rhythm and pitch. Lunfardo, the street dialect associated with tango, owes many of its words to immigrant Italian.

The exponential growth of this time means that Buenos Aires -- unlike in Salta, Córdoba, and other old Argentine cities -- retains few colonial buildings besides its churches. In fact, by the late 1800s, the capital made a conscious effort to completely rebuild much of its cityscape, following a pattern loosely based on Haussman's plans for rebuilding Paris under Second Empire France. Much of this was to be done in time for the 1910 Independence Centennial celebrations.

Developers laid new boulevards over the original Spanish colonial grid. The most important was Avenida de Mayo, which opened in 1893 and would serve as the government procession route, linking the Casa Rosada or Presidential Palace on its eastern end with the new Congreso on its western terminus. Lined with Beaux Arts and Art Nouveaux buildings, according to the styles of the time, it became the cultural and nightlife center of the city. Diagonal Norte and Diagonal Sud were also laid out (though not completed for many years later). The widest boulevard in the world, 9 de Julio, was planned in 1888 as well, but its construction didn't begin until 1937. Technically, it remains incomplete.

The majority of Buenos Aires's most iconic structures were built at this time -- the Teatro Colón, the Water Palace, the Subway System, Congreso, Retiro Station, and the innumerable palaces and mansions that still line the streets in the northern sector. For nearly 30 years, the city was an ongoing construction site, as it forcefully rebuilt itself with a European image. While Argentina had the wealth and resources to pay for the massive rebuilding, however, it lacked the know-how and had to import its talent, labor, and even materials from Europe. The capital's planners, architects, and engineers came from the Old World, bringing with them the beautiful structural materials that now grace the city. A sticking point for many years was the fact that the British built and controlled the railroads.

Today, as a visitor mindful of Argentina's past several decades of political and economic chaos, it is difficult to make sense of the ostentatiously built infrastructure that remains from this earlier time. In essence, between 1880 and 1910, Argentina assumed the height of its wealth and power. Built at great expense of labor, money, and determination, Buenos Aires was the imperial capital of a country hungry to assert its importance on the world stage. Indeed, at the turn of the last century Argentina was one of the 10 wealthiest countries in the world.

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