Overview of the History of Colombia

The recent history of Colombia has coloured much of the world’s view of it.

Colombia is known around the world for its music, especially the infectiously dance-able cumbia and the heart-warming lyrics of ballenato song.

It is also known for its stunning landscapes of mountains, lakes and deserts, not to mention its amazing beaches on both the Pacific and Atlantic, and some of the best colonial architecture in the Americas.

Colombia is also known for a vibrantly young population of 50 million, including the 8 million-strong ultra-modern capital of Bogota.

Correction: in the above you should substitute “should be known for” in place of “is known for.”

In reality, just as many people think of Colombia as one of the world’s most violent countries, victim of guerillas, paramilitaries, drug lords, and a feckless government.

Colombia is also one of the world’s illegal drug breadbaskets, easily outstripping the vast production of Afghanistan or the USA.

Around the world, a Colombian passport is a ticket to extra long scrutiny from the authorities at border checkpoints.

How did that happen?

The First People in the History of Colombia

Unlike the Incas who lived further south, or the imposing civilizations further north in Mexico, Colombia’s indigenous peoples did not build great cities or monumental buildings. Instead, they are remembered today by their artwork, particularly their gold, and also their pottery.

Some of the older cultures produced burial chambers and rock paintings.

Of course, despite the centuries of being hedged in by Europeans and their descendents, there are still many indigenous people in Colombia, and many people of mixed indigenous, European, and/or African ancestry.

Before the Spaniards arrived, indigenous people tended to live in the Andes region and on the coasts of the Pacific and Caribbean.

The indigenous peoples were very diverse in both culture and language.

Language groupings in Colombia

They can be grouped into three distinct language families (in contrast, the vast majority of European languages, from Irish to Russian, are members of a single language family: Indo-European):
  • Awarak, from eastern South America,

  • Carib, from the Caribbean, and

  • Chibcha, from Central America.

    Cultures belonging to all three families lived side-by-side throughout the history of Colombia.

The various cultures in this part of the history of Colombia have included Tayrona, Sinú, Muisca, Quimbaya, Tierradentro and San Agustín.

The San Agustín civilization is named for the location of the archaeological site it has left behind, the most impressive in Colombia.

San Agustín is located at the head of the Magdalena River, which, along with the Cauca, is Colombia’s main waterway.

The San Agustín archaeological finds include large stone statues of human beings, many with grotesque expressions.

The artifacts may reflect influence from civilizations from as far away as the Andes, the Amazon, and even Mexico and Central America.

The site was occupied by a succession of different peoples beginning as early as 2,300 years ago.

The civilizations located toward the coasts and in the eastern lowlands tended to be hunter-gatherers.

The civilizations in the highlands of the western half of Colombia tended to be based on farming.

Unlike the hunter-gatherer societies, these people were highly stratified and fairly aggressive throughout the history of Colombia.

They were also the civilizations that produced the beautiful gold work that so enthralled the Spaniards throughout the history of Colombia, and the mummies that still captivate archaeologists.

But the largest group of indigenous peoples was the Chibcha, who lived in the basins in the easternmost Andes, except for the Tayrona.

(One of the Chibcha-speaking peoples, who had ethnic distinctions among themselves) who lived near the Caribbean around the volcano, Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.

There may have been as many as 1,000,000 Chibcha individuals at the time of Columbus. They not only farmed, but traded and formed a sprawling political confederation.

The Spaniards Arrive – a new Chapter in the history of Colombia

Like many of the countries that border the Caribbean, Colombia was one of the countries explored by the Columbus’s men.

In 1499, Alonso de Ojeda, who sailed to the Americas with Columbus, landed on the Guajira Peninsula.

The indigenous peoples he met, decked out in the gold jewelry of the local craftspeople, inspired Spanish stories of the mythical civilization of El Dorado (The Golden).

Naturally, numerous expeditions followed. Columbus himself came and met with the Tayrona in 1502.

At first, the Spanish invasion was relatively peaceful. But when Spanish colonists tried to enslave the locals and steal their land, fighting broke out.

Most of what is today Colombia was soon conquered and prosperous towns were founded.

Founded in 1533, Cartagena today remains as perhaps the best-preserved colonial city in the Americas.

Cartagena was named after the Cartagena in the south of Spain, which was named after Carthage (of Hannibal fame) in Tunisia. (Now the site of Tunis).

A series of raiding expeditions in 1538 resulted in the founding of Santa Fe de Bogota, the present-day capital city.

The peoples of the lowlands were almost completely wiped out. However, the agricultural peoples who lived in the highlands left more survivors. During the course of the colonial period, most of the indigenous peoples came to be absorbed into the mestizo population.

Only the peoples living in the Amazon lowlands were able to keep their traditional way of life intact.

In 1544, the country became part of the viceroyalty of Peru, which incorporated most of South America from Colombia to Argentina.

In 1717, the viceroyalty of New Granada was formed. New Granada included present-day Colombia, Panama, Venezuela, and Ecuador. This was a new phase in the history of Colombia.

New Granada was not considered an important part of the Spain’s empire in the Americas.

Though this area gave Spain most of what gold it found in the Americas, the true wealth was in silver from the viceroyalty of Peru (especially the mine at Potosi in present-day Bolivia) and New Spain (a.k.a., Mexico).

In 1781 a major rebellion broke out, the Comunero Revolt, sparked by new taxes from Spain. The revolt was brutally repressed.

The Short Life of Gran Colombia

When Venezuelan-born Simón Bolívar began a war for independence in 1808, Colombia quickly joined.

The long, bloody war did not end until the last Spanish fighter was removed in 1826. Bolívar etched his name in the history of Colombia, and also of Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela.

New Granada was renamed Gran Colombia (“Great” or “Greater” Colombia).

In 1821, Bolívar was elected president, even before Venezuela and Ecuador had finished defeating the Spaniards.

But in 1831, Venezuela and Ecuador each declared independence from New Granada, leaving only what we today know as Colombia, and Panama.

Colombia Has One of the Most Violent Nineteenth Centuries in the Americas

Though one of the most revered revolutionaries of all time, Bolívar was not a great president.

Though he pushed through some reforms, on the whole, his government was authoritarian.

Meanwhile, regional, class, and ethnic divisions were rising to the surface, and the troubled economy left the government little money to develop the country.

Throughout the nineteenth century, enormous surges and even more devastating crises rocked Colombia’s economy.

The economy relied on international sales of gold, and later, tobacco and quinine.

It was not easy for mountainous Colombia to build an infrastructure of shipping and railroads, especially given the technology of the day and the country’s limited resources.

The long time it took to get products to market meant Colombia would only have a competitive edge on a new product for as long as it took another country to start producing it.

Amidst this cyclical economic turmoil, two warring political parties emerged and stayed dominant for much of the history of Colombia.

Liberals wanted to strip the Church of much of its vast land holdings and its quasi-governmental role in the lives of many Colombians, while Conservatives wanted to leave things put.

Liberals also wanted to establish a more business-driven economy, with private ownership of tobacco farms.

They also managed to legislate slavery out of existence, and gave indigenous peoples the right to sell their lands.

Civil War in the history of Colombia in the 19th Century

The two-party divide actually led to bloody civil wars throughout the history of Colombia in the nineteenth century.

One such war, lasting from 1861 to 1863, ended with the victorious Liberals writing a new constitution.

But in 1885, Conservatives allied with rebellious Liberals won control of the government, establishing a new constitution that lasted until 1991.

The Church got back many of its privileges, voting rights were restricted to men who could pass a reading test, civil liberties were curtailed, and the government was highly centralized with a strong executive.

In 1899, Liberals started yet another Colombian civil war, the War of a Thousand Days. It was another bloody period in the history of Colombia.

Lasting until 1902 and killing around 100,000 out of the total population of about 4 million Colombians. The Liberals lost.

In 1903, a weakened Colombia lost control of Panama, where foreign and local businessmen wanted to build a canal and sell it to the US.

The US supported the break, immediately recognizing the new country and buying a 100-year lease on the canal.

New Stability in the First Half of the Twentieth Century

While the Conservative Party dominated Colombian government through the 1930s, Liberals were allowed to participate.

This new stability was partly inspired by the loss of Panama, partly by the new economic stability provided by skyrocketing coffee exports after 1910.

Coffee production was not simply exploitative for Colombia the way earlier export production had been. The farmers who grew the coffee owned their own land and generally kept a decent chunk of the earnings.

This in turn created a home market, fueling domestic industrial development, especially the textile industry centered around Medellin.

Foreign investors sunk money into Caribbean banana plantations, oil fields in the Magdalena Valley, and elsewhere.

In the 1920s, the US paid $25 million in compensation for what it had done with Panama.

Yet rising prosperity also led to rising labor violence. Strikes among workers in the new industries were sometimes bloodily put down, during another period of turmoil in the history of Colombia.

Rising with the growing labor movement and its discontent over the repression of strikes and the depression, the Liberal party took power for the first time since the 1880s.

Liberal reforms included regulations on industry, the right to strike, the end of Catholicism as the official religion, and placing public education under the government’s, rather than the Church’s, control. This sparked great opposition from Conservatives and even some Liberals.

La Violencia in the history of Colombia in the mid 1900's

Two liberals ran for president in 1946: the official candidate, and Gaitán, a man of mixed racial ancestry who opposed the “oligarchs” of both parties.

With the Liberal vote split, the Conservative candidate won. Despite the best efforts of all the major political leaders, violent fighting erupted between Liberals and Conservatives in the countryside.

On April 9, 1948, Gaitán, who had become the leader of the Liberal Party, was assassinated.

For the next ten years, Colombia was engulfed in violence, both between Liberals and Conservatives, and on some level, simply senseless criminal violence that arose in answer to the vacuum of proper government.

Around 180,000 people (by some estimates, as many as 300,000) were killed. The period was simply called La Violencia.

The National Front in the recent history of Colombia

In 1957, Conservative and Liberal leaders formed the National Front: an agreement to rotate the presidency between the two parties for the next 16 years.

Until 1974, the country enjoyed relative peace and stability.

Various insurgent groups, including the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias Colombianas) were formed, but did not gain much power until the end of the National Front in 1974.

Also in the 1960s, Gabriel Garcia Marquez published 100 Years of Solitude, the best-selling book in Spanish since Don Quijote.

It chronicles the history of Colombia’s 19th century internal warfare and 20th century oppression by the powerful.

Yet More Violence in recent Colombian history

Since the end of the National Front, the Conservatives and Liberals have continued to be the only two parties to hold the presidency, with the Liberals taking it all but three times.

But as the 1970s, 80s, and 90s wore on, guerilla groups, especially the FARC, and the newly formed ELN (Ejercito de Liberación Nacional) became increasingly violent and powerful. Meanwhile, drug trafficking surged, particularly in cocaine, and to a lesser extent in heroin.

The government tried both to defeat the guerillas and negotiate their surrender. They succeeded in getting the M-19 to de-mobilize, but the FARC and the ELN kept growing. Government efforts to eradicate drug production were even less successful.

Worse, paramilitary groups sprung up in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The groups were dedicated to fighting the guerillas, mainly by terrorizing ordinary Colombians to win their loyalty.

Though the first paramilitary groups were formed by the government and wealthy landowners, they have become a force unto themselves. Since the early 1990s, the paramilitaries have been responsible for most of the human rights violations resulting from Colombia’s internal warfare.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the situation was further aggravated by the constant pressure of the United States government on the Colombian government to eradicate the drug trade, which has accounted for a third of Colombia’s export earnings.

The war on drugs has fostered still more violence in Colombia, and perhaps also in spread trafficking to nearby countries such as Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Panama, and Belize.

In the last twenty years, Colombia has led the world in the number of kidnappings, led the Americas in the number of homicides, and developed one of the longest-running and bloodiest cases of internal violence ever to stay below the level of full-blown civil war.

by Joel Walsh

In addition to the history of Colombia check out histories of the other Spanish speaking countries.


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