One of the most important cities in South America, Buenos Aires has a long and interesting history. It has lived under the shadow of secret police on more than one occasion, has been attacked by foreign powers and has the unfortunate distinction of being one of the only cities in history to be bombed by its own navy. It has been home to ruthless dictators, bright-eyed idealists and some of the most important writers and artists in the history of Latin America. The city has seen economic booms that brought in stunning wealth as well as economic meltdowns that have driven the population into poverty. Here is its history:
Buenos Aires was founded twice. A settlement at the present day site was established briefly in 1536 by conquistador Pedro de Mendoza, but attacks by local indigenous tribes forced the settlers to move to Asunción, Paraguay in 1539 and by 1541 the site had been burned and abandoned. The harrowing story of the attacks and the overland journey to Asunción was written down by one of the survivors, German mercenary Ulrico Schmidl, after he returned to his native land around 1554. In 1580, another settlement was established, and this one lasted.
The city was well-located to control all trade in the region containing present-day Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay and parts of Bolivia, and it thrived. In 1617 the province of Buenos Aires was removed from control by Asunción, and the city welcomed its first bishop in 1620. As the city grew, it became too powerful for the local indigenous tribes to attack, but became the target of European pirates and privateers. At first, much of the growth of Buenos Aires was in illicit trade, as all official trade with Spain had to go through Lima.
Buenos Aires was established on the banks of the Río de la Plata (Platte River), which translates to “River of Silver.” It was given this optimistic name by early explorers and settlers, who had gotten some silver trinkets from local Indians. The river didn’t produce much in the way of silver, and settlers didn’t find the true vale of the river until much later. In the eighteenth century, cattle ranching in the vast grasslands around Buenos Aires became very lucrative and millions of treated leather hides were sent to Europe, where they became leather armor, shoes, clothing and a variety of other products. This economic boom led to the establishment in 1776 of the Viceroyalty of the River Platte, based in Buenos Aires.
The British Invasions
Using the alliance between Spain and Napoleonic France as an excuse, Britain attacked Buenos Aires twice in 1807-1807, attempting to further weaken Spain while at the same time gaining valuable New World colonies to replace the ones it had so recently lost in the American Revolution. The first attack, led by Colonel William Carr Beresford, succeeded in capturing Buenos Aires, although Spanish forces out of Montevideo were able to re-take it about two months later. A second British force arrived in 1807 under the command of Lieutenant General John Whitelocke. The British took Montevideo, but were unable to capture Buenos Aires, which was ably defended by urban guerilla militants. The British were forced to retreat.
The British invasions had a secondary effect on the city. During the invasions, Spain had essentially left the city to its fate, and it had been the citizens of Buenos Aires who had taken up arms and defended their city. When Spain was invaded by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1808, the people of Buenos Aires decided they had seen enough of Spanish rule, and in 1810 they established an independent government, although formal Independence would not come until 1816. The fight for Argentine Independence, led by José de San Martín, was largely fought elsewhere and Buenos Aires did not suffer terribly during the conflict.
Unitarians and Federalists
When the charismatic San Martín went into self-imposed exile in Europe, there was a power vacuum in the new nation of Argentina. Before long, a bloody conflict hit the streets of Buenos Aires. The country was divided between Unitarians, who favored a strong central government in Buenos Aires, and Federalists, who preferred near-autonomy for the provinces. Predictably, the Unitarians were mostly from Buenos Aires and the Federalists were from the provinces. In 1829, Federalist strongman Juan Manuel de Rosas seized power and those Unitarians who did not flee were persecuted by Latin America’s first secret police, the Mazorca. Rosas was removed from power in 1852 and Argentina’s first constitution was ratified in 1853.