Page 1 of 2 Next page
Index |  History |  Highlights |  WhatWhenWhere
16th - 19th century
     Las Charcas
     Sucre and Bolivia
     Triangular conflicts

20th century

Bookmark and Share
Las Charcas: 1538-1825

In conquering the Inca empire, the conquistadors - even though few in number - move with surprising speed into the Altiplano, the high plateau in the Andes which is often called Upper Peru and which comprises much of modern Bolivia. This is a region with a rich past, as the ruins of Tiwanaku bear witness, but it has been a relatively unimportant part of the Inca realm.

Nevertheless in 1538, just five years after the murder of Atahualpa, there is a Spanish administrative centre at Charcas, later known as Chuquisaca. It is almost as if the conquistadors have forewarning of the discovery which will soon transform this inaccessible region into the wealthiest corner of the Spanish empire.


In 1545 silver deposits are found at Potosí. They turn out to be vast. In 1548 the town of La Paz is established on the trade route between the silver mines and the viceregal capital at Lima. By 1650 the population of Potosí has risen to about 160,000 (London at the time has some 400,000 inhabitants).

Las Charcas, the region administered from Chuquisaca, extends steadily east of the Andes until it eventually includes eastern Bolivia, Paraguay and much of Argentina. This shift of balance is reflected in a change of administrative policy. In 1776 the Spanish empire east of the Andes is removed from the control of Lima and is transferred to Buenos Aires, capital of the new viceroyalty of La Plata.


Astride the Andes, with strong links to both east and west, Las Charcas becomes a battleground during the wars of independence between rebels from Argentina and Spanish royalists in Peru (after a very early failed uprising in Bolivia itself, in 1809). A series of battles here in 1812-14 persuades San Martín that he can only lay a lasting basis for independence by campaigning west of the Andes, through Chile and up into Peru.

His analysis proves accurate. Ten years later the Altiplano is the only part of south America in Spanish hands after rebel forces capture the Peruvian viceroy and his army at Ayacucho in 1824.


Sucre and Bolivia: 1825-1827

The republican victory at Ayacucho leaves only one Spanish army at large, in the high Andean territory of Upper Peru. Sucre moves into this region early in 1825 and defeats the Spanish in April at Tumusla.

Upper Peru has been administered from Lima in the early centuries of Spanish rule, although geographically - lying mainly east of the Andes - it has more obvious links with Buenos Aires. The republican governments in both cities are eager to incorporate this region, with its famous mines at Potosí, but locally a spirit of independence prevails. When Sucre convenes a congress in July 1825 to consider the region's future, the vote is for a separate state.


In honour of their liberators the delegates propose to name the new republic after Bolivár and to rename as Sucre the historic city (Chuquisaca) in which they are meeting.

The nation is duly proclaimed on 6 August 1825 as República Bolívar, soon to be better known to the world as Bolivia. Bolívar himself drafts a constitution. When it is adopted, in 1826, Sucre is elected president for life. Prudently he accepts a term of only two years, but the violence of political life in this new and remote republic means that he does not complete even this modest term. Already in 1827 there are several uprisings, in one of which Sucre is wounded. He resigns as president and returns to his home in Ecuador.


The sudden departure of Sucre before his term is up prefigures a pattern in Bolivian political life. Even by the standards of Latin America, regimes here prove remarkably unstable. It has been calculated that between independence and 1952 (the most significant date in Bolivia's subsequent history) there are no fewer than 179 uprisings against the government of the moment.

Nevertheless in the early years, from 1828, the nation has a dicatator who is unmistakably a strong man in the continent's caudíllo tradition. But his aggressive machismo brings considerable harm to Bolivia at the hands of neighbouring Chile.


Triangular conflicts: 1835-1884

During the first few decades of their existence as the independent nations of Peru, Bolivia and Chile, the three Andean provinces of the old viceroyalty of Peru engage in two bouts of war.

The issue on the first occasion is a straightforward attempt at dominance by a typical Latin American caudíllo. Andrés Santa Cruz establishes himself from 1828 as dictator in Bolivia - after failing in an attempt in the previous year to be elected president of Peru. In 1835 he takes steps to correct this error of judgement by the Peruvians. He marches into Peru with an army from Bolivia.


During 1836 Santa Cruz successfully wins control in Peru and proclaims a new Peruvian-Bolivian confederation with himself as president. But the potential strength of this new neighbour alarms Chile, which goes on the offensive. Three years of warfare end in a Chilean victory. In 1839 Santa Cruz is thrown out of both Peru and Bolivia.

The next serious conflict between the three nations is by contrast entirely economic in origin. In the 1860s valuable deposits of nitrates are discovered in the Atacama desert. This region is so arid that it has previously been considered useless except as Bolivia's only access to the sea (the coast around Antofagasta is at first included in the newly independent republic of Bolivia).


A mutual distrust of Chile causes Peru and Bolivia in 1873 to make a secret alliance which later drags them both into war. In 1878 Bolivia attempts to impose increased taxes on Chilean enterprises in Bolivian territory, following this with a threat of expropriation. Chile, retaliating in February 1879, seizes the port of Antofagasta. By April all three nations are at war.

Two Chilean naval victories over Peru later in the year (off Iquique in May and Angamos in October) are followed by an invasion. In January 1880 Chilean forces take Lima. They remain in the city until a treaty is signed in 1883 at Ancón. A separate truce follows a year later between Chile and Bolivia.


The outcome of this conflict, known as the War of the Pacific, is a disaster for both Bolivia and Peru. Bolivia cedes to Chile its Pacific coastline and the nitrate-rich province of Antofagasta, while Chile in return merely agrees to build a railway from La Paz to the coast and to guarantee the unrestrained passage of Bolivian goods to certain ports. Peru loses the equally valuable minerals of the Tarapacá province, stretching up the coast north of Antofagasta.

With this increase in territory, and the prestige of its two successive victories, Chile replaces Peru as the main Pacific power in south America.


In Bolivia one effect of the loss of Antofagasta is to direct attention eastwards. If Bolivian goods can now only reach the Pacific through Chilean territory, then maybe an outlet to the Atlantic is a more promising proposition. One part of the great network of rivers draining into the Plate is not far from Bolivia's southeastern border.

The Paraguay river at this point is navigable, and Bolivian access to it would be through the virtually uninhabited region known as the Gran Chaco. But neighbouring Paraguay has designs upon the Chaco too. In the early 20th century there are thought to be strong economic reasons for annexing this inhospitable area.


  Page 1 of 2 Next page
Up to top of page HISTORY OF BOLIVIA