Magazine article Americas (English Edition)

Portal to a Bygone Era: The Cobblestone Streets and Fortified Walls of Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay, Are Vestiges of a Stage Where the Portuguese-Spanish Tug-of-War Played out during the 18th Century

Magazine article Americas (English Edition)

Portal to a Bygone Era: The Cobblestone Streets and Fortified Walls of Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay, Are Vestiges of a Stage Where the Portuguese-Spanish Tug-of-War Played out during the 18th Century

Article excerpt

Few places in the Americas offer such a distinct sense of the pastas the Uruguayan town of Colonia del Sacramento. The aura of antiquity comes in part from the immaculately maintained cobbled streets, the beautiful old churches, and the narrow lanes of bougainvillea laden, slate-roofed stone houses. But the illusion of a place out of time, a town existing quite apart from our 21st century, comes also from its incredible realm of quietude. Colonia's languid pace and lovely tree-lined streets, free of any traffic and hubbub, are atypical of the modern world.

Colonia's antithesis, the bustling megalopolis of Buenos Aires, Argentina, lays a short fifteen miles west across the estuary of the Rio de la Plata. For centuries, these two citadels have guarded the mouths of the Rio Parana and the Rio Uruguay, paths to the interior of the South American continent and highways down which riches flowed to the old world.

The founding of the Portuguese town of Nova Colonia do Santisimo Sacramento in 1680 by Manuel de Lobo began 131 years of conflict between the Portuguese and the Spanish and earned it the title, Manzana de la discordia (Apple of Discord). Prior to Colonia's founding, Europeans saw little to recommend in the area. The region was inhabited by a group of indigenous peoples, the Charrua, hunters and gathering about which little was known. In 1516, Spanish explorer, Juan Diaz de Solis, sailed into the enormous caramel-colored estuary of the Rio de la Plata. The estuary forms a huge wedge, 174 miles across at its mouth, driven into the eastern flank of South America separating eastern Uruguay from Argentina. Seeing little of value and few natives, de Solis landed somewhere in the vicinity of Colonia only to be immediately killed by the evidently distrustful Charrua. The dearth of mineral wealth in the area attracted little European attention allowing the region's ecology and character to remain relatively intact for almost two centuries.

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During this time, prior to the continuous conflicts between Spain and Portugal, pirates and privateers from England, Spain, Holland, and France set cattle loose throughout the region. The non-native herds proliferated, and their dried meat and hides, along with ill-gotten gains from piracy and smuggling, became fundamental items of trade. Interestingly, the native peoples adapted to the new food source. Archaeological evidence, in the form of much larger stones for bolas and arrowheads twice the size as before contact, point to a change in the animals hunted by the natives. Signs of the probable modification in their diet were also observed. The first Creole governor of Buenos Aires, Hernando Arias de Saavedra, introduced even more cattle and some horses into the area in the early 1600s. Over time, what is now Uruguay was transformed into an enormous open range.

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The two large rivers emptying into the estuary, the Parana and the Uruguay, were easy highways into and out of the heart of the continent. Measuring 2,485 and 1,000 miles long respectively, they provided access to the riches hidden deep within. Gold and silver from Peru, rubies and emeralds from Bolivia, and other exotic items passed down-river and eventually to Europe. Commerce traveled upriver as well. Portuguese and Spaniards transported and smuggled goods into the interior, spawning conflicts between these colonial behemoths.

While the Portuguese were present in the area since 1534, they spent the 16th and 17th centuries occupied in creating their huge Atlantic colony of Brazil; defending it from the Dutch, French, and Spanish; and finally freeing Portugal itself and its colonies from the control of Spain. Spain, with its creation of the port of Buenos Aires, on the western shore of the Rio de la Plata in 1536, was the predominant force in the estuary. In 1680, Don Pedro, the Prince Regent of Portugal, sought to expand Portuguese territory southward and ordered the founding of a new town on the eastern bank of the estuary of Rio de la Plata. …

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