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The Colonial Era

The Colonial Era

Venezuela's historical development during the colonial period took place in six subregions. During Christopher Columbus's third voyage, when Europeans first set sight on the coast of Venezuela, there was nothing that drew the special attention of the Spanish. None of the areas dominated the others in terms of population or natural resources. During the course of the next three centuries, however, the Coastal Ranges, which stand behind the coast in the central and eastern parts of the country, would come to dominate the others.

Each of the regions has unique characteristics, and in the early sixteenth century there was little to suggest that the area would become a unified country. The Coast Region is a narrow strip along the Caribbean that stretches from Lake Maracaibo in the west to the Orinoco Delta in the east. It is here that foreigners entered the area and attempted to plunder the coastal towns. The Segovia Highlands form a transitional area between the Andes and the Coast Region in the western part of Venezuela. The inhabitants of these highlands, and those of the Andes, which forms a third area, became increasingly dominated by the economic and political elites from the Coastal Ranges.

The other three regions are in the central and eastern parts of the area. There are two Coastal Ranges, one immediately inland from the coast in the center of what became Venezuela and the other in the east. During most of the colonial period the Central Coastal Range would be associated with the province of Caracas and the Eastern Coastal Range with Cumaná. The fifth area is the llanos, a vast plain forming the interior heartland of Venezuela. Finally, Guayana, which lies east of the Orinoco River, had the least impact upon the development of the province. During the course of three hundred years one can detect the emergence of the dominance of the Coastal Ranges over the other five areas, and of the Coastal Range near Caracas over the Coastal Range near Cumaná.


There were differences in the various groups of indigenous peoples who populated Venezuela prior to the arrival of the Spanish. There were stable sedentary farmers in the Central Coastal Range and in the Andes, slash-and-burn agriculturalists in the llanos, and hunters and gatherers along the coast and in the major river valleys.

The ability of the indigenous peoples to retain their culture during the colonial period was directly related to the relative power of the Spanish. Not surprisingly, indigenous peoples were able to thrive and resist domination most effectively outside the area dominated by the Europeans. In the Andes, on the llanos, and in Guayana indigenous peoples were able to live more or less on their own terms. The large numbers of whites and blacks entering the Coastal Ranges, however, brought the creation of new cultural traditions in those areas. In the regions that the Spanish avoided, the indigenous people continued to live undisturbed until the twentieth century. Perhaps 15 to 20 percent of the total population in 1800 of approximately 900,000 could be classified as indigenous.

Africans came to Venezuela as slaves from the Caribbean Islands, from Colombia, and some directly from Africa. Most came during the last half of the eighteenth century with the opening of free trade as part of the Bourbon Reforms. Slaves could be found in all parts of Venezuela and were utilized in a wide variety of occupations. At the end of the colonial period approximately 10 percent of the population of colonial Venezuela were African slaves. By the mid-eighteenth century, Africans and their descendents had established Maroon societies in the south, such as Aripao along the Caura River.

The other primary racial group was the Spanish. As in other colonies there was a division into those born in Spain and those born in America. Two other distinct groups were important in the social development of Venezuela. The Canary Islanders, who were associated with agriculture, lived near Valencia and identified themselves as a separate ethnic group. The Basques, who came in large numbers during the monopoly of the Caracas Company in the eighteenth century, were successful in obtaining power and wealth during the late colonial period. All whites, including those born in America and Iberia, represented perhaps 20 percent of the total population at the end of the colonial period.

By the end of the colonial period the majority of the people living in Venezuela were of mixed-race background (pardos). They formed by far the largest ethnic group, perhaps just over one-half of the total population. They dominated the population of the Coastal Ranges at the end of the colonial era and would become an important component of the forces fighting to overthrow the Spanish during the Wars of Independence in the second decade of the nineteenth century.

Venezuela's population was sparse during the colonial period. Although pressures increased at the end of the eighteenth century, for the most part subsistence was not a problem. The majority of the people lived on the agriculture of manioc, maize, and beans, which was supplemented by the abundant supply of meat from the llanos.


Venezuela's labor system developed in response to, and as a part of, the Caribbean sphere, which was initially the object of gold and slave raids. For a short time in the 1520s pearls were gathered off the coast, but this source of wealth was quickly exhausted. Lacking a great indigenous civilization and significant mineral wealth, Venezuela's labor system would develop much differently than elsewhere on the continent.

Before the arrival of the Spanish, the indigenous population is estimated to have been perhaps fifty thousand along the coast and in the coastal valleys. Others lived in the inland valleys. The Venezuelan indigenous population fell by 50 to 75 percent during the first century after the Conquest.

The Conquest and settlement of Venezuela spread from the extremes in the east and west toward the center. From Cumaná in the east and Coro in the west, the Conquest and settlement converged at Caracas by the last quarter of the sixteenth century. The early search for profits from slave raiding, gold extraction, and pearl fishing gave way to agricultural development. The production of wheat and cacao caused the colonists to turn to the encomienda system. This development proceeded slowly from the central valleys (Caracas, Valencia, and Barquisimeto) to the outlying areas. In the latter, indigenous slavery persisted until the seventeenth century. Encomiendas in Venezuela entailed predominately personal service rather than tribute collecting until the end of the seventeenth century.

In the coastal regions encomienda labor gave way to African slave labor by the third decade of the seventeenth century, especially in the cacao plantation economy. With the exception of the mission areas and the far south, Amerindians in Venezuela maintained the old pattern of subsistence agriculture. Cacao replaced wheat as the principal source of export earnings. The cacao tree was indigenous to Venezuela, and originally the beans were shipped exclusively to Mexico. The market greatly increased when Europeans began to acquire a taste for the product. Caracas emerged as the dominant area of Venezuela because of its role in controlling the production of both wheat and cacao.


Most of the earliest exploration of what is today Venezuela was a result of the search for slaves to serve the Spanish settlers on Cuba and Hispaniola. This activity did little to establish a permanent Spanish presence in Venezuela. It did, however, provide the Spanish with enough information to cause them to seek other sources of wealth that would provide more permanent settlements.

The Spanish were attracted initially to the islands of Cubagua and Margarita because of the rich pearl beds, which proved to be a source of considerable income for the colonists and the crown in the 1520s and 1530s. The beds quickly played out, although the Spanish had by then established towns on Margarita Island and on the mainland at Cumaná and Barcelona.

The first Hispanic settlement in the vicinity of Caracas was established by settlers from Margarita Island. In 1558 Francisco Fajardo and a few Margariteños settled near the future port of La Guaira. The settlers spent a year trading along the coast, but were driven off by local peoples. Undaunted, Fajardo returned the next year with reinforcements from Margarita Island. This time he divided the indigenous people into encomiendas, the first to be created along the Venezuelan coast. The settlers from Margarita Island had pushed near to the site of what became Caracas. The formal establishment of the town was accomplished by settlers who pushed eastward from the colony's other Hispanic center in Coro.

Serious exploration and settlement of western Venezuela came in 1528, when Charles I granted the Welser banking house the administration of Venezuela in repayment for the bank's support in the religious wars of the sixteenth century. Governor Ambrosio Alfínger and Nicolas Federmann led the early expeditions, which were followed for the next two decades by many others. Driven by their desire to find El Dorado, the German explorers found little else of interest. After two decades the Germans could claim that they had founded Coro and Maracaibo, increased geographic knowledge, and intensified Indian hostility. Nominally the Welser possession lasted until 1556, but the Spanish effectively regained control in the late 1540s.

From the base at Coro, the Spanish established a string of successful settlements. These towns indicated that the colony had matured from the era of simple exploitation under the Welser grant. The establishment of the towns of El Tocuyo (1545), Barquisimeto (1552), Valencia (1556), and Caracas (1567) brought to an end the first phase of the colonial period, which was characterized by the establishment of encomiendas.

The growth of towns during the first two-thirds of the sixteenth century was a very slow process. Prior to the mid-century the Spanish founded four towns, which served as stations for the pearl fisheries and as slaving stations. Two were successful: Cumaná (founded 1520) and Coro (founded 1527). Paría was abandoned after only a short time and a hurricane struck the fourth, New Cádiz. Fourteen towns were founded during the third quarter of the century. The second wave of community building occurred in the interior valleys as opposed to the earlier development on the coast. These newer sites shared with earlier communities the fact that they were hampered by Indian raids and the lack of an adequate labor base.

Caracas served as a base for the further exploration of the colony, which was not secured, however, until smallpox greatly reduced indigenous resistance in 1580. The indigenous population declined by perhaps two-thirds in the immediate Caracas valley, from perhaps 30,000 to 10,000, because of the epidemic. The elimination of the indigenous peoples as a serious threat to Caracas and the surrounding area allowed the colony to develop in a much more stable climate.

The period from the last quarter of the sixteenth century to the establishment of the captaincy general in the 1770s was an era of slow, almost imperceptible change. The overriding theme of the period was the establishment of Caracas as the dominant economic, social, and political power of the area today known as Venezuela. At the opening of this period Venezuela was a collection of independent geographic regions tied to New Granada, the Caribbean, or Spain. Caracas itself was just one of a number of towns surrounded by a limited geographic area that interacted much more with a distant part of the empire than with another region of what would become Venezuela.


The colonial Venezuelan economy was diversified, producing agricultural products for internal and external markets. In the seventeenth century cacao, wheat, tobacco, and hides dominated external trade. Other products included cotton, indigo, gold, and copper. These products were exported primarily to Mexico and Spain, with the largest volume of trade in the seventeenth century being the cacao and wheat going to Mexico. The funds obtained from external trade went largely to purchase African black slaves and manufactured products from Europe.

There was also a sizable internal trade within the three major economic zones of what would eventually become Venezuela: the central valleys surrounding Caracas, the eastern periphery focusing upon Cumaná and the interior plains, and the western periphery reaching from the Andes to Coro and Maracaibo. At the beginning of the mature colonial period these three areas had little contact with one another. There was a great deal of intraregional trade, but very little interregional trade. There was nothing inevitable about Caracas's eventual domination over the other areas. The Spanish colonial system, which during the eighteenth century called for increasing centralization, was itself responsible for the eventual emergence of Caracas as the dominant city and province.

By the end of the sixteenth century caraqueños were selling wheat to Cartagena, where it was used to supply the Spanish fleet, thus bringing the city's residents into the world trading system. In the 1620s Caracas residents discovered that cacao beans could be sold profitably to Nahuas and other peoples in Mexico. In 1622 Mexican imports of Venezuelan cacao were about 6,960 pounds annually, but during the period from 1620 to 1650 they averaged about 133,400 pounds a year, and from 1651 to 1700, 748,200 pounds. This caused an expansion of the area under cultivation from the coastal valleys to the fertile valleys of the Tuy River and its tributary streams. In the 1720s the success of the cacao trade attracted the attention of the Spanish crown, leading to the establishment of the Real Compañía Guipuzcoana de Caracas or Caracas Company.

The Caracas Company was a mercantile enterprise chartered to control trade between Venezuela and Spain from 1728 to 1784. It was formed in Spain in 1728 by José de Patiño. The company was given the exclusive right to control the cacao trade between Venezuela and Spain. In return for this monopoly, the Caracas Company agreed to suppress the contraband trade, defend the Venezuelan coast, stimulate regional production of cacao, and provide slaves to the colony.

The Caracas Company was a mixed success. The first four decades of its existence were marked by expansion and profit. The production and legal exportation of cacao increased significantly during the decades, from 2.5 million pounds per year in the 1720s to over 6 million pounds annually in the early 1760s. This expansion in cacao production and trade, however, did little to enhance the overall condition of the colony. The planters elected to increase production in order to counteract the lower prices paid by the Caracas Company for cacao. This pushed the expansion of the plantation system, a classic case of growth without development. The efforts to halt contraband activities were not totally successful. Finally, the Caracas Company was unable to supply the colony with sufficient numbers of black slaves or European goods. These problems, the Bourbon Reforms, and the wars that disrupted trading patterns caused the company's fortunes to decline, and the crown terminated the Caracas Company's charter in 1784.

The Caracas Company's most enduring legacy was that it ensured the primacy of Caracas over the remainder of the captaincy general. By expanding the economic sphere of the capital, both in terms of area and power, the activities of the Caracas Company preceded the political centralization of the colony later in the century.


The establishment of the Caracas Company was just one example of the crown's increased emphasis on the colony after years of neglect. By the middle of the eighteenth century the crown also moved to increase its control over church and government. The Franciscans, Capuchins, Dominicans, Jesuits, and Augustinians were active in Venezuela during the colonial period. The Franciscans were active from the early years in the colony, eventually establishing themselves in the central area in and around Caracas. In Venezuela the Franciscans are best remembered for their influence on culture and on education. The order contributed substantially to the rise of the dominance of Caracas since it selected the city as the location of its activities in the colony. The location of the center of learning in the colony in Caracas further enhanced the city as the primary settlement in the colony. The separate group of Franciscans were active as missionaries in the Píratu area of eastern Venezuela.

On a much larger scale, the Capuchin order formed part of the Great Mission Arc stretching from Paraguay to the Andes. The two major areas of missionary penetration were in the llanos, established by the Capuchin Franciscans in the last half of the seventeenth century, and in the interior south of Cumaná, established around 1650. The Capuchins were extraordinarily active, founding over 150 towns.

The Dominicans, Augustinians, and Jesuits also contributed to the colony's spiritual development. Each had much less of an influence than the Franciscans and the Capuchins, but nevertheless were part of the missionary activity that enhanced the expansion of European society. By the middle of the eighteenth century the crown moved to control the orders by putting secular clergy in charge of the missions. In 1767 the crown expelled the Jesuits from the colonies and confiscated their property.


The Caracas Company and the Franciscans are but two examples of institutions that assisted in the dominance of Caracas over the outlying provinces. Perhaps even greater emphasis should be placed on a series of actions taken by the Spanish monarchs known collectively as the Bourbon Reforms, which created the Consulado, the intendancy, the Caracas Battalion, the audiencia, and the captaincy general.

In 1776 the crown ordered the creation of the Intendancy of Venezuela, which placed the six provinces of Venezuela (Caracas, Cumaná, Barinas, Mérida de Maracaibo, Guayana, and Trinidad and Margarita) under a single fiscal administrator in Caracas. In effect this made the intendant's approval necessary for any major project involving royal funds.

Political and military authority were centralized in Caracas with the creation of the Captaincy General of Venezuela. This reform, effected in 1777, was to a large extent mandated by defense interests. Since the creation of the Caracas Battalion in the 1750s, the military forces in Caracas had more influence and power than those in the other provinces. In 1771 a thorough reorganization of the militia created a new command structure that allowed the reform to spread throughout the other provinces. The final bureaucratic centralization occurred in 1786 with the creation of the Audiencia of Caracas. Prior to this date appeals to a legal tribunal had to go to Santo Domingo or Bogotá. This not only eliminated a great deal of expense and time, but reinforced the dominance of Caracas over the other provinces.

During the last quarter of the eighteenth century these reforms helped create the conditions for an expansion of commerce and production. The intendant became an active participant in economic expansion, a new role for the Spanish monarchy. Trade was liberalized, including the legalization of the trade for many articles formerly available only as contraband. A consulado linking merchants and planters from all over Venezuela into a powerful representative group was formed in the 1780s. In 1789 the crown allowed Venezuela at least partial free trade. Expeditions to the Antilles were allowed in order to trade agricultural products for slaves, and the crown even began to approve of trade with allies and neutral nations during the repeated wars with Great Britain.

Other institutional changes added to the prominence of Caracas. In 1725 the Seminary of Caracas was upgraded to the Real y Pontífica Universidad de Caracas. A Colegio de Abogados was established in the 1780s. In 1804 the crown created the Archbishopric of Venezuela, which brought the bishops of Mérida de Maracaibo and Guyana-Cumaná under the power of the Caracas seat.


Venezuela was a beneficiary of the Bourbon economic policies. This was especially true in the export sector, which depended upon slavery and tenancy. Several minor uprisings in the two decades prior to 1810 indicated that there were tensions. In 1795 slaves and free laborers seized a number of plantations in the area near Coro before being ruthlessly suppressed. Two years later royal officials discovered a plot led by local Creole military officers and supported by representatives of all classes. The most dangerous plot may have been that of Francisco de Miranda, who made two unsuccessful efforts to liberate Venezuela in 1806.

On 19 April 1810 the cabildo in Caracas deposed the captain-general and the audiencia. The leaders appointed a junta made up of moderate autonomists and revolutionary nationalists. With both groups composed of members of the elite, there was widespread agreement on economic issues. The junta reduced taxes and established free trade. Property qualifications kept most of the population from participating in the political process. Congress convened in March 1811, replaced the junta with a three-person executive, declared independence on 5 July, and wrote a federalist constitution. The two most important leaders were Francisco de Miranda and Simón Bolívar, neither of whom were revolutionaries in the sense of wanting to improve the lot of the majority of the Venezuelan people.

The new republican government was unpopular and was criticized by both radicals and conservatives. The First Republic had a short life. In 1812, after a calamitous earthquake that was taken as an omen by the people, royalist forces persuaded Miranda to capitulate. He did so with the understanding that the lives and property of the republicans would be protected. Bolívar was outraged at Miranda's seemingly treasonous activity and arranged for the latter's arrest by the Spanish. Miranda was sent to Spain, where he died four years later. The stage was set for the long struggle for independence under the leadership of Bolívar.

In 1813 Bolívar returned to fight in Venezuela with a new political philosophy. Instead of democracy and federalism, as represented in the 1811 Constitution, Bolívar called for centralization and a more independent military after the fall of the First Republic. Despite some successes, Bolívar and his republican forces were repeatedly defeated by royalist forces. His most difficult opposition came from José Tomás Boves, a royalist caudillo who had organized the llaneros of southern Venezuela into a cavalry.

In 1815 Ferdinand VII sent General Pablo Morillo to northern South America to pacify Venezuela. Morillo, who replaced General Juan Manuel de Cajigal as captain-general, allied himself with the wealthy planter class that had called for the break with Spain in 1811. The lack of efficient bureaucracy forced Morillo to confiscate property to supply his army of pacification. Relying on terror and the military prowess of his experienced corps, Morillo conquered Venezuela and most of New Granada.

The harsh policies of Morillo resulted in a realignment of social forces in the struggle for the expulsion of the royalists. The Creole elites saw clearly that independence from Spain and from tyrants such as Morillo was necessary to maintain their own power and status. Two groups that had formerly fought for the royalists, the llaneros and the blacks, joined forces with Bolívar and the elites, creating an alliance between the socially conservative elite and the lower classes. The Venezuelan llaneros were led by José Antonio Páez, a brilliant military leader and future Venezuelan president. A national congress meeting in Angostura in 1819 named Bolívar president.

The Congress of Angostura called for the creation of the Republic of Colombia (oftentimes called Gran Colombia), which would unify Venezuela, New Granada, and the still-to-be liberated Ecuador. A constituent assembly met in 1821 to write a new constitution, giving the centralist executive wide-ranging powers. Bolívar, with the title of provisional president of Colombia, began his conquest of northern South America.

It soon became clear that the final chapter in the war between Spain and Venezuela would be settled by force of arms. The patriot victory at the battle of Boyacá in August 1819 caused Morillo to see that the end was at hand. After the liberal rebellion in Spain in 1820, he was ordered to negotiate with the patriots on the basis of the Constitution of 1812. In November 1820 representatives of Bolívar and Morillo signed a six-month armistice.

The Battle of Carabobo is considered to be the final major military engagement of the War for Independence in Venezuela. On the morning of 24 June 1821 the patriots, under the command of Bolívar, faced royalist troops under the leadership of General Miguel de la Torre, who had taken command of the Spanish forces after the departure of Morillo the previous year. Bolívar's forces were joined at Carabobo by the llaneros of José Antonio Páez. The patriot force outnumbered the royalists, and half of the royalist force was captured, the rest fleeing to the fort at Puerto Cabello. The patriots also gained important munitions, including artillery pieces and a large amount of ammunition. Bolívar entered Caracas less than a week later. He organized a government at Cúcuta on the border of New Granada and Venezuela, marking the beginning of Venezuelan national reconstruction.

See alsoSlavery: Indian Slavery and Forced Labor; Venezuela, Constitutions.


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Additional Bibliography

Archer, Christon I. The Wars of Independence in Spanish America. Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 2000.

Diaz, Arlene J. Female Citizens, Patriarchs, and the Law in Venezuela, 1786–1904. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2004.

Eastwood, Jonathan. The Rise of Nationalism in Venezuela. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2006.

Herrera Salas, Jesús María. El negro Miguel y la primera revolución venezolana: La cultura del poder y el poder de la cultura. Caracas: Vadell Hermanos Editores, 2003.

Laserna Gaitán, Antonio Ignacio. Tierra, gobierno local y actividad misionera en la comunidad indígena del Oriente Venezolano: La visita a la provincia de Cumaná de Don Luis de Chávez y Mendoza (1783–1784). Caracas: Academia Nacional de la Historia, 1993.

Pollak-Eltz, Angelina. La esclavitud en Venezuela: Un estudio histórico-cultural. Caracas: Universidad Católica Andrés Bello, 2000.

Tarver Denova, Hollis Micheal and Julia C. Frederick. The History of Venezuela. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2005.

                                           Gary Miller

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