Conquest through Independence

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Conquest through Independence

When the Spanish armies of Sebastián de Belalcázar invaded the north Andes in 1533, the region had already undergone fifty years of turmoil. The Inca Empire (Tawantinsuyu) had not incorporated the region's six independent indigenous chiefdoms until 1495, and the subsequent succession struggle between Atahualpa and Huascar had only prolonged the period of disorder.


The Spanish overthrow of the Inca state brought additional problems, as the distribution of Native American towns as grants of encomienda precipitated squabbles among the conquistadores that developed into civil strife. In 1534 the Spanish leader Francisco Pizarro tried to consolidate political control by establishing for the region a governorship that extended from Popayán in the north to Loja in the south, and from the eastern cordillera of the Andes to the Pacific. Nevertheless, the persistent civil wars among the conquistadores prolonged the political turmoil in the region until 1563, when the crown formed in the city of Quito an audiencia (high court) that had jurisdiction over the old governorship, the northwestern province of Atacames, and the eastern provinces of Quijos, Macas, Mainas, and Jaén de Bracamoros. After consolidating their political power, the Spaniards began laying the foundations of a stable society and a colonial economy based on the production of woolen textiles.

By the late sixteenth century, the audiencia district of Quito was linked to a prosperous, integrated network of regional economies extending throughout the Viceroyalty of Peru. While silver mining formed the link between Spain's Andean colonies and the international economy, numerous smaller regional markets evolved to supply foodstuffs, textiles, labor, and alcoholic beverages for the burgeoning mining zones. Quito's textile economy occupied a central place in these emerging secondary regional markets. Local elites used the fertile lands in the narrow Andean valleys and the extensive stretches of páramo pasturelands to establish an extensive network of obrajes (textile mills) in the provinces from Otavalo in the north to Riobamba in the south. These mills supplied woolens to markets in Peru and New Granada (Colombia) in return for specie, which the Spanish elite used to purchase the luxury goods needed to maintain a comfortable European lifestyle.


The inability of Spanish textile manufacturers to supply the growing demand for cloth in the mining and urban centers of South America led to the founding of numerous obrajes in the audiencia of Quito. The rich agricultural and grazing lands in the Ecuadorian Andes, stocked with Spanish merino sheep, and the dense Native American population supplied the raw materials, foodstuffs, and labor to support the growing obraje sector. By the mid-seventeenth century more than 10,000 workers annually were producing 230,000 yards of the region's famous paño azul (blue cloth) and an additional 470,000 yards of bayetas and jergas (coarser woolens), fetching over 3 million pesos in the marketplaces of Peru and New Granada. Throughout the seventeenth century the woolen textile industry served as the foundation of the audiencia's economic prosperity.

The Textile Boom

The first Spaniards to establish cloth manufactures were the region's encomenderos, who sought viable sources of income from the indigenous communities. Placer mining deposits were quickly exhausted, so the original European settlers began to found textile mills, called obrajes de comunidad, on their grants as money-making enterprises. The profits from the mills were used to pay the Native American communal tax levies, the salaries of the local priest and corregidor (magistrate), and an annual pension for the encomendero. Although legally owned by the indigenous Amerindian community, the obraje was, in reality, treated by the local Spanish encomendero as his own personal property. The mills grew into extremely large operations, often employing more than 200 laborers from the local Andean villages. By the early seventeenth century, the encomenderos had founded fourteen obrajes de comunidad scattered throughout the Ecuadorian highlands, and there were two additional mills in Otavalo owned directly by the crown.

The crown and the Audiencia of Quito issued numerous laws regulating the operation of the obrajes de comunidad—laws that ultimately undermined their profitability. To curb the local power of the encomenderos, the crown first began appointing special administrators to run the mills. When these officials too often proved corrupt and inept, the audiencia leased to local elites the right to run the obrajes, but this change provided no improvement. In addition, deducting the salaries of the local priest, magistrates, and workers drained the profits. The crown also set abnormally high tribute rates for the Andean villagers to encourage them to work in the obrajes, but these rates were so exorbitant that the mills seldom met more than half the communal tax assessment. As a result, the crown had sold these large and increasingly unprofitable mills to private owners by 1728.

From the early seventeenth century on, the most lucrative and productive obrajes were privately owned. The crown demanded that all obrajeros (mill owners) purchase a license, which gave them the right to operate their enterprises, recruit wage laborers, and in some cases to employ slaves or receive allotments of mitayos (corvée workers). The largest and most profitable obrajes tended to be located on rural estates, with medium and small-scale mills found on modest rural holdings or on the outskirts of towns. Entrepreneurs founded most of the mills in the provinces of Quito, Latacunga, and Riobamba, which possessed the fertile land and Amerindian laborers needed for the industry's growth. Early in the century the crown had licensed only 41 private mills, but by 1690 the number of legal operations had grown to more than 100—an indication of the profitability of the private cloth industry.

Colonial Society

With the prosperity of the textile industry a small, tightly knit network of peninsular (European-born) and creole (American-born) families made substantial fortunes based on ownership of obrajes and land. The greater profitability of larger, integrated estate complexes organized around obrajes only concentrated more economic and social power in these elites. Some wealthy and powerful families even acquired noble titles and entails. Regardless of whether they secured titles, however, most consolidated their social position through intermarriage and alliances with powerful peninsular bureaucrats and nouveau riche merchants. By the late seventeenth century, important families—the Villacis, Sánchez de Orellana, Guerrero, Pérez Ubillus, Larrea, Maldonado, Monteserín, Ramírez de Arrelano, Galarza, Londoño—were related through a complex nexus of business and family connections, which they used to dominate the audiencia district.

Despite the devastating effects of European epidemic diseases, the Amerindian population of the north-central highlands began to expand during the seventeenth century. Most of this increase was apparently the result of migrations from adjacent frontier zones in the north and south. Highland communities had long sent colonists to those regions to gain access to their resources, and refugees from the Inca and Spanish conquests had also found havens there. These colonists and refugees evidently returned later to the north-central highlands to repopulate the Andean communities hard hit by epidemic diseases. After returning, these migrants formed the core of the labor force for the obrajes in the late sixteenth century, and their integration into the Spanish textile economy was a major reason for its success.

Despite their importance to the obrajes, the Native Americans suffered ongoing abuses in the mills. Wages remained low, and owners often paid their workers in overvalued cloth rather than in specie. Likewise, socorros (supplies) of foodstuffs were often inedible, overpriced, and distributed at haciendas several miles away. Workers were also beaten, forced to work long hours, and often bound to the obrajes through debt peonage. Obrajeros even coerced the wives and children of laborers into service in the mills. Amerindian laborers tolerated these abysmal working conditions only because their wages helped defray the heavy taxes levied on their village communities. For the Native Americans the prosperity of these sweatshops brought heavy burdens and few tangible benefits.


By the 1690s, the prosperity of the woolen textile industry had begun to erode. A gradual decline of the mining economy in Peru and Bolivia lessened the demand for cloth in Lima, the most lucrative market for the quiteños. In addition, the growth of textile mills in closer proximity to the mines provided more competition amid the mining decline. By the 1690s, a number of droughts, earthquakes, and epidemics, which accounted for the death of nearly one-third of the Amerindian labor force in the audiencia district, ended the period of relatively cheap labor for mill owners.

Decline of the Textile Industry

According to contemporaries, the crucial blow to the local textile economy came with the influx of cheap, high-quality European cloth, first brought by French traders during the War of the Spanish Succession (1700–1716). As the Spanish crown began liberalizing trade regulations after ending the system of Galeones and flotas in 1740, the importation of foreign cloth increased, which further restricted the market share available to Quito's obrajes. As a result, the prices for quiteño cloth fell dramatically, and the net output of the region's obrajes dropped by some 50 to 75 percent during the eighteenth century.

The rigid organizational structure of the textile business frustrated efforts by the obrajeros to compete with foreign imports. By licensing elite-run enterprises and providing the legal mechanisms to recruit laborers, the crown had created an oligopoly in the audiencia that nurtured selected producers. Most of the successful mill owners flourished in this protected environment by establishing family-run enterprises that linked the clothing mills to food-producing estates and sheep ranches. Such rural estate complexes integrated the key elements of production in one enterprise, thus reducing the problem of cash outlays needed to pay for labor and raw materials. These textile mills, however, used no sophisticated machinery capable of lowering the unit cost of production, a principal advantage associated with modern factory production. Instead, the obraje absorbed many of the functions of the market, supplying the capital, labor, and raw materials needed for production.

This organizational structure had served mill owners well in the protected colonial markets of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but it made it impossible for them to increase the quality of their cloth or to lower prices to compete with European imports. In short, by liberalizing trade policies and allowing the importation of relatively cheap European cloth, the crown effectively ended the oligopolistic arrangement responsible for the prosperity of Quito's mills.

The influx of European cloth drove the quiteños from the lucrative Lima market. Large mill owners in Quito had traditionally transported their higher-quality cloth to the viceregal capital, where they exchanged it for specie, Peruvian products, and European wares. The earnings from these transactions could be substantial, since the obrajeros controlled the sale of their own woolens and the importation of much European merchandise into the district. Although the northern trade to New Granada maintained greater vigor during the eighteenth century than earlier, it offered more modest profits. New Granada's merchant houses purchased mostly cheap, lower-quality cloth while also taking charge of introducing European goods into the audiencia. As a result, the loss of the Lima market curtailed the long-term profits of Quito's textile producers.

The Results of the Decline in Textiles

The diminishing demand for local textiles from the 1690s onward prompted a slow agrarian decline in much of the north-central highlands. Most agrarian enterprises there had organized the abundant land and labor resources in the rural zones to export textiles, not food or livestock. Geographical barriers and high transport costs limited the ability of most hacendados to change over from exporting textiles to selling their bulk crops in distant colonial markets. Attempts to find a suitable cash crop usually proved impracticable, and only the largest estates of the religious orders or the wealthy elites could muster the political clout and economic resources needed to profit from textile production.

The decline of the obrajes had negative repercussions also on regional commerce and state revenues. The sale of woolens had financed the importation of European luxury goods and provided the specie for domestic enterprise, regional trade, and the fiscal needs of the colonial state. As cloth exports declined, however, so too did imports, commerce, and government tax receipts. As a result, the decline in the textile sector prompted an overall economic recession, which in turn led to a marked shift in the socioeconomic structure of the audiencia of Quito.

The Rise of the Southern Highlands

As the obraje economy in Quito declined, there emerged a prosperous cotton and woolen textile industry centered in the province of Cuenca. This industry was concentrated in the Amerindian villages of the south, where merchants from Lima organized a cottage, or putting-out, system of manufacturing. The merchants usually supplied the raw cotton and wool, while the villagers—many of them women—used traditional Andean methods of spinning and weaving to produce cheap, light cloth. The Andean villagers could supplement their income from agriculture by participating in this vibrant cottage industry. The Lima merchants then used their commercial connections to market these tocuyos or lienzos (cottons) and bayetas (woolens) at considerable profit in the cities and mining centers of northern Peru.

The Spanish agricultural economy of the southern highlands also experienced steady growth during the eighteenth century. The prosperity of most Spanish estates depended on the demand for agricultural products in local highland markets, Guayaquil, and northern Peru. Some Spanish landowners also prospered by selling abundant supplies of a local tree bark called cascarilla, which was rich in quinine. The Spanish landlords seldom participated in the cottage textile industry, but the trade in coarse cloth undoubtedly stimulated the local agrarian economy and promoted the introduction of European luxury items.

In the early nineteenth century, the textile business in the southern highlands began to decline. The diminished productivity of the Peruvian mines and the disruptions of the independence era led to a fall-off in demand for southern Ecuadorian cloth. As a result, Lima's merchants began abandoning the industry, and textile exports dropped rapidly. The cottage industry system was simply too limited in scale and lacking in capital to survive without its merchant backers. The Amerindian villages suffered most from this decline. The Spanish estates, which were less directly connected to the local textile trade, continued to experience modest prosperity.

The Coastal Export Boom

The export economy of the coast did not begin to prosper until the crown allowed free trade within the empire between 1778 and 1789. Along the extensive river system of the coastal plain, Spanish elites established increasing numbers of plantations to produce cacao for export to markets in South America, Mexico, and Europe. From the 1780s to 1810, cacao production increased nearly 300 percent. The fertile coastal soils also yielded copious amounts of tobacco, sugar, and hardwoods, but the cultivation and export of cacao became the economic core of the coastal economy until cacao exports began to decline markedly by the 1840s.

Large and medium-size plantations growing cacao developed rapidly in the late eighteenth century, particularly in the parishes of Baba, Babahoyo, Palenque, and Machala. Abundant rainfall, a hot climate, and cheap transportation along the river system in these zones contributed to the expansion of cacao cultivation. These cacao zones produced the only major export crop in the Audiencia of Quito capable of generating large amounts of hard currency in the colonial and international markets. By the nineteenth century, this export crop had finally begun to ease the specie shortage accompanying the decline of Ecuador's textile trades.

Although it was the cacao plantations that linked the productivity of the coast to the international economy, the outside merchant houses were often the ones to reap the largest profits from the export trade. The coastal planters lacked access to credit and did not have the commercial connections of the large mercantile companies based in Lima, Mexico City, and Spain. These outside merchant companies also profited from introducing European wares. The concentration of land in the hands of a small elite also guaranteed that only a very few costeños (coastal residents) would benefit from the export bonanza.

Colonial Society

Although the elites of the north-central highlands remained powerful during the eighteenth century, the long-term decline of the textile industry undermined their economic position. Estates became ever more heavily encumbered, which prompted the elite to petition (successfully) to have the interest rate on all censos (loans and liens held by the church) lowered from 5 to 3 percent by 1755. Rural landowners also tried marketing foodstuffs and commodities such as aguardiente (cane liquor) to compensate for declining textile sales, with only limited success. By the late eighteenth century, only the largest estate complexes (owned by the clergy and the wealthiest elite families) had the scale, access to credit, and marketing connections to prosper.

A network of landowners and merchants came to dominate the socioeconomic life of the southern highlands. Powerful families such as the Valdivieso, Veintimilla, Otando, Bermeo, Crespo, and Ochoa owned large estates and maintained their wealth and status through skillful business and marriage connections. This elite was active in the economic life of the province, buying and selling luxury imports, land, and urban properties throughout the late colonial period. Business and family ties also linked the powerful families of Cuenca and Loja to their counterparts in northern Peru and the coast. In fact, land ownership became a powerful asset after the commercial and industrial downturn by the early nineteenth century.

The rapidly expanding coastal economy allowed greater social mobility than could occur in the more established social hierarchies of the highlands. Within a short time, however, a few powerful families began consolidating their control over the best cacao lands. In the 1780s, for example, just five plantation owners accounted for more than 40 percent of the new cacao trees along the coast; and one man, Silvestre Gorostiza Villamar, planted more than 90,000 trees in Machala. Indeed, by the independence era, five landowners—Martín de Icaza, Domingo Santísteban, Josefa Pareja, Francisco Vitores, and General Juan José Flores—controlled over 25 percent of the total cacao production. These wealthy planters and the leading mercantile families made considerable fortunes and formed the new political elite along the coast during the late colonial and independence periods.

The decline of the obraje economy and the rising importance of the southern highlands and the coast had a profound effect on the Amerindian population. Many Andeans had already left their traditional ethnic communities to participate in the regional market economies, working in Spanish obrajes and haciendas and in the chief cities. By the eighteenth century, large numbers of Indians had migrated from the depressed provinces of the north-central highlands to regions of greater economic opportunity.

The first of these movements promoted the development of the southern highlands until the cottage textile industry declined by the early nineteenth century. The pattern of migration began shifting to the coast in the late eighteenth century and continued to attract large numbers of migrants until the export market for cacao declined by the 1840s. In short, the regional economic realignments during the late colonial period encouraged major demographic movements that reflected the diminished economic opportunities for Amerindians in the highlands.

The Bourbon Reforms and Political Unrest

By the seventeenth century, Ecuadorian elites had gained considerable influence over local government—even over the Audiencia of Quito. This trend gained momentum only when the crown began selling appointments to important bureaucratic offices: the royal treasury in 1633, corregimientos (magistracies) in 1678, and audiencia judgeships in 1687. By the early eighteenth century, the institutions of royal government had a well-deserved reputation for representing local over imperial concerns.

This pattern of local control began to shift during the eighteenth century. The crown enacted policies permitting the influx of European cloth without consulting the Audiencia of Quito, which proved powerless to resist them. In addition, the metropolis began to impose stricter control over the local royal government by ending the sale of offices after 1750 and enforcing the more efficient collection of local taxes. In 1765, for example, the viceroy of New Granada, Pedro de Messía De La Cerda, transferred control over the sales tax and the aguardiente monopoly from local tax farmers to the royal treasury. When the audiencia proved unable to convince the crown's agents in Bogotá to reverse this unpopular measure, a popular revolt—supported by all social classes in the capital city—overthrew the royal government. In fact, a popular coalition ruled the city until internal dissension and the arrival of royal troops a year later ended the affair. The failure of this revolt left the citizenry deeply divided and pessimistic about their ability to influence important crown policies.

A decade after this turbulence, the Madrid government dispatched a special inspector-general, José García de León y Pizarro, as president-regent (a newly created office of presiding officer) of the Audiencia of Quito. García Pizarro was an influential protégé of the minister of the Indies, José de Gálvez, who implemented a far-reaching set of reforms aimed at increasing state power and raising taxes. The keystone of these reforms was the creation of a militia system and a new fiscal bureaucracy, which the president-regent controlled by appointing kin, friends, and a few loyal allies among the creole elite. García Pizarro then used this regalist state bureaucracy to raise unprecedented amounts of tax revenue. In the depressed north-central highlands, for example, state income rose from more than 860,000 pesos in the period 1775–1779 to nearly 2.5 million pesos in the next five years.

Despite these successes, prominent citizens charged that García Pizarro and his group had ruled despotically in Quito, intimidating the local aristocracy and the church, extorting bribes, selling public offices, and using the militia to enforce his corrupt designs. A long, acrimonious investigation, which continued until 1790, uncovered startling abuses by the bureaucracy, but the crown imposed no punishments. Most of García Pizarro's clan and allies were transferred, but taxes remained high and government abuses continued. Throughout the remainder of the colonial period, many among the elite remained discontented and disillusioned with the colonial government and the crown.

Discontent also spread to the Indian and mestizo populations as high taxes and the economic depression of the north-central highlands led to hardship in many communities. Periodic uprisings against escalating taxes, poor working conditions on Spanish estates and obrajes, and dishonest government officials broke out during the eighteenth century. Revolts in Otavalo (1777), Guano (La Matriz, 1778), Ambato (1780), Alausí (1781), Chambo (1790), and even the larger insurrections in Guamote and Columbe (1803) caused considerable loss of life and property, but they never spread like the great rebellions of Upper Peru in the 1780s. In Ecuador the Spanish authorities always managed to combine brutal repression with judicious concessions to restore order.


A serious challenge to Spanish power occurred in 1809, after the abdications of Charles IV and Ferdinand VII, when quiteño elites formed a junta (provisional government) under the leadership of the marqués de Selva Alegre. Dissension within the junta and its failure to gain widespread popular support, however, led to its downfall within three months. In 1810, when royalist troops feared a new uprising, most of the rebel leaders were summarily executed in their jail cells. Popular outrage at this massacre prompted the establishment of another popular junta in 1810, which ruled until a new president, Toribio Montes, and a royal army extinguished the popular government two years later.

The defeat of these juntas in Quito discouraged any new movements for independence, until discontent in Guayaquil in 1820 led the coastal elites to rise. Like the Quito revolts, however, this movement did not spread beyond the coast, and formal independence for the entire audiencia district did not come until the insurgent armies of Antonio José de Sucre won the Battle of Pichincha in 1822. For the next eight years Ecuador remained a province of the independent republic of Gran Colombia (Colombia, Venezuela, and Ecuador). Finally, in 1830 Ecuador withdrew from that union to become an independent republic.

See alsoCacao Industry; Pizarro, Francisco; Quito, Audiencia (Presidency) of; Quito Revolt of 1765; Textile Industry: The Colonial Era.


Although the number of historical studies on the Andes during the colonial period has increased dramatically, few have dealt specifically with Ecuador. The best work on bureaucratic politics remains John Leddy Phelan, The Kingdom of Quito in the Seventeenth Century (1967). For Native American rebellions see Segundo E. Moreno Yáñez, Sublevaciones indígenas en la Audiencia de Quito: Desde comienzos del siglo XVIII hasta finales de la colonia, 3d ed. (1985). Landholding among the clergy is treated in Nicholas P. Cushner, Farm and Factory: The Jesuits and the Development of Agrarian Capitalism in Colonial Quito, 1600–1767 (1982). Two influential works on the export boom along the Ecuadorian coast are Michael T. Hamerly, Historia social y económica de la antigua provincia de Guayaquil, 1763–1842, 2d ed. (1973; 1987), and María Luisa Laviana Cuetos, Guayaquil durante el siglo XVIII: Recursos naturales y desarrollo económico (1987). Disease and population patterns are the subject of Suzanne Austin Alchon (née Browne), Native Society and Disease in Colonial Ecuador (1992). Some major articles on landholding patterns, the transfer of land from Andeans to Spaniards, and the early obrajes include Christiana Borchart De Moreno, "Composiciones de tierras en la Audiencia de Quito: El valle de Tumbaco a finales del siglo XVII," Jahrbuch für Geschichte von Staat, Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft Lateinamerikas 17 (1980): 121-155, and "La transferencia de la propiedad agraria indígena en el corregimiento de Quito hasta finales de siglo XVII," Caravelle 34 (1980): 5-19; Segundo E. Moreno Yáñez, "Traspaso de la propiedad agrícola indígena a la hacienda colonial: El caso de Saquisilí," Jahrbuch für Geschichte von Staat, Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft Lateinamerikas 17 (1980): 97-119; Javier Ortiz De La Tabla Ducasse, "El obraje colonial ecuatoriano: Aproximación a su estudio," Revista de Indias 149-150 (1977): 471-541. The best survey of the obraje economy is Robson Brines Tyrer's "The Demographic and Economic History of the Audiencia of Quito: Indian Population and the Textile Industry, 1600–1800" (Ph.D. diss., Univ. of California, Berkeley, 1976). A significant study of Amerindian migration is Karen M. Powers, "Indian Migration and Sociopolitical Change in the Audiencia of Quito (Ecuador)" (Ph.D. diss., New York Univ., 1990). Other important dissertations are Martin Minchom's "Urban Popular Society in Colonial Quito, c. 1700–1800" (Ph.D. diss., Univ. of Liverpool, 1984) and Rosemary D. F. Bromley's demographic work "Urban Growth and Decline in the Central Sierra of Ecuador" (Ph.D. diss., Univ. of Wales, 1977). Two fine published master's theses for the Facultad Latinoamérica de Ciencias Sociales (FLACSO) in Quito are Silvia Palomeque, Cuenca del siglo XIX: La articulación de una region (1990), and Galo Ramón Valarezo, La resistencia andina: Cayambe, 1500–1800 (1987).

Additional Bibliography

Andrien, Kenneth J. The Kingdom of Quito, 1690–1830: The State and Regional Development. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Caillavet, Chantal. Etnias del norte: Etnohistoria e historia de Ecuador. Madrid: Casa de Velázquez; Lima: IFEA; Quito; Abya Yala, 2000.

Chaves, María Eugenia. "Honor y libertad: Discursos y recursos en la estrategia de libertad de una mujer esclava (Guayaquil a fines del período colonial)." Ph.D. diss., Universidad de Gotemburgo, 2001.

Gauderman, Kimberly. Women's Lives in Colonial Quito: Gender, Law, and Economy in Spanish America. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003.

Jamieson, Ross W. Domestic Architecture and Power: The Historical Archaeology of Colonial Ecuador. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers, 2000.

Mena V., Claudio. El Quito rebelde (1809–1812). Quito: Abya-Ayala: LetraNueva, 1997.

Newson, Linda A. Life and Death in Colonial Ecuador. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1995.

Powers, Karen Vieira. Andean Journeys: Migration, Ethnogenesis, and the State in Colonial Quito. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1995.

Sevilla Larrea, Carmen. Vida y muerte en Quito: Raíces del sujeto moderno en la colonia temprana. Quito: Ediciones Abya-Yala, 2002.

                                               Kenneth J. Andrien