An Early History of Venezuela: From Before Columbus Through to the 19th Century

History Hit Podcast with Micheal Tarver

4 mins

05 Sep 2018

This article is an edited transcript of The History of Venezuela with Professor Micheal Tarver on Dan Snow’s History Hit, first broadcast 5 September 2018. You can listen to the full episode below or to the full podcast for free on Acast.

Before Christopher Columbus landed in modern-day Venezeula on 1 August 1498, ushering in Spanish colonisation around two decades later, the area was already home to a number of indigenous populations These were scattered throughout the country and included the coastal Carib-Indians, who were living throughout the Caribbean area. There was also the Arawak, as well Arawak-speaking Native Americans. 

And then, moving further south, there were indigenous groups in the Amazon, as well as in the Andean region. But none of these communities were really large urban centres like those foundin Mesoamerica or Peru.

They were more or less just small groups of people living as subsistence farmers or fishermen.

Borders and the dispute with Guyana

The boundary of Venezuela was more or less firm by the early 19th century. There continues to be some dispute between Venezuela and what is now Guyana, however, over an English-speaking border region that effectively makes up two-thirds of Guyana, a former British colony. Britain claims to have received the region from the Dutch when it assumed control of Guyana in the late 18th century. 

The area administered by Guyana that is claimed by Venezuela. Credit: Kmusser and Kordas / Commons

For the most part, this dispute was settled at the end of the 19th century, but was revived by Hugo Chávez during his presidency. Often referred to by Venezuelans as the “Zone of Reclamation”, the region is mineral-rich, which is why the Venezuelans want it, and, of course, also why the Guyanese want it.

During the middle to latter part of the 19th century, there were various efforts by both Britain and Venezuela, to settle the dispute, though with each claiming a little more territory than the other one wanted them to have.

The United States got involved during the Cleveland administration to try and resolve the issue, but no one came out happy.

Venezuela’s eastern border is thus the one that has presented the most problems historically, while its western border with Colombia and its southern border with Brazil have more or less been fairly well accepted throughout the country’s colonial and post-colonial periods.

Colonial backwater or important asset?

During the early part of its colonial period, Venezuela was never really that important to Spain. The Spanish Crown gave a German banking house the rights to develop the territory’s economy in the 16th century and, over time, it got passed from one Spanish institution to another before becoming established as an entity in its own right in terms of administratively and politically.

But although it was never an economic powerhouse during the early colonial period, Venezuela eventually became an important coffee producer. 

Over time, cacao also became a major export. And then, as Venezuela moved through the colonial period and into the modern period, it continued to export coffee and chocolate, both to Spain and to other Latin American countries. After World War One, however, its economy developed to become primarily based on petroleum exports.

Latin America’s wars of independence

Venezuela had an important role in South America’s wars of independence, in particular those in the north of the continent. The great liberator of northern South America, Simón Bolívar, was from Venezuela and led the call for independence from there.

Simón Bolívar was from Venezuela.

He spearheaded the successful campaigns for independence in Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador. And then, from there, Peru and Bolivia also gained independence as a result of his support, if not leadership.

For about a decade, Venezuela was part of the state of Gran (Great) Colombia, which also included modern-day Colombia and Ecuador and was ruled from Bogota.

As Venezuela emerged from the early independence era, dissatisfaction grew within the country over the fact that it was being governed from Bogota. Between 1821 and about 1830, friction between the leaders of Venezuela and Gran Colombia continued until, eventually, the latter was dissolved and Venezuela became an independent nation. 

That coincided with the death of Simón Bolívar, who had favoured the unified republic of Gran Colombia, seeing it as a ounterweight to the US in North America. After that, Venezuela began to go down its own path.

Bolívar’s fear of federalism

A map of Gran Colombia showing the 12 departments created in 1824 and territories disputed with neighbouring countries.

Despite spearheading the liberation of so much of South America, Bolívar regarded himself as a failure because of the dissolution of Gran Colombia.

He was fearful of what we have come to call federalism – where the authority of the nation is spread out across, not just a central government, but also states or provinces.

And he was opposed to that because he believed that Latin America, in particular, was going to need a strong central government for it to survive and for its economy to develop.

He was very disillusioned when Gran Colombia didn’t work out and when places like Upper Peru (what became Bolivia) wanted to break off form a separate country. 

Bolívar had envisioned a truly unified “Gran Latin America”. As early as 1825, he was calling for a Pan American conference or union that would be comprised of those nations or republics that were at one time part of Spanish Latin America; he was against any involvement from the US.

That wish never came to pass, however. The US eventually became part of the Pan American movement that would in turn become the Organisation of American States – a body that is today headquartered in Washington, DC.