A DIVERSE COUNTRY
Before the country of Argentina was colonized, the vast expanses of land were home to a diverse range of different peoples. The Yahgan and Alacaluf peoples of the far south lived off shellfish and birds’ eggs. The fires they lit to keep themselves warm inspired the Europeans who saw them to name the region Tierra del Fuego—Land of Fire. The Guaraní people of the tropical regions lived by cultivating sweet potatoes and manioc. The Tehuelche people of Patagonia have provided the region’s name. According to one story, when the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan first met them he was impressed by their height, and by their large feet (“pata” in Spanish). He named them the “Patagoni”. Most of these peoples suffered terribly after their lands were colonized by European settlers.
LAND OF SILVER
Spanish colonists were first attracted to the region by stories of rich civilizations overflowing with silver. The Italian-born navigator Sebastian Cabot gave the estuary he explored the name of “silver river”, or River Plate (Río de la Plata in Spanish). They called the land surrounding it after the Latin word for silver, argentum. The Spanish attempted to establish a settlement on the River Plate but they were forced to leave by hostile natives. In any case, it soon became clear that there was little in the way of precious metal to be plundered. The Spanish were more attracted by the rich mines of Mexico and Peru, and the first significant towns in Argentina were founded in the north-west of the country, where they traded with the wealthy settlements of Upper Peru (today called Bolivia).
THE RISE OF BUENOS AIRES
The cattle and horses that the settlers brought from Europe took well to life roaming the flat Pampas grasslands. Because they had no natural predators, their numbers grew and grew, and they became a new source of wealth for the colonists. Buenos Aires developed as a port, exporting leather and dried beef. The city’s population grew as it attracted immigrants, and its wealthy merchants began to hunger for greater independence from Spain, especially after the revolutions in America and France in the late 18th century.
When Spain fell under the control of French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte in 1808, supporters of Argentine independence seized their chance. In May 1810 they took control of Buenos Aires. However, outside Buenos Aires the owners of the vast cattle ranches were uneasy. Even after Argentina achieved independence in 1816, there was conflict between those who wanted to unify the country and centralize power in Buenos Aires, and regional leaders (known as caudillos) who wanted to keep their own independence. The most powerful of the caudillos, Juan Manuel de Rosas, ruled Argentina as a brutal dictator between 1835 and 1852. Although Rosas favoured the interests of the cattle ranchers over those of the urban population, he did concentrate power and make it easier for his successors to create a unified country.
BUILDING A NATION
During the later 19th century, modern Argentina was developed by concentrating on agriculture. The cultivation of wool and wheat grew in importance. New land was opened up for cattle grazing through a ruthless war against the native peoples of the southern Pampas between 1879 and 1880. The war was won by General Julio Argentino Roca, who became president with the support of powerful cattle ranchers. A network of railways was built to connect the various regions of Argentina. By 1914 Buenos Aires was the biggest city in South America, with a large population of immigrants from Spain and Italy.
Although Argentina had a constitution (rules for the government to follow), political life was unstable. Elections were often run unfairly and leaders chosen by the army. The estate owners who grew wealthy by exporting their produce spent much of their money outside Argentina. This meant that there was a huge wealth gap between the few who were rich and the poor who were many.
One of Argentina’s most popular leaders was Juan Perón. His government spent money on improving the lives of the poor, and his first wife, Eva—known as Evita—became a popular heroine to ordinary Argentines. However, political opposition was not tolerated and Perón made enemies in the army, who deposed him in 1955. The army finally gave up power in 1982, after Argentina was defeated in the Falklands War against Britain. Since then, Argentines have been able to choose their leaders at elections.