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Buenos Aires

The city of Buenos Aires is the capital of Argentina. It is situated on the right bank of the River Plate (Rio la Plata) estuary.

European exploration of what is now the coast of Argentina began with the investigation of the River Plate by an expedition sponsored by the Castilian Monarchy that was under the command of Juan Díaz de Solís, a Portuguese navigator. Solís and a number of his crew were killed in a confrontation with men of the Querandi, a hunter-gathering people whose ancestral country extends inland and southwards of the Plate estuary.

Expeditions headed by Ferdinand Magellan and Sabastian Cabot visited the estuary in the 1520s, with Cabot establishing a small settlement about 300 upstream on the Plate River.

European interest in colonizing the estuary region was heightened by claims that a great Indian kingdom rich in silver and gold lay inland. In the early 1520s both the Portuguese and Castilian crowns laid claim to the region under the Treaty of Tordesillas.

In 1534, Charles V of Castile moved to check Portuguese ambitions by granting the region from the Atlantic to the Pacific between the 25th and 36th parallels to the aristocrat and courtier Pedro de Mendoza.

Mendoza sailed with sixteen ships and a complement of around 1600 men, and in February 1536 founded a settlement on the west bank of the Plate estuary which he named Puerto Nuestra Señora Santa María de Buen Aire, by virtue of the balmy weather the expedition experienced.

Shortage of food supplies, however, led to violent clashes over fishing and hunting with local clans of the Querandi. Within two years the settlement was abandoned in favor of colonizing what is now Paraguay.

Buenos Aires was re-settled in 1580 as the Spanish crown saw an Atlantic port as a strategic necessity in view of the spread of settlement from Chili, Peru and Paraguay into what is now the Tucaman province of Argentina.

After the union of the Spanish and Portuguese crowns in 1580, Buenos Aires profited substantially from commerce with Brazil, but trading links also resulted in the port acquiring a large Portuguese population. Tensions between the Spanish and Portuguese communities through the first two decades of the seventeenth century destroyed trade with Brazil. The economy of Buenos Aires was also badly affected by the decline of inland silver production through the seventeenth century due to the decline of Indian labor, disease and food shortages.

While remaining an important military centre, Buenos Aires only began to recover economically in the early eighteenth century with concessions granted to the French Guinea Company by Philip V and the export of cattle hides to France and England.

By the mid-eighteenth century, Spain had wrested control of local maritime trade from Portugal and Britain, and the political fortunes of Buenos Aires were determined by a growing number of powerful Spanish merchant families.

This new commercial elite sought greater economic freedom and administrative independence from the Viceroyalty of Peru, the latter of which they achieved in 1776, when Buenos Aires became the capital of the Viceroyalty of Rio de la Plata.

From mid-century the city also became increasingly important in military terms, as Spain sought to ensure neither Portugal or Britain established settlements in southern South America. In 1770, for example, the Spanish attack on the Falklands was launched from Buenos Aires.

Buenos Aires continued to grow with beef becoming a new source of profit from the 1780s. However, war with France in 1793-5, and then war with Britain between 1796 and 1802 severely affected the city’s economy and left the government of Spain with no choice but to meet local demands to ease regulations restricting inter-American trade to Spanish vessels through Spanish ports.

The Peace of Amiens in 1802 brought an end to blockades of Spanish ports, but the experience of relaxed trading conditions left many within the city’s merchant and professional classes advocates of free trade. Their aspirations were to be a major cause of civil unrest and conflict that ultimately led to the provinces of the Rio de la Plata declaring their independence from Spain in 1816.


Prepared by: Turnbull, P.
Created: 28 October 2001
Modified: 1 December 2001

Published by South Seas, 1 February 2004
Comments, questions, corrections and additions: Paul.Turnbull@jcu.edu.au
Prepared by: Paul Turnbull
Updated: 28 June 2004
To cite this page use: http://nla.gov.au/nla.cs-ss-biogs-P000096

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