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History of Venezuela
 
 
 

Early History

Human habitation of Venezuela is estimated to have commenced at least 15,000 years ago, from which period leaf-shaped flake tools, together with chopping and plano-convex scraping implements, have been found exposed on the high riverine terraces of the Rio Pedregal in western Venezuela. Late Pleistocene hunting artifacts, including spear tips, have been found at a similar series of sites in northwestern Venezuela known as "El Jobo"; according to radiocarbon dating, these date from 13,000 to 7,000 BC.

Arawak and Carib Indians were prominent among the groups that arrived later. Nomadic hunting and fishing groups roamed the Lake Maracaibo basin, the Llanos, and the coast. The most technologically advanced Venezuelan Indians lived in farming communities in the Andes.

The Colonial Era

Christopher Columbus arrived in what is now Venezuela in 1498, during his third voyage to the New World. European explorers named the region Venezuela (“Little Venice”) after observing local Indian houses on stilts over water. During the first quarter-century of contact, the Europeans limited themselves to slave hunting and pearl fishing on the northeastern coast; the first permanent Spanish settlement, Cumaná, was not made until 1523. In the second quarter of the 16th century, the centre of activity shifted to the northwestern coast, where the Welser banking house of Augsburg, Germany, purchased exploration and colonisation rights. The Germans failed to find precious metals and to occupy the area permanently, however, and Spain repossessed the zone in 1546. Legends of El Dorado (“The Golden One”) drove explorers into the Venezuelan interior, perhaps including the Spanish adventurer and renegade Lope de Aguirre, who is said to have attacked several villages there. The Englishman Sir Walter Raleigh sailed up the Orinoco River in search of the fabled city of gold reportedly ruled by El Dorado. Raleigh described his adventure in The Discoverie of Guiana (1596).

In the latter half of the 16th century, Spanish agriculturalists began to colonise the region by using encomiendas (semifeudal grants of land and Indian labourers). Caracas was founded in 1567, and by 1600 more than 20 settlements dotted the Venezuelan Andes and the Caribbean coast. During the 17th and 18th centuries, various Roman Catholic missionary orders gradually took over the Llanos and Maracaibo regions.
The colonial economy was based on agriculture and stock raising. Corn (maize), beans, and beef were the domestic food staples; sugar, cacao, tobacco, and hides were the principal exports. Spain's European rivals (initially the French and English, followed by the Dutch) succeeded in taking over most of Venezuela's commerce until the early 18th century, when Spain established a monopoly trading company. The interests of the latter, however, proved contrary to those of Venezuelan producers, who forced dissolution of the company during the 1780s.

Venezuelan society during the colonial era was headed by agents of the Spanish crown. Royal bureaucrats monopolised the top governing posts, and Spanish clergymen dominated the high church offices. However, Creoles (white descendents of Europeans born in the Americas) owned the land and other forms of wealth, and they used their power to hold the nonwhite races in bondage: mestizos (persons of mixed European and Indian ancestry) and mulattoes (of European and African ancestry) were generally without property, social status, or political influence; Indians performed forced labour on interior farms or were segregated on marginal lands; and black Africans were slaves on the coastal plantations. In theory, Venezuela was governed by the Spanish crown through the Audiencia of Santo Domingo in the 16th and 17th centuries and through the Viceroyalty of New Granada (at Bogotá) from its incorporation in 1717. In practice, however, the Venezuelans exercised some regional autonomy during the colonial era.


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