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16th to 18th Centuries

By 1600 numerous Spanish settlements had been firmly established in South America. The Viceroyalty of Peru (created in 1542) and the various audiencias, or territorial divisions, into which the remainder of Spanish South America was then divided had every prospect of developing into powerful and wealthy colonies. Besides immensely productive mineral deposits, especially the silver mines of Peru, other natural resources, including timber and cultivable lands, were abundant in the Spanish-held areas. Farming and livestock raising had become flourishing industries, and an increasing number of black and Native American slaves were available to well-to-do settlers. In search of riches, land, or adventure, or impelled by Christian zeal to spread the gospel among the heathen natives, tens of thousands of immigrants had poured into both the Spanish and Portuguese dominions on the continent during the first half of the 16th century. The Spanish and Portuguese governments received extensive help from the church in their efforts to consolidate their respective colonial empires. Roman Catholicism was the sole recognized religion in the colonies, but ecclesiastical policy was determined and controlled by the monarchy. In return for the service of Christianizing, educating, and pacifying the Native Americans, the church and the various Catholic religious orders active here were granted many privileges and enormous tracts of territory.

At the close of the 17th century Spain and Portugal dominated all South America except Guiana, which had been seized by and divided among Great Britain, France, and The Netherlands. Disastrous wars in the course of the century had seriously weakened the naval strength of the Iberian powers, however, and their coastal settlements in the New World, as well as their merchant shipping, were subjected to frequent attacks by English, Dutch, and French raiders. One result of the consequent drain on the royal Spanish and Portuguese treasuries was the imposition of oppressive taxation on the colonies. The royal governments, which had monopolized the trade of the colonies from the beginning, also imposed increasingly stringent restraints on the colonial economies, aggravating the difficulties and discontent of the colonists. During the 18th century, popular unrest in the Spanish colonies flared into revolt on a number of occasions, notably in Paraguay from 1721 to 1735, in Peru from 1780 to 1782, and in New Granada in 1781.

Social inequalities constituted another cause for discontent among both the Spanish and Portuguese colonists. The so-called Peninsulars were born in the mother country and sent to the colonies to hold high offices. They usually were of noble birth, disdainful of other social groups, and desirous only of amassing wealth in the colonies and then returning to Europe. The social group immediately below the Peninsulars was composed of Creoles, native-born persons of European parentage. Although the Creoles were entitled by law to the same political prerogatives as the Peninsulars, in practice these rights were withheld from them, and for the most part the Creoles were excluded from high civil and ecclesiastical positions. Because of their hatred of the Peninsulars, the Creoles generally aligned themselves with the mestizos and mulattoes.

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