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History, Colonial Rule

Chuquisaca, Alto Peru, audiencia, Inca Empire, Cochabamba

The territory of Bolivia was conquered in 1538 by Spanish conquistador Hernando Pizarro, younger brother of Spanish explorer Francisco Pizarro. The elder Pizarro had subdued Peru, which was the heart of the Inca Empire. Within the next 40 years, Spanish settlements were formed at Chuquisaca (present-day Sucre), Potosi, La Paz, and Cochabamba.

The region was first called the province of Charcas and later Alto Peru (Upper Peru). It was governed by an audiencia (a judicial body with executive powers) under the viceroyalty of Peru. In 1776 Spain transferred Bolivia to the newly created viceroyalty of La Plata, which administered Bolivia from what is now Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Throughout the three centuries of the colonial period, Bolivia was important to Spain because of its rich silver mines located at Potosi, which until the 18th century was the largest city in colonial America. Bolivia’s silver mines produced several hundred million dollars worth of silver, extracted from the mines by Native Americans. They worked under the dreaded mita, or obligatory service system, which required Native Americans to work a specified number of hours in the mines each year. This forced-labor system led to many uprisings by Native Americans who worked the mines.

For centuries the production of minerals for export was Bolivia’s most important economic activity, and other areas of the economy were neglected. From early colonial times, Bolivia imported food and most manufactured goods to supplement the meager output of its farms and rudimentary local industries. Mining began to decline in the 18th century, and by the end of the century the industry had stagnated.

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