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Venezuela, History

Lake Maracaibo, tobacco farming, Little Venice, Creoles, Charles V of Spain

The coast of Venezuela was first sighted by Christopher Columbus in 1498. In 1499 Spanish explorer Alonso de Ojeda followed the coast to Lake Maracaibo. He named the region Venezuela, or Little Venice, because the Native American buildings constructed on stilts along the lakeís edge reminded him of the Italian city of Venice, which was built on a series of islands in a lagoon.

The Spanish began settling Venezuela in 1520. In 1528 Charles V of Spain granted to the Welsers, Bavarian bankers to whom he was in debt, the part of Venezuela lying between Cape Vela and Maracapana. As part of the arrangement, the Welsers were to develop the region and establish settlements. Instead, their representatives enslaved the Native Americans and so demoralized the European settlers that in 1546 the grant was revoked and the Spanish government reassumed control. The first important settlement was that of Caracas in 1567.

Economic activities in the colonial period centered on agriculture, particularly cacao and tobacco farming and some livestock raising. Venezuela became a center of piracy and smuggling, activities in which the English and the Dutch were the most notorious participants.

During the colonial period, Venezuela operated under a number of administrative jurisdictions. Originally, the Spanish authorities divided what is now Venezuelan territory between the Viceroyalty of Peru and the Audiencia of Santo Domingo (located in what is now the Dominican Republic). The Superintendency of Venezuela, more or less the present territory, was created in 1783.

In 1728 the Spanish government chartered the Guipuzcoana Company and gave it a monopoly of trade in Venezuela, with the additional duties of patrolling the coast to prevent smuggling. The company was very unpopular and did much to stir up political discontent in the colony. In addition, the Spanish policy of appointing peninsulares (individuals born in Spain) to the major administrative positions in their American colonies caused much resentment among Creoles (Spaniards born in the colonies), who were excluded from positions of power.

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Article key phrases:

Lake Maracaibo, tobacco farming, Little Venice, Creoles, Charles V of Spain, Ojeda, Christopher Columbus, Caracas, American colonies, stilts, cacao, European settlers, colonial period, additional duties, Spaniards, colony, Native Americans, lagoon, resentment, Economic activities, Venezuela, settlements, Spanish government, smuggling, livestock, Dominican Republic, arrangement, debt, grant, positions of power, Dutch, Spain, coast, agriculture, representatives, region, individuals


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