Discovery and Conquest
Christopher Columbus first sighted Venezuela during his third voyage to the New World, when he saw the Península de Paria from his ship at anchor off the coast of the island of Trinidad. Three days later, on August 1, 1498, Columbus became the first European to set foot on the South American mainland. Unaware of the significance of his discovery and of the vastness of the continent, he christened the territory Isla de García. He spent the next two weeks exploring the Río Orinoco delta. Fascinated with the vast source of fresh water and the pearl ornaments of the native population, Columbus believed that he had discovered the Garden of Eden.
A second Spanish expedition, just one year later, was led by Alfonso de Ojeda and the Florentine, Amerigo Vespucci. They sailed westward along the coast of Tierra Firme (as South America was then known) as far as Lago de Maracaibo. There, native huts built on piles above the lake reminded Vespucci of Venice, thus leading him to name the discovery Venezuela, or Little Venice. Subsequent expeditions along the north coast of South America were driven largely by a lust for adventure, power, and, especially, wealth.
Pearls and rumors of precious metals were the initial attraction of Venezuela. By the 1520s, however, the oyster beds between Cumaná and the Isla de Margarita--at the western end of the Península de Paria--had been played out. The next of Venezuela's native riches to be extracted by the Spanish was its people. Slave raiding, which began in the Península de Paria and gradually moved inland, helped supply the vast labor needs in Panama and the Caribbean islands, where gold and silver bullion from Mexico and Peru were transshipped. These slave raids engendered intense hatred and resentment among Venezuela's native population, emotions that fueled more than a century of continual low-intensity warfare. Partly as a result of this warfare, the conquest of Venezuela took far longer than the rapid subjugations of Mexico and Peru.
The prolonged nature of the conquest of Venezuela was also attributable to the area's lack of precious metals and the absence of a unified native population. Venezuela had low priority compared with regions of Spanish America containing vast ore deposits. Moreover, the territory that comprises present-day Venezuela contained no major political force, such as the Inca or Aztec leadership, whose conquest would bring vast resources and populations under Spanish domain. Rather, the conquerors found a large number of relatively small and unrelated tribes of widely varying degrees of cultural sophistication. Some were nomadic hunters and gatherers; others built cities and practiced advanced agricultural techniques, including irrigation and terracing. A number of coastal communities were reputed to be cannibalistic. One of the more advanced tribes, the Timoto-Cuica, was from the Andean region. The Timoto-Cuica (who apparently were not united, but rather comprised a series of "chiefdoms") built roads and traded with the populations of the llanos, or plains, to the southeast, and the Maracaibo Basin, to the northwest.
Spanish slavers established bases at Coro and El Tocuyo, south of Barquisimeto, in the western part of present-day Venezuela. In 1528, however, they were dislodged by a most unlikely competitor; a consortium of German bankers led by the House of Welser, a german banking firm, had been granted a concession by the deeply indebted Spanish crown to exploit the area's resources. For the next twenty-eight years, a series of German governors administered western Venezuela and engaged in a futile search for the fabled riches of El Dorado. The Germans showed no interest in settling the territory. Rather, they tried to extract from it the maximum amount of human and material wealth as rapidly as possible. In 1556, the House of Welser's contract was terminated. The group had grown tired of its vain search for a mountain of gold to match what the Spanish had discovered in Peru and Mexico and the Spanish had become equally weary of the behavior of their German concessionaires, which was ruthless even by the ignoble standards of the conquerors.
Spanish explorers, in the meantime, pushed eastward from El Tocuyo, founding Valencia in 1555. After more than a decade of fierce fighting with the recalcitrant native population, forces under Diego de Losada established the settlement of Santiago de León de Caracas in 1567. The value of Caracas lay not only in the fertile agricultural lands in its vicinity, but also in its accessibility, through the coastal range, to the seaport that would later become La Guaira.
The vast majority of what is today the territory of Venezuela was left untouched by the Spanish conquistadors. Instead, tireless Franciscan and Capuchin missionaries explored and Hispanicized the Río Unare Basin to the east of Caracas, the Río Orinoco, and much of the Maracaibo Basin during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Much of the western llanos and the south bank of the Orinoco remained unknown territory to the Spanish even at the close of the colonial period.
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