The history of Uruguay covers several periods: the pre-Columbian time or early history (up to the sixteenth century), the colonial period (1516–1811), the period of nation-building (1811–1830), and the history of Uruguay as an independent country (from around 1830).
Let’s look at the early history until the Colombian era:
The earliest traces of human appearance are about 10,000 years old and refer to the hunter-gatherer cultures of Catalanense and Cuareim cultures which are additions of cultures originating in Brazil. The earliest discovered bolas are about 7,000 years old. Examples of antique rock art have been found at Chamangá. About 4,000 years ago, Charrúa and Guarani people arrived here. During pre-colonial times Uruguayan territory was populated by small tribes of nomadic Charrúa, Chaná, Arachán, and Guarani peoples who sustained by hunting and fishing and probably never reached more than 10,000 to 20,000 people. It is reckoned that there were about 9,000 Charrúa and 6,000 Chaná and Guaraní at the time of the first contact with Europeans in the 1500s. The native peoples had almost vanished by the time of Uruguay’s independence as a consequence of European diseases and continual warfare.
During the colonial era, the present-day territory of Uruguay was identified as Banda Oriental (east bank of River Uruguay) and was a buffer territory between the competing colonial assertions of Portuguese Brazil and the Spanish Empire. The Portuguese first explored the territory of present-day Uruguay in 1512–1513.
The first European traveler to land there was Juan Díaz de Solís in 1516, but he was killed by natives. Ferdinand Magellan secured at the future site of Montevideo in 1520. Sebastian Cabot in 1526 explored Río de la Plata but no surviving settlements were established at that time. The absence of gold and silver limited settlement of the region during the 16th and 17th centuries. In 1603 cattle and horses were added by the order of Hernando Arias de Saavedra and by the mid-17th century, their number had greatly multiplied. The first permanent settlement on the territory of present-day Uruguay was established by Spanish Jesuits in 1624 at Villa Soriano on the Río Negro, where they tried to establish a Misiones Orientales system for the Charrúas.
In 1680, Portuguese colonists settled Colônia do Sacramento on the northern bank of La Plata river, on the opposite coast from Buenos Aires. Spanish colonial activity expanded as Spain sought to limit Portugal’s expansion of Brazil’s frontiers. In 1726, the Spanish established San Felipe de Montevideo on the northern bank and its original harbor soon developed into a commercial center competing with Buenos Aires. They also moved to capture Côlonia del Sacramento. The 1750 Treaty of Madrid secured Spanish control over Banda Oriental, settlers were granted land here and a local cabildo was created.
In 1776, the new Viceroyalty of Rio de la Plata was founded with its capital in Buenos Aires and it included the territory of Banda Oriental. By this time the land had been divided among cattle ranchers was becoming a major product. By 1800, more than 10,000 people lived in Montevideo and another 20,000 in the rest of the province. Out of these, about 30% were African slaves.
Uruguay’s early 19th-century history was developed by the continuing struggle between the British, Spanish, Portuguese, and local colonial forces for dominance of the La Plata Basin. In 1806 and 1807, during the Anglo-Spanish War (1796–1808), the British drove invasions. Buenos Aires was taken in 1806 and then freed by forces from Montevideo led by Santiago de Liniers. In a new and stronger British attack in 1807, Montevideo was controlled by a 10,000-strong British force. The British forces were unable to invade Buenos Aires for the second time, however, and Liniers charged the liberation of Montevideo in the terms of capitulation. The British gave up their aggression when the Peninsular War turned Great Britain and Spain into allies against Napoleon.
Struggle for independence, 1811–28
The May Revolution of 1810 in Buenos Aires noted the end of Spanish rule in the Vice-royalty and the founding of the United Provinces of Rio de la Plata. The Revolution divided the residents of Montevideo, many of whom remained royalists, loyal to the Spanish crown and revolutionaries who supported the independence of the provinces from Spain. This soon led to the First Banda Oriental campaign connecting Buenos Aires and the Spanish viceroy.
Local patriots under José Gervasio Artigas declared the Proclamation of 26 February 1811 which called for a war against the Spanish rule. With help from Buenos Aires, Artigas slaughtered Spaniards on May 18, 1811, at the Battle of Las Piedras and began Siege of Montevideo. At this point, Spanish viceroy summoned Portuguese from Brazil to launch a military invasion of Banda Oriental. Afraid to lose this region to the Portuguese, Buenos Aires made harmony with the Spanish viceroy. British pressure persuaded the Portuguese to withdraw in late 1811, leaving the royalists in control of Montevideo. Angered by this betrayal by Buenos Aires, Artigas with some 4000 supporters retreated to Entre Ríos Province. During the Second Banda Oriental campaign in 1813, Artigas joined José Rondeau’s army from Buenos Aires and started the second siege of Montevideo, resulting in its surrender to Río de la Plata.
Artigas engaged in the formation of the League of the Free People, which united several provinces that wanted to be free from the dominance of Buenos Aires and create a centralized state as envisaged by the Congress of Tucumán. Artigas was proclaimed Protector of this League. Guided by his political ideas (Artiguism) he launched a land reform, dividing land to small farmers.
The constant growth of the authority and influence of the Liga Federal frightened the Portuguese government, which did not want the League’s republicanism to expand to the adjoining Portuguese colony of Brazil. In August 1816, forces from Brazil attacked and began the Portuguese triumph of the Banda Oriental to destroy Artigas and his revolution. The Portuguese forces included a fully armed force of disciplined Portuguese European veterans of the Napoleonic Wars with local Brazilian troops. This army, with more military experience and supply superiority, occupied Montevideo on January 20, 1817. In 1820, Artigas’ forces were finally defeated in the Battle of Tacuarembó after which Banda Oriental was consolidated into Brazil as its Cisplatina province. During the War of Independence of Brazil in 1823–24, another siege of Montevideo occurred.
On 19 April 1825, with the assistance of Buenos Aires, the Thirty-Three Orientals led by Juan Antonio Lavalleja landed in Cisplatina. They entered Montevideo on 20 May. On 14 June, in La Florida, a provisional government was formed. On 25 August the newly elected provincial assembly declared the secession of Cisplatina territory from the Empire of Brazil and allegiance to the United Provinces of Río de la Plata. In response, Brazil propelled the Cisplatine War.
This war ended on 27 August 1828 when the Treaty of Montevideo was signed. After intervention by Viscount Ponsonby, a British diplomat, Brazil and Argentina agreed to recognize an independent Uruguay as a buffer state between them. As with Paraguay, however, Uruguayan independence was not absolutely guaranteed and only the Paraguayan War secured Uruguayan independence from the territorial ambitions of its larger neighbors. The Constitution of 1830 was established in September 1829 and adopted on 18 July 1830.