History of Lima, Peru

Jirón de la Unión was the main street of Lima in the early 20th century.

Lima is the largest city in Peru and also the capital. It is located in the Chillón, Rímac, and Lurín Rivers valleys in the country’s central coastal part, facing the Pacific Ocean. Together with the Callao seaport, it forms a contiguous city area known as the Lima Metropolitan Region.

Lima’s history started with Francisco Pizarro’s foundation on January 18, 1535. The city was founded on the Rímac River valley in an area populated by the Ichma country. It became the capital of the Viceroyalty of Peru and a Real Audiencia site in the mid-1543. In the 17th Century, the city flourished as the center of a comprehensive trade network despite pirates’ threat and earthquake damage. However, success came to an end in the 18th Century due to the Bourbon Reforms and an economic downturn.

Lima’s population played a strange role in the 1821–1824 Peruvian War of Independence; the city experienced thefts from Patriot armies and Royalist alike. After liberation, Lima became the capital of the Republic of Peru. It enjoyed a brief period of prosperity in the mid-19th Century until the 1879–1883 War of the Pacific when it was occupied and Royalist by Chilean troops. After the war, the city went through urban renewal and demographic expansion. Population growth accelerated in the 1940s, driven by immigration from the Andean regions of Peru. This gave rise to the proliferation of shantytowns as public services failed to keep up with the city’s development.


In the pre-Columbian era, the present-day Lima was inhabited by various Amerindian groups. Before the Inca Empire’s arrival, the Rímac and Lurín rivers’ valleys were distributed under the Ichma polity. Their presence left a mark in the form of some three dozen pyramids associated with the valleys’ irrigation system.

In 1532, Spanish conquistadors managed by Francisco Pizarro attacked the Inca ruler Atahualpa and hunted for a fitting place to build his capital. His first choice was Jauja, situated in the Andes. However, this area was regarded as inaccessible for being far from the sea and high altitude. Spanish explorers reported a more suitable site in the valley of the Rímac, which was adjacent to the Pacific Ocean, had ample wood and water provisions, fair weather, and vast fields. Pizarro thus established the city of Lima on Peru’s central coast in January 1535.

17th Century

During the 17th Century, Lima prospered as the center of an unrestricted trade network that united Peru’s Viceroyalty with Europe, the Americas, and the East. Its merchants led Peruvian silver through the neighboring port of Callao and traded it for goods at the trade fair of Portobelo in Panama. This practice was authorized by law as all trade from the Viceroyalty was expected to go through Callao on its way to and from abroad markets. The resulting economic expansion of the city was revealed in its rapid growth. The population grew from about 20,000 in 1619 to an estimated 75,000 in 1687.

However, dangers awaited Lima. In October and December of 1687, powerful earthquakes devastated most of the city and its surroundings. Food shortages and the outbreaks of disease that followed the disaster caused a decrease of the population to under 40,000 by 1692. A second threat was privateers and pirates in the Pacific Ocean that regularly looted the traders.

During the late colonial period, under the House of Bourbon’s rule, the Enlightenment ideas on social control and public health shaped Lima’s development. During this time, new constructions include a bullring and cockfighting coliseum and the General Cemetery. The first two were built to control these popular activities by centralizing them at a single venue. Simultaneously, the cemetery put an end to the burial practices at churches that were considered toxic by public authorities.


During the 18th Century, Lima was badly affected by the Bourbon Reforms as it lost its monopoly on overseas trade. Upper Peru’s vital mining region was given to the Río de la Plata’s Viceroyalty. This industrial decline made the town’s elite dependent on royal and ecclesiastical appointments and, thus, unwilling to advocate independence.

In the 1810s, the town became a Royalist fortress during the South American wars of independence led by a powerful viceroy, José Fernando de Abascal y Sousa.

A joint expedition of Chilean and Argentinian patriots under General José de San Martín successfully landed at the south of Lima on September 7, 1820, but did not strike the city. Faced with guerrillas’ action on land and naval blockade, Viceroy José de la Serna was compelled to evacuate the city in July 1821 to save the Royalist army. Fearing lacking any means to impose order and a popular uprising, the municipality council invited San Martín to live in Lima and signed a historic Declaration of Independence at his request.

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