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Argentina at Independence--Geographical Issues

by Don Mabry

Citizens of what is now Argentina were not clear in their own minds as to what the country's geographical limits would be. Some Argentines were interested in maintaining the old Viceroyalty of La Plata as the boundaries of the new country. The Buenos Aires government sent out military expeditions under Manuel Belgrano to capture Paraguay (1811) and present-day Bolivia (1813) but the Paraguayans and the Spanish in Bolivia repulsed the attacks. Argentine attempts to incorporate Uruguay across the river were more protracted, not ending until 1862. The initial thrust against Uruguay (1810) was resisted by the Spanish Viceroy who had fled to Montevideo from Buenos Aires and who successfully summoned aid from Brazil where King Ferdinand's sister was wife of the Prince Regent. José Gervasio Artigas, honored as the hero of Uruguayan independence, led his band of gauchos first against the Brazilians (1811) and then, after unsuccessful two-year negotiations with Buenos Aires for incorporation into Argentina as an autonomous province, prepared to fight porteño demands that Uruguay enter as a dependency of a centralized Argentine government. Porteño troops took Montevideo in 1814 only to be ejected by Artigas in 1815. Brazilian troops entered the fray and won control from Artigas by 1820. Argentina had to abandon its designs on Uruguay temporarily.

These attempts to control southern South America were indicative of the geographical problems facing Argentina in the opening years of the independence period, The creation of a nation of a clearly-defined group of people who recognize a common allegiance is no easy matter. Argentine geography complicated matters.

The geographic setting

Present-day Argentina is a vast country some 2,300 miles long, north to south, and some 800 miles wide, east to west. Its over one million square miles approximates the United States east of the Mississippi plus California and Iowa. The country is an inverted triangle which curves as it approaches the south. Its southern most extremity, Cape Horn, reaches into Antarctic waters. The 1,000 mile long dry, windswept Patagonia reaches north from Cape Horn to the Rio Negro. The western side of the triangle is formed by the Andes mountains, reaching in height to 22,840 feet at the top of Mount Aconcagua. From the Andean piedmont down-to the pampas is the semiarid region of western Argentina. In the north, at the base of the triangle, are the subtropical regions of the Bolivian Andes slopes and the Gran Chaco shared with Bolivia and Paraguay. Pointing like a finger into Brazilian territory is the hot, humid territory of Misiones, a name which honors the Jesuit reducciones of colonial days. The eastern side of the triangle is formed by the Atlantic Ocean. It is this side of Argentina which has been the principal source of Argentine wealth, power, and population in the modern period. Buenos Aires city, sitting on the banks of the Rio de la Plata near where the Uruguay and Paraná rivers join to form the great Plate River, was the principal port of the Viceroyalty after 1776 and throughout the modern period. Fanning out from Buenos Aires to the north, west, and south is the great pampa, some 250,000 square miles of the most fertile land on the face of the earth and the source of Argentine wealth. North of Buenos Aires is the Littoral, the riparian provinces of Sante Fé, Entre, Ríos, and Corrientes. It is the grasslands of the pampas, the rich, black, pebble-free pampean land that accounts for Argentine wealth. In short, Argentina has a wide variety of climates and topography with consequent regional differentiation.

Regional differentiation

Colonial Argentina and the Argentina of the 1810-1829 period differed substantially from the above picture. The Patagonia and much of the Pampa was under the control of the Mapuche, fierce nomadic Indians, who resisted control or pacification attempts by Spaniards. For most of the colonial period, Buenos Aires was a small village of mud-huts clinging to the banks of the estuary and living off the slaughter of wild cattle and the illegal importation of non-Spanish, European goods. Its easy and open access to the sea made it such a threat to the Spanish mercantile system that the Crown intentionally retarded the potential growth of the town. Colonial Argentina, until the Crown reorganized its southern American dominions in 1776, was centered in the interior: the Andean piedmont and the extreme northwest. All legal trade to Buenos Aires passed through Peru to the Interior provinces and then to Buenos Aires. Whatever goods the latter could export had to reverse this route. The Interior produced goods for the Bolivian, Peruvian, and Chilean markets. Under Spanish mercantile protection, these Interior provinces prospered by selling specialized agricultural exports and handicrafts; sugar, wines, brandy, leather goods, textiles, mules, and similar items. They developed a traditional, Catholic culture which was class-stratified into a tiny, white class and  a broad Indian, mestizo, Negro base. This society looked to the regal Viceroyalty of Peru in Lima for direction. Jujuy and Salta in the extreme northwest were over 1,200 miles from the coast and Buenos Aires; Tucumán some 950 miles; Mendoza some 930 miles; and Córdoba, in the center, some 470 miles from Buenos Aires. Moving goods across such vast distances by ox cart or mule train was prohibitively expensive for all but the most valuable goods. 

The old Argentina, in short, was virtually isolated from the rest of the nation and economically secure only as long as long as Spanish royal authority continued to favor the region.

But it was Spanish policy which began the destruction of the Interior and started the shift to the Atlantic coast which finally reduced Interior Argentina to a supplicant of Buenos Aires. Faced with increased warfare from European powers, from expansionist tendencies by Brazil in the Rio de la Plata at Colonia do Sacramento, and increased smuggling through the river, the monarchy created the Viceroyalty de la Plata out of present-day Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Bolivia and placed the seat of viceregal power in Buenos Aires. Once having attained political control, porteños and coastal Argentines used that power to enhance their fortunes. The opening of the port to direct Spanish shipping, then to all Spanish shipping, brought prosperity and rapid growth to Buenos Aires which was transformed into a town of some 40,000 inhabitants by 1800 with paved streets. Illegal trade, particularly with England, increased t and, finally, the British incursions into Buenos Aires in 1806-1807 taught the porteños the value of unimpeded commerce with the rest of the world. Spain's position as a middleman was a hindrance, easily discarded in 1810.

The city of Buenos Aires developed a dynamic commerce based upon the importation of foreign goods into Argentina and the export of hides, tallow, and salted beef from Buenos Aires province and the Littoral.