The first few waves of Spaniards to reach the Northern tip of South America were virtually all looking to get rich quick: more than settling what would become Venezuela, they were out to ransack any mineral wealth they could find there. As it turns out, other than the pearls off the island of Cubagua near Margarita, they mostly came up empty-handed.

By the end of the 16th century, the get-rich-quick style adventurers were giving way to a different kind of colonist. Land was plentiful, and the products of tropical agriculture were beginning to find their market back home.

A miniature local aristocracy of landowners, mindful to copy the customs from back home, grew up in the countryside. With no local peasantry to exploit, this new elite took to enslaving the indigenous people they found. When these began dying in large numbers of European diseases they had no immunity to, they decided to enslave large numbers of Africans and ship them across the ocean instead.

At the apex of this brutally exploitative slave economy was a tiny elite of white Creoles. Often, they descended from the younger siblings of heirs to noble Spanish families. With no prospect of inheriting a title themselves, they set out to create them in the New World. Their descendents, who often had never been to Spain, became especially fanatical partisans of the Spanish monarchy: the ultimate fountainhead of the legitimacy of their claim to superior status.

The first product to really make it big was cocoa: a new, exotic and extremely expensive status symbol in Europe. Nothing screamed wealth and privilege in 17th century Vienna like a cup of hot chocolate, and Venezuela dominated the upstream end of this trade. A handful of criollo families made fortunes rivalling what could be had through gold and silver mining in Peru or Bolivia on the back of this chocolate craze.

Later, other products would join cocoa on the trade routes: coffee, sugar, cotton, indigo dye.

Race mixing was absolutely banned, yet the land in Venezuela struggled to sustain a properly functioning aristocracy. With the exception the Gran Cacao haciendas around the Lake of Valencia basin and the Tuy River valleys, white landowners tended to be a fairly miserable bunch. They even got married with their own family in an effort to not lose their properties. Already by the end of the 18th century Spanish envoys were scandalized by the degree of miscegenation they witnessed.

Yet relations between the upper reaches of the Mantuano elites and the metropolitan government in Madrid began to deteriorate in the 18th century.

In order to organize the new local aristocracy formed by landlords or Grandes Cacaos, King Felipe V in 1728 chartered The Royal Guipuzcoan Company of Caracas. It was granted a monopoly over all trade coming in and out of Venezuela, barring the Captaincy General from trading regionally, and receiving broad powers to fight smuggling.

The Guipuzcoana was a brilliant gambit by Madrid to appropriate the bulk of the rents from the colony’s trade: in effect, it put the royal hand deep into Mantuano pockets. It’s little wonder then that the Colonial elite hated it and took to smuggling with great gusto.

Any number of complaints were sent to the King asking for the elimination of the Guipuzcoana’s monopoly. They provide a fascinating window into the mindset of the elite of the time, and into the mindset that created a boom in smuggling to the tiny, before-largely-unnoticed Dutch colonies of Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao – a smuggling trade that continues, in one form or another, to this day.

The Royal Guipuzcoan Company of Caracas disappeared in 1785 after a long campaign by local elites against it. The demise of the Guipuzcoana demonstrated the power of the criollo landowners and Creole merchants. From that point on, Venezuela started to trade directly with Nueva España (today México) and the newly independent United States.

The Guipuzcoana was no more, but other irritants soon took its place. A Royal Decree of 1789 stipulated that all slaves more than seventy years of age would be entitled to freedom and their owners were obliged to provide food and shelter. Mantuanos were horrified.

After The Royal Guipuzcoan Company of Caracas disappeared, Creole merchants switched from cocoa to the new fashionable drink in the best European salons: coffee. It made more money in Spain and the rest of Europe. Soon, they had set their sights on staying in charge not of the Capitanía General de Venezuela but of their own state.

Today, we call that process “Independence”.

36 COMMENTS

  1. Good flow to your writing, Monica. Many thanks. If I may point out two things though …

    “…they (the early colonists) decided to enslave large numbers of Africans and ship them across the ocean instead”

    My understanding is that (some if not all) the slaves that came over to the New World were on the slave trading block in their respective African countries, given their already defined status (as captives or slaves) in the fierce caste system within their own continent.

    “They even got married with their own family in an effort to not lose their properties. Already by the end of the 18th century Spanish envoys were scandalized by the degree of miscegenation they witnessed.”

    These are contradictory thoughts, given the definition of miscegenation: https://goo.gl/4iOvKh .

    • 1) Not exactly true with the slave trade – while in many cases slavery was part of the african societies, as in all things an economic boom mean profound changes. While before Tribe X would have an slave from tribe Y after some conflict and basically incorporate them to the household, or the Muslims slave traders around doing something similar, the Atlantic trade meant capturing people in bulk to be shipped out, so apart from the white own expeditions wars, conflicts and kidnappings escalated. Have a neighbourgh you dont like? A relative that is going to inherit something? Want what the other tribe has? Now you not only get that, it also pays itself!

      2) I think thats not contradictory, but 2 different thing altogether 😛 One, people marrying into the family to stop the fraction of land into more and more and more tiny pieces, and two the fact that screw it, if I’m going to be dirty poor anyway what the hell do I care for status as a white creole, and how I’m going to get any white woman to marry me if I’m a “pata en el suelo”.

      • 2) If you claim that A+A [= X (keeping the farm in the family)], then claim in the next sentence that A+B happened instead, that is contradictory.

        O chicha (intermarriage) o limonada (miscegenation).

    • Not that it really matters that much, but the economics of the slave trade was much more complicated than that. Once the African slave trade was well established, it worked like this:

      1. Arab outposts on the coast would raid into the interior of Africa, finding and capturing entire villages. They would then march them them back to the coast (often losing half of them to injuries or illness in the process).

      2. At the coastal outposts, they were then fed and treated to prepare them for auction.

      3. They were then sold at auction to private slave ships. Once loaded, they were shipped to the New World, where ever the demand for labor was highest. They often lost another large percentage during the voyage to diseases and dehydration.

      4. At their destination, they were then sold as a lot and treated and fed well to be able to get the best price for them at auction. The final buyers were the large plantation owners who were desperate for labor.

      So, the Spanish colonists didn’t have to go looking for slaves. They simply got the word out they needed them, and ships started arriving.

  2. Yeesh. Little harsh, no? Nothing on the freemason movement which mobilized independence efforts throughout the continent? Purely economic analysis of great historical movements miss the fact that it was humans doing it. I’m proud of my heritage and ancestry, no need to call me an inbred sadistic smuggler. It was a good deal more complicated than that!

    Lets not forget, our ancestors were actually a good deal less sadistic than, say, the fanatical religious English settlers who intentionally effected a genocide on the peoples there. More subtlety is needed.

    • It’s not the condemnation of slavery that bothers me, it’s the damning of an entire culture on the back of that condemnation. Why even bother, then? I point to the US precicely because it is arguably (ok, very arguably, but positable nontheless) the greatest culture on Earth today, and it was founded on the back of genocide. This isn’t an endorsement of genocide.

      Or didn’t the Venezuelan independence abolish slavery? Did I fckn miss something?!?!

      I just ask for a more subtle analysis, not of a moral analysis, but of the complex shit at play in a war like the independence wars.

      Do you wear child labour products? Yes.

      Do you use science for thinking? Yes. That science has had some serious forrays into some seriously condemnable shit. How about: let’s not do slavery again (so silly I even have to say this) but let’s not call our home a home of inbred sadistic smugglers. Greeks used slaves, is the whole of modern European knowledge thus invalidated?!

      • Or rather this:

        I don’t clearly see the step from:

        A horrible crime was commited by a culture,

        to

        That culture was worthless and stupid and also smelled like fart.

      • We all know how many poor slaves it must have taken to build the Egyptian Pyramids or the Roman Empire Coliseum or intricate aqueducts . Or the China wall. Not to mention half of the confederate USA. What many modern international observers still don’t get comprehend to this day is how many oppressed people in chains did that horrific MPJ regime have to whip in just 5 years in the 50’s to build all those highways and plazas and stuff you see in Vzla today. And where did all that money come from. Must have been the extraterrestrials or sheer magic.

        • There is usually a dark side to otherwise impressive civilizing or cultural achievements , the existence of which gets used by professional critics to undeservingly discredit the whole civilizing or cultural effort itself , its tough in our times to accept that there is downside, an ambivalence to almost every human effort because we prefer to go for judgments which are simplistically unequivocal in their moral asesment !!.

    • “Lets not forget, our ancestors were actually a good deal less sadistic than, say, the fanatical religious English settlers who intentionally effected a genocide on the peoples there.”

      I don’t think the statistics support that view of history. The most egregious of the genocides in the New World took place at the hands of the Spanish, not to say that the English, Dutch, and French in the North were innocent either. But don’t kid yourself about the relative benevolence of the Spanish and Portuguese.

      In any case, I find it somewhat pointless to judge that actions of our distant ancestors by the morals and standards of today. It was what it was. It is helpful to recall that it has only been in the last century of human history that it was possible for the all leaders of the worlds nations to sit at the same table and acknowledge that everyone else at the table was human and deserving of some minimum degree of respect for being so.

  3. American indigenous people before the Europeans already had their own forms of elitism, oligarchies and even slavery. Heck, the Yanomamis, Arawaks, Guajiros, Tequestas up north were no saints. Nor the Aztecs, Incas and Mayans, who often practiced human sacrifice and had tough power hierarchies to control “lower-class” indians, oppress them to make them work for nothing while they got rich in the name of their nature gods or fake deities of the day. It was all approved by superior, mysterious powers..

    The Spaniards, or French or English were not much more advanced with their barbarism, and they had one big thing in common that this good article chooses to omit. Control through Religion.Not just the economy and production of goods. You see, every atrocity has always been justified by funky religions, where the Inca Shaman had a vision, so he gets all the women, the best food and clothing, or the Egyptian godlike rulers, or the Roman super-king of the day. “Chosen ones” Le Roi Soleil.. The Jesuits and Catholics in turn justified all their petty pilferage and mass killings during la “epoca colonial” with Religious dogma from the Queen and stuff, much like Isis or the Vatican do today in their own ways. They like the good life, but are “close to god” or chosen by Gotama himself. And vulnerable people continue to buy it. That’s why we have heroes like Simon Bolivar, tremendo sifrino burguesito, or El Comandante Pajarito Supremo, next to la virgencita del valle or Jesus himself, jewish or christian version, lo que este de moda.
    Whatever it takes to get rich, steal, control and dominate other people. Nothing new.

  4. Fine piece in its comprehensivenes but a bit shallow on the particulars :

    1. Venezuela was really isolated and poor, the settlements were small , no big indian population very primitive tribes , no great mineral resources , it was a backward place , with little contact with the outside world , in the beginning everything was scarce ,contemporary tales of much destitution , people wearing rags because clothes from spain could not be had , also a great scarcity of currency .

    2. Indians were not very numerous , they were very primitive, mostly nomadic and practicing slash and burn agriculture (mandioca , corn) , women were the hard workers , men were warriors and huntsmen , despised other more humdrum activities. not necessarily nice to their wives (Bonplands testimony) .

    3. When Cocoa and Coffee and Tobacco became highly profitable crops a plantation economy was started by a small group of spanish who because they couldnt count on the indian men to work hard bought and used african slaves brought in by Dutch slave traders thru Curacao.

    4. Few spanish women passed over to Venezuela ( 4% of the total of spanish inmigration , mostly from Andalucia , Extremadura and the Canary Islands , some castillians , very few from Northern Spain)

    5. Spanish men and Indian Women really went for each other (contemporary accounts) , pairings of spanish men and mostly aborigine women ( with a minority of black women to complete the mix) in colonial times formed the basis of todays mostly mestizo population . Pure indian communities almost dissapeared.
    (modern genetic studies bear this out) .

    6. Purely white couples were scarce and concentrated on the tiny wealthiest land owning population , the latter became a very arrogant exclusive caste called the Mantuanos , who owned the richest land and exercised social dominance ( controlled and tempered by the very spare presence of Spanish royal officials)

    7.There was a mostly commercial white middle class of traders and small craftmen constituted mostly of inmigrant from the Canary Islands and their descendants , always aspiring to reach respectable status but held back by the arrogance and scorn of the original mantuano class.Miranda was one example of this Canary Islands underclass.

    8. There was no love lost between the dark mestizo population and the mantuanos , the mantuanos were heartely hated by the rest of the population who felt their aspirations were better represented by the Royal Officials.

    • Nomads were mostly in the Llanos and in the Amazonas as well as in Goajira. In the whole mountain area and in the whole coastal region there were actually villages and most population was already there. They had cotton plantations, among others. They were starting to set up ever bigger federations. They were at a stage where we could talk about the start of Neolithic urbanization.

      To better understand what their development was I would advise to read Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel.
      The article Conquista de Venezuela in Wikipedia was mostly written by me. There you can find a couple of sources.

      Venezuela’s so-called Independence only took force when the rich in Venezuela and other places of Spanish America realised how liberal the new Spanish constitution was. They were incredibly reactionaries.

      • I agree with Kepler’s recommendation of “Guns, Germs and Steel” by Jared Diamond. It is a “must read” for anyone interested in history and anthropology. Or, anyone else, for that matter.

    • Thanks Kepler for allowing us access to this wonderful work ……(you ve done it again!!) , slash and burn methods of agriculture usually destroy the soil and require the villages to move to where the soil is still untiled after some years but you’re right there were plenty of villages when the spaniards arrived, most of them of course probably dissapeared when spanish colonization took hold , they were not as numerous as those in ther countries where the indian presence was larger like in Mexico , Guatemala, Ecuador , Peru or Bolivia !! .

      When the Mantuanos saw the chance of ridding themselves of the obnoxious spanish officials (with the floundering of the Borbon dinastywith Napoleon ) and take their place ,they went for it !! This was arround 1810 and 1811, the Constitucion de Cadiz was ennacted in March of 1812 so maybe Venezuelan mantuanos werent inspired by the fear of a liberal monarchy as by the ambition to have the country all to themselves. Still in Mexico it did have great importance in causing the triumphant monarchists to turn coats and declare independence shorty after having suppresed the independence movement. !!

  5. The funding of fact-based history in the classroom should be a key element of any reform government in Venezuela. Venezuelan history has become such a politically distorted kitsch-world. When people can’t look honestly at their past, they can’t look honestly at themselves, as the present regime demonstrates over and over.

    I hope you continue with further posts like this. A well-written, good faith rendering of Venezuelan history is a radical act these days.

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