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Viceroyalty of the Rio de la Plata

The Viceroyalty of the Rio de la Plata was the last and most short-lived Viceroyalty of the Spanish Empire in America. A literal translation of its name would be Viceroyalty of the River of the Silver, still some sources prefer the traditional Viceroyalty of the River Plate. Encyclopaedia Britannica entry.

The Viceroyalty was established in 1776 out of several former Viceroyalty of Peru dependencies that mainly extended over the Rio de la Plata basin . Its capital became Buenos Aires, located on the western shore of the Rio de la Plata estuary, opposite the Portuguese outpost of Colonia del Sacramento. Usually considered one of the late Bourbon Reforms, its creation was both motivated on commercial grounds (Buenos Aires was by then a major spot for illegal trade), as well as on security concerns brought about by the growing interest some foreign powers had over the area, namely Great Britain and the Kingdom of Portugal.

However, the Enlightening reforms proved counterproductive, or perhaps too much belated for quelling the colonies' demands. In fact, the entire existence of the Viceroyalty was characterised by growing unrest and instability. Between 1780 and 1782, the Rebellion of Tupac Amaru II inspired a violent Aymara-led revolt across the Upper Peru highlands, evidencing the huge resentment towards colonial authorities from both mestizos and indigenous populations. Twenty-five years later, two successive British attempts at conquering Buenos Aires and Montevideo were successfully repealed by Criollo-led defenses, enhancing their perceived autonomous capabilities as the Spanish troops were unable to help.

In 1809, criollos and mestizos revolted against colonial authorities at La Paz and Chuquisaca, establishing revolutionary Juntas. Albeit short-lived themselves, they provided some strong theoretical basis for the legitimacy of thr locally-based governing juntas that proved decisive at the 1810 May Revolution events that deposed Viceroy Cisneros at Buenos Aires.

The revolution spread all over the Viceroyalty, except for Paraguay (which declared itself an independent nation in 1811) and the Upper Peru . Meanwhile, the Governor of Montevideo Francisco Javier de Elio, appointed as a new Viceroy by the Cortes of Cadiz in 1811, declared the Buenos Aires Junta seditious and endured a long siege at Montevideo before resigning his post and fleeing to Spain. By 1814, as the patriots entered this last royalist stronghold, the Viceroyalty effectively ceased to exist.

Origin and creation

In 1680, Portuguese governor of Rio de Janeiro Manuel Lobo created the Department of Colonia and founded Colonia, a fort located in present Uruguay's coast and the department's capital. The main objective was to secure the Portuguese expansion of Brazil beyond the Treaty of Tordesillas that was rendered meaningless between 1580 and 1640 while Spain controlled Portugal. Jose de Garro quickly attacked and seized the fort for Spain, but on May 7, 1681 it was handed back to Portugal due to the Provisional Treaty of Lisbon.

On the other hand, the Viceroyalty of Peru required all commerce to be performed through Lima's port, which restrained the Buenos Aires natural port potential economy, a problem that also caused large contraband activities in the region, especially in Asuncion, Buenos Aires and Montevideo.

Under these conditions, King Charles III of Spain requested former Governor of the Rio de la Plata Cevallos to think a way of developing and securing the area, in April 1776.

This meant a way of conquering Colonia and the islands of Santa Catarina from the Portuguese, in the Banda Oriental , and modernizing the underdeveloped Buenos Aires.

The early viceroyalty

The Portuguese prime minister Marquis of Pombal continued to encourage the occupation of territory which had already been awarded to the Spanish in the Treaty of Paris (1763).

King Charles III quickly reacted to the advantageous conditions: France was bound to be an ally as a guarantor of the treaty, and England due to its own colony problems couldn't help being neutral.

Cevallos sent a warning and started aggressions against Santa Catalina, from where the Portuguese had already fled, and it was conquered in less than a month with no casualties. Then Cevallos sailed towards Montevideo and with the aid of Buenos Aires governor Vertiz reclaimed Colonia, also without resistance. Cevallos advanced to Maldonado city, where he stopped his advance towards the Rio Grande do Sul, as he was informed of the Treaty of San Ildefonso which ended hostilities in the area.

In 1766, Spain acquired the French colony on the Falkland Islands, called Port St. Louis, and after assuming effective control in 1767, placed the islands under a governor subordinate to the Buenos Aires colonial administration. The expulsion of the British settlement brought the two countries to the brink of war in 1770, but a peace treaty allowed the British to return from 1771 until 1776 with neither side relinquishing sovereignty.

Cevallos was then free of other matters and started significant transformations in the area, including free commerce with the aid of the Potosi minerals which were meant to be the viceroyalty's main source of revenue. The reforms pursued by the Bourbon king in 1778 also promoted the region's development, and between 1792-1796 there was an unprecedented boom.

The viceroyalty's decline

By the nineteenth century Buenos Aires was becoming more self-sufficient, producing about 600,000 cattle a year (of which about one quarter was consumed locally), prompting the development of the area. But wars with Great Britain meant a great setback for the region's economy as maritime communications were practically paralyzed. The Alto Peru region started to show contempt as the expenses of administration and defense of the Rio de la Plata estuary were mainly supported by the declining Potosi production. For instance, in the first years of the viceroyalty, around 75% of the expenses were covered with revenues that came from the north. The Alto Plata (mostly present Paraguay) also had problems with the Buenos Aires administration, particularly because of the monopoly of its port on embarcations.

By 1805, Spain had to help France because of their 1795 alliance, and had lost its navy in the Battle of Trafalgar, but the Spanish prime minister had warned the viceroyalty of the likelihood of a British invasion, and that in such an event the city of Buenos Aires would be on its own.

In June 27, 1806 a small British force of around 1,500 men under Col. William Carr Beresford successfully invaded Buenos Aires after a failed attempt to stop him from viceroy Rafael de Sobremonte, who fled to Cordoba. The British forces were thrown back by the criollos on December 1806, a militia force from Montevideo under the leadership of Santiago de Liniers. In February 1807, British reinforcements of about 8,000 men under Gen. Sir Samuel Auchmuty captured Montevideo after a fierce fight, and in May Lt. Gen. John Whitelock arrived to take overall command and attacked Buenos Aires on July 5, 1807. After losing more than half his force killed and captured, Whitelock signed a cease-fire and left for Great Britain.

Thus, lack of support from Spain and the confidence-boost by the fresh defeat of a world power prompted a movement towards independence at the expense of the viceroyalty. As of 1810, Argentina had been self-governed for about a year and Paraguay had already declared its independence, and the viceroyalty was effectively dissolved.

The viceroyalty's dependencies

Intendency of Buenos Aires: cities of Buenos Aires, Corrientes, Santa Fe, Colonia and Carmen de Patagones.

Government of Montevideo: city of Montevideo.

Government of Misiones: cities of San Ignacio, Yapeyu and Candelaria.

Intendency of Paraguay: city of Asuncion

Intendency of Cordoba: cities of Rio Cuarto, Cordoba, La Rioja, San Juan, Mendoza, and San Luis

Intendency of Salta: cities of Catamarca, Santiago del Estero, Tucuman, Salta, and Jujuy

Government of Chiquitos

Intendency of Potosi: cities of Potosi and Oruro.

Intendency of La Paz: city of La Paz.

Intendency of Cochabamba: cities of Cochabamba and Santa Cruz de la Sierra.

Intendency of Charcas: city of Charcas (modern Sucre).

Government of Moxos

Intendencia in Spanish.

Gobernacion in Spanish.

List of viceroys

The Viceroyalty of the Rio de la Plata was a viceroyalty created in 1776 by the spanish king Charles III of Spain. Despite common consideration, it worked as a colony of Spain but it wasn't: it was instead a personal possession of the King of Spain. This allowed both the European Spain and it's overseas territories to have specific laws and regulations.

The King of Spain designated viceroys to govern in his name. In the beginning their terms had no fixed duration and may last for life, but afterwards they were shortened to periods of 3 to 5 years. Due to the distances between Spain and America and the means of transport available at that age, there were huge delays between the designation of a viceroy and it's effective took of power.


Lynch, John. Spanish Colonial Administration, 1782-1810: The Intendant System in the Viceroyalty of the Rio de la Plata. London, University of London, Athlone Press, 1958.

See also

List of Governors in the Viceroyalty of the Rio de la Plata

May Revolution

United Provinces of South America

History of Argentina

History of Paraguay

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