In 1502, on his last voyage to the Americas, explorer Christopher Columbus made contact with Chibcha-speaking people near present-day Santa Marta. Soon Spaniards were raiding Indian villages along the Caribbean coast as far west as present-day Panama in their search for gold and slaves. Rumors of gold in the interior—the famous legends of El Dorado—prompted three separate Spanish expeditions to converge on the eastern highlands in 1538. There the Spaniards founded the settlement of Santa Fe de Bogotá, commonly called Bogotá today. Spain used the settlement as a base from which to expand its control over the region.
Although few in number, the Spanish terrified the Indians with their weapons, horses, and attack dogs. They quickly subdued the highlands societies and soon controlled much of the best land. The Spanish baptized captured Indians as Christians and required them to labor for Spanish landlords and pay tribute to the Spanish crown.
Contact with Europeans led to a precipitous decline in the population of native peoples. Indians had no immunity to common European diseases such as smallpox, measles, and influenza. In tropical areas, native peoples also succumbed to mosquito-borne diseases like malaria and yellow fever, introduced by Europeans and their African slaves.
The Spanish also undermined the indigenous way of life by changing the way Indians lived and worked. The Spanish turned land that Indians had cultivated for food over to Spanish crops such as wheat or to the raising of livestock. They also forced Indians to labor on Spanish estates or in distant mines, disrupting family life and leaving Indian laborers less time to cultivate their own food.
The catastrophic decline of the Indian population led to the virtual disappearance of native peoples in the lowlands of the north and west. To replace them, the Spanish soon began to bring in African slaves to work their estates and to labor in the mines of the gold-rich Cordillera Occidental and Cordillera Central of the Andes.
In most highland areas, however, especially in the eastern chain of the Andes, the dense Indian populations declined more slowly. Intermarriage between Indians and Europeans resulted in a large and growing population of mestizos, people of mixed Spanish and Indian descent.
Indian communities did not completely disappear, but by the 17th century mestizos provided the bulk of agricultural labor. They worked either as tenants or sharecroppers on large estates owned by people of European descent, or as cultivators of small parcels of land they owned themselves. Many mestizos were also laborers and artisans in the towns and cities. Only on the Amazon lowlands of the east did Indian cultures survive the conquest largely untouched. "Colombia" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia
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