Conquest Of Colombia: Discovery, Stages, Consequences

The conquest of Colombia by the Spanish Empire began a few years after the arrival of Christopher Columbus in America. The first explorer to approach the Colombian coasts was Alonso de Ojeda , although it was not until 1510 that the first Spanish settlement in the region was founded.

Although there were other expeditions, it was Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada who earned the name of true conqueror of Colombia. One of the main purposes of his foray into the interior of the area was to discover El Dorado, the city full of riches that had become a legend among the Spanish.

It was Jiménez de Quesada who founded Santafé de Bogotá, raised as the capital of the one baptized as the New Kingdom of Granada. To do this, he defeated the Muiscas, the indigenous people that inhabited the area. From then on, different conquerors expanded the Spanish dominions and, by mid-1540, the territory was incorporated into the Viceroyalty of Peru.

This administrative situation did not last long and the status of Nueva Granada changed over the years. The colonial period meant Spanish rule for three centuries, until the independence of Colombia in the first decades of the 19th century.


The discovery of present-day Colombia began with the expedition carried out by Alonso de Ojeda in 1499. However, it would not be until a few years later when the Spanish entered the interior of the territory.

First expeditions

Alonso de Ojeda led the first expedition along the Colombian coasts. Specifically, he sailed through the La Guajira peninsula, in Cabo de la Vela.

After that, he returned to Spain to try to convince the Catholic Monarchs to grant him capitulations on the area. The Spanish monarchs agreed, granting him rights over an area that ran from the Gulf of Venezuela to Cabo de la Vela. There the Government of Coquivacoa was founded in 1501, which only lasted three months.

Years later, in 1510, Martín Fernández de Enciso reached the Gulf of Urabá. In that area he founded Santa María La Antigua de Darién, a town that had a very short existence. The unfavorable climate, as well as the lack of interest of the crown to control those territories, meant that settlers were not sent to populate the area.

New expedition of Alonso de Ojeda

In 1516, Alonso de Ojeda tried to continue with the expedition started by Enciso. In January of that year, he built the second Spanish settlement on the mainland, San Sebastián de Urabá.

Subsequently, Diego de Nicuesa led an armed expedition that started from Hispaniola. This one was found with that of Ojeda. However, Nicuesa decided to continue on his own. The results were not very positive, since he ended up shipwrecked and the city he founded, Nombre de Dios, did not last long.

Santa Marta

The one who was more successful in his forays into Colombian territory was Rodrigo De Bastidas. He began to explore the northern part of the country in 1525, founding the City of Santa Marta that same year. This has become the oldest city, still inhabited, among those built by the Spanish.

Bastidas realized that the area was ideal for building a settlement and proceeded to build it with the materials he found. During the process he met with members of the Gaira tribe, who tried to make friendly contact. However, the response from some of Bastidas’s men was quite violent.

From that moment on, the extermination of the Tairona culture began, one of the most important in the region. Bastidas destroyed all the indigenous settlements near Santa Marta.

Later, the region was baptized as the Government of Santa Marta and it became the point of origin for almost all expeditions to the interior and areas south of the north Colombian coast.

Pacific Coast

On the other hand, the Pacific coast was not explored until 1522. Francisco Pizarro, at that time in Panama, sent Pascual de Andagoya to check the riches of that area. The conqueror found nothing of interest.

In total, it took the Spaniards about twenty years to explore the entire coast of present-day Colombia. During that time, they founded several cities, and later moved inland. The legend of El Dorado, a place full of lavish legends, led many explorers to lead expeditions in search of it.

Interior of Colombia

The exploration of the interior of Colombia had many protagonists. Among them, Ambrosio Alfinger, who skirted Lake Maracaibo and explored the Magdalena and Lebrija rivers between 1529 and 1531.

Two years later, Pedro de Heredia reached Antioquia after crossing the Sinú plain. That same year, 1533, marked the beginning of the exploration carried out by the German Jorge de Spira. He spent six years in the plains of San Martín, as did his compatriot Nicolás Federmann.

The latter entered the savannah of Bogotá, meeting Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada there. The Spanish, upon payment, incorporated Federmann and his men into his group.

The reason for the German presence in the area was the debts of King Carlos I of Spain. This, to solve those that it maintained with its German bankers, gave rights to explore in the Indies.

Stages of the conquest

As previously mentioned, the myth of El Dorado was one of the triggers for the large number of expeditions in the interior of Colombia.

After the foundation of a couple of very short-lived settlements at the beginning of the 16th century, it was Rodrigo de Bastidas who managed to build the first town of importance: Santa Marta. Its geographical location, on the north coast, made it a perfect port.

Later, in 1533, Pedro de Heredia founded Cartagena, which became the main commercial center of the region. Soon after, two independent expeditions were developed seeking to claim more territories. One of the groups was led by Quesada, while the other was led by Belalcázar.

Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada

Jiménez de Quesada is considered the true conqueror of Colombia. With only 200 men and 60 horses, he went up the Magdalena River until he reached Bocatá, the name from which Bogotá comes.

The indigenous people of the area, the Muiscas, did not accept the Spanish presence and burned the settlement. The war lasted several months, ending with the defeat of the natives.

Jiménez de Quesada set out to find a place to found a city that would become the capital of these new lands. In March 1538, he decided on Teusaquillo. As the beginning of the settlement, the conqueror ordered to build a church.

On August 6, 1538, after a mass, Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada nailed a cross in a sand plaza. In the north corner, he placed a stake on which the name of the new city appeared: Santafé de Bogotá, capital of the New Kingdom of Granada.

Quesada had no intention of staying there, as his goal was to find El Dorado. For this reason, she abandoned the settlement, leaving Fray Domingo de las Casas in command.

Despite attempts, the explorer did not find the mythological city. The Government of the New Kingdom of Granada fell to Alonso Luis de Lugo.

Sebastian de Belalcázar

Sebastián de Belalcázar received authorization from the Casa de Contratación to explore the area in which Pizarro had landed in 1521. The mission was, officially, to search for gold, but Belalcázar wanted something more: to found cities that would consolidate Spanish rule.

The first part of his journey took him to the coasts of Ecuador, in 1533. Right away, he looked for a suitable place to build a city. Thus, in 1534, he founded Santiago de Quito. After this, he set out towards the south, encouraged by the comments of the natives who affirmed that there was a lot of gold in the Nariño and the Tumaco.

Upon reaching the first of these areas, he found no trace of gold. However, he took the opportunity to found La Asunción de Popayán, already in current Colombian territory. In Tumaco history repeated itself: there was no gold but he founded La Villaviciosa de la Concepción de Pasto.

From Pasto, the conqueror returned north, crossing the Magdalena River. Belalcázar thought the area was uninhabited, so finding Santafé de Bogotá was a disappointment.

From that moment on, he continued with his expedition and his work to build new settlements. In that sense, he created a series of small towns as enclaves for land trade

Francis caesar

After the efforts of the previous conquerors, the center of the country was almost completely controlled by the Spanish. Francisco César was the continuation of that work, exploring San Sebastian de Uraba and the Abibe area. Next to him was Juan de Vadillo, who led the massacres in Cauca and Cali.

On the other hand, Gonzalo Pérez de Quesada’s brother, Hernán, crossed Boyacá in 1542. Finally, Francisco de Orellana took care of the Amazon area.

Last stage

In the 40s of the 16th century, almost all the current Colombian territory was in Spanish hands. In addition, most of the most important cities had been founded, such as Santa Marta, Cartagena de Indias, Cali, Popayán, Bogotá, Pasto, Barranquilla, Manizales, Medellín or Socorro. The country was divided into provinces and audiences.

The Hearing of Santa Fe was in charge of Popayán, Santa Marta and Cartagena. In 1550, the first Dominican and Franciscan monasteries were founded in Santa Fe, fundamental to carry out the so-called spiritual conquest. Through this, the ancient indigenous beliefs were to be replaced by Christianity carried by the Spanish.


At first, the territory of present-day Colombia was not considered by the Spanish administration as a colony. Instead, it was established as part of the Spanish kingdom, being ruled directly by the monarch. In 1500, a Royal Decree was promulgated that prohibited enslaving the natives.

However, the way to administer and govern the newly conquered territories represented a problem for the Spanish authorities. Part of it was caused by the existence of two different expeditions: the Quesada and the Belalcázar.

The latter tried to wrest control of Santa Fe from its founders, Quesada’s men, sparking a very ruthless political battle for the New Kingdom of Granada.

From the Viceroyalty of Peru to the Royal Audience

The dispute originated by the control of New Granada was solved by Carlos V when, in 1540, he decided that the region should join the Viceroyalty of Peru. In addition, he put Belalcázar in charge of that area. However, the great distance that separated Santafe from the power centers of the Viceroyalty made effective administration almost impossible.

For this reason, the crown entrusted the government of the region to a Royal Court. This, created in 1549, was made up of judges from all the provinces of the New Kingdom of Granada.

The solution was not effective either, since the members of the Royal Court could not agree on almost anything. After this, a centralized power system was switched to a president, who had civil and military control. The name of this system was Real Audiencia y Chancillería de Santa Fe and it was maintained for more than 200 years.

In the same way, the king created the Viceroyalty of New Granada, with which the president of the Royal Court became Viceroy. Their territories comprised, more or less, present-day Colombia, Panama, Ecuador and Venezuela

Consolidation of Spanish power

In order to consolidate power, the Spanish colonizers used several different procedures. The main victims were the indigenous peoples, beyond the deaths that occurred during the conquest and the following years.

The Spanish authorities created a system called encomienda that, in theory, should protect the indigenous people from abuses by the conquerors. However, despite what the law stated, legal rights were rarely respected on the ground.

Later, another system was established, called the Mita. This forced the natives to work under the command of the conquerors.

Farms and arrival of African slaves

In order to attract settlers to the new lands, the crown sold lands to conquerors and rulers. Thus were born the haciendas that, together with the mines, also in the same hands, became the main sources of wealth in the region.

The reduction of the indigenous population led to the beginning of the slave trade from Africa. Likewise, the Resguardo was created to try to protect the decimated indigenous population.

All of the above, together with the arrival of more population from Spain, shaped the demographics of the area. Thus, indigenous people, blacks and Europeans ended up shaping Colombian society, mixing with each other.


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