The Thousand Day War was a civil war that took place in Colombia between October 1899 and November 1902. This conflict was the last of those that had developed in the country throughout the 19th century and which pitted the liberals against the conservatives already federalist against centralists.
The so-called Regeneration, a period that emerged after a civil war that overthrew the liberals from power, was marked by the promulgation of the Constitution of Rionegro, in 1886. This eliminated the previous federalism, in addition to returning privileges to the Catholic Church and the groups most privileged.
After a few years of tension, the Liberals ended up taking up arms against the government on October 17, 1899. Despite some initial victories, the government army was better prepared and the Liberal troops had to settle for waging guerrilla warfare. The conflict had international repercussions, with the participation of Venezuela or Ecuador.
Finally, the Conservatives took the victory. Peace was signed in the so-called Treaty of Neerlandia, which was completed with two other treaties. Among the consequences of the war, in addition to the large number of deaths, are the independence of Panama and the impoverishment of Colombia.
Colombia, under several different names, had suffered several civil wars throughout the 19th century. The former, from almost its inception as an independent state, faced Bolivarians and Santanderists. Later, liberals and conservatives fought each other for power.
In all these conflicts, in addition to the search for political power, they faced opposing visions of how to organize the country. These ideological differences ranged from imposing a federal state or a centralist state to differences over the economic model or the power that the Catholic Church should have.
One of those confrontations, in 1859, began with the declaration of independence of Cauca, followed by the war against the then Confederation of Granada. Two years later, Tomás Cipriano Mosquera, the leader of Cauca, was victorious with his troops in Bogotá.
Mosquera himself then became the new president. One of his first measures was to change the name of the country, which was renamed the United States of Colombia. Despite his apparent victory, the conflict lasted until 1863.
That year, after the end of the war, the radical liberals promulgated the Constitution of Rionegro, which takes its name from that town located in Antioquia. This moment marked the beginning of the period called Radical Olympus.
The Radical Olympus lasted until 1886. During those years, Colombia was ruled by radical liberals, who tried to completely transform the country. With the Constitution approved, these liberals tried to modernize the Colombian political, social and cultural organization and leave behind the structures created by the Spanish colonizers.
The Rionegro Constitution and other enacted laws sought to democratize the country. In addition, they focused part of their efforts on implementing economic liberalism, as well as improving infrastructure.
The death of Manuel Murillo Toro, the most influential politician of the Radical Olympus, was one of the causes of the end of this period. To this we must add that Rafael Núñez, with very different ideas, became his substitute.
Nuñez and the liberal leaders of Santander began to clash very early, to the point of leading to a civil war. Conservatives supported Nuñez, who ended up founding a new party: the Nacional.
The war ended in 1885 with the triumph of Núñez. This allowed him to establish his power and proceed to draft a new constitution. This ended with the federal system, with which the United States of Colombia became the Republic of Colombia.
It was not only the federalism of the liberals that had caused opposition from Colombian society. The secularism imposed by the Radical Olympus was also one of the causes of the loss of its popularity.
With the new constitution of Núñez a new historical period began: Regeneration. Colombia became a centralized country and the Catholic Church regained its privileges. In addition, the President obtained strengthened powers and his mandate was extended to six years.
This new territorial configuration caused enormous unrest in many departments. Soon, the rulers of these began to complain about the central government. On the other hand, the economy went through a major crisis, which aggravated the instability.
As early as 1895, the Liberals took up arms against the government, but without success. The tension, however, did not stop growing during the following years. Thus, businessmen and merchants who were sympathetic to the opposition saw their business hampered.
The harassment of liberals meant that, by the end of the century, they had only one representative in Congress.
On the other hand, liberals and conservatives were not homogeneous blocs. The latter were divided between the nationalists, in power at the time, and the historic conservatives.
The nationalists were totally against any understanding with the liberals, while the historical conservatives thought that it was necessary to reach some kind of agreement to stabilize the country. In addition, these seconds were against censorship in the press and any other type of limitation of individual rights, positions defended by the nationalists.
In the liberal field there were also divisions: those who bet on politics to get to power and those in favor of the armed struggle against the government.
Presidential elections of 1898
The most immediate cause of the outbreak of war was suspicion of electoral fraud in the 1898 elections. However, it should be noted that the atmosphere at that time was already very tense and almost prewar.
Miguel Antonio Caro, the president at the time, could not run for office, as he was disqualified. For this reason, he gave his support to the candidacy formed by Manuel Antonio Sanclemente and José Manuel Marroquín. His intention was for the Nationalists to maintain power.
The liberals, for their part, managed to unify their two internal currents. The supporter of the armed insurrection was led by Soto and Rafael Uribe Uribe, while the one that was betting on peaceful means had Miguel Samper in front.
Finally, the conservative nationalists obtained five times more votes than the liberal candidacy that brought together its two currents. Allegations of fraud quickly began to appear, some of them even by leading conservatives.
Faced with this situation, the liberal supporters of the armed insurrection were strengthened, while the more pacifists were left without arguments.
While the controversy over fraud continued, a coup d’état overthrew Sanclemente in July 1890. At the head of it was the vice president, Marroquín, with the support of a sector of the historical conservatives.
In addition to the struggle for power, there is no doubt that each side’s vision of how the country should be organized was totally different. Thus, the liberals, supported by the historical conservatives, were favorable to the market economy, while the nationalists opposed and preferred protectionism.
Something similar happened in the rest of the spheres: the conservatives were centralists and supporters of a limited right to vote and with privileges for the church and the liberals preferred to give more power to the regions, the universal vote and that the Church and the State were separated.
Repression against liberals
After winning in 1895, the conservative nationalists began a veritable persecution of the liberal sympathizers. These, allied with the historical ones, tried to reach agreements with the government to carry out democratizing reforms, but they were ignored.
Although there was no official policy on the subject, the intention of the nationalists was to destroy the liberals, either through direct repression or by forcing them into exile. This was weakening the more peaceful liberal sector and reinforcing the supporter of going to war.
Although it is sometimes neglected, many historians point out that the economic situation contributed significantly to the outbreak of the conflict. Colombia had serious problems of concentration of wealth and its farmland and, thanks to conservative policies, only counted on coffee to sustain its economy.
The working population lived in conditions of great poverty and had hardly any labor rights. The little existing industry, although in extension, had only caused the conditions of the workers to worsen.
To all of the above, we must add the decline in coffee prices worldwide. This caused a long crisis in the country that the government tried to alleviate by increasing taxes in the interior of the country. The discontent of the population was on the rise, something that led to significant support for the liberals among the most disadvantaged sectors.
Development of the war (phases)
The Thousand Day War began on October 17, 1899. In reality, the expected date for the insurrection was later, but several liberal leaders preferred to go ahead.
Despite the name received, the conflict lasted just over 1,100 days until it reached its conclusion on November 21, 1902. The combatants were, on the one hand, the Liberal Party and, on the other, the National Party, then in government. .
The president of the country when the war began was Manuel Sanclemente, but a coup d’etat that occurred on July 31, 1900 caused him to be overthrown and replaced by José Manuel Marroquín. This created a joint cabinet between the Conservative Party, a historic faction, and the Liberals of Aquileo Parra, supporters of achieving peace.
That governmental change, plus some defeats of the liberals led by Uribe Uribe, caused the war to turn into a confrontation between the Colombian army and the liberal guerrillas.
On October 17, 1899, the first liberal armed uprisings took place. During that day, the Conservatives suffered several defeats. The result was that the rebels took control of almost the entire department of Santander, which was answered by the government through the declaration of martial law.
However, a few days later, liberal defeats began to follow. The turning point occurred in the Battle of the Bishops on the Magdalena River, on October 4. The Conservatives destroyed the entire fleet of the insurgents.
The liberal push, however, was enough to conquer Cúcuta and defeat his enemies in Peralonso, already in mid-December.
The conservative division between national and historical caused an important change in the country, when the latter overthrew the Sanclemente government and appoint one of their own as president: Marroquín. Liberals in favor of reaching a peaceful settlement recognized the new ruler, although this did not stop the war.
The battle of Palonegro was fundamental to end the liberal options to win the war. For two weeks, the two sides fought just 8 kilometers from Santander and the rebel defeat meant that, from that moment on, they had to settle for developing a guerrilla war.
Moreover, the conflict began to spread outside the Colombian borders, with Venezuela supporting the Liberals. In Panama, then part of Colombia, there were uprisings against the conservatives.
With the recovery of Cúcuta by the government, the position of Uribe Uribe’s troops was almost desperate. The liberal general intended to continue the fight, but realized that he needed outside support to obtain supplies, men and weapons.
Uribe sought that help in Venezuela, which soon became a secure base for many liberals who had fled Colombia. Attacks from Venezuelan territory began to be frequent, since the president of that country, Cipriano Castro, was a supporter of the liberal cause.
One of the campaigns started from Venezuela targeted the department of Magdalena. Uribe’s men managed to take Riohacha and, after this, they tried to conquer Magangué, a town located on the river bank and which had a port. The assault was repulsed by government troops.
Uribe returned to Caracas in search of new reinforcements. Castro, on this occasion, refused to supply them. This meant, in practice, the final defeat of the Liberals. Despite this, Uribe continued to refuse to accept the peace proposals launched by the government.
Given this, the Colombian government supported Venezuelan conservatives in trying to overthrow the Castro government. The latter, before the attack was carried out, promised to stop giving aid to Uribe’s liberals.
End of the war
The situation in Panama, despite the weakness of the liberals on the continent, remained very tense. Uribe Uribe’s liberals tried to cut off the Magdalena route to prevent reinforcements from the government army from reaching the isthmus, but without success.
It was then that the rebel general agreed to begin peace negotiations. His failed promise to block the Magdalena had caused him to lose popularity among their ranks and, to regain it and have more strength in the negotiation, he tried to conquer Tenerife.
Although he achieved victory and thus temporarily blocking the Magdalena route, the government soon sent more troops to retake the city. Uribe Uribe decided to retire after two weeks. That period of time, however, allowed the liberals of Panama to take positions.
Uribe Uribe even launched a new attack, this time on the city of Ciénaga, on October 13. However, this did not change the course of the war.
Finally, the rebels were forced to sign the so-called Treaty of Neerlandia, on October 24, 1902. With this agreement, the military operations in Colombia were terminated.
Some of the consequences of the Thousand Day War was the death of between 60 and 130 thousand individuals, extensive damage to the country’s territory, national economic ruin and the subsequent independence of Panama.
Data on casualties in the conflict are not very reliable, since there are large differences between those provided during the war and the estimates of historians. On the one hand, an estimated 110,000 people participated, with 75,000 on the government side and 35,000 on the liberal side.
Some sources affirm that about 100,000 individuals died, although this fact is disputed by most historians. Most of these experts estimate that more than 60,000 people were killed.
Independence of Panama
For Colombia, one of the most important consequences of the war was the separation of Panama, then part of the country. Official Panamanian independence occurred on November 3, 1903.
The Thousand Day War reached Panamanian territory, where several battles took place. It was also a markedly liberal province, with which their defeat increased sympathy for the independence movement.
On the other hand, the separation of Panama from Colombia was not only caused by the conflict. Thus, the interest of the United States to control the canal that was being built was an even more important factor. Colombians have always accused the Americans of maneuvering in favor of independence supporters to take over the channel.
After the war, Colombia was financially devastated. The scarce industry was paralyzed and basic necessities, including food, became significantly more expensive.
This increase in prices was not accompanied by a rise in wages. This caused large pockets of poverty and even episodes of famine in some parts of the country.
On the other hand, transport services, both river and land, were also affected. Even before the war began, these services had many deficiencies, but the destruction of infrastructure made the situation much worse. The result was, again, an increase in the cost of freight, which made the arrival of goods even more difficult.
Imports and exports
During the years that the war lasted, the products that arrived at the port to be exported were stacked without being shipped.
On the other hand, inputs from other nations could not enter the Colombian market, and if they did, it was limited. This represented a significant loss for the national economy and negatively affected all market dynamics.
The war especially affected the populations of the interior of Colombia. Many towns on the banks of the Magdalena were totally destroyed and their inhabitants had to move to the mountain areas in order to survive.
The destruction not only affected infrastructures. According to the chroniclers, the cattle were also annihilated, aggravating the economic situation of the population. When the inhabitants of the razed villages tried to return, there was nothing left to allow them to settle there. The recovery, when it occurred, was very slow and many preferred to emigrate to the cities.
One of the consequences of the war that has been more difficult to erase in Colombia is the resentment and hatred accumulated between the members of the parties and all those whose lives were devastated by the conflict.
More than a decade after the war had ended, there were still fighting among the inhabitants of the towns most affected by the bipartisan violence.
Disappearance of the National Party
The National party encompassed both liberals and conservatives. He was not in favor of conservative ideals and he was against radical liberalism. He had a nationalist ideology whose power was centered in the state.
As a result of the war, and the conflict between liberals and conservatives, the nationalist party was overthrown at the moment in which its last president to power (Manuel Antonio Sanclemente) was revoked from the mandate.
His greatest legacy was the complete abolition of a federal nation and the integration of members of both the conservative and liberal parties.
Cost of war
It is estimated that the cost of war was extremely high, so that the country’s coffers suffered significant losses. Some historians that the total value of the war was between 75 and 370 million gold pesos.
These figures are disproportionate, given that the value of money that was calculated had to circulate throughout the country, at the time, it did not exceed 12 million gold pesos.
Introduction of legitimate banknotes
Before and during the war, the number of different banknotes that began to circulate in the Colombian market was wide and diverse.
In each of these banknotes the figure of representative political figures of the moment began to be included, including the president and the leaders of both the liberal and conservative parties. This situation favored the counterfeiting of the currency and further weakened the economy.
Once the war ended, a National Amortization Board and later the Central Bank were created in order to withdraw all the diverse and worthless currency from the market, and regain the monetary order of the country.
Treaties of Neerlandia
When the government army seized control of central Colombia, Uribe Uribe had to begin negotiating an agreement to end the war. The result was the Treaty of Neerlandia, signed on October 24, 1902.
The situation in Panama, with the Liberals in a much more favorable position, seemed to lead to a different end. However, the US intervention forced the signing of another agreement that complemented the previous one: the Treaty of Wisconsin, on November 21 of the same year.
Treaty of Neerlandia
The advantage obtained by the conservative government allowed it to negotiate peace from a position of strength. Uribe Uribe, leader of the rebel liberal faction, had to accept the government offer to begin talks that were to end the conflict.
The result of these negotiations was the Treaty of Neerlandia. The name comes from the place where it was negotiated and signed, a farm called Neerlandia that belonged to a wealthy Dutchman, Ernesto Cortissoz.
The final document included the withdrawal of the liberal fighters from Magdalena and Bolívar, as well as the promise to end the offensive. In addition, the government promised to offer an amnesty to all who agreed to lay down their arms.
On the other hand, the two parties in conflict reached an agreement to reform the electoral districts in order that all parties were better represented.
Finally, the Treaty included the government’s commitment to allow liberals to be present in all electoral bodies and government agencies.
Treaty of Wisconsin
As noted, the situation in Panama was very different from that of the rest of Colombia. In the isthmus, the liberal Benjamín Herrera was defeating his rivals, so the conservative government requested support from the United States. This country was very interested in the area because of the construction of the interoceanic canal.
US President Roosevelt sent military ships to the coast of Panama. This forced Herrera to sign a peace agreement, on November 21, 1902, which contained clauses similar to that of Neerlandia.
That agreement was included in the Treaty of Wisconsin, named after the American battleship where the talks took place.
Treaty of Chinácota
Although much less well known than the previous two, the combatants of the Thousand Day War still signed a third treaty related to the conflict: the Treaty of Chinácota, signed on the same day as that of Wisconsin.
This agreement focused entirely on the clashes that were still taking place in the department of Santander.
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