Uruguay is in the southeastern part of South America. It’s the second smallest nation on that continent. It has boundaries with Argentina, Brazil, and the Atlantic Ocean. The capital city is Montevideo. The official name is “República Oriental del Uruguay” (Oriental Republic of Uruguay). It enjoys a mild climate, with its seasons being the opposite of those in North America. June is the coolest month with an average temperature of 15 C (59 F) and January is warmest with an average temperature of 25 C (77 F).
Uruguay was first explored in the 1500s by only a few Spaniards who landed on the “Banda Oriental” or the East Bank of the Uruguay River. They were forced away by the native Charrúa people. Roman Catholic missionaries arrived in 1624 and established permanent missions and villages. About 55 years later, Brazilian Portuguese founded the town, Colonia de Sacramento to rival Buenos Aires, Argentina. The settlement of that town marked the focus of rivalry between Spain and Portugal in South America.
In 1726, the area became part of the Spanish-Argentine viceroyalty of La Plata and the city of Montevideo was founded. As a result of the Napoleonic Wars, the British invaded the La Plata region in 1806 and occupied Buenos Aires and Montevideo until they were forced out in 1807. It is at this historical point that Uruguay’s national hero enters the historical stage.
José Gervasio Artigas was born on June 19, 1764 in Montevideo. His childhood was spent in the Banda Oriental. The culture of the Gauchos (cowboys), who roamed the area, influenced his beliefs and habits. Artigas joined a local militia, in which, he rose through the ranks and was given command of a frontier company. Artigas was promoted to General and saw action against Spain during Argentina’s independence fights in 1811.
Artigas organized the League of the Free Peoples in 1814. He liberated Montevideo from the control of Argentinian Unitarian federales. Then, in 1815, Banda Oriental and Artigas were sent to the Buenos Aires assembly with instructions to create the Federation of Uruguayan States. The delegation was denied a hearing so they returned home to declare the Banda Oriental’s independence from Spain.
As La Banda fought for separation from Spain and Argentina, they formed the Federal League and invited other provinces to join them in forming a national system. Buenos Aires felt threatened by the new-found prestige of the Federal League and took forceful actions against Montevideo.
The Argentines tacitly approved of the Portuguese invasion of the Banda Oriental in August of 1816. Celebrated Argentine revolutionary hero and diplomat, Carlos Maria de Alvear headed the capture of Montevideo. Alvear promised the Banda patriots that he intended to turn the city over to them. Alvear’s forces attacked the Banda troops by surprise, but Artigas eluded the trap.
Early the next year, the Portuguese forces of Carlos Frederico Lecor captured Artigas and his deputies. However, the independence battles continued for three more years in the countryside. The Brazilian-Portuguese sent Artigas into exile to Paraguay in September of 1820. He was then banished, in turn, by the dictator of Paraguay. Artigas effectively disappeared from the political environment of Uruguay.
During Artigas’ exile a group of Banda patriot compadres of the general formed the “33 Orientals”. The fighters led a series of coups and counter coups. Uruguay was finally free of Argentina and Brazil but continued a turbulent early history. It wasn’t until 1903, that Uruguay finally achieved some measure of political stability.
In 1845, Artigas turned down offers to return to Uruguay and continued to live in Paraguay until his death, September 23, 1850.