Economy

Buenos Aires was permanently founded in 1580. For almost two centuries Buenos Aires continued to grow at a slow pace. It was a relatively good port, but it was hurt by the rigid organization of the Spanish empire in America, under which only certain ports could be used for trade. The Río de la Plata region was  part of the Viceroyalty of Peru, which was governed from Lima. Within this viceroyalty only the port of Callao, which was close to Lima, was allowed  to trade with merchants from Spain. This had adverse effects for Buenos Aires in that it effectively reduced Buenos Aires to a backwater. Various goods from Callao took nearly six months by oxcart to find their way to Buenos Aires. Any of the goods the people of Buenos Aires wanted to sell to Spain took that long to reach Callao and an additional four or six months before they might be shipped from that port to Cádiz. A complete exchange would take at least twenty four months. The large distance between Buenos Aires and other large population centers in the viceroyalty left the city with only occasional contact with the administrative authority of the Spanish crown. Over time, the city created its own way of life, centered largely on ranching and contraband trade, while the rest of the viceroyalty was focused in varying degrees on mining endeavors of the Andean region called Upper Peru (known today as Bolivia). Many settlements were established along the foothills of the Andes to serve this mining region. Their connection with the port on the Río de la Plata were of little to no consequence.

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Buenos Aires slaughterhouse

Instead of suffering from neglect, the porteños, the people of Buenos Aires, thrived. During the late 17th century and the first half of the 18th Buenos Aires grew rapidly. Settlements were established rapidly to the northwest along the Paraná River, a fertile area that was well irrigated by various streams and small rivers. These were easily traveled by small boats operated by smugglers who visited the many farms and ranches that surrounded the river. The British were the main source of capital and of transportation for this contraband trade.  This contraband trade helped the silver and cattle markets in Buenos Aires to thrive. Geographically, Buenos Aires was a logical export center for Potosí silver, however Spanish Law stated that  silver follow an official path from Lima, through the Pacific, and across Panama. Spanish law could not subdue the silver’s natural flow though and Buenos Aires, particularly the emerging merchant class, prospered greatly. In addition, the early eighteenth century Buenos Aires also developed a flourishing cattle economy. Although exports of hides and other cattle goods were throughout secondary to silver and rarely exceeded 20 percent of total earnings,  together silver and cattle goods helped increase the rate of the city’s expansion.

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Colonial Port

Due largely to this profitable contraband trade, Buenos Aires was a thriving, commercial center of nearly 20,000 people by the middle of the 18th century. The houses were established along the narrow mud and clay streets stretching North from the Riachuelo. The original harbor had now been silted up, and the larger boats that now came into  the port had to anchor somewhere offshore. The economic achievement of the city was undeniable, and in 1776, as part of the Bourbon King’s broad reform effort, Buenos Aires became the capital of the newly formed Viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata. This success lead to its invasion by the British in both 1807 and 1808. The people of Buenos Aires were able to repel the British though and eventually declared their independence from Spain in 1810.

Colonial Buenos Aires

Buenos Aires marketplace, 1810s

     Buenos Aires’s history was always tied to trade and commerce, as it became the political, financial, industrial, commercial, and cultural hub of the Spanish Empire in South America. The vast distance separating the city from other centers of population allowed it to develop its own unique social structure and to cultivate a contraband trade that connected South America with places all over the globe. Given the lack of authority from Spain, economic success, and growing globalization the city faced, the fact that it was the first city in Latin America to declare its independence is not surprising. In less than one hundred years it went from a small port to one of the largest and most important economic centers in all of Latin America.