Colonial times and first immigrants

Colonial times and first immigrants

As the Spanish colony wasn’t very inhabited, Argentina as such resorted to the immigration.

Immigrants in La Boca, Buenos Aires

“Mexican descend from Aztecs, Peruvian from Incas and Argentinean from… the ship.” This is an Argentine joke that briefly shows the peculiarity of the settlement and the identity of the Argentine region. Writer Octavio Paz said: “Argentineans are Italian that speak Spanish and believe they are French.” Argentina, more than any other country in the world, received a great quantity of immigrants compared to the size of its population.

This piece of information is vital when the Argentine identity issue is analyzed nowadays. In Buenos Aires, it is very strange to find an inhabitant whose ancestors were from one single place.The National Immigrant Festivity is annually held in September in Oberá, province of Misiones, and Immigrant’s Day is on September 4.

If we went back to colonial times when Argentina was not yet a country, four population groups co-inhabited: Spaniards, Creoles, aborigines and the black people. They weren’t very numerous and the land was very vast.

Resistance of the aboriginal populations

On July 9, 1816, the Independence Declaration put an end to the Río de la Plata Vice-Royalty and gave birth to Argentina, a State and a Nation that was beginning to exist. General Belgrano proposed a monarchy and the coronation of an Inca descendant who would only have an honorific role but that would, in turn, emphasize the difference between the new country and the Spanish Crown. The idea never became true.

The liberating war continued. San Martín created the Andes Army whose half infantry was made up of black slaves. He tried to achieve an alliance with aboriginal populations who he considered “compatriot”.

Once Independence was declared in Argentina, the situation was that of a vast territory scarcely inhabited. Patagonia (Tehuelches, Mapuches), Chaco (Guaraníes) and a part of La Pampa were free territories where aborigines lived almost with no contact whatsoever with the “Western” political-administrative order. In those times and with some frictions, they could somehow achieve the cohabitation of the Creole and aboriginal societies. The problem: in the 1820s cattle-raising started to develop and expand, and the need of the lands started to decrease.


Some caciques joined the white power, others refused. In 1833, General Rosas, former governor and a powerful land-owner, led the campaign to conquer the lands that could not be conquered by the central power. The balance: 3,200 dead aborigines, 1,200 imprisoned aborigines. Roca led the “campaign or conquest of the desert” from 1879 to 1885. There were thousands of casualties and he achieved the definite submission of the aboriginal communities.

Millions of conquered hectares for the European colonies that arrived massively ended in the hands of some land-owners in consideration for trivial amounts. Argentina managed to get a place in the international economy as an agro-export country. Survivors were employed as cheap labor work, families were separated and the caciques and the oral culture were destroyed. According to a 2001 census, about 400,000 Argentinean were aborigines, which is 1% of the population. According to another analysis, descendents from aborigines were more, representing about 15% of the population.

Slavery in Argentina

The first black slaves arrived in 1587, shortly after the second foundation of Buenos Aires. The majority continued traveling along the vast area of the Vice-Royalty, some others that chose to stay at the port did domestic chorus. At the beginning of the 19th century, when Argentina was born, one out of three inhabitants was black, while today the black community is a great minority.

It happened that during Independence wars, many slaves joined the liberating army and many families preferred to send their slaves to war instead of their own children. Then the civil wars and the war against Paraguay (1865-1870) took place, during which the black population was almost completely destroyed. Black traffic was prohibited in 1837 and slavery was abolished in 1853.

Candombe Federal, Buenos Aires

Argentina, contrary to Uruguay and Brazil, lost most of its black culture, except for the music: candombe, folk music with influence of African rhythms, such as tango. Nowadays when you ask what happened to African descendents, you always get the same answer: “In Argentina, there are no black people.” However, different studies calculated that about 5% of the population were African descendents, whether slaves or immigrants from Cape Verde that arrived in the 20th century to work as fishers; other studies estimated that they only represented less than 3%. At the end of the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th century, the governments wanted to populate this vast country with immigrants, with European workers and farmers, Argentine identities ended up being denied by the collective unconsciousness.

Immigration to build and populate a country

In the second half of the 19th century, chiefs of state started to intend to populate the territory calling for European workers. The idea was clear: “to clear up” the country and import the progress with those that were supposed to be better representatives. The project of country was translated into 1853 Constitution that set forth that Argentina ensures the benefits of freedom for “all the people who wish to live on Argentine soil“, establishing, however, that the government shall encourage European immigration, preferably from Northern Europe.

That is how a hundred thousand immigrants arrived at the port of Buenos Aires upon the government’s request who had sent “hooks” or “recruiters” to the poorest European regions with the sole purpose of advertising Argentina as a new Eden, also by request of the business companies. The majority of the farming colonies were located in the provinces of Santa Fe, Córdoba, Entre Ríos and Buenos Aires.

President Sarmiento's boat

During the most important immigration period, from 1857 through 1940, 6.6 million immigrants were estimated to have arrived in Argentina: 2.970.00 Italian (44.9%), 2,080,000 Spanish (31.5%), 239,000 French (3.6%), 180,000 Polish (2.7%), 177,000 “Russian” (mainly Jewish), 174.000 “Turkish” (2.6%), 152,000 German, 111,000 Austrian-Hungarian, 75,000 British (1.1%). Not all of them stayed in Argentina, some returned to their homes, others kept on their trip towards other countries.

In 1869, Argentina had about 212,000 aliens, 12% of the population, mainly men and most of them unqualified who worked in the farming, manufacturing and business industries. In 1914, one third of the population was foreign, a true record. All the immigrants arrived in Argentina in search for a better life: farming workers who were deprived of their jobs due to the industrial revolution, youngest children of numerous families, some others had some skill or a small capital that wanted to be worth in a country with a promising future; some others were running away from religious persecutions (Jewish, Armenian), and the world wars (the emigration continued even after the Second World War), etc. This amalgamation notably modified Argentine society in the regions where there were vast quantities of immigrants, such as Buenos Aires, and their full integration eventually took place with some difficulties.