Situated in a wide bay on the north bank of the River Plate across from Buenos Aires, Montevideo is the capital of Uruguay, the country’s chief port and only large city.
The regions indigenous inhabitants were the Charrúa, a tribe of hunter-gatherers. The garrison town of San Felipe y Santiago de Montevideo was founded in 1726 by the Spanish governor of Buenos Aires, Bruno Mauricio de Zabala, as a defence post against Portuguese attack from Brazil. A citadel was erected with strong walls. Montevideo served for the navy and developed into an important port but remained subject to territorial disputes between Spanish Argentina and Portuguese Brazil. The surrounding area lacked in natural resources, but there was an abundance of wild cattle to exploit.
In the early nineteenth century an independence movement emerged led by José Artigas succeeded in taking Montevideo from the Spanish. When Artigas was forced into exile, the movement was continued by Juan Antonio Lavalleja until Uruguayan independence was established in 1828. Montevideo was made the capital. Continuing post-Independence conflict between Argentina and Brazil affected the city’s progress, as did civil war between the Blancos and Colorados (named after the white and red uniforms worn respectively). Between 1843–51 it was occupied by the Argentine dictator, Juan Manuel de Rosas.
Between 1880–90 the government was in the hands of an unpopular military dictatorship. Despite the regime’s brutality, Montevideo developed and prospered as its population expanded. In the early twentieth century an influx of European immigrants, especially Italian, led to rapid urban development. A cycle of political tension and military dictatorships continued throughout the twentieth century. The city remains at the heart of the struggle to reform and democratize Uruguay.
The commercial and financial centre of Uruguay, Montevideo is also an important port which handles most of the country’s trade. Exports include meat and wool and the city has a substantial fishing industry. Manufactures include textiles and soap while meatpacking, tanning and flour milling make up the principal industries. The city is served by road, rail, sea and air links. The Universidad de la República was founded in 1849 while the Universidad del Trabajo del Uruguay was established in 1878 to provide vocational training. Montevideo is a popular summer resort.
Places of Interest
Few original colonial buildings remain, although the well preserved Ciudad Vieja, or old town, forms the heart of the city. Rebuilt at the turn of the nineteenth century, the Iglesia Matriz cathedral is the city’s oldest building. Built between 1742–80, the original entrance to the fortress walls, the Puerta de la Ciudadela, still exists. The Museo del Gaucho y de la Moneda is devoted to the traditional gauchos, or cowboys, of the Pampas and the Museo (Joaquín) Torres García displays the abstract and cubist paintings of this Montevideño artist.