<About Ecuador <History
About Ecuador


It is believed that hunter gatherers first moved into the region more than 12000 years ago.
Arrowheads and spear points provide evidence of human settlement at El Inga, east of Quito around 10,000BC. By 6000 BC the Las Vegas culture were cultivating corn, pumpkins, beans and cotton in the Santa Elena peninsula. They also fashioned tools from polished stone.

The first evidence of pottery in the continent was found in the Valdivia region and was being produced before 4000BC. From about this date groups developed organised settlements as well as more agriculture, pottery and trade in what is known as the Formative period.

During the Regional Development period between 300 BC and AD 700 there was economic growth and contact between cultures as well as the development of tolas –huge pyramids of earth with a temple at the top.

On the central coast several thousand people lived in the Jama-Coaique and Bahia communities. They built ceremonial centres and balsa wood rafts. The merchants were valued as diplomats – represented in clay basketmen figures with jewellery and a basket on their back.

The period from 700 -1450 AD is known as Integration. Agricultural productivity improved due to more irrigation and terracing. At the same time trade increased.

The Manteño – Huancavilca civilisation stretched from Bahía to Peru. It had 20,000 members when the Spanish arrived. They were master seamen who piloted balsa rafts to Mexico, they traded metals, mother of pearl, textiles and ceramic figures. They also produced ceremonial U shaped chairs and black ceramics.

In the Andes a different group lived in each valley basin. From the North the Pasto, around Carchi, then the Cara or Caranqui around Ibarra and Cayambe, the Panzaleco around Quito and Tungurahua, the Puruhá around Chimborazo, the Cañari around Cañar and the Palta who lived around Saraguro and maintained links with the Shuar in the Oriente.
The Cañari nation was a loose federation of 25 tribes which controlled the southern sierra and lowlands. According to their oral history they sacrificed 100 children to the god of corn annually and buried chiefs with their wives and servants.


The Inca kingdom was established in the 11th century in the south of what is now Peru. They extended power there but only started to expand north in the mid 15th century. In 1460 Tupac Yupanqui led a large group of warriors into present Ecuadorian territory. Combining military action with some trade and diplomacy he was able to subjugate the Palta and then the Cañari, who resisted fiercely and as a consequence suffered the devastation of the lands, the resettlement of some of the population to the Cuzco area and the forced incorporation of many men into the professional army.

Further north the tribes continued fighting. When Tupac died his son, Huayna Capac (born in Tomebamba, site of modern Cuenca) continued the fight against the Quitu and Cara, capturing Quito in 1492 and finally defeating the Cara in 1495 with a massacre at Laguna Yanhuarcocha.

By the early 16th century the Inca empire extended from Pasto (southern Colombia) down to the lakes area of Chile and Argentina. The most impressive features were its communication links along a network of stone roads, efficient administration and fine architecture, using perfectly cut huge slabs of stone for the exterior walls of palaces, temples and fortresses. Control didn’t extend so firmly into the coastal or Amazon regions but it united the Andean lands.

The Inca practiced a form of indirect rule and as long as a local chief accepted the hegemony of the emperor, he remained in power. The local communities kept some land. Other land was allocated to the nobles, army or to priests and for religious functions. The communities were not taxed on what they produced but they had to spend time working in the army, on public works or cultivating the imperial lands. This tribute was known as the mita.

The territory of Ecuador was an important part of the empire. Tomebamba and Quito were key cities, connected to Cuzco by roads. In a short period (less than 100 years) the Incas had a major impact on the area. They moved Quechua-speaking people from near Cuzco to the central highlands which is why many Ecuadorians still speak Quechua today. Agriculture changed, with llamas raised for wool and sheep and new crops such as sweet potatoes introduced.

Huayna Capac and his heir died in 1525, probably of smallpox. The empire was divided between two other sons, Huáscar, who ruled from Cuzco, and Atahualpa, from Quito. Neither brother was happy and the empire descended into civil war. Atahualpa had the majority of his army based in his territory and the support of key generals. He took Tomebamba after winning a battle near Ambato and sacked the Cañari lands (again) because they’d supported Huáscar. He eventually won a definitive victory near Cuzco and Huáscar was executed. However this didn’t restore peace to the empire because by then the Spanish had arrived.

Spanish Conquest

In 1526 Francisco Pizarro led a mission down the Pacific coast looking for a an area to colonize. The Spanish captured a vessel near Salango and when they discovered gold and silver aboard they were encouraged to make another voyage which landed at Tumbes in May 1532.

The small Spanish force made their way inland to Cajamarca. They were invited by Atahualpa and left untouched, a confident gesture which backfired when they captured and imprisoned the Inca emperor. The shocked people worked to collect gold from across the empire to pay a ransom, but the Spanish killed him anyway.

The Inca empire quickly fell apart. The Spanish took Cuzco and then turned back north in search of more gold. A rival conquistador, Pedro de Alvarado had landed near Manta and was pillaging and slaughtering his way inland. However one of Pizarro’s men, Sebastián de Benálcazar, got to Tomebamba, made an alliance with the Cañari (who for obvious reasons felt no loyalty to the Incas) and fought against an army of 50,000 amassed by Rumiñahui, one of Atahualpa’s generals. The battle started near Tomebamba and continued up to Quito where Rumiñahui was caught and executed. It is alleged that he first removed gold and treasure from Quito before destroying the buildings and this is still hidden somewhere in the Llanganates.

Benalcazar founded the city of San Francisco de Quito in August 1534 on the same site and soon got control of the lands to the north. Santiago de Guayaquil was established on various sites between 1535 and 1547. In the middle of this period Francisco de Orellana and Gonzalo Pizarro set off into the Amazon in search of what kept the conquistadores going so tenaciously, gold and wealth.

Although the Spanish were undoubtedly brutal, they didn’t actually ever conquer all of Ecuador or kill that many people in combat. The main sources of misery for the native people were the diseases which the Spanish brought (smallpox, measles, plague and influenza) and the forced labour they were subjected to. Even in this they were spared (by virtue of the scarcity of gold or silver in the region) the horrors witnessed in areas such as Potosí in Bolivia, where thousands dies in the mines.

Colonial Period

The Spanish empire in South America was centred on the Viceroyalty of Peru, with a capital in Lima. However, the region of Ecuador became the real audiencia of Quito, with legal autonomy and direct links to Spain. The conquistadores were granted encomiendas; land from which they could demand a cash tribute, plus produce and labour from the indigenous population. All the encomenderos had to do was keep control and Christianize the pagan savages. They introduced pigs, cattle and wheat and concentrated on agriculture and textile production By 1700 other indigenous people in the Andes had been forced to live in reducciones – settlements here they could be taxed more easily. The indigenous were obliged to do work for the colony, as in the mita, except the Spanish got them so indebted (by paying pathetic wages and charging higher prices for subsistence goods) that after a few years the people were only working to pay off their debts and effectively enslaved. A little like the entire state of Ecuador today.

Despite the scarcity of gold and silver, the audiencia turned a profit until the 1690s when there was a series of epidemics and natural disasters. The encomiendas were replaced by haciendas (large estates) and by a system of huasipungo where the indigenous did labour on the hacienda and if there was spare time farm their own small plot of land on which they had to grow their own food. This wasn’t much better than before.

The Spanish never conquered the forests in the east (the Amazon region) or on the north coast, so the people living there remained freer. The north coast was controlled by a mix of black and indigenous people who had escaped slavery and survived the diseases which wiped out most of the population on the south coast. Somehow Guayaquil managed to survive that, fires and pirate attacks to develop into a shipbuilding centre and port. The production of cacao began and by the 18th century it was the main import, with more and more plantations being established. Workers actually got paid a living wage because of their relative freedom, and the fact it was more expensive to bring black slave labour.

The Spanish conquest succeeded in imposing Roman Catholicism on the empire and it remains very strong today (see Religion). This was in part due to the fusion of traditional and Catholic beliefs eg. with festival dates, which made it easier for people to accept the new doctrines. In many cases churchmen were linked with the exploitation of the indigenous people. In some cases they tried to highlight abuses and improve treatment. The Jesuits were heavily involved in education and the craft workshops but were expelled in the 18th century for being too successful and powerful.

Although the Bourbon kings had tried to tighten power, Spanish control actually weakened through the 18th century due to a number of factors. One was that the expulsion of the Jesuits damaged the highland economy. Another was the criollos –people born in the empire, resented their second class status in comparison to peninsulares born in Spain. The spread of Enlightenment thought attracted some of the upper classes to republican ideas. Therefore the decline and end of the empire was a gradual process, as people in the audiencia developed their own identity and ideas about how to organise their affairs.

In the 19th Century resentment continued to grow and when Napoleon invaded Spain in 1808 groups of elite creoles were ready to take advantage of the instability.

On August 10 1809 a junta rose up in support of the deposed Spanish king Ferdinand VII but failed to remain united and the members were imprisoned and sentenced to death.

The following anniversary the public stormed the prison in Quito but the guards massacred the leaders before they could be free. Following this a new junta was formed which declared the audiencia independent of Spain in 1811. They attacked the Spanish but were routed in 1812.

In Guayaquil José Joaquin de Olmedo led a declaration of independence on October 9, 1820. A request for assistance was sent to the leaders of troops fighting against the Spanish in other parts of the continent, Simón Bolívar and San Martín. Bolívar sent his lieutenant, Antonio Sucre with 700 men which was enough to achieve victory at Guayaquil. They were then thwarted at Ambato but joined by 1400 of San Martin’s troops in time to win the Battle of Pichincha on May 24 1822.

On May 29 the audiencia became the Department of the South in the new independent Gran Colombia. A couple of important republican victories in Peru secured the continent’s liberation and Spanish troops withdrew.

This is not to say that everyone lived happily ever after. In 1828 conflict broke out over the border between Gran Colombia and Peru. Guayaquil was attacked from the sea but in the Battle of Tarqui in 1829 Sucre defeated the Peruvians, with help from General José Flores. Later that year Venezuela split from Gran Colombia and then in August 1830 the representatives in Quito declared their own republic with the name of Ecuador, and a population of 700,000. Flores became the first president.

Republic of Ecuador

1830-1945 Conservatives and Liberals
As soon as the republic was born there was a divide between conservatives and liberals. The former were landowners in the highlands who wanted to keep the colonial system. The latter were merchants from the lowlands, rich from the export of cacao, who wanted free trade and lower taxes.

The Quito government was very unpopular in Guayaquil, so Flores “arranged” for a Guayaco, Vicente Rocafuerte to take the second term as president. Flores remained as head of the military and became president again between 1839 and 1845 until he was ousted by a mob from the coast and forced to flee the country. He did manage to claim the Galapagos islands for Ecuador in that time.

If you only want a summary of Ecuador’s political history there it is – paper thin democracy and near constant conflict and turmoil.

If you are still here you must want more details of bloodshed, coups and very little progress. Here goes…

Between 1845 and 1860 Ecuador remained in a total political mess with 11 presidents, all overthrown by mobs, 3 constitutions and fighting between the regions. The government moved from Quito to Guayaquil to Riobamba and back to Guayaquil. Not surprisingly the economy stagnated and military influence grew. There were a few achievements – slavery and the tribute required of indigenous people were both abolished.

1859 is known as The Terrible Year. Quito set a provisional government, Cuenca declared autonomy, Loja became a federal district and Guayaquil signed itself over to Peruvian control. Peru promptly invaded and blockaded the port.

In 1861 Gabriel Garcia Moreno seized power. He quashed the rebellions and started to establish a strong, conservative presidency with a very strong Church. Roman Catholicism became the state religion and a citizen had to be a Catholic to be able to vote. The church controlled education, although schools did start to admit women and indigenous people. Garcia Moreno’s reforms helped the growth of agriculture and industry. New roads and hospitals were built and the railway between Quito and Guayaquil was begun. Nevertheless GGM was hated by liberals and in 1875 after having been elected to a third term in office he was assassinated brutally on the steps of the government palace, (you can still see a plaque on the wall where it occurred).

A period of relative calm followed with liberals and progressive conservatives exchanging the presidency and no-one getting too upset until in 1895 a military coup put Eloy Alfaro in power. Alfaro was a liberal and anti-clerical. He was supported by the liberals of the coast, rich from exports of cacao and coffee. He was president from 1897 to 1901 and 1906 to 1911and worked to reverse much of GGM’s legacy – the state and education became secular again, links with the Vatican were cut and the Catholic Church weakened. Alfaro also invested in public works and the completion of the railway.

Alfaro was as divisive as GGM – he faced many revolts from conservative rebels, supported by the Church. The liberals divided and his party rival, Leonides Plaza followed him as president in 1901 and 1912. In 1912 this was only after the death of Alfaro’s ally, Emilio Estrada, who died, sparking a civil war which only ended with the defeat and murder of Alfaro and his supporters.

After the war the state had no money and the cacao merchants and bankers on the coast became even more powerful. The government had to borrow from the Banco Comercial & Agricola. Inflation increased and when in the 1920s cacao production was affected by blight and a fall in prices, Ecuador was in full blown economic crisis.

The crisis created even more poverty and instability. There were uprisings in Guayaquil and the highlands which were violently suppressed. The military had a go at governing and then after Isidro Ayora resigned in 1931, 14 different presidents followed before the end of the decade.
In this period the development of new ideas such as socialism started to fragment the political scene, although as you can see neither the liberals or conservatives were rarely that coherent and united anyway. It also marked the emergence of José Maria Velasco Ibarra who became president 5 times but only completed one full term. His mix of charisma and dictatorial populism blurred the divisions between liberals, conservatives and socialists who all supported Velasco at some point as his policies yo-yoed from left to right.

In 1941 Peru invaded and seized parts of the Oriente and southern provinces. The Ecuadorian army was defending the president in Quito, who didn’t permit them all to leave. Those who did were outnumbered 5:1. Ecuador was forced to agree the border line, which was negotiated in 1942 in Rio de Janeiro. The protocol which they signed ceded 200,000 km² (almost half of the total territory of the country) to Peru.

1945 – present Missed Opportunities

After World War Two global demand for bananas increased and Ecuador became the #1 producer and exporter in the world. The economy grew, politics stabilised and Ecuador started to function as a stable democracy. A president (Galo Plaza) actually completed his term of office and even Velasco followed suit. However things fell apart at the start of the sixties when the price of bananas fell. There were conflicts over ties with communist Cuba, modernization of a more urban and industrial country and agrarian reform. The military took over in 1963 but as usual, didn’t achieve much.

In the 1970s the military took over again after oil was discovered in the Amazon. The British had already been drilling in the Santa Elena peninsula but the new discoveries by Chevron coincided with the global rise in oil prices. Although the military’s priority was to nationalise the industry and use the resources to develop the country they screwed things up again by negotiating bad deals and taking huge loans from the IMF based on a pattern of growth which Ecuador has never achieved, therefore becoming more and more mired in debt up to the present day.

At the end of the decade the military gave power back. Various presidents from the political left and right were democratically elected over the next 17 years and all failed to achieve much economic growth or social improvement. There were protests and accusations of corruption. Then in 1992 Peru attacked some Ecuadorian military posts on the Río Cenepa border in the south-east of the country, provoking another expensive but mercifully short war, in which the Ecuadorians did much better than previously (ie. the Peruvians didn’t get any more land).

In 1996 the people voted for the populist Abdalá Bucaram. His nickname was El Loco, his policies were pretty crazy and after a year Congress declared him insane and he fled to Panamá where he continues to live as a political refugee with the millions he nicked from Ecuador which help fund the continued existence of his political party and the occasional radio exhortations.

I hope this isn’t as painful for you to read as it is for me to write.

So, when a president falls from power, the vice-president usually takes over. But El Loco’s VP was a woman and the guys in Congress didn’t fancy the prospect of that so after a day they miraculously found another stooge (actually the president of Congress) to fill the position up to the next elections. They took place in 1998 and were won by Jamil Mahuad.

Mahuad was a Harvard-educated economist but it’s probably not fair to blame him too much for the implosion of the economy. Some of the biggest banks failed, fraudulently and the currency, the sucre, started to hyper-inflate. At the end of 1999 Mahuad decided to adopt the US dollar in order to restore some stability. For many of Ecuador’s poor (and most of Ecuador is poor) the cost of their weekly subsistence shopping sky-rocketed and so people started to protest. On 21 January 2000 the mob, led by CONAIE (Confederacion de Nacionalidades Indigenas del Ecuador) and some soldiers, forced Mahuad to flee. It was a military coup, but a few hours later the VP, Gustavo Noboa was in power.

Noboa managed to keep dollarization and stabilise the economy though obviously with severe social costs. However Ecuadorian’s rarely have the stomach to overthrow the VP as well (maybe this is the job presidential candidates should try to secure as they tend to get just as long or longer in power). In the next election in 2002 Lucio Gutierrez won a large majority and almost immediately started to renege on all his election promises and alliances. He kept on making more but eventually he annoyed enough people that they started to protest, were repressed, but kept on until eventually Gutierrez was overthrown. As he was one of the generals who had led the 2000 coup he could hardly complain about the abuse of democracy, though it is true that the economy was OK and the farmers were very happy with him, which is more than most presidents can say. Guess who took over and stayed in power and achieved some stability but not much else? His vice president, Alfredo Palacio saw out the rest of the term and achieved some stability. In 2006 the current president, Rafael Correa was elected.


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