The Making of Modern Colombia: A Nation in Spite of Itself / Edition 1

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Colombia's status as the fourth largest nation in Latin America and third most populous—as well as its largest exporter of such disparate commodities as emeralds, books, processed cocaine, and cut flowers—makes this, the first history of Colombia written in English, a much-needed book. It tells the remarkable story of a country that has consistently defied modern Latin American stereotypes—a country where military dictators are virtually unknown, where the political left is congenitally weak, and where urbanization and industrialization have spawned no lasting populist movement.

There is more to Colombia than the drug trafficking and violence that have recently gripped the world's attention.
In the face of both cocaine wars and guerrilla conflict, the country has maintained steady economic growth as well as a relatively open and democratic government based on a two-party system. It has also produced an impressive body of art and literature.

David Bushnell traces the process of state-building in Colombia from the struggle for independence, territorial consolidation, and reform in the nineteenth century to economic development and social and political democratization in the twentieth. He also sheds light on the modern history of Latin America as a whole.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780520082892
  • Publisher: University of California Press
  • Publication date: 2/9/1993
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 384
  • Sales rank: 1,069,190
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.88 (d)

Meet the Author

David Bushnell is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Florida and the author of The Santander Regime in Gran Colombia, among other books.

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Read an Excerpt

The Making of Modern Colombia

A Nation in Spite of Itself

By David Bushnell


Copyright © 1993 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-91390-5


Indians and Spaniards

In the beginning there were mountains, plains, and rivers, but especially mountains; no one geographic feature has so molded the history of Colombia as the Andes. They do not attain the same height that they have in Bolivia and Peru, but separated into three principal ranges—the Cordillera Occidental, between the Pacific Ocean and the valley of the Cauca River; the Cordillera Central, between the Cauca and the Magdalena River; and the broad Cordillera Oriental, which branches off toward Venezuela—they give the Colombian landscape its basic structure. They also determine temperature, climate, and ease of human access.

The greatest part of the country's land area is made up of lowland plains. Whether covered with tropical grasses or (as in the Southeast) Amazonian forest, these plains are accurately called tierra caliente, "hot land." As one rises in the different Andean ranges, however, average temperature falls and the natural environment changes. In the Cordillera Central and the Oriental, as well as in the isolated mountain outcropping of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta along the Caribbean coast, there are even a few snow-covered peaks. But the mountains also contain a string of basins and plateaus some 1,500 to 3,000 meters high that offer moderate temperatures and often the best soils and living conditions. These middle elevations have for centuries held the densest concentrations of human inhabitants; yet the earliest Colombians did not live there, since they first had to cross the lowland plains.


No one knows when the first human beings set foot on what is now Colombian soil, but we may assume that they were part of the great migration of Native American peoples who, having crossed over from Asia, spread out through North and then South America. Presumably, they first encountered the present Colombian department of Chocó (adjoining Panama), a hot, densely forested area with some of the world's heaviest yearly rainfall. It was not the most attractive place to settle, but it did become permanently inhabited, by forest groups that made the necessary adaptation to the environment. The rest of the country was ultimately occupied as well, though we have no idea how long the process took, and no physical traces of most of the early occupants have been found.

The first clear evidence of human activity consists of stone chips found at El Abra, a site on the Sabana de Bogotá (the high plain that today contains the nation's capital). These chips have been dated to earlier than 10,000 B.C. On the western edge of the same Sabana, near the Falls of Tequendama (where the Bogotá River suddenly drops 140 meters straight down toward the Magdalena Valley), a similar find has been made. However, we cannot assume that the arts of civilization first developed in the vicinity of Bogotá; and both there and elsewhere, the sequence of developmental stages—the emergence of agriculture, creation of ceramics, and so forth—was exceedingly gradual and generally comparable to that found among other American Indian peoples.

The earliest native culture from which monumental remains have come down to us arose in the upper Magdalena Valley, near the headwaters of the river—in an area of ample rainfall, about 1,800 meters in altitude, and admirably suited for the growing of corn. Commonly referred to as the "San Agustín culture," from the name of the present-day municipality where the principal archeological sites are found, it flourished from at least the middle of the first millennium B.C. until after the coming of the Europeans, although possibly with some interruptions. The most impressive findings are the several hundred stone statues of human or animal figures, some over three meters in height, that apparently stood guard over tombs. Indeed, the archeological record consists mainly of burial sites, since structures for the living were obviously made from perishable materials. It is no less obvious that a society of some complexity and stratification must have existed, to carry out the works.

In other parts of the country, different native peoples, while not equaling those of San Agustín in stone statuary, were perfecting their own crafts, gaining practice in management of the ecology, and gradually creating a more complex social and political organization. One craft that reached high levels of sophistication almost everywhere was goldwork, thanks to the widespread existence of alluvial gold deposits. These were most often found near the western and central cordilleras, but Indians who lacked gold in their own territory had little difficulty obtaining it by trade. Trade and other contact likewise existed with peoples living beyond what is now Colombia—with the Indians of Middle America, for example, and with those of what became the Inca empire to the south. Outside influences do not, however, appear to have been decisive in development of the native civilization; it is worth noting, for example, that the llama, which served as beast of burden as well as source of wool and meat in the central Andes, was not to be found beyond the present northern border of Ecuador. Thus, the native peoples of the present Colombia, like those of North America, were wholly dependent on human power for transport—even on the rivers and few lakes.

The Indian peoples who inhabited the northwest corner of South America belonged variously to the Carib, Arawak, Chibcha, and other groupings, but the greatest number formed part of the larger Chibcha family that extended into Central America and (in various pockets) Ecuador. What Chibchas mainly had in common was the fact that they spoke related languages, so that the term is above all a linguistic designation. Certainly the Chibchas varied widely among themselves in other respects. They did, though, include the two most notable peoples of pre-Columbian Colombia: the Taironas and the Muiscas. The Taironas are the only people who appear to have achieved something like a true urban civilization; the Muiscas had progressed furthest in the direction of political and territorial consolidation by the eve of the Spanish Conquest.

The Taironas lived mainly on the lower slopes (below 1,000 meters) of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, a range that rises abruptly from the Caribbean shore behind the present city of Santa Marta to beyond the snowline (see map 1). Just as the Sierra Nevada itself was cut off from the Andean cordilleras, the Taironas were isolated from other principal centers of Indian civilization, and though their territory was densely inhabited, its limited extent naturally set a limit on their total numbers. Once conquered by the Spanish, they were largely forgotten, and they did not much figure in discussions of Colombian antiquities until the 1970s, when the discovery of "Buritaca 200" (also called "Ciudad Perdida" or "Lost City") and intensified study of other Tairona sites suddenly made contemporary Colombians aware of their achievements. These include the most impressive native engineering works found anywhere in the country: roads and bridges made of stone slabs, terracing of mountainsides for the planting of crops, and extensive construction of level platforms on which dwellings or other buildings once stood. The buildings have disappeared, but the system of platforms makes it possible to visualize a form of urban living. In addition, the Taironas produced some statuary, though not on the scale of San Agustín, and a great quantity and variety of other stone objects, goldwork, and fine ceramics. In purely qualitative terms, they were without question the outstanding Amerindian people among the precursors of modern Colombia.

The Muiscas were not equal to the Taironas in technical skill or artistic sophistication, but they were far more numerous (around 600,000, representing the largest concentration of Native Americans between the Inca empire and the Mayas of Middle America) and on that basis alone have tended to mold perceptions of preconquest culture and institutions. They lived in the intermountain basins of the Cordillera Oriental. The altitude of these basins, the largest of which is the Sabana de Bogotá, ranges generally between 2,000 and 3,000 meters, giving them a temperate to cool climate; the land was fertile and well watered; and the surrounding escarpments gave protection from such warlike peoples as the Panches of the upper Magdalena Valley. Apart from ritual anthropophagy, there is no real proof that the Panches were fierce cannibals, as the Spanish later claimed, but they were certainly uncomfortable neighbors.

The Muiscas were a preeminently agricultural people, living chiefly on potatoes and corn and also drinking fermented corn beer, or chicha. They were expert at making cotton textiles, from cotton obtained principally through trade; they worked gold, and they did some stone sculpturing. But they had no engineering works comparable to those of the Tairona, nor any settlements that could be described as incipient cities. Like all the other native inhabitants of the present Colombia, they had no form of writing. The Muiscas lived in single-family homes scattered amid the fields, and not just their homes but their "palaces" and temples were made of reed, wood, mud, and similar materials. To be sure, the more important structures might also have thin sheets of hammered gold hanging from the eaves—and these were inevitably among the first things to disappear when the Spaniards arrived on the scene. In some instances small children became construction materials. A child would be placed in the hole dug for one of the wooden pillars that was to hold up the building; then the pillar would be set, the child crushed, and construction would proceed. This was one of a variety of human sacrifices practiced by the Muiscas and other preconquest inhabitants; but sacrifices were never even remotely on the Aztec scale.

The Muiscas possessed some salt springs in the vicinity of Zipaquirá (site of the so-called Salt Cathedral that is today a Colombian tourist attraction), from which they obtained salt for their own use and for an extensive trade with neighboring peoples. Indeed, most of their gold came not from their own territory but by way of trade. Even so, the Muiscas devised the ceremony that is the clearest model for the legend of El Dorado, literally "The Gilded Man," which the Spaniards later encountered over much of South America. As part of his installation ceremony, the local chief of one subgroup of the Muiscas would coat himself with gold dust and then would go out to the middle of sacred Lake Guatavita (around 50 kilometers northeast of Bogotá) and plunge into the icy waters. Precious stones and gold objects were thrown into the lake as offerings to the gods and, together with the gold dust, settled on the bottom. All this invited the cupidity of the Spanish once the identity of the lake was established; but their draining efforts were never successful.

Politically, the Muiscas had no overall government, although the stronger groups among them were gradually extending their rule over the weaker. At the lowest level, the basic unit of government and society was a clan type of organization, based on kinship ties. The highest-level political units have been conventionally referred to as kingdoms or confederations. When the Spanish arrived, two such confederations predominated: one centered near the present Bogotá and headed by a figure known as the Zipa; the other located about 100 kilometers northeast, at Tunja, whose leader bore the title of Zaque. Their respective "capitals," of course, were not cities like the Taironas' but mere clusters of a few ceremonial or other buildings. Neither the Zipa nor the Zaque exercised tight control over all those who in some way owed them allegiance; but they did enjoy positions of great honor and were surrounded by elaborate court ceremonial. Not even members of the Indian nobility dared to look at them in the face; and if, say, the Zipa indicated a need to spit, someone would hold out a piece of rich cloth for him to spit on, because it would be sacrilegious for anything so precious as his saliva to touch the ground. Whoever held the cloth (all the while carefully looking the other way) then carried it off to be reverently disposed of.

The Indian leaders, whether local chiefs or heads of whole confederations, normally inherited their positions; but, as with a number of other Native American peoples, inheritance was not patrilineal. Instead, a chief was succeeded by his nephew—the oldest son of his oldest sister. There were exceptions, and the subjects apparently had some say in the matter, if only to confirm the successor in his post. But hereditary succession in the manner indicated was the rule; and, if Europeans had not interfered, it seems reasonable to assume that sooner or later either the Zipa or the Zaque would have absorbed the holdings of the other, along with certain lesser autonomous chiefdoms, thus creating a unified Muisca state. There are also signs that the Muiscas were on the verge of entering a period of more solid building activity and other advances in material civilization. All that, alas, was not to be.


One of the numerous Spanish expeditions sent out to explore the Caribbean in the wake of Columbus's initial discovery sighted the Guajira Peninsula of what is now Colombia in 1500. Subsequently, in the early years of the sixteenth century, other expeditions touched on the Colombian coast looking for gold and pearls, Indian slaves, adventure—and the elusive waterway to Asia that Columbus himself had been seeking. Colonization was first attempted along the Gulf of Urabá, near the present border with Panama, where the town of San Sebastián was founded in 1510. From that same stretch of coast, expeditions moved both south into the interior and westward to the Isthmus of Panama, where Balboa, having assumed command of one Spanish band of explorers, happened on the Pacific Ocean in 1513.

Neither San Sebastián nor other settlements on the Gulf of Urabá proved permanent, but lasting footholds did develop elsewhere along the Caribbean coast. Santa Marta, today the oldest Spanish city in Colombia, was founded in 1526. Located on a sheltered bay, somewhat to the east of the mouth of the Magdalena, it was immediately adjacent to the country of the Taironas and also served in due course as point of departure for the conquest of the Muiscas. Cartagena, lying to the west of the Magdalena, was founded in 1533; with an even better harbor, it would eventually eclipse Santa Marta.

Exploration and settlement had likewise been under way in western Venezuela, where Maracaibo, the later oil capital, dates from 1528. The Spanish crown had granted that area to the German banking firm of Welser, to which it owed money, in an arrangement roughly comparable to the proprietary governorships that the English government gave to such entrepreneurs as William Penn. The Germans recruited mostly Spanish soldiers and adventurers, although the commanders were German. Before long they were spilling over into territory to the west that had not been entrusted to them, lured by, among other things, the tales of El Dorado. Ultimately, one of them, Nicolás Federmann, traveled all the way to the territory of the Muiscas, by a most roundabout route; south over the Venezuelan Andes into the Orinoco basin, then westward, and finally climbing the Andes again, to come out on the Sabana de Bogotá—where he ran into other Europeans who had got there first.


Excerpted from The Making of Modern Colombia by David Bushnell. Copyright © 1993 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


By Way of Introduction: Colombia as a Field of Study, vii,
1. Indians and Spaniards, 1,
2. Severing the Ties with Spain (1781–1819), 25,
3. The Gran Colombian Experiment (1819–1830), 50,
4. Independent New Granada: A Nation-State, Not Yet a Nation (1830–1849), 74,
5. The Nineteenth-Century Liberal Revolution (1849–1885), 101,
6. The Regeneration and Its Aftermath: A Positivist-Conservative Reaction (1885–1904), 140,
7. The New Age of Peace and Coffee (1904–1930), 155,
8. The Liberal Republic (1930–1946), 181,
9. The Era of the Violencia (1946–1957), 201,
10. The National Front: Achievements and Failures 223 (1958–1978), 223,
11. The Latest Era: Confounding the Predictions (1978– ), 249,
Epilogue, 283,
Appendixes, 286,
A. Population, 286,
B. Presidential Elections, 1826–1990, 288,
Notes, 293,
Bibliographical Essay, 305,
Index, 323,

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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Posted July 17, 2011

    Very Good!!!!

    Highly recommended

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  • Posted June 19, 2009

    Finally I found a good book about Colombia

    This book describes the facts about Colombia and its people in a true way. As colombian, I should feel proud of it!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 19, 2003

    Its not a History book!!! It is the History of Colombia as a story. GREAT!!!

    An amazing book and extremelly well written. I recommended it!!!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 19, 2002

    Good historic analysis of Colombia

    As a colombian that deeply loves his country, I feel this book is an excelent appraisal of the evolution of Colombia since its independence. Altough I might not agree with some of the author's analysis, I think it is a MUST for any english-speaker that wants to have an intelligent knowledge of what Colombia is. And last, has one of the most amazing epilogues I have read: one that really understands that Colombia is comprised of heaps of honest, working people that deserve a much better situation that the one we have beed destined to live.

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