Foundation of the Viceroyalty of La Plata

La Plata was established as a viceroyalty of the Spanish Empire, with its capital at Buenos Aires. The new viceroyalty, including territory that originally had been part of the viceroyalty of Peru, was established both to decentralize Spanish South America’s government and to shift significant military resources to the area south of Brazil, which was threatened by Portuguese and British colonial activity.

Summary of Event

In the summer of 1776, the Spanish crown authorized the establishment of the viceroyalty of La Plata, a new colonial government controlling an area that today includes Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, and the southeastern portion of Bolivia. Some of this land had previously been part of the viceroyalty of Peru, Peru, viceroyalty of but Charles III believed it was in the interests of the empire to avoid giving one viceroyalty—and one viceroy—control of such a vast area. The capital of the new viceroyalty was located at Buenos Aires, on the Rio de la Plata. [kw]Foundation of the Viceroyalty of La Plata (1776)
[kw]Viceroyalty of La Plata, Foundation of the (1776)
[kw]La Plata, Foundation of the Viceroyalty of (1776)
[kw]Plata, Foundation of the Viceroyalty of La (1776)
La Plata, viceroyalty of
Spanish South America
Territory expansion;Spain in South America
[g]Brazil;1776: Foundation of the Viceroyalty of La Plata[2200]
[g]Argentina;1776: Foundation of the Viceroyalty of La Plata[2200]
[g]Uruguay;1776: Foundation of the Viceroyalty of La Plata[2200]
[g]Paraguay;1776: Foundation of the Viceroyalty of La Plata[2200]
[c]Expansion and land acquisition;1776: Foundation of the Viceroyalty of La Plata[2200]
[c]Colonization;1776: Foundation of the Viceroyalty of La Plata[2200]
[c]Government and politics;1776: Foundation of the Viceroyalty of La Plata[2200]
Charles III (1716-1788)
Pedro de Cevallos
Rosas, Juan Manuel de
Urquiza, Justo José de
Roca, Julio Argentino

The king appointed Pedro de Cevallos to be the first viceroy of La Plata, but Cevallos died after only two years in office. He was succeeded by Juan Vértiz (r. 1778-1784). The viceroy, as the name implies, was a deputy king and had the same powers within his domain as the king himself, including the right to levy taxes, to conscript troops, and to grant land. In theory, the viceroy’s obligations were greater, however, since he had to answer to the king, while the king was largely answerable to no one but himself. However, in practice, South America was very far away from Spain, and given the time lag in communications, it was difficult for the Crown to exercise control, or even oversight, over a viceroy. By the same token, it was equally difficult for the Crown to provide military or financial support to the viceroy in a timely manner, so the goodwill of his colonial subjects could sometimes be more important to the viceroy than was the goodwill of his sovereign.

Accordingly, the authority of the Spanish monarchy over La Plata began to weaken almost immediately after the viceroyalty was established. The viceroys tended take a middle road between the Crown and their colonial subjects, considering reforms and other measures only if they seemed potentially acceptable to both the Spanish king and the people of La Plata. La Plata was vast, and a vice needed the support of the leaders of communities throughout the region in order for the government to work. Indeed, he was more likely to favor those leaders over the Crown, since they collectively had more immediate control over his success than did Charles III back home.

In 1806, when La Plata was just twenty years old, the United Kingdom sought to claim the region for itself by invading Buenos Aires. Compounding the problem of the invasion was the fact that Spain’s colonial subjects in La Plata were already dissatisfied, and some were in open revolt. The Spaniards managed to drive out the British, and they attempted to stabilize the region in the wake of this foreign invasion, but it was too little, too late. The bourgeoisie Bourgeoisie of Buenos Aires took to the streets, and in 1810 they became the driving force behind a revolution that echoed the bourgeois revolutions of the late eighteenth century in France and the United States. The last viceroy, Baltasar de Cisneros, was overthrown, and the region became independent of Spanish control.

Six years after gaining functional independence, however, the official sovereignty of La Plata was still unclear: Its citizens had not produced a document like the Declaration of Independence or any other announcement of autonomy. Representatives from the region’s various provinces therefore met to discuss what kind of relationship they should have with Spain. On July 9, 1816, the delegates proclaimed independence from Spain’s rule and formed a loose national government with limited authority over the people of the region. After considerable discussion, the region was renamed the United Provinces of South America.

A director was named to head the new state, but the governmental body of representatives could not agree as to the form of government they desired. Agreement was hard to reach, because there were two distinct groups of citizens, urbanites from Buenos Aires and inhabitants of rural communities and smaller cities. Those from Buenos Aires favored a constitutional monarchy, similar to the government of the United Kingdom. The opposition wanted a federal system closer in philosophy and structure to that of the United States.

These two factions continued to disagree, the situation escalated, and by 1819 a civil war had broken out. A tentative peace was reestablished the following year, but the form of the region’s government was still not decided. As a result, amid general unrest and a lack of any formal governmental institutions being created, local, authoritarian dictatorships slowly came to rule the provinces.

Ten years after the civil war, General Juan Manuel de Rosas was appointed governor of the province of Buenos Aires, the most heavily populated province in what had come to be called the Argentine confederacy. He gained increasing popular support, and his authority grew accordingly. Opposition groups were hushed and driven underground. As his power grew, enforced loyalty became the norm in Buenos Ares, and disloyalty resulted in death. He even dictated the appearance of his citizens, instituting a uniform dress code in public for both men and women.

In 1852, Rosas was overthrown by Justo José de Urquiza. Urquiza became the first president of the Argentine Republic. Buenos Aires did not support the president at first and attempted to secede from the new republic, but it was rapidly defeated and brought under the control of the new government. After several conflicts were resolved and mutual respect was reestablished, governmental representatives made the city of Buenos Aires the capital of Argentina.

The region continued to be unstable, however. Many factors contributed to the unrest, but the primary one was simply uneasiness over governmental power—after the excesses of the previous dictatorship, the populace was loathe to allow any centralized government to control too many facets of their lives. Moreover, Agentina’s borders were insecure: Turmoil in Uruguay led to an invasion of Argentina by Paraguay in 1865. The resulting War of the Triple Alliance ended in 1870 with Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay victorious. The War of the Desert, fought at the end of the decade by General Julio Argentino Roca and others, established the dominance of the republics over Native Americans who had resisted Argentina’s territorial expansion. As a result, vast agricultural lands were wrested from the indigenous peoples and added to the possessions of the republic. Roca became president following the war.


The establishment of the Spanish viceroyalty of La Plata was a crucial step in the evolution of Latin America. Charles III’s decision to shift resources and authority to Buenos Aires paid off in the short term, as the British invasion of 1806 was defeated. However, Spain lost control of the colony shortly thereafter, and it could not prevent the United Kingdom from seizing the Falkland Islands Falkland Islands in 1833, which had been one of the purposes of the new viceroyalty.

It took little more than one hundred years for the provinces of the viceroyalty to become separate, sovereign republics. During that time, these colonial provinces evolved rapidly through several forms of government, struggling—ultimately successfully—to establish stable borders and international relations, as well as stable internal political structures.

Further Reading

  • Brown, Jonathan C. A Brief History of Argentina. New York: Facts On File, 2003. Covers Argentine history from precolonial times to the late twentieth century, with substantial discussion of La Plata, Spain’s attempts to retain control, and the aftermath of the revolution.
  • Nouzeilles, Gabriela, and Graciela Montaldo, eds. The Argentina Reader: History, Culture, Politics. Anthology of essays on the history and culture of the nation that arose out of the viceroyalty of La Plata.
  • Reynal, Gualberto. La Plata y su historia enterrada. La Plata, Argentina: Editorial Martin, 2001. Brief monograph on the history of the region. In Spanish.
  • Rivera, Kenneth T., ed. Argentina: Issues, History, Bibliography. New York: Nova Science, 2002. Anthology focusing especially on the economic history of the region.

French Scientists Explore the Amazon River

Charles III Gains the Spanish Throne

Rebellion of Tupac Amaru II

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Eighteenth Century</i><br />

Charles III; Tupac Amaru II. La Plata, viceroyalty of
Spanish South America
Territory expansion;Spain in South America