Discovery and Settlement
The recorded history of Paraguay began indirectly in 1516 with the failed expedition of Juan Díaz de Solís to the Río de la Plata Estuary, which divides Argentina and Uruguay. After Solís's death at the hands of Indians, the expedition renamed the estuary Río de Solís and sailed back to Spain. On the home voyage, one of the vessels was wrecked off Santa Catarina Island near the Brazilian coast. Among the survivors was Aleixo García, a Portuguese adventurer who had acquired a working knowledge of Guaraní. García was intrigued by reports of "the White King" who, it was said, lived far to the west and governed cities of incomparable wealth and splendor. For nearly eight years, García patiently mustered men and supplies for a trip to the interior and finally left Santa Catarina with several European companions to raid the dominions of "El Rey Blanco."
Marching westward, García's group discovered Iguazú Falls, crossed the Río Paraná, and arrived at the site of Asunción thirteen years before it was founded. There the group gathered a small army of 2,000 Guaraní warriors to assist the invasion and set out boldly across the Chaco, a harsh semidesert. In the Chaco, they faced drought, floods, and cannibal Indian tribes. García became the first European to cross the Chaco and penetrated the outer defenses of the Inca Empire to the foothills of the Andes Mountains in present-day Bolivia, eight years in advance of Francisco Pizarro. The García entourage engaged in plundering and amassed a considerable horde of silver. Only fierce attacks by the reigning Inca, Huayna Cápac, convinced García to withdraw. Indian allies later murdered García and the other Europeans, but news of the raid on the Incas reached the Spanish explorers on the coast and attracted Sebastian Cabot to the Río Paraguay two years later.
The son of the Genoese explorer John Cabot (who had led the first European expedition to North America), Sebastian Cabot was sailing to the Orient in 1526 when he heard of García's exploits. Cabot thought the Río de Solís might provide easier passage to the Pacific and the Orient than the stormy Straits of Magellan where he was bound, and, eager to win the riches of Peru, he became the first European to explore that estuary.
Leaving a small force on the northern shore of the broad estuary, Cabot proceeded up the Río Paraná uneventfully for about 160 kilometers and founded a settlement he named Sancti Spiritu. He continued upstream for another 800 kilometers, past the junction with the Río Paraguay. When navigation became difficult, Cabot turned back, but only after obtaining some silver objects that the Indians said came from a land far to the west. Cabot retraced his route on the Río Paraná and entered the Río Paraguay. Sailing upriver, Cabot and his men traded freely with the Guaraní tribes until a strong force of Agaces Indians attacked them. About forty kilometers below the site of Asunción, Cabot encountered a tribe of Guaraní in possession of silver objects, perhaps some of the spoils of García's treasure. Hoping he had found the route to the riches of Peru, Cabot renamed the river Río de la Plata, although today the name applies only to the estuary as far inland as the city of Buenos Aires.
Cabot returned to Spain in 1530 and informed Emperor Charles V (1519-56) about his discoveries. Charles gave permission to Don Pedro de Mendoza to mount an expedition to the Plata basin. The emperor also named Mendoza governor of Río de la Plata and granted him the right to name his successor. But Mendoza, a sickly, disturbed man, proved to be utterly unsuitable as a leader, and his cruelty nearly undermined the expedition. Choosing what was possibly the continent's worst site for the first Spanish settlement in South America, in February 1536 Mendoza built a fort at a poor anchorage on the southern side of the Plata estuary on an inhospitable, windswept, dead-level plain where not a tree or shrub grew. Dusty in the dry season, a quagmire in the rains, the place was inhabited by the fierce Querandí tribe that resented having the Spaniards as neighbors. The new outpost was named Buenos Aires (Nuestra Señora del Buen Ayre), although it was hardly a place one would visit for the "good air."
Mendoza soon provoked the Querandís into declaring war on the Europeans. Thousands of them and their Timbú and Charrúa allies besieged the miserable company of half-starved soldiers and adventurers. The Spaniards were soon reduced to eating rats and the flesh of their deceased comrades.
Meanwhile, Juan de Ayolas, who was Mendoza's second-in-command and who had been sent upstream to reconnoiter, returned with a welcome load of corn and news that Cabot's fort at Sancti Spiritu had been abandoned. Mendoza promptly dispatched Ayolas to explore a possible route to Peru. Accompanied by Domingo Martínez de Irala, Ayolas again sailed upstream until he reached a small bay on the Río Paraguay, which he named Candelaria, the present-day Fuerte Olimpo. Appointing Irala his lieutenant, Ayolas ventured into the Chaco and was never seen again.
After Mendoza returned unexpectedly to Spain, two other members of the expedition--Juan de Salazar de Espinosa and Gonzalo de Mendoza--explored the Río Paraguay and met up with Irala. Leaving him after a short time, Salazar and Gonzalo de Mendoza descended the river, stopping at a fine anchorage. They commenced building a fort on August 15, 1537, the date of the Feast of the Assumption, and called it Asunción (Nuestra Señora Santa María de la Asunción). Within 20 years, the settlement had a population of about 1,500. Transcontinental shipments of silver passed through Asunción on their way from Peru to Europe. Asunción subsequently became the nucleus of a Spanish province that encompassed a large portion of southern South America--so large, in fact, that it was dubbed "La Provincia Gigante de Indias." Asunción also was the base from which this part of South America was colonized. Spaniards moved northwestward across the Chaco to found Santa Cruz in Bolivia; eastward to occupy the rest of present-day Paraguay; and southward along the river to refound Buenos Aires, which its defenders had abandoned in 1541 to move to Asunción.
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