History of La Guajira

The first humans arrived at La Guajira about 10.000 years ago. The Wayuu indigenous are part of the Arawak family. It is not certain where the Arawak emerged. Most likely they are from the Amazon. What is certain is that different Arawak groups spread over the Caribbean Sea (e.g. the Tainos indigenas of Cuba), the Guayanas, and parts of the Amazon until Bolivia and Brasil. The descendants of the Arawak share a common root of their languages. Groups of Arawak arrived at La Guajira about 900 d.C.

History of La Guajira: Wayuu indigenous La Guanira around 1890.
Wayuu indigenous around 1890.

When the Spaniards arrived for the first time at the South American continent 1499 La Guajira was populated by various ethnizes. The Spaniards called the first natives who lived at Cabo de la Vela “Guajiros” (farmers). The term “Guajiro” got established after 1600. It was used for all all indigenous in the region.

Pearls. The Spaniards discover pearls between Cabo de la Vela and Riohacha. Martín Fernández de Enciso founds the first settlement Nuestra Señora Santa María de los Remedios del Cabo de la Vela at the La Guajira peninsula in 1537. The village becomes a center for pearl fishing and trade. Amerindian slaves were brought from other parts of the Caribbean. However, the surrounding of Santa Maria lacks water supply and the settlers suffers from attacks of local indigenous. In 1544 Santa Maria gets relocated to Rio de la Hacha which develops into a center for pearl trade. After 1570 the amerindian slaves get substituted by African slaves. Riohacha was target of several pirate attacks from France, Great Britain, and the Dutch.

Conquista. At the beginning of the 16th century, the “encomienda” (to entrust) system was introduced by the Spanish crown to reward colonists by giving them the right to enslave a number of indigenous. The colonists were responsible for educating and converting them to Christianity. The system was abused and lead to a significant decrease of the native population. In the mid of the 16th century the system got reformed because of heavy abuse. There was resistance from the colonists. The encomienda system got finally abandoned in the 18th century.

Piracy and Smuggling. One of the reasons why the La Guajira peninsula never got conquered was probably also due to its islated location, harsh living conditions, and few resources. There was few to win for the Spaniards. However, the Wayuu were always part of the larger international conflicts between French, English, Dutch, and Spaniards. The peninsula is a gate to the Caribbean and attractive for trade.

The Wayuu resisted the “civilized” world for many centuries. During the 20th century the settlements Uribia and Nazareth were founded to gain control over Alta Guajira. Capuchin missionaries and the influence of the settlements have inevitably changed the Wayuu culture. In the 1970s and 80s natural gas and coal deposits were discovered and are being exploited. Since the end of the 20th century tourism has arrived at Alta Guajira. Recently, the political crisis in Venezuela caused a mayor number of refugees that migrate to Colombia. During the previous decades Colombians went to Venezuela to find a better life. For the first time in history Colombia has become a target for refugees. As border region with many families having relatives in both countries, La Guajira is especially affected.