Volume 7, Number 3

March 2010

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Review of
Diego Téllez Alarcia’s La manzana de la discordia.
Historia de la Colonia del Sacramento desde
la fundación portuguesa hasta la conquista
por los españoles (1677-1777)


By Emilia Riquelme Cortés [1]

Translated by Claire White

Barcelona: Ediciones Rubeo, 2008
198 pages, ISBN: 9788493635909, €16.50


Various social sciences, such as history and sociology, have always been attracted to the re-telling of certain periods of conflict. This is possibly due to the fact that in every conflict there are particularly important factors that are more significant than the events and processes themselves, and that lead us to key moments in order to understand the history of a certain place or a historic fact. For example, the study of the election of Salvador Allende in Chile in 1970 was not only connected to Chile itself, but rather it was part of a conflict on a larger scale. It was during the Cold War and therefore it was an important part of history – among other reasons – not only for Chile, but in relation to the world as well. In the same way, we can focus on one period of conflict that has a wider impact than facts alone, by reading Diego Téllez’s book. In this text he provides us with evidence of how Colonia del Sacramento, in the present-day territory of Uruguay, was a key area in the policies of the Crowns of Spain and Portugal during the period which spans from the Portuguese discovery in 1680 to the definitive conquest by the Spanish in 1777. The intention of the text is to inform us in an organised manner about all of the processes developed around the colony – including how Colonia del Sacramento was named. It refers not only to local policies, but also to the colony’s importance in the royal policies and international contexts of the monarchies of Spain and Portugal, conflicts between themselves and their neighbours, and how all this affected the colony. It therefore serves as an important record of the area’s history.

In this book, Téllez focuses on the development of conflicts, attacks, treaties and other such related themes. As for the text’s content, the first part is divided into sections in which the author presents the subject matter to be developed along with its contextualisation, as well as focusing on the origins of the conflict for the possession of Colonia del Sacramento. Téllez emphasises the historical importance of the colony, as it can be considered a key location in relation to business and the process of smuggling. The location was indubitably a strategic point, which served, as the author informs us, as “a block of discord” between the Spanish and the Portuguese.

The author begins by emphasising that the key to understanding the historical development of Colonia del Sacramento is to know the root cause of the controversy: the Treaty of Tordesillas. The Treaty in no way clearly defined the limits of South American territory; it merely fuelled the already existing rivalry between both powers as far as discovering new territory was concerned.

When studying the historical development of the colony itself, the author stresses the importance of international interests and events that linked Portugal and Spain to the area. In order to give further detail about the subject at hand, the author maintains that the founding of Colonia del Sacramento “was the consequence of a political plan of action which had been seriously premeditated by the chancery of Lisbon for years (p.28)”. From the section that mentions the founding of the colony, we can note a change in the thematic focus leading to the central theme of the text. In this case, Portugal needed the aforementioned area in order to be able to recuperate what she had lost by putting an end to smuggling and by promoting commerce from that privileged position. The man put in charge of the mission of conquering and settling the area was Manuel de Lobo, an experienced soldier, who managed to arrive with his squadron on the stipulated terrain in January of 1680. From the beginning, Spanish policy disagreed with the location of the camp, as they wanted the same privileged position in the estuary of the River Plate and so they made their wishes clear, in that they believed that the Portuguese should move their camp as they did not want the said area to be within Portuguese jurisdiction. This dispute about whether or not the territory belonged to the Portuguese Crown is the central argument of the series of treaties, agreements and attacks that have taken place in Colonia del Sacramento.

In the following sections, Téllez concerns himself with chronologically describing the historical development of the colony, identifying in each section the most important milestones. One of the most important factors of Iberian policies concerned the positions of Spain and Portugal in the European context, especially in relation to military confrontations and political strategies, which are reflected upon throughout Téllez’s work.

Initially, and after the Provisional Treaty of 1681, after the dynastic union, a period of Luso-Hispanic negotiation was commenced, despite the fact that neither of the two would renounce their rights to the American territories, which left open a breach of conflict. The text then starts reconstructing the important process of the Spanish War of Succession and what happened to the colony during this period, since in 1705 an assault was planned which resulted in the loss of the Portuguese dominion and Spanish take-over; however, this Portuguese setback was altered after the defeat of Spain in the war, which concluded with one Crown being severely damaged with a need to make concessions. The Treaty of Utrecht in 1715, in which Portuguese allies were concerned that the nation should also benefit, demanded the return of Colonia del Sacramento. This was stipulated in an article of the said treaty which again was not very clear and therefore resulted in different interpretations according to the convenience of each crown. The Portuguese policy that was the source of the misunderstandings was to conquer the whole area north of the River Plate. In response to these policies, Spain founded Montevideo, following a strategy to prevent the Portuguese from taking more territory away from them, and they also effectively took possession of strategic areas of the region which is today known as Uruguay. In this way, each and every stage of negotiations and attacks was a constant display of the Luso-Hispanic rivalry which materialised in the River Plate territory. The dispute was always tense and again, like every important event, there was a contingency in Europe which decided the destiny of Colonia del Sacramento. After the death of King Joseph I of Portugal in February 1777, the successor to the throne, Mary I, was incapable of carrying out such strict policies as the previous monarch had done, and became easily manipulated. This was seen as a contributing factor to the Spanish triumphs that intimidated her and she decided, after so much prevailing tension, to negotiate with Madrid. These negotiations concluded with the First Treaty of San Ildefonso in October 1777, in which Spain achieved its aspiration, to seize Colonia del Sacramento from the Portuguese and annex it to its territory. This is the centre of the conflict analysed throughout the text.

As for the formal aspects of the text, it is well narrated and easy to read and understand by someone who may not have much knowledge of the theme, as it is very well structured and contextualised. It is not difficult to understand how this conflict arose – the text makes this clear, as in the initial stages of the book it provides precise information without going into too much detail about facts and dates which would make for tedious reading. In any case the use of documents throughout the text is something which stands out and seems to me excessive and many times unnecessary. A quote could have been provided of the important part of each letter or treaty, rather than presenting texts which are so extensive or repetitive. Transcribing two letters to the same page is simply too much and could have been reduced. I believe that this interrupts the continuity of the narration, and could be improved upon in other studies. However, the positive aspect of the use of documents should be taken into account, as they are useful to the reader. They provide the certainty of strict analysis of primary sources. After presenting the document, the text then continues to narrate based on the conclusion that the author makes of it.

It would, in any case, seem to be a tendency that those who research colonial history give so much relevance to documents; on the one hand it can be understood, since archives, letters and/or treaties are the only sources that equip the historian for his study and research. Other sources, such as oral history, are obviously unobtainable due to the length of time which has passed since the event took place. However, it is possible to distinguish between using historical sources for a study, and quoting a great quantity of them in the same work. At the beginning of the work, as for the contextualisation that the author presents in order to discuss the subject, it seems to me that it is very focused on what it wants to describe, which makes the content digestible. However, with regard to the manner of describing the events in which the Crowns are involved and which are related to Colonia del Sacramento, the text begins to include more transcriptions than is perhaps really necessary.

As a significant contribution, this study presents the strategic importance of the location of the colony and creates metaphors that serve to help us understand Téllez’s position as a historian: that of defending the relevance of this colony with regard to the Crowns of Portugal and Spain in terms of their intentions and conquests in the Americas. It details the campaigns, attacks and agreements that took place in the settlement. It also presents the extremely unclear Treaty of Tordesillas as a central theme of the beginning of the conflict, the treaty that all but required that no agreement should exist between the two Crowns about the limits of their expansion in America.

Colonia del Sacramento, today declared a World Cultural Heritage Site by UNESCO for its very particular combination of styles, - it mixes Portuguese and Spanish legend in its architecture - makes us aware of the clash between the two nations that wanted to possess the territory. The history of the colony has given origin to this study which provides evidence of a clearly relentless search for information in a work exceedingly well supported by primary sources, and which presents a good version of the analysis of one strategic point of conflict in the colonial period, when Spain and Portugal were the great owners of our America. It is an excellent version to have in order to learn about this key location and its relation to colonial politics.

Emilia Riquelme Cortés


[1] B.A. History and Social Sciences Education, M.A. Chilean History, University of Santiago, Chile

Author’s Reply

I would like just to thank Emilia Riquelme Cortés for her comments and underline that there were other powers - mainly the United Kingdom - involved in the struggle for Colonia. This is an aspect that is not mentioned by Emilia.

Diego Téllez Alarcia.

Copyright © Society for Irish Latin American Studies, 2010

Published: 02 March 2010
Edited: 24 September 2010

Riquelme Cortés, Emilia 'Review of Diego Téllez Alarcia’s "La manzana de la discordia. Historia de la Colonia del Sacramento desde la fundación portuguesa hasta la conquista por los españoles (1677-1777)"' in "Irish Migration Studies in Latin America" 7:3 (March 2010), pp. 395-398. Available online  (www.irlandeses.org/imsla1003.htm), accessed .

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