A Brief History of Ecuador

By Tim Lambert

Early Ecuador

The native people of Ecuador grew crops of maize, beans, potatoes, and squash. They kept dogs and guinea pigs for meat. Many of them were skilled potters and metalworkers in gold, silver, and copper. However, in the late 15th century they were conquered by the Incas.

The Spaniards first sighted the coast of Ecuador in 1526 and they soon turned to conquest. The Spaniards conquered what is now Ecuador in 1534. The Spaniards had already conquered the Incas in what is now Peru. However, Inca resistance continued further north. Francisco Pizarro’s follower, Sebastian de Benalcazar led another army into Ecuador from the south and he gradually crushed the remaining Incas resistance in the region.

In 1534 the Spaniards founded the city of Quito on the remains of a captured Inca city. Guayaquil was founded in 1535. Cuenca was founded in 1557.

However, the diseases brought by the Spaniards, especially smallpox killed many more of the native people than the soldiers. With no resistance to European diseases, the people of Ecuador were decimated.

Meanwhile, much of the land, and people of Ecuador were shared out among the Spaniards. They owned large estates, which were worked by the native people, who were serfs.

The Spanish also brought slaves from Africa to Ecuador to work on sugar plantations. (Today many Ecuadorians are of mixed race, part Spanish, part Native South American, and part African).

In the 16th and 17th centuries, Ecuador was part of the viceroyalty of Peru but, after 1563, it was allowed some autonomy. Quito became the capital and it prospered partly because it was on the road between Lima and Cartagena. The bishopric of Quito was founded in 1545. However, in the 1690s Ecuador suffered more epidemics which decimated the population.

Then in 1717, Ecuador was made part of the viceroyalty of Nueva Granada. It was returned to Peru in 1723 but became part of Nueva Granada again in 1740.

In the 18th century, Ecuador suffered an economic recession. Furthermore, in the late 18th century and the early 19th century the people of Ecuador, like other South Americans, became discontented with Spanish rule. People in Quito held an uprising in August 1809 but it was quickly crushed. Ecuador broke away again in 1820 and the people appealed to Simon Bolivar for help. His lieutenant Antonio Jose de Sucre won the battle of Pichincha on 24 May 1822, which guaranteed Ecuadorian independence. Ecuador became part of Gran Colombia with Colombia and Venezuela.

Independent Ecuador

In 1828-1829 Ecuador was involved in a war with Peru over the border. However, Ecuador withdrew from Gran Colombia in 1830. The new country took its name from the Spanish word for Equator.

A Venezuelan general Juan Jose Flores became the first President of Ecuador. He reigned from 1831 to 1835 and from 1839 to 1845. Meanwhile, slavery was abolished in Ecuador in 1851.

Meanwhile, there were tensions between different regions of Ecuador. Finally in 1859 Ecuador split. This was known as the Terrible Year. n Gabriel Garcia Moreno (1821-1875) quelled the rebellions and made Ecuador a single nation again. In 1861 he made himself president. Moreno was a conservative who ruled with a heavy hand. However, he did restore order and promoted economic development. He also made Roman Catholicism the state religion. However, Moreno was assassinated in 1875.

General Ignacio de Veintimilla succeeded him. He ruled as a dictator of Ecuador until 1884 when constitutional government was restored.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, Ecuador’s economy flourished. Panama hats were made in the country and exports of cocoa boomed. n In 1895 a military coup brought a liberal named Eloy Alfaro to power. (He was president from 1895 to 1901 and from 1906 to 1911). Under him, the power of the church was restricted. Civil marriage and divorce were introduced. However, in 1925 conservative officers overthrew the regime.

Like the rest of the world, Ecuador suffered from the economic depression of the 1930s. There was also political instability and a quick succession of presidents.

Furthermore, in 1941 Peru invaded and occupied the south of Ecuador. In 1942 Ecuador was forced to surrender some of its territories by the Rio Protocol. Also, the city of Guayaquil was severely damaged by an earthquake in 1942.

However, in the late 1940s prosperity was restored by a banana boom. There was a surge in demand for bananas and many were exported from Ecuador.

However, after about 10 years the boom ended and political instability returned. In 1963 a period of military rule began. A junta ruled Ecuador until 1966. Then after a period of civil rule, the army took power again in 1972. In 1976 a coup took place led by a group of officers who promised to return the country to civil rule. Democracy returned to Ecuador in 1979.

Oil was discovered in 1967 and it soon became Ecuador’s main export. Other exports are shrimp, bananas, coffee, cocoa, and sugar.

In the 1970s Ecuador’s economy prospered, mostly due to oil. However, in the 1980s the price of oil fell dramatically. Ecuador was gripped by recession. There was also high inflation and high unemployment. Ecuador’s economic problems continued in the 1990s and grew worse at the end of the decade with severe inflation.

Jamil Mahuad was elected president in 1998 but under him, the crisis grew worse. In January 2000 indigenous peoples led by the Confederacion de Nacionalidades Indigenas del Ecuador (CONAIE) joined with soldiers to remove Jamil Mahuad from power. He was replaced by vice-president Gustavo Noboa. He soon proved to be a competent leader who ushered in a wave of reforms and under his rule recovery began.

Meanwhile, Ecuador fought an undeclared war with Peru over its border. The fighting began in 1995 and ended in 1998 when a peace treaty was signed.

21st Century Ecuador

In the early 21st century poverty in Ecuador declined. Today tourism is a fast-growing industry in Ecuador.

In 2006 Rafael Correa was elected president of Ecuador. He was re-elected in 2009 and 2013. Meanwhile, in 2008, Ecuador adopted a new constitution. In 2024 the population of Ecuador was 18 million. The economy is growing although it is still heavily dependent on the oil industry.

Last revised 2024