Understanding Colonial Quito: Spanish Influence in Ecuador

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Colonial Quito’s essence is shaped by its Spanish colonial past, starting from the mid-16th century with the arrival of Francisco Pizarro and his conquistadors. This period transformed Quito into a vital Spanish colony, influencing its architecture, culture, and religion. Despite the exploitation of local populations, this era also fostered a unique blend of Spanish and indigenous cultures, evident in Quito’s identity today. The lasting impacts of colonization continue to define Quito’s cultural landscape, merging historical influences with modern Ecuadorian life.

“Oh ciudad española en el Ande, oh ciudad que el Incario soñó, porque te hizo Atahualpa eres grande, y también porque España te amó”.

“Oh Spanish city in the Andes, oh city that the Incas dreamed up, because it made you Atahualpa you so great, and because Spain loved you.”

So goes the second verse of the anthem of the Ecuadorian capital Quito, recounting the role of Spain the history of the city. Yet the verse has become controversial, with the former Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa deeming it an “ode to colonialism”, and removing it and replacing it with the fourth:

“When America was all sleeping, oh noblest city you went, which in new and triumphant rebellion, went to all America light.”

“Cuando América toda dormía, oh muy noble ciudad fuiste tú, la que en nueva y triunfal rebeldía, fue de toda la América luz”.

colonial quito
Discover the Inca culture and Spanish influence in Quito.

Quito’s former mayor Mauricio Rodas, however, wanted to reintroduce the polemic stanza, creating a heated standoff.

The episode encapsulates the complicated relationship that Quito has with Spain and the years of colonization: on one hand the European former super power introduced elements that have defined the country’s unique architecture, cuisine and arts, yet on the other, much of the former culture has been lost.

Colonial Quito: Unveiling the Spanish Influence and Its Legacy in Modern-Day Quito

When Spanish adventurer Francisco Pizarro landed on the coast of Ecuador, now the region of Esmeraldas, in 1526, he and his partner, Diego de Almagro, found a civilized, organized people, adept at agriculture.

Huayana Capac was the ruler of the Incas, the largest pre-Columbian empire in the Americas. Sensing trouble with the arrival of the strange foreigners, he left Cuzco in Peru to his heir apparent, Huascar, and the kingdom of Quito to his favourite son, Atahualpa.

The two brothers warred, and by 1531 Atahualpa triumphed, reuniting the Inca realm.

But the conflict had weakened the empire, and by 1533 the Spanish had begun their conquest, taking advantage of the warring brothers.

In December 1533 conquistador Sebastián de Benalcázar entered Quito, the once-glorious city that had fallen to ruin, and looted it, snatching precious stones and digging gold from tombs.

On December 6, 1534 Quito was possessed in the name of the Spanish king, who would remain in power for almost 300 years.

Local government of the province was entrusted to a board of magistrates called the “audiencia”, always made up of native Spaniards, a fact that would later prove fatal for the Spanish empire.

Life was generally peaceful in Ecuador in colonial period, as the European force imparted its stimulus on everything from grains to clothing fashions.

Religious orders like Franciscans, Dominicans, Augustans and Jesuits saw themselves as “civilizing” forces, and while the presidents of the “audiencia” paid little attention to education, the churches set up their own schools and universities.

It was during the early years of this period that one of the country’s most important art and cultural movements began, one of the first of its kind in Latin America.

In 1552 the Quito School (or Escuela Quiteña) began to flourish in the capital, spawning a wealth of sculptures, paintings and architecture up until the 18th century, with a great focus on the Catholic church.

King Carlos III, monarch of Spain from 1716 to 1788 said, “I am not concerned that Italy has Michelangelo; in my colonies of America I have the master Caspicara”, referring to one of the movement’s key artists.

Towards the end of the 18th century, like much of Spanish America, discontent began to stir in Quito, with a desire to shed its colonial rule, a hope spurred on by Napoleon’s invasion of Spain.

In 1808 several prominent men of Quito, including Espejo Montufar, met to plan an insurrection.

And though the resulting uprising that took place August 10, 1809 did not garner enough support to guarantee success and all the insurgents were killed, it meant that when Spain appointed a local junta to preside over the now-tumultuous city, the governing body declared themselves free of Spain.

The final nail in the coffin came in 1822 with the Battle of Pichincha, the showdown between insurgent Patriots and Spanish Royalists troops on the slopes of the Pichincha volcano that now defines Ecuadorian history and legend.

Commanded by Antonio Jose de Sucre, the victory added to those of Simon Bolivar, leader of the revolutionary forces in northern South America. The acclaimed liberator joined Ecuador to the newly formed republic of Gran Colombia.

Spanish rule may have disappeared from the city, but its influence ran far deeper. From language and religion to condiments and art, the impact of colonialism on Quito is far-reaching and has led to an entirely new movement reclaiming its pre-Columbian heritage.

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