Colombia was inhabited by many large indigenous cultures such as the Muisca, Tayrona and Quimbaya. Some indigenous groups, such as the Caribs, lived in a permanent state of war, but others had a less warlike attitude. The region that is now Colombia was conquered by the Spanish through alliances with certain indigenous groups when the Americas were ‘discovered’ by the Europeans. The process of conquest and colonisation radically changed the social structures of the territories, the indigenous population dramatically decreased in size and its share of the population has been declining ever since. The Spanish Empire brought European settlers and African slaves, while the majority of the colony’s population was of mixed Spanish and indigenous descent. The Spanish Empire brought slaves to its colonies mainly by using the “Asiento” system, in which merchants from many slave-owning nations obtained licences to transport slaves.
Independence from Spain was achieved in 1819 as part of the “Gran Colombia” federation, but the federation was dissolved in 1830. It is one of the five countries liberated by Simón Bolívar (the others being Ecuador, Venezuela, Peru and Bolivia). The success of independence movements throughout Latin America was helped by the Napoleonic Wars, which left two rival governments in mainland Spain. The Republic of New Granada was formed from what is now Colombia and Panama. The new nation experimented with federalism in the form of the Confederation of Granada (1858), then the United States of Colombia (1863) before proclaiming the Republic of Colombia in 1886. The intentions of the United States of America to control the Panama Canal led to Panama becoming a separate nation in 1903.
Colombia was the first constitutional government in South America. Slavery was abolished in the country in 1851. The years following independence were marked by several civil wars. The legacy of these conflicts, combined with state repression of leftist militias in rural areas and the polarisation of the world caused by the Cold War, led to a communist insurgency campaign by the FARC and ELN to overthrow the Colombian government in 1964. The years of conflict were marked by violent fighting between communist guerrillas, the Colombian state and army, right-wing paramilitaries and several drug cartels. In the years since 2005, security has improved throughout the country. A difficult peace process led to the disbanding of the AUC (right-wing paramilitaries) as an official organisation, and in 2012 the government and the FARC began peace talks aimed at ending the 50-year civil war once and for all. Colombia is on the up and its economy is improving rapidly. Ending the conflict, wealth inequality and nation building are some of the issues facing the country. In October 2016, President Santos was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to end the country’s five-decade civil war.