The History of Bogota, Colombia

aerial view of Bogota

GlobalVision Communication/GlobalVision 360/Getty Images

Santa Fe de Bogotá is the capital of Colombia. The city was founded by the Muisca people long before the arrival of the Spanish, who established their own city there. An important city during the colonial era, it was the seat of the Viceroy of New Granada. After independence, Bogota was the capital of first the Republic of New Granada and then Colombia. The city has occupied a central place in Colombia's long and turbulent history.

The Pre-Colombian Era

Before the arrival of the Spanish into the region, the Muisca people lived on the plateau where modern-day Bogotá is located. The Muisca capital was a prosperous town called Muequetá. From there, the King, referred to as the zipa, ruled the Muisca civilization in an uneasy alliance with the zaque, ruler of a nearby city on the site of present-day Tunja. The zaque was nominally subordinate to the zipa, but in fact the two rulers often clashed. At the time of the arrival of the Spanish in 1537 in the form of the Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada expedition, the zipa of Muequetá was named Bogotá and the zaque was Tunja: both men would give their names to the cities the Spanish founded on the ruins of their homes.

The Conquest of the Muisca

Quesada, who had been exploring overland from Santa Marta since 1536, arrived in January of 1537 at the head of 166 conquistadors. The invaders were able to take the zaque Tunja by surprise and easily made off with the treasures of that half of the kingdom of the Muisca. Zipa Bogotá proved more troublesome. The Muisca chief fought the Spanish for months, never accepting any of Quesada's offers to surrender. When Bogotá was killed in battle by a Spanish crossbow, the conquest of the Muisca was not long in coming. Quesada founded the city of Santa Fé on the ruins of Muequetá on August 6, 1538.

Bogotá in the Colonial Era

For a number of reasons, Bogotá quickly became an important city in the region, which the Spanish referred to as New Granada. There was already some infrastructure in the city and plateau, the climate agreed with the Spanish and there were plenty of natives who could be forced to do all the work. On April 7, 1550, the city became a "Real Audiencia," or "Royal Audience:" this means that it became an official outpost of the Spanish Empire and citizens could resolve legal disputes there. In 1553 the city became home to its first Archbishop. In 1717, New Granada - and Bogotá in particular - had grown enough that it was named a Viceroyalty, putting it on a par with Peru and Mexico. This was a big deal, as the Viceroy acted with all of the authority of the King himself and could make very important decisions alone without consulting Spain.

Independence and the Patria Boba

On July 20, 1810, patriots in Bogotá declared their independence by taking to the streets and demanding the Viceroy step down. This date is still celebrated as Colombia's Independence Day. For the next five years or so, Creole patriots fought mainly among themselves, giving the era its nickname "Patria Boba," or "Foolish Homeland." Bogotá was retaken by the Spanish and a new Viceroy was installed, who initiated a reign of terror, tracking down and executing suspected patriots. Among them was Policarpa Salavarrieta, a young woman who passed information to the patriots. She was captured and executed in Bogotá in November 1817. Bogotá remained in Spanish hands until 1819, when Simón Bolívar and Francisco de Paula Santander liberated the city following the decisive Battle of Boyacá.

Bolivar and Gran Colombia

Following liberation in 1819, creoles set up a government for the "Republic of Colombia." It would later be known as "Gran Colombia" to distinguish it politically from present-day Colombia. The capital moved from Angostura to Cúcuta and, in 1821, to Bogotá. The nation included present-day Colombia, Venezuela, Panama and Ecuador. The nation was unwieldy, however: geographical obstacles made communication extremely difficult and by 1825 the republic began to fall apart. In 1828, Bolívar narrowly escaped an assassination attempt in Bogotá: Santander himself was implicated. Venezuela and Ecuador separated from Colombia. In 1830, Antonio José de Sucre and Simón Bolívar, the only two men who might have saved the republic, both died, essentially putting an end to Gran Colombia.

Republic of New Granada

Bogotá became the capital of the Republic of New Granada, and Santander became its first president. The young republic was plagued by a number of serious problems. Due to the wars of independence and failure of Gran Colombia, the Republic of New Granada began its life deep in debt. Unemployment was high and a major bank crash in 1841 only made things worse. Civil strife was common: in 1833 the government was nearly toppled by a rebellion led by General José Sardá. In 1840 an all-out civil war broke out when General José María Obando tried to take over the government. Not all was bad: the people of Bogotá began printing books and newspapers with materials produced locally, the first Daguerreotypes in Bogotá were taken and a law unifying the currency used in the nation helped end confusion and uncertainty.

The Thousand Days' War

Colombia was torn apart by a Civil War referred to as the "Thousand Days' War" from 1899 to 1902. The war pitted liberals, who felt they had unfairly lost an election, against conservatives. During the war, Bogotá was firmly in the hands of the conservative government and although the fighting got close, Bogotá itself did not see any strife. Still, the people suffered as the country was in tatters after the war.

The Bogotazo and La Violencia

On April 9, 1948, presidential candidate Jorge Eliécer Gaitán was gunned down outside of his office in Bogotá. The people of Bogotá, many of whom had seen him as a savior, went berserk, kicking off one of the worst riots in history. The "Bogotazo," as it is known, lasted into the night, and government buildings, schools, churches, and businesses were destroyed. Some 3,000 people were killed. Informal markets sprung up outside of town where people bought and sold stolen items. When the dust had finally settled, the city was in ruins. The Bogotazo is also the informal beginning of the period known as "La Violencia," a ten-year reign of terror which saw paramilitary organizations sponsored by political parties and ideologies take to the streets at night, murdering and torturing their rivals.

Bogotá and the Drug Lords

During the 1970s and 1980s, Colombia was plagued by the twin evils of drug trafficking and revolutionaries. In Medellín, legendary drug lord Pablo Escobar was by far the most powerful man in the country, running a billion-dollar industry. He had rivals in the Cali Cartel, however, and Bogotá was often the battleground as these cartels fought the government, the press and one another. In Bogotá, journalists, policemen, politicians, judges, and ordinary citizens were murdered on a nearly daily basis. Among the dead in Bogotá: Rodrigo Lara Bonilla, Minister of Justice (April 1984), Hernando Baquero Borda, Supreme Court Judge (August 1986) and Guillermo Cano, journalist (December 1986).

The M-19 Attacks

The 19th of April Movement, known as the M-19, was a Colombian socialist revolutionary movement determined to overthrow the Colombian government. They were responsible for two infamous attacks in Bogotá in the 1980s. On February 27, 1980, the M-19 stormed the Embassy of the Dominican Republic, where a cocktail party was being held. Among those in attendance was the Ambassador of the United States. They held the diplomats hostage for 61 days before the standoff was settled. On November 6, 1985, 35 rebels of the M-19 assaulted the Palace of Justice, taking 300 hostages including judges, lawyers and others who worked there. The government decided to storm the palace: in a bloody shootout, more than 100 people were killed, including 11 of 21 Supreme Court Justices. The M-19 eventually disarmed and became a political party.

Bogotá Today

Today, Bogotá is a large, bustling, thriving city. Although it still suffers from many ills such as crime, it is much safer than in recent history: traffic is probably a worse daily problem for many of the city's seven million inhabitants. The city is a great place to visit, as it has a little of everything: shopping, fine dining, adventure sports and more. History buffs will want to check out the July 20 Independence Museum and Colombia's National Museum.


  • Bushnell, David. The Making of Modern Colombia: A Nation in Spite of Itself. University of California Press, 1993.
  • Lynch, John. Simon Bolivar: A Life. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2006.
  • Santos Molano, Enrique. Colombia día a día: una cronología de 15,000 años. Bogota: Planeta, 2009.
  • Silverberg, Robert. The Golden Dream: Seekers of El Dorado. Athens: the Ohio University Press, 1985.
mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Minster, Christopher. "The History of Bogota, Colombia." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Minster, Christopher. (2021, February 16). The History of Bogota, Colombia. Retrieved from Minster, Christopher. "The History of Bogota, Colombia." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 10, 2023).