Originally settled by the tribal Charrúa people, Uruguay's territory was hotly contested from the arrival of the first Europeans, due to its strategic position near the mouth of the Río de la Plata. The Spanish established the capital Montevideo in 1726 but continued to battle with the Portuguese for control of the region.
In 1828, a scrappy band of patriots led by General Juan Lavalleja and inspired by nationalist hero José Artigas finally won independence for Uruguay, establishing it as a buffer between the newly formed nations of Brazil and Argentina.
Regional strife continued for several decades, as Uruguay's two major political parties emerged. The liberally inclined Colorado Party, associated with Montevideo's business owners, and the right-wing National Party, representing rural interests, came to be known as Colorados ('Reds') and Blancos ('Whites') – terms that survive to this day. The Great War of 1843-52 and the War of the Triple Alliance (Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay against Paraguay, 1864-1870) pitted the two parties against one another, prompting continued interventions by Argentina and Brazil. The Blancos and Colorados finally reached a stable power-sharing agreement in 1872.
In the late 19th century, an influx of European immigrants helped transform Uruguay into an agricultural powerhouse. Under the progressive Colorado administrations of José Batlle y Ordonez between 1903 and 1915, Uruguay established Latin America's first welfare state, gave women the vote and abolished both the death penalty and the link between church and state.
As the 20th century progressed, Uruguay's economic fortunes deteriorated and in the 1970s the country slid into a dictatorship under Juan Maria Bordaberry Arocena. Civilian rule resumed in 1985, accompanied by the ascendancy of the Frente Amplio, a leftist coalition that became Uruguay's first successful third party under President José Mujica.
Before taking the presidency, Mujica had spent 14 years in prison for opposing the previous dictatorship. Whilst in power he donated 90% of his salary to charity, legalised marijuana and continued to pick up hitchhikers in his old VW Beetle, making him something of a hero around the world. He was succeeded by Tabaré Vázquez in 2015.
Did you know?
• In 1930, Uruguay hosted the first FIFA World Cup, beating their arch-rivals, Argentina, 4-2 in the final.
• The Tupamaros were Marxist urban guerrillas, who wrought havoc in the late 1960s. Their leader and future president Jose Mujica was imprisoned at the bottom of a well.
• Fray Bentos, a town in western Uruguay, was the original home of corned beef, and is now a listed UNESCO World Heritage Site.