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For Europe, the first contact with the area we now call Uruguay was in 1501when the Portuguese pairing of Coelho and Vespucci arrived, looking for a passage to China and the Orient, for trading purposes. Juan Diaz de Solis, a Spaniard was the next important visitor but the earlier colonisation was by the Portuguese of Brazil and of Portugal, from about 1678 onwards.

In 1776, Uruguai (Portuguese spelling), was incorporated into the viceroyalty of the Rio de la Plata by the Spanish who translated the name into (Spanish) Uruguay, giving the Portuguese a poke in the “i”, as it were; there was no need to say “y”.

There are thirteen countries in South America but there is only one that lists one of its religions as ‘Atheism’ and another as ‘Non-religious’ as well as Roman Catholic and Protestant; this marks Uruguay apart from all the others. It is certainly one of the most mature countries in politics and commerce in South America.

Uruguay certainly is different. The language differences are not so pronounced. There is a mix of Amerindian languages in every country in South America and this is a mix to which Uruguay is no exception, although Tupian, (a widespread Indian dialect prevalent in the thick, middle band of South America), is clearly dominant.

There are four or five other useful languages but Spanish and Tupian would cover most needs in South America, helped by the similarities of Spanish to Portuguese.
(I have presumed you are aware that everyone in the world understands English if you shout loudly enough and gesticulate wildly!).

There were roughly twelve times as many African slaves sent to South America than were sent to North America but the South American death rates were so high that now the African proportions (12 to 13%) are pretty much the same. The slaves worked ‘along the Caribbean coast and the North East of Brazil. They might never have been required in South America if the original Amerindian inhabitants had had any resistance to the perils of ‘advanced European civilisation.’

Such shortcomings put the Europeans settlers to much undesired expense, forcing them to import overpriced African slave labour with all the extra costs entailed. It was a setback and an unwarranted financial imposition to the average settler.

Meanwhile the urban areas were becoming an intriguing mix of pagan and Christian ideas. The Virgin Mary’s image was commandeered for a transformation into Iemanjá, goddess of the Sea, and several other cults take her image to illustrate other identities too. These Afro-American cults have millions of followers; nonetheless, the majority profess to adhere to Roman Catholicism as well, also going to Mass and Confession regularly.

British invasion of 1806 & 1807; Buenos Aires and Montevideo.

Much of the history of Uruguay is linked to Portugal (from 1680) and Spain (from 1726) but to be fair the Spanish had made an attempt in the late 16th century but had been firmly repulsed by the Charrứa Amerindians. This tribe were extremely fierce but lacked sophistication and so would not parley with the Europeans, a large number of whom failed to return to their ships.

However, one cannot expect early nineteenth century Britain to avoid a fracas from time to time with its old foe. In the 1790s, Spain’s powers had begun to weaken, and the Bourbon reforms were fast losing their initial vigour (they had never been spectacularly successful). Then, Nelson’s exploits at Cape St Vincent (1797) left Spain with a much-weakened Navy and the British-Portuguese Allies pact, which was already five hundred years old, ensured that Portuguese spies fed the highest quality naval intelligence to the British. Peace broke out between the old adversaries in 1802, which lasted until the Battle of Waterloo in 1805.

After the battle of Trafalgar, Spain’s vaunted trade monopoly with the Indies was ‘dead in the water’ and her colonial treasure ships loaded with glittering prizes were no more. Spain went “sub-prime”, being unable to access her most profitable markets. She was now perforce to engage in trade with the U S A and - the greatest ignominy - even with those much-hated, pompous British. The South American creoles soon realised that Spain had neither power nor the stomach to protect its colonies. As a result, local groups arranged to strengthen the local militias as far as possible.

Then in 1806 and 1807, confirming the settlers’ fears, a British Admiral (who was one whom we might today term a ’loose cannon’) invaded Buenos Aires one year and then Montevideo the next.

The response to these invasions produced a clash of ideas between the representative of the Spanish Government and their own colonial subjects, the South American Creoles. The latter boldly, took matters into their own hands. This was a watershed for these colonies. In 1776, the Spanish had incorporated the country into the ‘Viceroyalty of Río de la Plata’, trusting this would hold back the Independence Movement for a time.

Well, it did, but only up to 1811; after1811, it did not. A revolt disposed of the Spanish and their taxes and all was wonderful, but the joy was short-lived as a Brazilian-Portuguese coalition felt obliged fill the ‘void’, as they saw it. This irksome occupation eventually was ended in 1828 with enthusiastic help from both Argentina and Britain and Uruguay became a fully independent nation, at last.

Now Uruguay’s inhabitants could return to arguing amongst themselves with much vigour. A period of civil war and civil unrest ensued for many years until a military dictatorship seemed the only solution. In 1890, Civilian Rule returned and then in 1903, it reverted to civil war, yet again.

At the end of 1903, José Batlle y Ordóňez, a social reformer, became leader bringing with him a period of real prosperity which united the nation until 1929 when José Batlle y Ordóňez died. Real progress had been made and mechanisms for growth stability and justice had been put in place

With no obvious successor, coupled with the world recession in the thirties, it cannot be a surprise to learn that Uruguay’s economy ‘turned up its toes’, bringing back a short dictatorship.

Uruguay was ‘neutral’ in World War II which appeared to be good for exports but it was not long after the War that their economy slipped back again. The fall was caused largely by the Tupumaro urban guerrillas, whose activities precipitated a military takeover in the 1970s; civilian government returned in the 1980s.


The issues of Uruguay are many; unfortunately the majority are scarce or expensive or both. Collectors who have deep pockets and are keenly interested should buy the relevant specialist catalogues to guide them. Sometimes one is allowed to borrow them from the Banknote Society (for costs of postage each way and a deposit) and this way, the collector can target his interests and have a crude idea of costs.

It is generally accepted that the first fiscal issue was the Public Debt Drafts. At the time, the full name was the Oriental Republic of Uruguay and, for all I know, it may be even now.
However, the word “Oriental” in the title of this republic bears upon the point that the country is securely ensconced on the east bank of the River Uruguay.

We will not have space for all the older notes so I will concentrate the most modern notes, from 1967. This will help beginners and will not worry the more experienced who know where to find such information.

The Banco Central Del Uruguay, which is now the main issuing bank, uses Thomas De La Rue as its printer.

The first issue is a provisional issue on unused sheets of the Republica Oriental del Uruguay with the Banco Central Del Uruguay as overprint. It features José Gervasio Artigas, who was a major independence soldier/leader, fighting the Spanish and Portuguese until 1811. The series runs 10, 50,100,500 & 1000 peso.

The second issue runs 50,100, 1000, 5000 & 10,000 pesos and features Artigas.
The third issue runs 1000, and 10,000 pesos, different Artigas portraits.
Already the rate of inflation is clear.
The (1975) Provisional issue is next, which is an overprint on the 2nd and 3rd issues’ watermark area, running from ½ New peso on the old 500 pesos, 1 New Peso on the old 5,000, and 5 & 10 new pesos on the respective previous issue.

The(1975) Official issue has a Government Palace on the reverse and has denominations 50 and 100 new pesos.
The 1978 to 1988 issues has the words “payable on sight” in Spanish on them. This issue has two 50 NP, two 100 NP, two 500 NP, two 1000 NP (watermark variations) and just one 5,000 NP which was the only one not to have an Artigas portrait.

The 1986-1987 issues bring a new 200 NP and also 10,000 NP which came in two types. One type had bars over part of the inscription and the other did not; the one that DID is scarce on the market at the moment and is worth more than one without bars to a collector.

The 1989- 1992 issues are just what one does not want to see which is six different ‘notables’ running on notes from 1000 NP up to 500,000 NP. It is disappointing to see such a damaging inflation.
The 1994-onwards series repeats this but is now running notes of 5 pesos uruguayos, 10 p/u, 20 p/u, 50 p/u, 100 p/u, 200 p/u, 500 p/u, & 1,000 pesos uruguayos.

The 1998- onwards runs 5 pesos uruguayos and 10 p/u.
The 1999 is 500 pesos uruguayos
The 2000 is 20, 50 & 100 pesos uruguayos
The 2003 is 2000 pesos uruguayos

This flood of different notes, several of the same denomination carry different people’s portraits on the same denominations just because they are a different date; this could be most unhelpful to the public trying to use the notes and mistakes in giving change are much more likely to happen, accidentally or otherwise.

Some of these notes WILL become scarce in best grades, but which ones? Get your Crystal Ball out of the cupboard…..

Kate Gibson

Last updated 21/08/2008