For much of its early colonial history, when it is known as the Banda Oriental ('east bank' of the Uruguay river), the region of Uruguay functions mainly as an unsettled buffer zone between hostile neighbours - the Portuguese to the north in Brazil, the Spanish to the west and south in Argentina. The reason is the nature of the environment. The flat plains, covered in tall prairie grass, are home to herds of wild cattle and to the fierce nomadic Indians, the Charruá, who hunt them. The region is visited by European horsemen for brief raids on the cattle. But there is no mineral wealth to attract prospectors, and the landscape is not one to encourage colonists to settle and farm. Nevertheless it is important to keep the other side out. The Portuguese make the first move, sending colonists from Brazil in 1680 to establish Colonia Sacramento on the north shore of the Plate estuary immediately opposite Buenos Aires. It is a measures of the relative unimportance of Buenos Aires at the time that several decades pass before the Spanish respond. But in 1726 the governor of Buenos Aires establishes a settlement at Montevideo, also on the north shore of the estuary but further towards the ocean. The garrison here is well placed to intercept Portuguese ships heading for Colonia Sacramento.
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