Panama - Colonial History
The history of the Panamanian isthmus, since Spaniards first landed on its shores in 1501, is a tale of treasure, treasure seekers, and peoples exploited; of clashes among empires, nations, and cultures; of adventurers and builders; of magnificent dreams fulfilled and simple needs unmet. In the wake of Vasco Nunez de Balboa's torturous trek from the Atlantic to the Pacific in 1513, conquistadors seeking gold in Peru and beyond crossed the seas and recrossed with their treasures bound for Spain. The indigenous peoples who survived the diseases, massacres, and enslavement of the conquest ultimately fled into the forest or across to the San Bias Islands. Indian slaves were soon replaced by Africans.
Discoveries of the pearl grounds along the coast of the New World played an important role in the expansion by the Spaniards into the territories of Central and South America. In many instances, the finding of rich pearl resources in shallow waters along the coast of the newly discovered continent and around its many Islands was a powerful stiimlus for establishlng settlements and organizing trade with the Indians. Letters written by Columbus during the third voyage in 1498 and samples of gold, drugs, and pearls which he himself sent to Spain, or which were brought in by his sailors, so aroused public enthusiasm that many navigators, explorers, and adventurers hegan to organize expeditions to seek the treasures of the lands of the "Western Ocean".
Soon new pearl grounds were discovered on the other side of the Isthmus of Central America in the blue waters of the Pacific Ocean. Credit for the discovery of these valuable grounds located around the numerous islands of the Archipielago de las Perlas in the Gulf of Panama Tselongs to Vasco Nunez de Ballboa, the discovered of the Pacific Ocean. There is no doubt that, with the marked decline of the pearl fishery along the Atlantic coast in the latter part of the l6th century, pearl grounds of the Pacific coast of Panama were exploited with greater intensity.
A century before the English settled Massachusetts Bay, Panama was the crossroads and marketplace of the great Spanish Empire, the third richest colony of the New World. In the seventeenth century, however, the thriving colony fell prey to buccaneers of the growing English Empire, and Panama entered a period of decline and neglect that lasted until gold was discovered in California.
The geopolitical significance of Panama had been recognized since the early 1500s, when the Spanish monarchs considered digging a canal across the isthmus. United States interest, intensified in the 1850s by the California gold rush, resulted in the construction of a trans-isthmian railroad. In 1879 a French company under the direction of Ferdinand de Lesseps, builder of the Suez Canal, began constructing a canal in Panama. The project fell victim to disease, faulty design, and ultimately bankruptcy and was abandoned in 1889.
Encompassing the lowest and narrowest portion of the isthmus connecting North America and South America, Panama has for centuries served as a land bridge and transit zone between continents and oceans. The narrowness of the isthmus inspired various attempts to facilitate passage between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.
Following their arrival in Panama in 1501, the Spanish turned Panama into a principal crossroads and marketplace of the great Spanish Empire. They built the Camino Real, or royal road, to link settlements on the Pacific and Atlantic coasts and used the road to transport treasures from the west coast of South America — especially Peruvian gold and silver — to Spanish galleons waiting on the Atlantic coast for the trip to Spain.
As early as 1520, however, frustrated by the slowness and hazards of the Camino Real, the Spanish undertook surveys to determine the feasibility of constructing a canal across the isthmus. The United States, seeking a quicker passage to its west coast because of the discovery of gold in California in 1848, promoted the construction of a trans-isthmian railroad, which was completed in the 1850s.
But it was the French who first undertook what the Spanish ultimately had abandoned as impractical—and undesirable because it would be an attractive target for other world powers. Under the direction of Ferdinand de Lesseps, the builder of the Suez Canal, the French in 1879 attempted to construct a canal across the isthmus. The project was abandoned in 1889 because of the combined effects of disease, faulty design, and, finally, bankruptcy.
One Yankee visitor in 1900 wrote: "Just how these unfortunate people manage to live or why they never had the energy or ambition to better their condition nobody seems to know. Yet they are apparently happy in their life of poverty and wretchedness. They have few wants of body or mind. The indigenous plantain and banana afford a cheap and convenient substitute for bread, and fish from the streams and lagoons and a few yellow legged chickens afford all the meat they want." The United States soon took on the project, building on what the French had done, and the first ship passed through the Panama Canal on August 15, 1914.
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