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Indians inhabited the isthmus of Panama when the Spanish explorers arrived. Some historians say that there might have been a population of 500,000 Indians from sixty tribes, but other researchers said that the Cuna Indians alone numbered 750,000. Besides the Cuna, the largest group, two other major groups of Indians, the Guaym and the Choc , have been identified. The Guaym , of the highlands near the Costa Rican border, are believed to be related to Indians of the Nahuatlan and Mayan nations of Mexico and Central America. The Choc on the Pacific side appear to be related to the Chibcha of Colombia. The land was owned and farmed among all three Indian groups. In addition to hunting and fishing, the Indians raised corn, cotton, cacao, various root crops and other vegetables, and fruits. They lived in circular thatched huts and slept in hammocks. Villages specialized in producing certain goods, and traders moved among them along the rivers and coastal waters in dugout canoes. The Indians were skillful potters, stonecutters, goldsmiths, and silversmiths. The ornaments they wore, including breastplates and earrings of gold,reinforced the Spanish myth of El Dorado, the city of gold.
Rodrigo de Bastidas, was the first of many Spanish explorers to reach the isthmus. Sailing from Venezuela in 1501 in search of gold, he explored some the coastal area before heading for the West Indies. A year later, Christopher Columbus, on his fourth voyage to the New World, touched several points on the isthmus. One was a horseshoe-shaped harbor that he named Puerto Bello (beautiful port.) Vasco N* ez de Balboa, was a member of Bastidas’s crew. He settled in Hispaniola, which today is the Dominican Republic andHaiti. In 1510 he stowed away on a voyage to Panama to escape his creditors. At that time, about 800 Spaniards lived on the isthmus. Soon the many jungle perils, including malaria and yellow fever, had killed all but 60 of them. Finally, the settlers at Antigua del Dari n, the first city of Spanish rule overthrew the crown’s representative and elected Balboa and Martin Zamudio as co-mayors. Balboa insisted that the settlers plant crops rather than depend on supply ships, and Antigua became a prosperous community. Like other conquistadors, Balboa led raids on Indian settlements, but unlike most, he made friends with the conquered tribes. He took the daughter of a chief as his girlfriend.
In 1513, Balboa, Francisco Pizarro 190 Spaniards set out on an expedition with a pack of dogs, and 1,000 Indian slaves. After twenty-five days of hacking their way through the jungle, the party gazed on the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean. Balboa, clad in full armor, waded into the water and claimed the sea and all the shores for his God and his king. He returned to Antigua in January 1514 with all 190 soldiers and with cotton cloth, pearls, and 40,000 pesos in gold. Meanwhile, his enemies had denounced him in the Spanish court, and King Ferdinand appointed a new governor for the colony, Pedro Arias de Avila. Later he became known as “Pedrarias theCruel. ” He charged Balboa with treason. In 1517 Balboa was arrested, brought to the court and executed.
In 1519 Pedrarias moved his capital to a fishing village on the Pacific coast. The Indians called the village Panama, meaning “plenty of fish. A trail known as the Camino Real, or royal road, linked Panama and Nombre de Dios, a deserted early settlement , which was was resettled. Along this trail, gold from Peru was
carried by muleback to Spanish galleons waiting on the Atlantic coast. The importance of the isthmus for transporting treasure and the delay and difficulties of the Camino Real caused the Spanish to think about building a canal. This was around 1530. King Philip II concluded that if God had wanted a canal
there He would have built one so he gave up the idea.
Back in Panama hundreds of Spaniards died of disease and starvation. Thousands of Indians were robbed, enslaved, and massacred. Thousands more of the Indians died from European diseases. After the atrocities of Pedrarias, most of the Indians fled to remote areas to avoid the Spaniards. The Indians found one friend among their Spanish oppressors. Bartolom de las Casas, the first priest ordained in the West Indies, was outraged by the persecution of the Indians. He freed his own slaves, returned to Spain, and persuaded the council to adopt stronger measures against enslaving the Indians. He made one suggestion that he later regretted–that Africans, whom the Spaniards considered less than human, be imported to replace the Indians as slaves.
In 1517 King Charles exported 4,000 African slaves to the Antilles. This was the beginning of the slave trade began which flourished for more than 200 years. Panama was a major distribution point for slaves going someplace else. The supply of Indian labor in Pamama was small so and Panama began to keep many of the slaves. A large number of slaves escaped into the jungle. They became known as
Cimarrones, meaning wild or unruly, because they attacked travelers along the Camino Real. An official census of Panama City in 1610 listed 3,500 African slaves.
The king exercised royal control by appointing governors in Panama. The king’s representative was responsible for tracking all gold, pearls, and income from trade and conquest and to give the king his share. Courts were established. The first in Santo Domingo, had jurisdiction over the whole area of conquest. By a decree of 1538, all Spanish territory from Nicaragua to Cape Horn was to be administered
from an court in Panama. This only until 1543 because of the impossibility of exercising jurisdiction over such a big area. A new Panamanian court, with jurisdiction over a smaller area was established in 1563. After 1567 Panama was attached to Peru but retained its own rule. Beginning early in the sixteenth century, Nombre de Dios in Panama, Vera Cruz in Mexico, and Cartagena in Colombia
were the only three ports in Spanish America allowed by the King to trade with Spain. By 1560s, each year two fleets sailed from Spain and one to Mexico, These fleets would meet at Havana and return together to C diz, Spain. Shipments of good bullion and goods were delivered to Panama on the Pacific side for transport over the isthmus and return to Spain. When the Inca gold was exhausted, allot of silver mined in Peru replaced gold. Eventually sugar, cotton, wine, were transported.
Except for traffic in African slaves, foreign trade was forbidden unless the goods passed through Spain. Africans were brought to the colonies on contract by Portuguese, English, Dutch, and French slavers. Sometimes warfare resulted in the
Caribbean and later in the Pacific. The first serious interference with trade came from the English.
From 1572 to 1597, Francis Drake was associated with most of the assaults on Panama. Drake’s attacks showed how the area was not defended good. Despite raids on shipments and ports, precious metal transport increased between 1550
and 1600. Panama’s prosperity was at its peak during the first part of the seventeenth century. Panama City also flourished on the profits of trade. Panama City was considered, after Mexico City and Lima, the most beautiful and rich settlement in the West Indies.
A canal project was thoght about again in the seventeenth century by Philip III of Spain. The Council of the Indies argued that a canal would be attacked by other European nations and Spanish sea power would decline.
During the early seventeenth century, England, France, and the Netherlands, at war with Spain, began seizing colonies in the Caribbean. Bucaneers and pirates looted ships. The volume of precious metal arriving in Spain fell from its peak in 1600. Depletion of Peruvian mines, an increase in smuggling, and the buccaneers were
causes of the decline.
Henry Morgan, a buccaneer defeated the garrison of 2,600 and looted Panama City. The officials and citizens fled, after having loaded their ships with the most important church and government funds and treasure. Panama City was destroyed by fire, probably from blown up powder stores, although the looters were blamed. After 4 weeks, Morgan left with 175 mule loads of loot and 600 prisoners. The buccaneer scourge rapidly declined after 1688 mainly because of changing European alliances. By this time Spain was bankrupt; its population had fallen; and it suffered internal government mismanagement and corruption.
Influenced by buccaneer reports about how easy the isthmus could be crossed William Paterson, founder and ex-governor of the Bank of England, organized a Scottish company to establish a colony in the area. Paterson landed on the Caribbean coast late in 1698 with about 1,200 persons. The colonists were not prepared for life in the tropics with its heat and diseases. Their idea of trade goods which was clothing, wigs, and English Bibles was no interest to the Indians. These colonists gave up after six months, and left in April 1700, having lost many lives, mostly from malnutrition and disease.
In Spain Bourbon kings came to power in 1700.; only five fleets went to Latin America between 1715 and 1736. Panama’s temporary loss of its independent rule, from 1718 to 1722, and the country’s attachment to Peru were probably engineered by powerful Peruvian merchants. They resented Panamanian officials and their ineffectiveness in stopping the pirates. Panama’s weakness was further shown by its inability to protect itself against an invasion by the Miskito Indians of Nicaragua. Another Indian uprising in the valley caused the whites to abandon the area.
Panama’s shrinking control of the transit trade between Latin America and Spain came before the mid- eighteenth century. As a provision of the Treaty of Utrecht at the end of the War of the Spanish Succession in 1713, Britain was given the right to supply African slaves to the Spanish colonies (4,800 a year for 30 years) and also to send 1 ship a year to Panama. The slave trade provision satisfied both countries, but the trade in goods did not. Smuggling by British ships continued, and a contraband trade based in Jamaica nearly wiped out the legal trade. By 1739 the importance of the isthmus to Spain had seriously declined; Spain again took away Panama’s own rule by making the region part of the rule of New Granada.
In 1739 war broke out between Britain and Spain. Panama’s economic decline was serious. Transit trade was the reason why Panama was rich and there was no reason to find another economic base. After losing rule in 1751, Panama was hardly even self-supporting in food and producing little for export. Social class in the colony was rigid. The most prestigious and rewarding positions were reserved for the
those actually born in Spain. Those of Spanish ancestry but born in the colonies, held next positions in government and trade. Those with Spanish fathers and Indian mothers, did farming and trading. African and Indian slaves were considered underclass. The church held a special place in society. Priests were important. The relationship between church and government in the colony was closer than in Spain. Both the Catholic Church and the monks gained great wealth through titles and land.
Independence from Spain
Panama was not part of the early efforts of the Spanish colonies to separate from Spain. General Francisco Miranda of Venezuela, who,had been attracting support for revolutionary activities as early as 1797, offered a canal proposal to Britain in return for aid. Thomas Jeffersonin America also showed interest in a canal, but the policies of the new United States prevented serious consideration. Panama’s first act of separation from Spain came without violence. Sim n Bol var’s victory on August 7, 1819, liberated New Granada. The Spanish ruler fled Colombia for Panama, where he ruled harshly until his death in 1821. A native Panamanian, Colonel Edwin F brega became acting governor. The city of Los Santos
proclaimed freedom from Spain on November 10, 1821. A meeting in Panama City on November 28 took place. This is the day which is celebrated as the official date of independence. Discussion followed if Panama should remain part of Colombia or unite with Peru. Panama became part of Colombia. With the addition of Ecuador to the liberated area, the whole country became known as Gran Colombia. Panama sent a force of 700 men to join Bol var in Peru, where the war of liberation continued.
The constitution that Bol var had drafted for Bolivia was put forward by him to be adopted in Gran Colombia. The country was divided over the proposal that a president would serve for life. Panama joined other regions in petitioning Bol var to assume l powers until a convention could meet. Panama announced its union with Gran Colombia as an autonomous area with special trading privileges until the convention was held.
In 1826 chose Panama as the site for a congress of the recently liberated Spanish colonies. Bol var made a serious attempt to unite the Spanish American republics.
His purpose was to secure the independence of the former colonies from renewed attacks by Spain and its allies. Bol var sought Britain’s protection. He did not invite the U.S. Bol var agreed though when the governments of Colombia, Mexico, and
Central America invited the United States to send observers. President John Quincy Adams told his delegates to stay neutral.
The Congress of Panama, in 1826, was attended by four American
Mexico, Central America, Colombia, and Peru. The “Treaty of Union, League, and Perpetual Confederation” included a provision that if a member state changed its form of government, it would be excluded from the confederation and could be readmitted only with the unanimous consent of all other members. The treaty was never became effective. Three failed attempts to separate the isthmus from Colombia occurred between 1830 and 1840.
The California Gold Rush and the Railroad
Discovery of gold in 1848 increased traffic in the isthmusgreatly. In 1847 a group of New York rich men organized the Panama Railroad Company. A railroad contract was obtained in 1850. The first through train from the Atlantic to the Pacific side ran on the completed track on January 28, 1855. The gold rush traffic, even before the completion of the railroad, restored Panama’s prosperity. Between 1848 and 1869, about 375,000 persons crossed the isthmus from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and 225,000 crossed in the opposite direction. Prices for food and services were greatly raised, producing huge profits from meals and housing. The railroad also created a new city and port. The town that sprang up to accommodate the railroad
soon becamethe second largest in the country. United States citizens named it Aspinwall, after one of the founders of the Panama Railroad Company, but the Panamanians named it Col n, in honor of Columbus. The name Col n won.
Throughout the nineteenth century, governments and private investors in the United States, Britain, and France sometimes showed interest in building a canal across the Western Hemisphere. Several sites were considered, but from
the start the ones in Nicaragua and Panama received the most serious attention. President Andrew Jackson sent Charles A. Biddle in the 1830s to investigate both routes. Colombia continued to express interest in negotiating with the United States on building a canal. A treaty was signed in 1846 between the two countries. The treaty removed the existing restrictive tariffs and gave the United States and
its citizens the right of free transit over any road or canal that might be constructed in the isthmus. In addition, the United States guaranteed the neutrality of the isthmus and Colombia’s sovereignty over it. Called the Bidlack-Mallarino Treaty of 1846, it was actually ratified and became effective in 1848. Because the canal interests of Britain and the United States had continued to clash, particularly in Nicaragua, Britain and the United States sought to ease tensions by entering into the ClaytonBulwer Treaty of 1850. The governments agreed specifically that neither would acquire rights to or construct a Nicaraguan canal without the participation of the other. This was extended to any canal or railroad across Central America, to include Mexico and Panama. In effect, since neither government was then willing or able to begin a canal, the treaty was an instrument of neutrality.
Colombia’s attempt to attract canal interest finally brought French attention to bear on Panama. A company was formed in 1879 to construct a sea-level
canal generally along the railroad route. Ferdinand de Lesseps, headed the company.. The company also purchased most of the stock of the Panama Railroad Company, which, however, continued to be managed by Americans.
Earth moving did not start until 1881. As work progressed, engineers judged that a sea-level canal was impracticable. De Lesseps could not be convinced until work had gone on for six years. Actual labor on a lock canal did not start until late in 1888, by which time the company was in serious financial difficulty. At the peak of its operations the company employed about 10,000 workers. In January 1889 all work stopped ,when the company was bankrupt. Despite this, an estimated two-fifths of the excavation necessary for the eventual canal hadalready been completed. Many headquarters and hospital buildings were finished. Some of the machinery left on the site was still usable, and the railroad had been maintained Most of the Antillean blacks unemployed by the French
eventually worked on the United States canal.
During the last half of the nineteenth century, violent clashes left the isthmus’ affairs in constant turmoil. This period saw many riots and rebellions. Economic
problems and intensified grievances against the central government of Colombia were in force. Between 1863 and 1886, the isthmus had twenty-six presidents. Coups rebellions, and violence were almost continuous . Early in 1885, a revolt headed by a radical Liberal general and centered in Panama City . Col n was virtually destroyed. United States forces landed at the request of the Colombian government but were too late to save the city. United States naval forces occupied both Col n and Panama City. The United States consul general reported that most of the Panamanians wanted independence from Colombia and would revolt if they could get arms and be sure of freedom from United States intervention.
Panama was drawn into Colombia’s War of a Thousand Days. By early 1902 the rebels had been defeated in most of Colombia proper. At that point, the Colombian
government asked the United States to intercede and bring about an armistice in Panama, which was arranged aboard the U.S.S. Wisconsin in the Bay of Panama in 1902. Throughout the period of turmoil, the United States had retained its interest in building a canal through either Nicaragua or Panama. An obstacle to this goal was overcome in December 1901 when the United States and Britain signed the
Hay-Pauncefote Treaty. This treaty nullified the the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty of 1850 and the Brisish allowed a canal constructed by the United States.
Naval operations during the Spanish-American War convinced President Theodore Roosevelt that the United States needed to control a canal somewhere in the Western Hemisphere. The Spooner Bill of 1902, provided for a canal through the isthmus of Panama. In The Hay-Herr n Treaty of 1903, Colombia gave consent to the U. S. and 100-year lease on an area 10 kilometers wide. This treaty, however, was not ratified and the United States, determined to construct a canal across the isthmus, intensively encouraged the Panamanian separatist movement. By 1903, a Panamamian revolution was taking place. The native Panamanian leaders conspired to take advantage of United States interest in a new regime on the
isthmus. In October and November 1903, the revolution with the protection of United States naval forces, carried out a successful uprising against the Colombian government. President Roosevelt recognized the new Panamanian government on November 6, 1903. Bunau Varilla who led the uprising was considered the new leader. While residing in the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City, he wrote the Panamanian declaration of independence and constitution and designed the Panamanian flag. Approval by the United States Senate came on February 23, 1904.
The rights granted to the United States included the use, occupation, and control of a sixteenkilometer -wide strip of territory and extensions of three nautical
miles into the sea for the construction, maintenance, operation, sanitation, and protection of an isthmus canal. The United States was entitled to acquire additional areas of land or water necessary for canal operations and held the option of exercising eminent domain in Panama City. Within this territory Washington gained all the rights, power, and authority . The Republic of Panama became a protectorate. The United States guaranteed the independence of Panama and received in return the right to intervene in Panama’s domestic affairs. The United States paid $10 million and also purchased the rights and properties of the French canal company for $40 million. Major disagreements arose concerning the rights granted to the United States by the treaty of 1903 and the Panamanian constitution of 1904. The United States government thought these rights meant that the United States could rule over all matters in the Canal Zone. Panama, thought that the original agreement related only to the construction, operation, and defense of the canal.
In 1904 Amador became Panama’s first president. The constitution was modeled mostly, after that of the United States. When the United States canal builders arrived in 1904 to begin their momentous task, Panama City and Col n were both
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