(Location of Panama, between Pacific Ocean (bottom) and Caribbean Sea (top))
The earliest artifacts discovered of indigenous peoples in Panama have included Paleo-Indians projectile points. Later central Panama was home to some of the first pottery-making in the Americas, such as the Monagrillo cultures dating to about 2500–1700 BCE. These evolved into significant populations that are best known through the spectacular burials (dating to c. 500–900 CE) at the Monagrillo archaeological site, and the beautiful polychrome pottery of the Gran Coclé style. The monumental monolithic sculptures at the Barriles(Chiriqui) site are other important evidence of the ancient isthmian cultures.
Prior to the arrival of Europeans, Panama was widely settled by Chibchan, Chocoan, and Cuevapeoples, among whom the largest group were the Cueva (whose specific language affiliation is poorly documented). There is no accurate knowledge of size of the Pre-Columbian indigenous population of the isthmus at the time of the European conquest. Estimates range as high as two million people, but more recent studies place that number closer to 200,000. Archeological finds as well as testimonials by early European explorers describe diverse native isthmian groups exhibiting cultural variety and already experienced in using regional trade routes. The indigenous people of Panama lived by hunting, gathering edible plants & fruits, growing corn, cacao, and root crops. They lived in small huts made of palm leaves over a rounded branch structure, with hammocks hung between the interior walls for sleeping.
Spanish colonial period
In 1501, Rodrigo de Bastidas (Rodrigo de Bastidas (1460 – July 28, 1527) was a Spanish conquistador and explorer who mapped the northern coast of South America, discovered Panama, and founded the city of Santa Marta) was the first European to explore the Isthmus of Panama sailing along the eastern coast. A year later Christopher Columbus (Christopher Columbus ; Portuguese: born between October 31, 1450 and October 30, 1451 – 20 May 1506) was an Italian explorer, navigator, and colonizer, born in the Republic of Genoa, in what is today northwestern Italy.) on his fourth voyage, sailing south and eastward from upper Central America, explored Bocas del Toro, Veragua, the Chagres River and Porto Belo (Beautiful Port) which he named. Soon Spanish expeditions would converge upon Tierra Firma (also Tierra Firme, Spanish from the Latin terra firma, "dry land" or "mainland") which served in Spanish colonial times as the name for the Isthmus of Panama
In 1509, authority was granted to Alonso de Ojeda and Diego de Nicuesa to colonize the territories between the west side of the Gulf of Uraba to Cabo Gracias a Dios in present-day Honduras. The idea was to create an early unitary administrative organization similar to what later became Nueva España (now Mexico). Tierra Firme later received control over other territories: the Isla de Santiago (now Jamaica) the Cayman Islands; Roncador, Quitasueño, and Providencia and other islands now under Colombian control.
Santa Maria la Antigua del Darien
In September 1510, the first permanent European settlement, Santa María la Antigua del Darién on the Americas mainland was founded. Vasco Nuñez de Balboa and Martin de Enciso agreed on the site near the mouth of the Tarena River on the Atlantic. Balboa maneuvered and was appointed Mayor on the first officialcabildo abierto (municipal council) held on the mainland. On August 28, 1513, the Santa María de La Antigua del Darién mission was erected with Fray Juan de Quevedo as the first Catholic Bishop in the continental Americas.
On September 25, 1513 the Balboa expedition verified what the indigenous people had spoken of, that the Panama isthmus had another coast to the southwest along another ocean. Balboa was the first known European to see the Pacific Ocean, which he named the South Sea.
The 'fantastic descriptions' of the isthmus by Balboa, as well as those of Columbus and other explorers, impressed Ferdinand II of Aragon and Castilla, who gave the territory the name of Castilla Aurifica (or Castilla del Oro, Golden Castille). He assigned Pedro Arias Dávila (Pedrarias Davila) as Royal Governor. Pedrarias arrived in June 1514 with a 22 vessel, 1,500 men armada. Dávila was a veteran soldier who had served in the wars against the Moors at Granada and in North Africa.
On August 15, 1519, Pedrarias, having abandoned Santa María la Antigua del Darién, moved the capital of Castilla del Oro with all its organizational institutions to the Pacific Ocean's coast and founded Nuestra Señora de la Asunción de Panamá (present day Panama City), the first European settlement on the shores of the Pacific.
Governor Pedrarias sent Gil González Dávila to explore northward, and in 1524 Francisco Hernández de Córdoba to settle that region (present day Nicaragua). Pedrarias was a party to the agreement authorizing the expedition byconquistadors Francisco Pizarro and Diego de Almagro that brought the European discovery and conquest of the Inca Empire (present day Peru).
In 1526, Pedrarias was superseded as Governor of Panama by Pedro de los Ríos, and retired to León in Nicaragua, where he was named its new governor on July 1, 1527. Here he died on March 6, 1531, at the age of 91.
Panama was part of the Spanish Empire for over 300 years (1513–1821) and her fortunes fluctuated with the geopolitical importance of the isthmus to the Spanish crown. During the 16th and 17th centuries, at the height of the Empire, no other region would prove of more strategic and economic importance.
Governor Pedrarias began building intercontinental and trans-isthmian portage routes, such as the "Camino Real" and "Camino de Cruces", linking Panama City and the Pacific with Nombre de Dios (and later with “Portobelo”) and the Atlantic, making possible the establishment of a trans-atlantic system of Treasure Fleets and trade. It is estimated that of all the gold entering Spain from the New World between 1531 and 1660, 60% had arrived at its destiny via the 'Treasure Fleet and Fairs' system from Nombre de Dios/Portobelo.
Explorations and conquest expeditions launched from Panama claimed new lands and riches from Central and South America. Explorations seeking a natural waterway between the Atlantic and the South Sea with the hope of reaching the Molucas (Spice Islands—Maluku Islands) and Cathay (China) were also pursued.
Royal Audiencia of Panama
In 1538 the Audiencia Real de Panama, Royal Audiencia of Panama, was established, initially with jurisdiction from Nicaragua to Cape Horn. An Audiencia Real (royal audiency) was a judicial district that functioned as an appellate court. Each audiencia had oidores (a hearer, a judge).
Strategically located on the Pacific coast, Panama City was relatively free of the permanent menace of pirates that roamed the Atlantic coast for over one and a half century, until it was destroyed by a devastating fire, when the pirate Henry Morgan sacked it on January 28, 1671. It was rebuilt and formally established on January 21, 1673, in a peninsula located 8 km from the original settlement. The place where the previously devastated city was located is still in ruins, and has become a tourist attraction known as "old Panama".
Panama was the location in 1698 of the Darien scheme which set up the ill-fated Scottish "New Caledonia" colony in the region west of the Gulf of Darien in the Bay of Caledonia.. The Darien scheme failed for a number of reasons, and the ensuing Scottish debt contributed to the 1707 Acts of Union that joined the previously separate states of theKingdom of England and the Kingdom of Scotland – into the Kingdom of Great Britain".
When Panama was colonized, the indigenous peoples who survived many diseases, massacres and enslavement of the conquest ultimately fled into the forest and nearby islands. Indian slaves were replaced by imported enslaved Africans.
The prosperity enjoyed during the first two centuries (1540–1740) while contributing to colonial growth; the placing of extensive regional judicial authority (Real Audiencia) as part of its jurisdiction; and the pivotal role it played at the height of the Spanish Empire -the first modern global empire- helped define a distinctive sense of autonomy and of regional or national identity within Panama well before the rest of the colonies.
In 1744 Bishop Francisco Javier de Luna Victoria y Castro established the College of San Ignacio de Loyola and on June 3, 1749 founded La Real y Pontificia Universidad de San Javier. By this time, however, Panama’s importance and influence had become insignificant as Spain’s power dwindled in Europe and advances in navigation technique increasingly permitted to round Cape Horn in order to reach the Pacific. While the Panama route was short it was also labor intensive and expensive because of the loading and unloading and laden-down trek required to get from the one coast to the other. The Panama route was also vulnerable to attack from pirates (mostly Dutch and English) and from 'new world' Africans called cimarrons who had freed themselves from enslavement and lived in communes or palenques around the Camino Real in Panama's Interior, and on some of the islands off Panama's Pacific coast. During the last half of the 18th century and the first half of the 19th migrations to the countryside decreased Panama City’s population and the isthmus' economy shifted from the tertiary to the primary sector.
In 1713, the Viceroyalty of New Granada (northern South America) was created in response to other Europeans trying to take Spanish territory in the Caribbeanregion. The Isthmus of Panama was placed under its jurisdiction. But the remoteness of New Granada's capitol Santa Fe de Bogotá proved a greater obstacle than the Spanish crown anticipated as the authority of the new Viceroyalty was contested by the seniority, closer proximity, previous ties to the Viceroyalty of Peruin Lima and even Panama's own initiative. This uneasy relationship between Panama and Bogotá would persist for a century.
In 1819 the liberation of New Granada was achieved, finally gaining its freedom from Spain. Panama and the other regions of former New Granada were therefore technically free. Panama weighed its options carefully as it considered union with Peru or with Central America in federations that were emerging in the region. Finally it was won over by Venezuela's Simon Bolivar, whose ambitious project of a Gran Colombia (1819–1830) was beginning to take shape. Then, timing the action with the rest of the Central American isthmus, Panama declared its independence in 1821 and joined the southern federation. As the isthmus' central interoceanic traffic zone, as well as the City of Panama had been of great historical importance to the Spanish Empire and subject of direct influence, so, the differences in social and economic status between the more liberal region of Azuero, and the much more royalist and conservative area of Veraguas displayed contrasting loyalties. When the Grito de la Villa de Los Santos independence motion occurred, Veraguas firmly opposed it.
Origin of the movement
The Panamanian movement for independence can be indirectly attributed to the abolishment of the encomienda system in Azuero, set forth by the Spanish Crown, in 1558 due to repeated protests by locals against the mistreatment of the native population. In its stead, a system of medium and smaller-sized landownership was promoted, thus taking away the power from the large landowners and into the hands of medium and small sized proprietors.
The end of the encomienda system in Azuero, however, sparked the conquest of Veraguas in that same year. Under the leadership of Francisco Vázquez, the region of Veraguas passed into Castillan rule in 1558. In the newly conquered region, the old system of encomienda was imposed.
Arrival of the printing press
After the region of Veraguas was conquered, the two regions settled for a mutual dislike of each other. To the inhabitants of Azuero, their region was symbolic of the power of the people, while Veraguas represented an old, oppressive order. Diametrically, to the inhabitants of Veraguas, their region was a bastion of loyalty and morality, while Azuero was a hotbed for vice and treason.
The tension between the two regions finally peaked when the first printing press arrived in Panama in 1820. Under the guidance of José María Goitía, the printing press was utilized to create a newspaper called La Miscelánea. Panamanians Mariano Arosemena, Manuel María Ayala, and Juan José Calvo, as well as Colombian Juan José Argote, formed the writing team of the new newspaper, whose stories would circulate throughout every town in the isthmus.
The newspaper was put to use in the service of the cause of independence. It circulated stories expounding the virtues of liberty, independence, and the teachings of the French Revolution, as well as stories of the great battles of Bolívar, the emancipation of the United States from their British masters, and the greatness of men such as Santander, Jose Martí, and other such messengers of freedom.
Due to the narrow area of circulation, those in the capital were able to transmit these intoxicating ideals to other such separatists, such as those in Azuero. In Veraguas, however, there remained a strict sense of submission to the Spanish Crown.
José de Fábrega
On November 10, 1821, the Grito de La Villa de Los Santos occurred. It was a unilateral decision by the residents of Azuero (without backing from Panama City) to declare their separation from the Spanish Empire. In both Veraguas and the capital this act was met with disdain, although on differing levels of said emotion. To Veraguas, it was the ultimate act of treason, while to the capital, it was seen as inefficient and irregular, and furthermore forced them to accelerate their plans.
The Grito was an event that shook the isthmus to the core. It was a sign, on the part of the residents of Azuero, of their antagonism towards the independence movement in the capital, who in turn regarded the Azueran movement with contempt, since they (the capital movement) believed that their counterparts were fighting their right to rule, once the peninsulares (peninsular-born) were long gone.
It was, as well, an incredibly brave move on the part of Azuero, which lived in fear of Colonel José de Fábrega, and with good reason: the Colonel was a staunch loyalist, and had the entirety of the isthmus' military supplies in his hands. They feared quick retaliation and swift retribution against the separatists.
(Vasco Nuñez de Balboa's 1513 expedition route to the South Sea-Pacific Ocean)
What they had not counted on, however, was the influence of the separatists in the capital. Ever since October 1821, when the former Governor General, Juan de la Cruz Mourgeón, left the isthmus on a campaign in Quito and left the Veraguan colonel in charge, the separatists had been slowly converting Fábrega to the separatist side. As such, by November 10, Fábrega was now a supporter of the independence movement. Soon after the separatist declaration of Los Santos, Fábrega convened every organization in the capital with separatist interests and formally declared the city's support for independence. No military repercussions occurred due to the skillful bribing of royalist troops.
Having sealed the fate of the Spanish Crown's rule in Panama with his defection, Jóse de Fábrega now collaborated with the separatists in the capital to bring about a national assembly, where the fate of the country would be decided. Every region in Panama attended the assembly, including the former loyalist region of Veraguas, which was eventually convinced to join the revolution, out of the sheer fact that nothing more could be done for the royalist presence in Panama. Thus, on November 28, 1821, the national assembly was convened and it was officially declared (through Fábrega, who was invested with the title of Head of State of Panama) that the isthmus of Panama had severed its ties with the Spanish Empire and its decision to join New Granada and Venezuela in Bolivar's recently founded Republic of Colombia.
Posterior to the act, Fábrega wrote to Bolívar of the event, saying:
(Pre-Columbian polychrome pottery figure from theGran Coclé archaeological site in Panama)Exalted Sir,I have the pleasure to communicate to Your Excellency the praiseworthy news of the Isthmus' decision of independence from Spanish dominion. The town of Los Santos, to the comprehension of this Province, was the first town to pronounce with enthusiasm the sacred name of Liberty and immediately almost every other town imitated their glorious example...Inasmuch as I am concerned, Most Excellent Sir, the effusion of my gratitude is inexplicable, at having had the unique satisfaction capable of filling the human heart, as is to deserve the public confidence in circumstances so critical to govern the independent Isthmus; and I can only correspond to such high distinction with the sacrifices I am willing to make since I devoted myself, as it wished, to the mother country that has seen me be born and to who I owe all that I own..
.Bólivar, in turn, replied,
It is not possible to me to express the feeling of joy and admiration that I have experimented to the knowledge that Panama, the center of the Universe, is segregated by itself and freed by its own virtue. The act of independence of Panama is the monument most glorious that any American province can give. Everything there is addressed; justice, generosity, policy and national interest. Transmit, then, you to those meritorious Colombians the tribute of my enthusiasm by their pure patriotism and true actions...