The history of Panama fills volumes and is as varied and complex as the country’s topography. Historians don’t agree on which events represent the most noteworthy of Panamanian history, so I decided to delve deeper into a period of Panamanian history that interests me personally: the years leading up to the completion of the canal. It is a fascinating time, during which the country underwent sweeping changes and influenced the path of trade for the rest of the world.
The earliest known inhabitants of Panama were the Cuevas and the Coclé tribes, who lived in a number of diverse, organized groups exhibiting great cultural variety. These early tribes interacted peacefully and partook in regular trade with one another. Even from the days of its origins, Panama served as a crossroads for trade and a home to spectacular artworks. In fact, Panama hosted some of the first pottery-sculpting villages that existed in the Americas.
Unfortunately, there are no accurate figures for the indigenous population of the isthmus at the time of the European conquest. Estimates range widely — from 200,000 to 2,000,000 — due to the high mortality rate at the time.
Two important archaeological finds include the complex burial sites of the Conte peoples (dating to circa 500–900 AD) and the beautiful polychrome pottery of the Coclé style in Las Tablas. Also, the monumental monolithic sculptures at the Barriles (Chiriquí) site provide vital insights into the ancient isthmian cultures present at the time of conquest.
Although the earliest people of Panama continue to intrigue today’s scholars and researchers, many mysteries remain for archaeologists to uncover about the spectacular cultures of early Panamanian history.
The conquest period of Panamanian history features an ensemble cast of characters: explorers, pirates, conquerors from countries hoping to stake a claim on the treasured ithsmus, which represented a vital stop along their trade routes.
In 1501 explorer Rodrigo de Bastidas sailed westward from Venezuela in search of gold and resources to bring back to his native Spain. The first European to explore Panama, Rodrigo de Bastidas is nonetheless often overshadowed by the better-known Christopher Columbus, who visited the isthmus just one year later. De Bastidas established a short-lived settlement in the Darien that was later abandoned.
In 1513 Vasco Núñez de Balboa became the first conquistador to sail from the Atlantic to the Pacific, proving Panama’s value as the most direct path between the two oceans and establishing Panama as the crossroads of commerce in Spain’s New World.
Spain maintained loose control of the isthmus, attempting unsuccessfully to establish colonies which ultimately failed due to conflict with the indigenous groups of Panama and the Spaniards’ insufficient knowledge of the terrain. The Spanish crown also dispatched missionaries to form congregations and found colleges such as the College of San Ignacio de Loyola and La Real y Pontificia Universidad de San Javier.
Far from the only European power seeking to benefit from Panama’s privileged location, the Spanish contended with the likes of Sir Francis Drake, the famed English pirate, who pillaged and attacked Panamanian ports on several occasions in the late 1500s.
Panamanian Resistance and Independence
Anti-colonial sentiments were nothing new in Panama, whose first inhabitants resisted subjugation from the beginning of the conquest. In 1819 Panama joined forces with Venezuela’s Simon Bolivar, becoming part of Gran Colombia. Following other Central American countries, Panama declared its independence in 1821 and forged a union with the Southern Federation.
The Canal Period
A canal through the isthmus of Panama had been a long-seeded dream of the Spanish conquistadors, who realized a quicker travel route would give them an immense advantage in trade.
In the 1840s, North American and French interests sparked over the prospect of constructing railroads and canals through Central America to quicken trans-oceanic travel.
The first attempt at construction occurred between 1880 to 1890 and was organized by a French company under Ferdinand de Lesseps. His crew suffered through yellow fever, malaria, and massive landslides, eventually abandoning the project. Canal construction was revived in 1902 when Theodore Roosevelt lobbied congress to take on the project and increase diplomatic relations with Panama. This, among other factors, led to the eventual separation of Panama from Colombia in 1903.
The first lock of the Panama Canal was completed in 1914 and to this day is considered one of the greatest engineering feats of all time.
Through this brief snapshot of the history of Panama, one begins to understand how Panama developed into the diverse, adaptable isthmus we know today. Amazingly, the events leading up to the canal’s completion still impact the economy and future of Panama, which is currently completing a grand expansion of their famous canal. The completion of the project will usher Panama into a new chapter of history and economic prosperity that will help the country maintain its title as the crossroads of the world.