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History of Panama

Early History

The isthmian region was an area of economic transshipment long before Europeans explored it. It was also the converging point of several significant Amerindian cultures. Mayan, Aztec, Chibcha and Caribs had indirect and direct contact with the area. The first European to explore Panama was the Spaniard Rodrigo de Bastidas in 1501. In 1502, Columbus claimed the region for Spain. In 1513, Vasco Nuñez de Balboa led soldiers across the isthmus and made the European discovery of the Pacific Ocean. Despite strong resistance by the Cuna Amerindians, the settlements of Nombre de Dios, San Sebastián, and, later, Portobelo were established on the Caribbean coast, while Panama City was founded on the Pacific coast. In 1567, Panama was made part of the viceroyalty of Peru. English buccaneers, notably Sir Francis Drake in the 16th century and Henry Morgan in the 17th, contested Spanish hegemony in Panama, burning and looting its ports, including Panama City in 1671.

From the 16th until the mid-18th century, the isthmus was a strategic link in Spanish trade with the west coast of South America, especially the viceregal capital of Lima. In 1740, the isthmus was placed under the jurisdiction of the newly recreated viceroyalty of New Granada.

19th Century & Independence

Lacking communication except by sea, which the Spanish generally controlled, Panama remained aloof from the early efforts of the Spanish colonies to separate from Spain. Revolutionaries of other colonies, however, did not hesitate to use Panama's strategic potential as a pawn in revolutionary maneuvers. General Francisco Miranda of Venezuela, who had been attracting support for revolutionary activities as early as 1797, offered a canal concession to Britain in return for aid. Thomas Jefferson, while minister to France, also showed interest in a canal, but the isolationist policies of the new United States and the absorption of energies and capital in continental expansion prevented serious consideration.

Patriots from Cartagena attempted to take Portobelo in 1814 and again in 1819, and a naval effort from liberated Chile succeeded in capturing the island of Taboga in the Bay of Panama. Panama's first act of separation from Spain came without violence. When Simón Bolívar's victory at Boyacá on August 7, 1819, clinched the liberation of New Granada, the Spanish viceroy fled Colombia for Panama, where he ruled harshly until his death in 1821. His replacement in Panama, a liberal constitutionalist, permitted a free press and the formation of patriotic associations. Raising troops locally, he soon sailed for Ecuador, leaving a native Panamanian, Colonel Edwin Fábrega, as acting governor.

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