The Spanish Conquest and Colonization: When Christopher Columbus made his fourth and final voyage to the New World in 1502, he landed at Isla Uvita, a tiny island just off the coast from what is now the major port city of Limón. The natives he met on the mainland were wearing such impressive gold and jade jewelry that this region eventually came to be known as Costa Rica, literally "rich coast," because of the mineral wealth that the Spaniards imagined must exist within the territory.
In spite of their insatiable lust for gold and precious stones, the Spanish conquistadors were never able to bring the eastern portion of Costa Rica under their dominion. At least a dozen expeditions to the Caribbean lowlands were made in the 100 years that followed Columbus' discovery. Like the Spanish conquest in other parts of the New World, these expeditions were usually characterized by their violent nature and disrespect for the native peoples. As a result, the natives resisted the Spaniards' efforts to subjugate them by either direct confrontation or by fleeing inland to more remote areas, often burning their own villages and crops behind them so that the foreign forces would not be able to make use of them.
Deceit, jealousy, and competition among the Spaniards themselves, together with the difficult climatic conditions of the Atlantic region, were other factors that limited their success in ever establishing permanent settlements there during the first three centuries of the colonial period.
Thus, colonization of Costa Rica occurred from the Pacific side of the country.
The earliest record of exploration along the Pacific coast is that of Hernán Ponce de León and Juan de Castañeda who set sail from Panama in 1519 and reached as far north as theGulf of Nicoya. Subsequent expeditions soon brought the native population of this region under Spanish control. In addition to confiscating any gold they could find, the Spaniards also began a slave trade to other parts of the Americas, principally Panama and Peru, with the indigenous people of the Nicoya Peninsula. The extent to which this trade was practiced greatly reduced the local population.
Despite weather conditions more like the Mediterranean climate of Spain and a clear dominion over the native people, for many years only small numbers of Spanish settlers inhabited the area. Nevertheless, it maintained its importance as a protected port area and as a starting point for exploration and settlement further inland.
It was not until 1561, however, that the first Spanish expedition ventured into the intermontane valley that would become the country's economic and population center in the centuries to come. Organized in Nicaragua and led by Juan de Cavallón, this expedition entered the Central Valley from the western end (nearest the Gulf of Nicoya) and established the small settlement of Garcimuñoz, which some say was near the present day town of Santa Ana.
In 1562, Juan Vásquez de Coronado brought more men and supplies from Nicaragua to bolster the struggling settlement. He also brought an attitude distinct from that of most conquistadors -- he believed in treating the natives with more respect and using violence only as a last resort. The result was a successful beginning to the colonization of Costa Rica. Able to gain the cooperation of many of the native chieftainships in the eastern end of the valley, he transferred the principal colonial settlement to a site near what would become the town of Cartago.
Despite Vásquez de Coronado's humanitarian approach to colonization, the increasing number of white settlers in the region signaled the irreversible demise of native populations. During the first century of Spanish conquest, many natives succumbed to diseases that they had no natural immunity against, others died while attempting to resist the foreign invaders, still less fortunate ones were imprisoned and tortured, and some fled into remote mountainous regions. Those that fell under the domination of the Spaniards were forced to lead lives far different from what they had known before, and many became domestic servants of their new conquerors.
The Spanish divided the best agricultural lands among themselves, relegating the remaining indigenous inhabitants to marginal lands while at the same time demanding they pay heavy tribute in the form of crops. In fact, it is doubtful that the early colonists would have survived for long without the food they obtained from the natives in this fashion.
During the 17th Century, Costa Rica began to produce enough agricultural surplus to be able to maintain an export trade to Panama and Nicaragua. Corn, wheat (a crop introduced by the Spanish), and wheat flour, along with mules, were among the principal products sent to the neighboring countries. Textiles, metal implements, and a variety of luxury items were among the most common imports.
The agricultural production in the Central Valley came from three sources: 1) large land holdings that had been given to a favored few by authority of representatives of the Spanish crown and that were worked primarily by indigenous laborers, 2) the plots that the natives had for their own use but from which they were required to yield a substantial portion of the production, and 3) small farms owned or leased by Spaniards, or Spanish descendants, that had not been privileged enough to have been granted large holdings.
Due to the difficulties inherent in long distance transportation of goods, the dwindling supply of indigenous labor, and other economic crises that affected the new colony, a change began to take place in Costa Rican society by the end of the 1600's. Many of the large farms went into debt and were forced to sell off pieces of the property to families seeking their own small farms. Other large farms became divided into smaller farms simply through the process of partitioning among heirs over several generations. And with a shortage of native labor and a growing population of white settlers and their descendants, a local migration out of the Cartago area to other regions of the Central Valley was a natural process -- one which led to the eventual establishment of the towns of Heredia (Villa Vieja, 1706), San José (Villa Nueva, 1737), Alajuela (Villa Hermosa, 1782), and Escazú (1793).
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Richard GarriguesÓ 1996