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Panama - More Than A Canal


Panama - More Than A Canal

The country of Panama has a rich, colorful history. Shared by the Central American countries from Mexico to Panama and into South America.


Panama links two continents and, through its famous canal, the world’s largest oceans, the Atlantic and the Pacific. Previously under U.S. jurisdiction, the Canal zone was relinquished in 1979 to the Panamanian government, with full control over the canal due to be handed over in the year 2000. (And WAS!!) A thin strip of land, 650 kilometers long, Panama has strong ties with world commerce and depends more on international trade and finance than on agriculture. Panama City and Colon derive an international flavor from populations of Chinese, Italians, Greeks, Arabs, and English-speaking blacks; the majority of the nation’s residents are of mixed Spanish and Indian blood (Mestizo’s).

77,082 sq kim (29,762 sq mi). Population: 2,000,000.
Panama City Religion: Roman Catholic.
Languages: Spanish, English Literacy: 85% Life Expectancy: 71 yrs.
Economy: Industries: food processing, oil transshipment, light manufacturing. Export crops: bananas, sugar, shrimp. Domestic consumption: rice, corn, beans. PCI: $2,070.


National Geographic Magazine,©April 1986.

Before 1500, is considered to be the Pre-Colombian Glory: With agriculture firmly established by A.D. 1, various cultures rose, flourished, and declined in Central America over the next 15 centuries.

In the north the Lowland Maya created one of Mesoamerica’s most brilliant civilizations. Their city-states, centered on Tikal, Copan, and other dazzling capitals, served as seats of dynasties and settings for monumental works of art and architecture.

Among the farming villages southeast of the Mesoamerican frontier, powerful tribal leaders gradually rose to power. Archaeological remains from Honduras through Panama provide glimpses of separate but similar chiefdoms sustained by farming, fishing, and hunting. By 500A.D., a far-reaching trade in shells, feathers, salt, and other resources had fostered a burgeoning of both population and prosperity - and the rise of superb craftsmanship, one of Central America’s hallmarks. Jadeite and other semiprecious stones were carved into mythical birds and animals. Gold and gold-alloy jewelry became another medium of sacred art and a symbol of status among the nobility, as did masterpieces of polychrome pottery in distinctive styles and shapes.

Panama’s golden Huacas, using the Lost Wax process being a prime example of the craftmanship of these Indians. As well as the pottery and religious vessels decorated with pre-Colombian designs and shaped into these mythical myriad gods. 1

From 1500 - 1821 A.D. is considered to be the era of Conquests and Colonies. Spain in 1500, vibrant with religious zeal and political unity after the expulsion of the last of its Moorish invaders, turned eagerly to the New World in quest of gold, souls, and land.

Two decades later, mainland footholds - by Cortes in Mexico and Balboa in Panama - followed earlier Spanish forays along the coast. Each served as a base for waves of conquest concentrated on the vast land in between. From the north Alvarado cut a bloody swath through highland Guatemala, defeating the Quiche Maya chieftain Tecum near present-day Quezaltenango and effectively ending resistance. Cordoba and others moved north from Panama, and by mid-century subjugation was complete.

In late colonial times, Spanish administrative boundaries divided the conquered land between the Captaincy General of Guatemala - itself part of the Viceroyalty of New Spain -and the Viceroyalty of New Granada. The division underlay the basic cultural and historical contrast that still obtains between Panama and the rest of Central America.

While Spanish towns, missions, mines, and haciendas grew rich in the most populous areas of the interior, the English and their black slaves established centers for logwood and other exports along desolate stretches of the east coast.


Each year Spain normally sent two fleets of merchant ships, guarded by armed vessels, across the Atlantic. One, the Terra Firma Fleet, sailed for the South American coast to siphon fortune from its outlets at Cartagena and Portobelo. The other, the New Spain fleet, took on Mexico’s contribution at Veracruz. The two tried to rendezvous at Havana and return together, but they often missed connections.
CARTAGENA: A primary port of call for the Terra Firma ships, this stronghold funneled gold, emeralds, and pearls from New Granada (now Colombia) into their holds. Portobelo’s trade mart was another stop for the fleet, which would then regroup and head north for Havana.

A great fair boomed here once a year, fueled by Peruvian treasure and sparked by word that the fleet was approaching. The fair, originally held at nearby Nombre de Dios, was moved to Portobelo around 1600, after raids by England’s Sir Francis Drake.

THE INCA PIPELINE: A tide of bullion flowed from South America’s west coast after Pizarro seized the Inca Empire in 1532. Bolivia’s silver mountain of Potosi poured out its heart and joined the river of gold. The Spanish freighted the bullion into Panama and packed it across the isthmus for transshipment.

Political Independence crept quietly into Central America in 1821, transforming colonial provinces into five fledgling nations - Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Costa Rica.

(Chiapas, formerly part of Guatemala, joined Mexico.) The five formed a federation in 1823 but fragmented amid civil wars that pitted Honduran Grancisco Morazan, leading light of unification, against Jose Rafael Carrera, the Guatemalan separatist. later Carrerea set the boundaries of Belize, which became the colony of British Honduras in 1862.

Central America’s true revolution lay not in politics but in coffee. Introduced from Cuba in the 1700s, the crop thrived on the volcanic slopes and became the region’s primary export. Bananas later took hold in the coastal lowlands. Largely under foreign control, the legendary plantations sterotyped the whole area, giving rise to its most disparaging political epithet - “banana republic.”

**The Panama Railroad became a thought and then a reality because of the desire of men of vision and commerce to create a faster route from “sea to shining sea” in the middle 1800s. Before then, the Camino Real (the Royal Road) paved with stones which ran from Panama City to Nombre de Dios, and then from Panama City to Porto Belo, supplemented by river transportation from Cruces to the Atlantic, served its purpose for three centuries. On December 12, 1846, a treaty made between the United States and New Granada - guaranteed to the first named of the high contracting parties the right of way across the Isthmus of Panama upon any mode of communication that then existed or that otherwise might be constructed; should be open and free to the government and citizens of the United States; the United States, in turn, guaranteed the neutrality of the Isthmus. The transport of mail between Panama and Oregon in the Pacific and between New York and Chagres on the Atlantic coast, was granted to a syndicate headed by William Henry Aspinwall, a New York financier and a grand-uncle of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Aspinwall’s main interest was in the Pacific Mail Steamship Company which was organized to carry the mail but in the construction of a trans-continental railroad at Panama. The opening up of California in 1848, made finding a shorter, safer route west for settlers and prospectors an imperative. Even before the United States acquired California many heading for California used the isthmus crossing in preference to the long and dangerous route across the plains and mountains of western America. Discovery of gold, increased traffic across the isthmus greatly as prospectors rushed to find their fortunes. The Panama Railroad was completed in 1855. Without the railroad, the Panama Canal could never have been built.2

Colossal gap’s between rich and poor, an outdated economic structure, and politics plagued by petty competition, corruption, and pervasive foreign interests sowed seeds of social discord in Central America. The last battlefield effort to unify the nations had died with Guatemala’s liberal President Justo Rufino Barrios in 1885.

Malaria, yellow fever, and inadequate equipment doomed French efforts to complete an interoceanic canal in Panama begun in 1881. The United States, recognizing its strategic importance, manipulated Panama’s independence from Colombia in 1903, solved the problems of epidemic and engineering, and completed the canal a decade later. Panama granted the U.S. jurisdiction over the Canal Zone.

Prior to World War II the U.S. increased dollar investments - mainly in bananas - and intervened militarily to protect capital and bolster freindly governments. These forces vied with opposing social or nationalistic movements as extolled in the poetry of Ruben Dario and others. Sporadic revolts, such as that led by Augusto Cesar Sandino in Nicaragua, though short-lived and followed by repressions, often provided martyrs for the cause of social injustice.

Completion in the 1970s of the Pan American Highway -except for the section in Panama’s Darien Gap -provided a reliable land link between Central American nations. Since, then, interregional and international air service has helped solve shortcomings in communication. Yet differing national profiles and problems prevail.

Efforts to stabilize the regional economy led to the establishment of the Central American Common Market in 1960. But within the decade it crumbled, following the border conflict between Honduras and El Salvador. In 1977 the United States acknowledged Panama’s right to sovereignty and eventual ownership of the canal. Two years later Nicaragua’s Sandinista revolution overthrew the corrupt Somoza regime. Politicians in El Salvador and Guatemala compete with powerful military factions or with opponents on the philosophical right or left. Violence in much of the region ranges from clandestine death squads to outright civil war. The upheavals have fostered vast movements of refugees seeking sanctuary in Mexico or the United States. Today Central America, a land of global strategic import, remains one of diversity and unfathomable destiny.



PANAMA CHRONOLOGY 1501 Bastides discovers Panama 1502 Columbus explores coast of Panama 1509 Spanish settle at Nombre de Dios 1513 Balboa discovers the Pacific 1519 City of Panama is founded 1532 Pizarro leaves Panama to conquer Peru 1584 Town of Porto Bello founded 1668 Morgan's pirates capture Porto Bello 1671 Morgan burns city of Panama 1698 Scotch colony perishes in Panama 1739 English destroy forts at Porto Bello 1821 Panama revolts from Spain 1850 Construction of panama Railroad begun 1855 First train crosses the Isthmus 1880 French begin attempt to dig a canal 1889 French canal company bankrupt 1894 New French company resumes operations 1903 Republic of Panama established 1904 United States begins building a canal 1905 Stevens succeeds Wallace as Chief Engineer 1907 Lt. Col. Goethals becomes Chief Engineer 1908 Maximum annual excavation recorded 1909 Concrete work is begun in the locks 1910 Canal is half done as to excavation 1911 Locks and Gatun Dam half done 1912 New Panama Railroad is finished 1913 First ship passes through the canal 1914 Canal open to commerce of the world 1915 San Francisco Exposition 1977 United States & Panama sign treaty turning canal over to the Republic, 22 year transistion period begins 1999 Kansas City RR begins rebuilding defunct PRR ** December 31, 1999 the canal becomes completely Panama's. The Year 2000 - Life Goes On ....

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