Thursday, February 26, 2015

Panama Part 2: "Old Panamá", the early colonial city

A nearby museum displays a scale model of Panamá Viejo as it existed in 1671. In the foreground is the Convento de la Merced. The next big complex above it is the Convento de San Francisco. Above that is the Hospital San Juan de Dios and just to its left the Convento de la Concepción. Next is the Convento de la Cía de Jesus. Above that is the Plaza Mayor (Main Plaza) with its white cathedral tower. On the upper right are the government buildings, situated on a small island just off the tip of the peninsula. Surrounding and mixed between these major complexes are the homes of the inhabitants, some of them substantial, some simply huts. In my last posting, we took a look at the pre-hispanic history of Panama, and particularly at the remains of the indigenous village that once existed on the same site as Panamá Viejo (Old Panamá). In fact, the indigenous site was unexpectedly discovered during excavations of the early colonial capital that began in the 1990's. Panamá Viejo, and the country itself, got their names from the village of cueva-speaking people who had occupied the area for as much as 700 years before the Spanish arrived. The word Panamá in the cueva language means "rich land of butterflies, trees and fish". To see Panamá Viejo on a Google map and its relation with modern Panamá City, click here.

The conquest of Panamá

Gold coins from the early colonial period. It all started with gold. From the earliest days, those who landed on the coasts of the New World were gold-hungry. These included the Spaniard Rodrigo de Bastidas, who was the first European to land on Panamá's shores in 1501. He had previously visited the New World on Christopher Colombus's second voyage in 1494. Bastidas quickly left Panamá because of leaky ships, but not before claiming the territory for King Ferdinand of Spain. Colombus himself didn't reach Panamá until 1502, during his fourth and final voyage. In the early colonial period, Panamá was called Tierra Firme ("dry land", or "the mainland") to distinguish it from the island territories Spain had colonized in the New World up to that point. When Colombus landed in Tierra Firme, he encountered native people wearing jewelry made from gold they had panned from the nearby rivers. This definitely caught the interest of Spanish adventurers and, in 1510, they established the first permanent settlement of the mainland of the Americas. Santa Maria la Antigua del Darién was founded by Vasco Nuñez de Balboa on the Caribbean coast of the Panamanian isthmusHe was a high-handed adventurer who seized control from two rivals who had more legitimate claims to authority but were no match for his charisma and skill at intrigue. Three years after establishing Santa Maria and making himself mayor, Balboa decided to investigate reports from indigenous people that Tierra Firme was an isthmus. The natives claimed it had another coast, washed by the waters of an entirely different ocean! On September 25, 1513, after thrashing his way across the tangled jungles of central Panamá's mountains, Balboa became the first European to view the Pacific Ocean. He promptly claimed it for King Ferdinand, calling it the "South Sea". The King was so impressed with this discovery, and its potential for opening the way to the East Indies, that he dropped the name of Tierre Firme and re-named the territory Castilla del Oro (Golden Castille).

The grim visage of the conquistador Pedro Arias de Ávila displays his ruthless nature. Nicknamed "Pedrarias Dávila" by his contemporaries, he was a tough and ruthless soldier who won recognition fighting the Moors in southern Spain. Nine months after Balboa's return from the Pacific, Pedrarias Dávila arrived from Spain with 22 ships and 1,500 men. The King had commissioned him to subdue Castilla del Oro, re-organize the Caribbean settlements, and to establish a gateway to the Indies by building a road across the isthmus to the Pacific. Pedrarias sent out various expeditions to explore the isthmus. One of these, led by a captain named Tello de Gúzman, reached the small village on the isthmus' central Pacific Coast that the natives called Panamá. Pedrarias decided to move the colony's capital from Santa Maria la Antigua to the Pacific Coast. In 1519, he reached the village of Panamá and began to build what became known as Panamá Viejo. Although the location was unhealthy and barely defensible, the nearby village provided a key resource: free labor. The Spanish promptly enslaved the people, using them to provide food, to construct the settlement, and to build several cross-isthmus roads through the malarial jungles. Within forty years, the indigenous inhabitants were extinct from abuse, disease and overwork. They left only their village's name for an epitaph. Pedrarias Dávila was as ruthless with Spaniards as he had been with the Cueva people. In 1519, he arrested Balboa on trumped-up charges. A young officer who assisted in the arrest was a man named Francisco Pizzaro, who had accompanied Balboa to the Pacific. Pizzaro, with the approval of Pedrarias, later went on to conquer the Inca Empire in Peru. After a brief trial, Vasco Nuñez de Balboa and several of his key lieutenants were beheaded. For all his history of intrigue and usurpations of authority, historians believe that Balboa was innocent of these particular charges and he is considered a hero in Panamá. Monuments to him stand all over the nation, and today's basic unit of currency is called the Balboa.

Las Casas Reales

A detail of the scale model in the Panamá Viejo museum shows a trio of two-story buildings. These are collectively known as las Casas Reales (the Royal Houses). They are surrounded by the walls of a fort containing five bastions bristling with cannons. The building at the top was the Real Contaduría, a store house for gold and silver from Peru, awaiting transshipment to the Caribbean coast and ultimately to Spain. Between 1531 and 1660, 60% of all the gold reaching Spain from the New World passed through Panamá. The middle structure housed the Real Audiencia (Royal Council) and also contained a jail. The  President of the Council lived in the building at the bottom. The Real Audiencia had been established in 1538 when King Phillip II, Ferdinand's successor, granted Panamá Viejo the official status of a city. It was the only one of the three buildings that was constructed of stone. The other two were of wood. The fort surrounding las Casas Reales was located on a spit of land at the extreme southeast end of the city. Its function was to guard the entrance to the small port as well as to protect the most important government officials and and the royal treasure house. Interestingly, the cannons in three of the bastions point toward the town. The fort was meant to be the final stronghold if the city was attacked by land. However, it would also have been useful as a stronghold against any revolts by the townspeople themselves. Today, very little remains of the fort or its government buildings. The model was based upon contemporary reports and first hand descriptions in documents and letters, as well as archaeological evidence.

Silver coin bearing the Royal coat-of-arms. Silver coins used for business in Panamá Viejo were called pantacones, reales, and piezas de ocho (pieces of eight). Unfortunately, the display did not indicate what type of coin this one might be. Silver coins were very briefly minted in Panamá Viejo, but the Royal Mints in Potosí, Bolivia, Mexico City and Cartagena, Colombia created most of the coinage in circulation. Of the group, the overwhelming majority of coins came from Potosí, the site of huge silver deposits.

A colonial padlock contains a small shield to cover the keyhole and protect the inner workings. The padlock symbolizes the tight control Spain attempted to maintain over its far-flung colonies. Not only did the royal authorities have to contend with restive native populations and pirate raids, but the early conquistadors themselves were an unruly bunch. A good case can be made that the New World conquests were a very useful conduit through which Spain could rid itself of a dangerous element. By glamorizing the New World's possibilities for fame and riches, the tough soldiers who had spent their lives plundering Moorish cities could be funneled away from the new kingdom that Ferdinand and Isabela were trying to consolidate. Unfortunately, this left the colonial authorities to deal with all the intrigues of these bold adventurers. This helps explain Pedrarias Dávila's attitude toward Balboa and his followers, and perhaps also why he was willing to dispatch the treacherous Pizzaro off into the unknown wastes of Peru. Ironically, after his successful conquest of the Inca Empire, Pizzaro was assassinated. He ended his life as the victim of treachery among the greedy and turbulent conquistadors who had followed him to Peru.

La Catedral y Plaza Mayor

The Plaza Mayor has been the heart of Spanish-American towns since the earliest times. In line with royal decrees, the same general design was followed almost everywhere. Panamá Viejo was unique in its time because its plaza was square, rather than the required rectangular shape. Under the required design, the main church (in this case, the Cathedral) forms one side of the plaza. Its four-story bell tower can be seen on the east (right) side of the square. The buildings forming the north side are the Casas Terrin. This mansion was built by one of the richest and most powerful men in Panamá Viejo at that time. Forming a long open arcade across the front of the Casas Terrin are a line of arched portales. They were another part of the royal requirements for structures built along the sides of a plaza. The idea was to give shelter from sun and rain to pedestrians and street merchants who might do business there. On the south side of the bell tower is a small two-story building which housed the Cabildo (town council). This was the second most important political body in the town, after the Real Audiencia. The west and south sides of the Plaza Mayor were composed of houses owned by the top families of the town. The bottom floors of some houses contained stores to sell goods imported from Spain or produced on the plantations of the owners. Generally the foundations and parts of the lower floors were stone, but the rest of the structures were of wood, making fire an ever-present danger.

The Cathedral tower's bells served to call the faithful, but also to warn against attacks. Here, you are looking east, with the ruined walls of the Cabildo to the right. In 1535, Bishop Fray Tomás de Berlanga arrived and almost immediately work began on a cathedral. The original wooden structure was destroyed by fire in 1540. It was rebuilt in wood, but by 1587 it was found to be in bad shape, due to the moist climate. Between 1619 and 1626, Bishop Franscisco de Cámara supervised construction of the final structure. It was built of stone rubble finished with cantera. During this phase, a three-story bell tower was added. Again, in 1644, a fire ravaged the church. While the exterior was stone, much of the interior was still of wood, including the pillars that supported the roof. When the Cathedral was again rebuilt, a fourth story (see above) was added to the tower.

Remains of the Casas Terrin. Francisco Terrin was an important merchant and landowner who built his two-story mansion in 1600. The home and its ground floor stores occupied the entire north side of the Plaza Mayor. At about the time he built his mansion, Terrin held the positions of town constable and treasurer and was a member of the Cabildo. In addition, he was a patron of religious institutions. With the encouragement of Terrin and other important figures of the town, the Convent of the Immaculate Conception was established in 1594. The town's leaders wanted a place where single women, particularly widows, could enter the religious life so that they would not fall into poverty and sin. In 1598, a group of nuns arrived from a convent in Peru to get things started. Terrin donated 2000 pesos per year "in perpetuity" to support the convent and, in return, he was recognized as a patron with special chapel devoted to his family.

Los Conventos

Convento de la Merced. The friars of the Order of Merced arrived in 1522 and set up their convent on the extreme west end of the town. The rectangular church with the bell tower was a later addition to the convent. The overall complex included housing for the friars, courtyards, and places to pray or sit in contemplation. Gardens, orchards, and pens for animals such as chickens and pigs completed the design. Typically, religious facilities such as these were built using the forced labor provided by the indigenous community. This was considered good for the native people's souls because, in return for their labor, they received instruction in Christianity (whether desired or not).

Candle holders like these were used for lighting in the convents as well as throughout the town. Although the outsides of the churches such as the one at Convento de la Merced were generally simple in appearance, the interiors were sumptuous. They were often decorated with retablos, which are carved and gilded wooden structures that stand behind an altar with niches containing religious paintings and statues of various saints. The church attached to la Merced had four retablos, each devoted to a different version of the Virgin Mary. For the church at the Convento de la Concepción, Francisco Terrin ordered the creation of an elaborate retablo. He persuaded his fellow Cabildo members to pay 936 gold ducados for it out of the public treasury. The retablo was made in 1598 by the artist Diego López Bueno of Seville. It was so large that, when it was delivered from Spain in 1601, three separate ships had to be used.

Keys and locks were very common items unearthed by archaeologists. The Spanish were very security conscious and convents were no exception. Those that housed the nuns needed to be locked down not only from intruders but, according to contemporary accounts, to keep some of the young women from fleeing or engaging in illicit relationships. Apparently, not all of the women placed in convents were there of their own free will. In addition to la Merced, other convents in Panamá Viejo included San FranciscoSan Juan de Dios, la Concepción, la Compañía de Jesús, Santo Domingo, and Santa Fe.

Homes and daily life

Homes in Panamá Viejo were arranged in neat rows along regular streets. The complex in the upper left quadrant is the Hospital San Juan de Dios. Royal decrees specified that home lots were to be of equal sizes and that streets were to be laid out in a north-south and east-west grid pattern. In the earliest days, the houses were very simple huts, not much better than those found in the Cueva village. However, by 1600, there were hundreds of houses laid out in the prescribed royal pattern, as well as many religious buildings.  Generally, the closer one's house stood to the Plaza Mayor, the greater one's wealth and status. Conversely, the outlying homes were the poorest and most rustic.

Iron spikes and nails held the wooden structures together. Blacksmiths and armorers accompanied the early conquistadors to shoe horses and repair armor and weapons. As things quieted down, they would have begun to make implements related to a settled life, such as nails. Among the wealthier homes were many with two stories, the lower one made of stone while the upper was wood. The floors at the bottom level were surfaced with river stones or brick. Very few structures were entirely of stone. The most of the rest of the community lived in wooden houses. Generally, the roofs of the homes and other buildings were covered with clay tiles. The poorest people lived in houses having walls of cane with thatched palm roofs. One characteristic shared by nearly all the structures of Panamá Viejo was high flammability. Even those made with stone exteriors used wood extensively in their interior spaces.

Ceramic pot, probably locally produced. By the beginning of the 17th Century, most ceramics used in the city were produced in the Panamanian isthmus. In those days, they called their pottery mayólica panameña and it incorporated a variety styles, including Arab, Gothic, Renaissance, and Chinese. Colors used were generally green, blue and brown, over a base of white.

Earthenware containers called botijas peruleras were used to carry water, wine, and olive oil. The botijas peruleras were packed carefully together in large barrels for shipping. Although it was surrounded on two sides with water, Panamá Viejo had a serious problem with the availability of fresh, drinkable kind. The well water was filled with minerals that made it so hard that it was used primarily for animals. Consequently, rainwater was carefully stored in cisterns and some of the wealthier houses had large ones under the floors of their patios. Even with the cisterns, drinking water was often scarce. On the other hand, stagnant water in puddles was everywhere and formed an ideal incubator for mosquitos. Consequently, diseases like malaria were rife. The Cabildo ordered the construction of drainage facilities to deal with this public health problem.

Implements for use in weigh scales. Daily commerce required a system of weights and measures. The two small brass cups were used as measures on a weigh scale. The smaller cup could be fitted inside the larger one to increase the weight. The specific use of the two objects in the middle was not specified in the museum sign, other than to say they are related to weights and measures.

Thimbles and pins have not changed much over the centuries. In the early years, the women of the Spanish colonies received little education other than that related to domestic duties such as sewing, embroidery, cooking, managing household slaves, etc. This included even the elite women of colonial society, who were seldom taught to read and could barely write their own names. Exceptions to this were so rare as to be notable in the histories of the period. Women of all social levels were taught to make and repair clothes and to decorate them with embroidery. The exclusion of women from formal education did not begin to change until the Enlightenment period of the late 18th Century, at least 100 years after the demise of Panamá Viejo. Even then, those educated were almost entirely of the upper classes and the subject matter was quite limited.

The end of Panamá Viejo

Ruins of Fortin de la Natividad, (Christmas Fort), one of the few defenses of the city. The fort was intended to defend Puente del Matadero (Slaughterhouse Bridge) at the extreme western end of the city where the road to the interior crossed the river. The bridge was built in approximately 1607 because the tide flooded the river's mouth twice a day, and the local caimans (similar to crocodiles) had a habit of eating those who attempted to wade across. A high-rise tower of modern Panamá City looms in the background.

The corners of the fort were protected by cylindrical bastions with gunslits. French privateers (essentially government-approved pirates) began raiding Spain's Caribbean colonies and treasure fleets as early as 1520. English and Dutch pirates, with or without their governments' permission, joined in over the next three centuries. Sir Francis Drake's depredations helped precipitate the attack by the Spanish Armada on Queen Elizabeth's England in 1588. Panamá Viejo seemed immune from these raids because of the great distances involved in rounding South America's Cape Horn. Still, a growing uneasiness about the city's security finally resulted in Fortin de la Natividad's construction in 1616. It was quite small, accommodating only twelve soldiers and two cannons. Other than this, and the fortifications around the Casas Reales, the main Pacific port handling Spanish riches from the Indies and Peru was virtually undefended.

Pedro, our Caravan Tour Director, is joined by our two "pirate" museum guides. The end of Panamá Viejo came in January of 1671. Captain Henry Morgan, a Welshman, was perhaps the most famous pirate of the 17th Century. Between 1655 and 1671, Morgan rose from an indentured servant in Barbados to a privateer admiral commanding a fleet of ships and over 1000 men. After ravaging the Caribbean for years, he set his sights on Panamá Viejo. Instead of sailing around the Horn, he landed on the isthmus' Caribbean coast and marched overland. Morgan made short work of Fortin de la Natividad and seized the town. However, most of the riches had previously been loaded on a Spanish galleon that had escaped. Morgan tortured some residents of the town to reveal the whereabouts of any remaining treasure. Unfortunately, there was little. Possibly in revenge, Morgan fired the town before he departed, causing such destruction that the Spanish abandoned the site. Archaeologists have uncovered piles of ashes in the ruins of the Cabildo that testify to the pirates' anger. In truth, the town's indefensible and unhealthy location contributed to the decision to move to a much better site some miles west. Soon, the rapidly growing jungle overwhelmed the charred remains and the once-thriving port disappeared from history.

This completes Part 2 of my series on Panama. I hope you have enjoyed the photos and story. If you'd like, you can either leave your thoughts in the Comments section below, or email me directly. If you leave a question, PLEASE leave your email address so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim

1 comment:

  1. Gracias, Jim--Well-told, prompted me to read more about Capt Morgan and Pedro de Avila. Found that the latter's nickname, "pedraria" translates as "precious stones" in Portuguese--appropriately enough.


If your comment involves a question, please leave your email address so I can answer you. Thanks, Jim