The conquest of Panamá
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 isthmus. He 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).
"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
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.
La Catedral y Plaza Mayor
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.
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.
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.
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).
Homes and daily life
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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