The Spanish Conquest
The arrival of the Spanish in 1501 spelled the end of the indigenous peoples’ dominion over the isthmus and the beginning of the European conquest.
The first arrival was an explorer named Rodrigo de Bastidas, who sailed along the Caribbean coast from the Darién at least as far west as Nombre de Dios. His crew included a seaman by the name of Vasco Núñez de Balboa; 12 years later Balboa would become the first European to hack his way through the Darién and lay eyes on the “Southern Sea,” the Pacific Ocean.
Christopher Columbus came to the isthmus during his fourth and final voyage to the New World, which left Spain on May 11, 1502. His most glorious days behind him, Columbus had the use of four dilapidated ships to explore the Caribbean coastline that Bastidas had not seen, from Bocas del Toro in the far west of the isthmus to Nombre de Dios in the east. In Bocas he came across indigenous people wearing gold jewelry, a discovery that excited his crew far more than the quest for a passage to Asia.
During the voyage, Columbus’s ships anchored near the mouth of the Río Belén, on the border between the modern-day provinces of Colón and Veraguas. It was here, on Epiphany, January 6, 1503, that Columbus established the first European settlement on the isthmus, Santa María de Belén.
Almost immediately, however, battles with the indigenous population, led by a chief known to history only as “the Quibián,” brought this first Spanish foothold in Panama to a bloody end. Columbus sailed back to Jamaica with two barely seaworthy ships, having been forced to abandon the other two: the Gallega at the mouth of the Belén and the Vizcaina somewhere near Portobelo.
Balboa and the Discovery of the Pacific
Balboa’s career as a great explorer began inauspiciously. Though he was among the first Europeans to explore Panama, when he was a crew member on Bastidas’ voyage of discovery in 1501, he spent the next eight years in Hispaniola (modern-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic) getting into financial trouble. Determined to change his fortunes, he stowed away on a ship bound for the isthmus, slipping past his creditors by hiding in a cask that was loaded onto the ship. When he was discovered, the angry captain almost left him marooned on a desert island, but he soon made himself indispensable because of his knowledge of the isthmus.
When the early settlements began to fall apart, Balboa suggested a new colony be founded at a place in the Darién he remembered from his early days with Bastidas. This became Santa María de la Antigua del Darién, or Antigua, the first lasting European settlement. It was established in 1510 and eventually became the first capital of Castilla del Oro.
Balboa proved to be popular with the men and quickly moved into a position of power. He became the administrative head of Antigua and acting governor of Castilla del Oro, subjugating any indigenous peoples who opposed him. Though his methods were vicious, Balboa became known for his strategy of making peace with the indigenous peoples who submitted to him. By the standards of his day, he was considered fair and merciful, particularly compared to his murderous contemporaries and successors.
Told by native allies of a sea to the south along whose coast were cities of gold, Balboa set out from Antigua on September 1, 1513, with 190 of his men, an estimated (and probably exaggerated) 1,000 indigenous peoples, and a pack of dogs. Among his men was Francisco Pizarro. Along the way they had to fight both the hardships of the jungle and indigenous peoples on whose land they were trespassing.
At 10 a.m. on September 25, Balboa told the 67 of his men who had survived the brutal trek to wait while he climbed one last hill and became the first European to lay eyes on the “Southern Sea”—the Pacific Ocean. When he finally made it down to the shore four days later, he found himself on the edge of a large gulf off the Pacific coast of the Darién that he named the Golfo de San Miguel.
He waded out into the water in full armor and promptly claimed the entire sea and all the lands touching it for the Spanish crown, no doubt the biggest land grab in history.
The Founding of Panama City
Meanwhile, King Ferdinand of Spain had appointed a new governor of the isthmus, Pedro Arias de Ávila, better known as Pedrarias. On the isthmus, he had an even more fitting designation: Furor Domini (the wrath of God). He saw the popular and resourceful Balboa as a rival and had him beheaded for treason in January 1519 at Aclá, a settlement on the Caribbean coast of the Darién.
Pedrarias decided to move the capital from Antigua to the site of a fishing village called Panama, on the central Pacific coast of the isthmus. He founded Panama City, the first European settlement on the Pacific coast of the Americas, on August 15, 1519. He also proceeded to slaughter the indigenous inhabitants of the isthmus.
His men met fierce resistance and sometimes suffered losses at the hands of warriors led by rulers impressive enough to have made it into Spanish records, such as París and Urracá. It was, of course, just a matter of time before the Spanish prevailed. París, for instance, died of natural causes, but he was hounded even in death: The Spaniards looted his grave of its gold. Urracá made peace with the Spaniards, but his people have long since vanished and his only lasting legacy is his profile on Panama’s one-centavo coin.
Panama was home to large, diverse populations of indigenous peoples when the Spanish arrived at the turn of the 16th century. Some put the population of the isthmus at that time at two million or even higher, two-thirds the modern-day population. The Spanish decimated these original inhabitants through war and disease. Today only eight groups of indigenous peoples remain, and three of these are barely hanging on.
© William Friar from Moon Panama, 3rd Edition