Panamanian flag

 

 

History

In 1501 Rodrigo de Bastidas was the first European to explore the Isthmus of Panamá sailing along the western coast of Darien. A year later Christopher Columbus, sailing south and eastward from Central America, explored Bocas del Toro, Veragua, the Chagres River, and Portobelo, which he christened "Beautiful Port". Spanish expeditions converged upon Tierra Firma (also Tierra Firme, Spanish from the Latin terra firma, "dry land" or "mainland"), which served in Spanish colonial times as the name for the Isthmus of Panamá.

Vasco Nunez BalboaThe main city in Tierra Firme was Santa María la Antigua del Darién, near the mouth of the Tarena river. Vasco Nuñez de Balboa and Martin de Enciso agreed on the site. In September 1510, the first permanent European settlement on the American mainland was founded. On August 28, 1513, the Diocese of Santa María de La Antigua del Darién was erected, and its first Bishop fray Juan de Quevedo became the first head of the Catholic Church in continental America. Balboa maneuvered and was appointed mayor on the first official 'Cabildo Abierto', or open municipal council, held on the mainland. On September 25, 1513, Balboa's expedition was able to verify what indigenous people had reported: that the isthmus had another coast and that there was another ocean. Balboa called it the South Sea, though it was later renamed the Pacific.

On August 15, 1519, Pedrarias moved the capital of Castilla del Oro with all its organizational institutions to the Pacific coast and founded Nuestra Señora de la Asunción de Panamá, abandoning Darién and settling the first European city on the shores of the Pacific Ocean, just East of the present day site of Panama City.Panama was part of the Spanish Empire for over 300 years (1513-1821), and her fortunes fluctuated with the geopolitical importance of the isthmus to the Spanish crown. At the height of the Empire during the 16th and 17th centuries, no other region proved to be as strategic or to have had more economic importance. It is estimated that of all the gold entering Spain from the New World between 1531 and 1660, 60% had arrived at its destiny via the Trans-atlantic Treasure Fleet and Fairs system from Nombre de Dios/Portobelo.

Sir Francis DrakeIt was in 1572 that Sir Francis Drake embarked on his first major independent enterprise. He planned an attack on the Panama isthmus, the point at which the silver and gold treasure of Peru had to be landed and sent overland to the Caribbean sea, where ships from Spain would pick it up at Nombre de Dios. He left Plymouth on May 24, 1572, in two small vessels, the Pascha (70 tons) and Swan (25 tons), and with a crew of 73 men. With this force Drake proposed to capture the important town of Nombre de Dios. In fact, his raid there late in July, 1572, came close to success, but finally failed when he was wounded and put out of action. He remained in the vicinity of the isthmus for almost a year, raiding Spanish shipping and attempting to capture a treasure shipment. In 1573, he joined up with a French buccaneer, Guillaume Le Testu, in an attack on a richly laden mule train and succeeded in making off with the huge sum of £20,000 in gold and silver. By August 9th, 1573, he was back in Plymouth.

Captain Henry MorganIn 1667, Captain Henry Morgan was commissioned by Sir Thomas Modyford to capture Spanish prisoners in Cuba in order to discover details of the threatened attack on Jamaica. Collecting 10 ships with 500 men, Morgan landed on the island and captured and sacked Puerto Principe (Spanish name for Port-au-Prince Haiti), then went on to take the fortified and well-garrisoned town of Portobelo, Panama. The governor of Panama, astonished at this daring adventure, attempted in vain to drive out the invaders, and finally Morgan consented to evacuate the place on the payment of a large ransom.

The Spaniards for their part reacted to these sorties by threatening Jamaica. A new commission was then given to Morgan as commander-in-chief of all the ships of war in Jamaica, to levy war on the Spaniards and destroy their ships and stores - the booty gained in the expedition being the only pay. Thus Morgan and his crew were on this occasion pirates. After ravaging the coasts of Cuba and the mainland, Morgan determined on an expedition back to Panama.

He recaptured the island of Santa Catalina on December 15, 1670, and, on December 27, he gained possession of the fortress of San Lorenzo in the Caribbean coast of Panama, killing 300 men of the garrison and leaving 23 alive. Then with 1,400 men he ascended the Chagres River towards the Pacific coast and Panama City.

Spanish GalleonOn January 18, 1671, Morgan discovered that Panama had roughly 1,500 infantry and cavalry. He split his forces in two, using one to march through the forest and flank the enemy. The Spaniards were untrained and rushed Morgan's line where he cut them down with gunfire, only to have his flankers emerge and finish off the rest of the Spanish soldiers. Although Panama was at the time the richest city in New Spain, Morgan and his men obtained far less plunder than they had expected. Much of the city's wealth had been removed onto a Spanish ship that then stood out into the Gulf of Panama, beyond the looters' reach. Most of the inhabitants' remaining goods were destroyed in a fire of unclear cause. Morgan's men tortured those residents of Panama they could catch, but very little gold was forthcoming from the victims. Following Morgan's attack, the now ruined Panama City had to be rebuilt in a new site a few kilometres to the west (the current site). The former site is called Panamá Viejo and still contains the remaining parts of the old Panama City.

Because the sack of Panama violated a peace treaty between England and Spain, Morgan was arrested and conducted to the Kingdom of England in 1672. He proved he had no knowledge of the treaty. Instead of punishment, Morgan was knighted in 1674 before returning to Jamaica the following year to take up the post of Lieutenant Governor.

Panama was the site of the ill-fated Darien Scheme, which set up a Scottish colony in the region in 1698. This failed for a number of reasons, and the ensuing debt contributed to the union of England and Scotland in 1707. When Panama was colonized, the indigenous peoples who survived many diseases, massacres and enslavement of the conquest, ultimately fled into the forest and nearby islands. Indian slaves were then replaced by Africans.

Old Panama CathedralThe prosperity enjoyed during the first two centuries (1540-1740) while contributing to colonial growth and the pivotal role it played at the height of the Spanish Empire (the first modern global empire) helped define a distinctive sense of autonomy and regional or national identity within Panama well before the rest of the colonies.

In 1744, Bishop Francisco Javier de Luna Victoria y Castro established the College of San Ignacio de Loyola and on June 3, 1749 founded La Real y Pontificia Universidad de San Javier. By this time, however, Panama’s importance and influence had become insignificant, as Spain’s power dwindled in Europe, and advances in navigation technique increasingly made it possible to round Cape Horn in order to reach the Pacific.

After approximately 320 years under the rule of the Spanish Empire, on November 3, 1821, independence from Spain was declared in the small town of La Villa de Los Santos. On November 28, presided by Colonel Jose de Fabrega, a National Assembly was convened and it officially declared the independence of the Isthmus of Panama from Spain and its decision to join New Granada, Ecuador and Venezuela in Simón Bolívar's recently founded Republic of Colombia. In 1830, Venezuela, Ecuador and other territories left the Gran Colombia, but Panama remained as a province of this country.

The union between Panama and the Republic of Colombia was made possible by the active participation of the United States under the 1846 Bidlack Mallarino Treaty, which lasted until 1903. The treaty granted the U.S. rights to build railroads through Panama and to intervene militarily against revolt to guarantee New Granadine control of Panama. There were at least three attempts by Panamanian Liberals to seize control of Panama and potentially achieve full autonomy, including one led by Liberal guerrillas like Belisario Porras and Victoriano Lorenzo, each of which was suppressed by a collaboration of Conservative Colombian and U.S. forces.

President Theodore RooseveltIn 1902 U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt decided to take on the abandoned works of the Panama Canal by the French, but the Colombian government in Bogotá balked at the prospect of a U.S. controlled canal under the terms that Roosevelt's administration was offering. Roosevelt was unwilling to alter his terms and quickly changed tactics, encouraging a minority of Conservative Panamanian landholding families to demand independence, offering military support. On November 3, 1903, Panama finally separated, and Dr. Manuel Amador Guerrero, a prominent member of the Conservative political party, became the first constitutional President of the Republic of Panama. The U.S., which had a small naval force in the area, prevented the Colombians from sending reinforcements by sea, aiding the Panamians.

The importance of Panama to the U.S. stems from the Panama Canal which was built by the U.S. during the period of 1904–1914. Previously, if ships wanted to pass through the Americas, they would have to go all the way around the most southern tip of South America, the Tierra del Fuego, and through the Drake Passage. The Panama Canal connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans directly at the narrowest point in Panama. When previously a ship going from New York City to San Francisco would have to travel for 20,900 kilometers (13,000 miles), that travel time would be reduced to 8,370 km (5,200 mi). As well, the canal is of economic importance since it pumps millions of dollars from toll revenue into the national economy and provides massive employment.

USS ArizonaIn November 1903, Phillipe Bunau-Varilla  (a French citizen who was not authorized to sign any treaties on behalf of Panama without the review of the Panamanians) unilaterally signed the Hay-Bunau Varilla Treaty which granted rights to the U.S. to build and administer, indefinitely, the Panama Canal, which was opened in 1914. The United States had a monopoly over the Panama Canal for 85 years. However, This treaty became a contentious diplomatic issue between the two countries, reaching a boiling point on Martyr's Day (9 January 1964). The issues were resolved with the signing of the Torrijos-Carter Treaties in 1977 returning control of the former Canal Zone territories to the Panamanian government by 1999, as long as they agreed to the neutrality of the canal, as well as allowing the U.S. to return at any time to defend this claim. This treaty, however, allows the national government to deny certain nations and companies the usage of the canal for certain reasons, such as national security.

During various times in its history the Panamanian government went through periods of political instability and corruption, however, the mandate of an elected president was initiated but terminated prematurely in 1968. Though he never held the position of president, General Omar Torrijos eventually became the de facto leader of Panama. As a military dictator, he was the leading power in the governing military junta and later became an autocratic strong man. Torrijos maintained his position of power until his death in an airplane accident in 1981. During his reign, Panama’s Constitution was rewritten by a rubber-stamp assembly, military officers were placed in charge of civilian institutions, and hundreds of opponents of the dictatorship disappeared or were exiled. Torrijos, however, was also a charismatic figure. His demagogic populism and infrastructure projects appealed to many, and the clientelist use of jobs at public institutions created a political class dependent on the dictatorship and loyal to his party. Although drafted during the Torrijos dictatorship, the Constitution was amended in 1983 and 1994.

After Torrijos's death, several military strong men followed him as Panama's leader, all while maintaining the dictatorship's policy of installing civilian, puppet presidents: Commander Florencio Flores Aguilar, followed by Colonel Rubén Darío Paredes. By 1983, power was concentrated in the hands of General Manuel Antonio Noriega, who came up through the ranks after serving in the Chiriquí province and in the city of Puerto Armuelles for a time. He was a former head of Panama's secret police and was an ex-informant of the CIA. But Noriega's implication in drug trafficking by the United States resulted in difficult relations by the end of the 1980s. Eventually, the escalation of tensions led to the freezing of Panama's banking system and the emboldening of Panama's pro-democracy "Civilista" movement.

In May 1989, Panama's presidential elections were once again rigged by the military dictatorship, and pressure increased on the dictatorship from the Civilista movement, the Panamanian population, and the U.S. Government. The Civilista candidates who were largely believed to have won the elections with a clear majority were brutally beaten up by the dictatorship's henchmen, and tensions heightened tremendously. Noriega's regime armed many civilian supporters and formed irregular paramilitary units in preparation for a confrontation which Noriega explicitly provoked. In December, Noriega declared himself "President for Life."

Operation Just CauseOn December 20 1989, 27,000 U.S. personnel stationed in Panama and flown in from the U.S. invaded Panama in order to remove Noriega. A few hours before the invasion, Guillermo Endara, the purported winner of the May elections, was sworn in as the new President of Panama in a ceremony that took place inside a U.S. military base in the former Panama Canal Zone with no Panamanians present. During the fighting, it was estimated between two thousand and four thousand Panamanians (mostly civilians), were killed. These include those killed by U.S. forces as well as those killed by the Panamanian armed forces and armed irregulars.

During the confusion of the invasion, Noriega fled to the Apostolic Nuncio's residence and sought refuge. After several days of a U.S. siege of the Nuncio's residence, Noriega surrendered to the American military.

The period prior to Noriega's surrender and extradition was characterized by chaos and insecurity. Panama's police force was crippled by the invasion, and U.S. forces did not police the country, so widespread looting of shops, banks and private homes took place. Many of the small and medium business enterprises went bankrupt as a result of the looting.

Shortly after his surrender to U.S. forces, Noriega was flown to Florida to be formally extradited and charged by U.S. authorities on drug and racketeering charges. He became eligible for parole on September 9, 2007, but remained in custody while his lawyers still fight an extradition request from France.

(Referenced from Wikipedia)


Recent Events of Interest: The green light was given to the 'Canal Expansion Project' that will allow for the passage of much larger ships in order to keep up with the growing needs of the worlds transport and shipping fleets. The grand opening of the new locks is scheduled for 2014 and the 100th year anniversary of the Panama Canal's first passage.

In 2010 Panama City ended it's long time use of the infamous 'Diablo Rojo's' or Red Devil buses in the city centre and Cinta Costera, switching over to the more modern look of the Metro Bus. This year also starting the construction of the countries first subway system which will run underneath many of the old streets of Panama City.

In 2011 Manuel Noriega was released from prison in France to finish out his life sentence under house arrest in Gamboa, just North of the City. Many of the people of Panama protested his return, instead calling for his immediate execution for his crimes against humanity.

Back to Top