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Pre-Hispanic Age

Majolica bowl
Animal-shaped pendant made of gold
Ceramics bowl
Flute carved in bone

Courtesy of the Embassy of Panama to Japan

The presence of first inhabitants of Panama dates back to 10,000 years before Christ. Before the arrival of Spaniards to Panama, there were several pre-hispanic groups, whose artifacts were found in several provinces of Panama, such as Sitio Barriles (highlands of Chiriqui Province), Sitio Conte (Cocle Province), and Sitio Panama Viejo (Panama Province). Among the most outstanding objects found there are gold-made “huacas”, which represent artifacts of worship; animal or human figures carved in stone, denominated “monoliths”; prehispanic bowls with geometric and animal designs; old instruments made of cooked clay called “Ocarinas”, among others. The said pieces are displayed at several museums such as the Museum of Pre-Columbian Art Reina Torres de Arauz. The main indigenous groups living in Panama during the pre-hispanic period are the Mayas, the Caribbeans and the Chibchas. The sufferings experienced by these early Panamanians during the colonial conquest are expressed in objects made of clay, stone, leather and fabric. Native oral stories have been passed from one generation to the other, preserving ancient traditions and customs, which nowadays can be observed in the three main indigenous groups of Panama: Kunas, Nnobe-Bugle, and Embera-Wounan.

Conquest and Colonization by Spain

Rodrigo Galvan de Bastidas was the first Spaniard to arrive in Panama in 1501. Despite strong effort to conquest the Isthmus by Spaniards, resistance from the native people as well as endemic diseases, thwarted several attempts to occupy the territory. By 1510, the Spanish colonists managed to found Santa Maria La Antigua del Darien, located at the Province of Darien on the Caribbean side of Panama. Santa Maria La Antigua del Darien became the first Spanish settlement, from where the Spaniards began the conquest of the New World, in search of gold, silver and glory, and disseminating the Christian faith among the indigenous people.

Vasco Nuñez de Balboa monument in Panama City Courtesy of the Embassy of Panama to Japan
From Santa Maria La Antigua del Darien, Vasco Nuñez de Balboa, carried out a series of voyages to explore and conquest territories inside Darien, obtaining information from the natives about a rich kingdom and another ocean located toward the south. Thus, after crossing mountains and jungle, Balboa arrived to the South Sea on September 25, 1513, becoming the first Spaniard, and European, to discover a new ocean, later known as the Pacific Ocean.

The discovery of the South Sea led to the foundation of Panama City on August 15, 1519 by Pedro Arias (Pedrarias) de Avila. Panama became the first Spanish city established on the Pacific side of the continent, and served as the base to carry out the conquest of the Inca Empire in South America, and other conquests and exploration in Central America. After the foundation of Panama City, Santa Maria La Antigua del Darien lost her importance, as the colonists moved to the Pacific side. Therefore, Nombre de Dios, another settlement also founded in 1510 on the Caribbean coast, became the port of call for the Spanish vessels. Nombre de Dios was destroyed by Francis Drake, an English pirate, in 1596, which prompted the Spaniards to move the port to another close location named Portobelo in the following year. In Portobelo took place the most important commercial fairs of the Spanish Crown, where goods from Spain and her colonies were exchanged.

Casco Viejo, Panama City, where the city was rebuilt in 1673 Courtesy of Panama Tourism Bureau (IPAT)
In view of the its strategic location, the territory of Panama became the operation hub of the Spanish Crown, which transported a lot of gold and treasures from Peru and other locations on the Pacific side of the continent en route to Spain. As a result, Panama also became a target of pirates such as the Englishman Henry Morgan who destroyed Panama City in 1671. Two years later, in 1673, the city was rebuilt 7.5 kilometers northwest from the original location.

Independence from Spain and Unification with the Great Colombia

By the last quarter of the Eighteen Century, political changes in Europe and the British colonies brought a new wave of libertarian principles reflected in the American and French Revolutions. These new ideals of freedom vis-à-vis the centralized and distant Spain spread out in all Spanish colonies, where Creoles (Spaniards descendants born in America) led by Simon Bolivar and other leaders carried out wars of independence. In Panama, the declaration of independence took place on November 28, 1821 without fighting since the Spanish garrison in Panama City had few troops to face the movement. As a result, the Panamanian creoles made a peaceful deal with the Spanish troops, sending them back to Spain with all their travel expenses covered. Immediately after breaking away from Spain, Panama decided to voluntarily join the Great Colombia, composed of Nueva Granada (Colombia), Venezuela and Ecuador, following the leadership of the Liberator Simon Bolivar, who enjoyed a great deal of prestige among Panamanians. However, by 1830, the Great Colombia disintegrated because of internal rivalries, leaving each country to follow its own path. Panama also attempted to set her own way; yet, at the end, the local leaders decided to remain united to the Great Colombia, which changed her name to Republic of Granada. In the following decades of union with Colombia, Panama attempted to separate several times, due to the frequent political turmoil which affected the governance of Colombia, and thus the stability and prosperity of the isthmus. Yet, the military superiority of Colombia put down any separatist effort. Nonetheless, in 1855, under the leadership of Justo Arosemena, Panama transformed itself into what came to be known as the Federal State of the Isthmus, which gave Panama a great deal of autonomy to conduct her own affairs, except those related to foreign affairs, defense, and some other basic functions of the state. This federal experiment ended in 1886 when the central government in Bogota abolished the constitution of Rio Negro and reinstated a centralized government.

It is important to point out that during the period of union with Colombia several important developments took place in Panama, namely:

  • The celebration of the Anfictionic Congress of 1826, whereby the Liberator Simon Bolivar convened the newly independent nations to cope with the intentions of the former colonial powers to take back their lost territories, and where Bolivar said the famous phrase: “if the world had to choose its capital, the isthmus of Panama would be selected for such an honorable destiny, since it is placed in the center of the globe, looking to one part to Asia, and to the other, to Africa and Europe”.
  • The construction of the Interoceanic railway in 1850 to provide for the quick and safer transportation of gold discovered in California. Thus, the Panama Railway became the first railroad to connect both the Pacific and Caribbean coast.
  • The attempt by the French to build an interoceanic canal from 1880 to 1886. The French effort failed due to several factors such as the lack of proper technology, tropical diseases and management problems.
Ferdinand de Lesseps, pioneer of the French attempt to build the Panama Canal
Courtesy of the Panama Canal Authority
Panama Railway
Courtesy of Panama Tourism Bureau (IPAT)

From 1899 to 1902, Panama had become involved in another civil war caused by a power struggle between the Liberal and Conservatives political parties in Colombia. It was called the War of Thousand Days as it lasted 1,320 days. 100,000 people lost their lives throughout Colombia, leaving the Isthmus of Panama in a very desperate economic situation. The peace accord was signed on board of the war vessel Wisconsin, through mediation of the US government, on November 21, 1902.

After the civil war there was hope that a treaty between Colombia and the United States would reactivate the construction of the interoceanic canal, initiated by the French, bringing prosperity to a country which had historically depended upon its strategic location. Unfortunately, in the middle of 1903, the Colombian Congress rejected the treaty, and on November 3 of the same year, the Panamanian people decided to break away from Colombia and determine their own future, with the aid of the US government.

09Gaillard Cut, 1913
Courtesy of Panama Canal Authority (ACP)
Miraflores Locks, 1912
Courtesy of Panama Canal Authority (ACP)

The Republican Period

Once Panama separated from Colombia on November 3, the newly established government appointed Mr. Felipe Bunau Varilla as Minister Plenipotentiary, who traveled to Washington to arrange the negotiation of a treaty with the US government to build an interoceanic canal. Mr. Bunau Varilla represented the French company that had started the construction years earlier and had negotiated the transfer of rights to build the canal to the US government. Moreover, he was instrumental in obtaining the support of the US Administration on behalf of the Panamanian independence.

According to the instructions given to Mr. Bunau Varilla by the new government, he had to wait until three other representatives of the government of Panama arrived to Washington to negotiate the terms of the treaty. However, he quickly negotiated alone with the US government and signed the Hay-Bunau Varilla Treaty on November 18, 2003, few hours before the arrival of the Panamanian delegation. The Hay-Bunau Varilla Treaty was, in fact, the treaty that no Panamanian ever signed.

The terms of the agreement were less favorable than those negotiated with Colombia in the previous treaty, and therefore, were strongly opposed by the new government of Panama. Yet, the difficult situation faced by the Panamanian leaders gave them no other choice but to accept the agreement. The new treaty for the construction of the interoceanic canal created a US-controlled zone in the heart of the Isthmus of Panama, leased on perpetuity. Thus, from the very beginning of the construction of the Panama Canal, successive Panamanian governments carried out efforts to regain sovereignty in that zone, or at least, progressively to improve the terms of the treaty. Needless to say, it became a long battle of the people of Panama to recover their national dignity vis-à-vis one of the great powers of the world.

After 74 years of claim, including regrettable incidents with loss of lives on both sides, the Republic of Panama and the United States signed a new treaty, the Torrijos Carter-Treaty, as well as the Treaty Concerning the Permanent Neutrality of the Panama Canal, in 1977. The new treaty abolished the Hay-Bunau Varilla Treaty and prepared the way to return the Panama Canal Zone to the Panamanian people. On December 31, 1999, at noon, the Republic of Panama assumed full sovereignty over the Panama Canal, ending 96 years of US presence in the territory of the Republic of Panama.

Since her separation from Colombia, Panama evolved as a Republic with three branches of government, namely, the President, the National Assembly and the Judiciary. Presidents and lawmakers are elected at once every 5 years by simple majority.

During the first 40 years of Republican life, the political landscape was dominated by the competition between the Liberal and Conservative parties, inherited from the Colombian political tradition. Through this period, a great deal of institutional and infrastructure changes took place under the leadership of Dr. Belisario Porras, a great symbol of the liberal tradition, who was elected president three times. This period also witness the decay of the Conservative Party.

After the 1930’s, however, a new wave of nationalist thinking, prompted by the Panama Canal Zone issue, and the consequent US influence in daily life of Panamanians, started to take root in the political arena, giving birth to a nationalist movement which sought to instill in the people the love for native Panamanian cultural values, including the defense of Spanish language.

Although there were several political uprising affecting presidential terms in the first 60 years, the formal democracy was interrupted by a coup d’état in 1968, beginning a dictatorship which lasted for 21 years.

Democracy was restored in 1990 after a US military intervention, and since then, the Republic of Panama has enjoyed a solid political stability where the main traditional parties and their allies alternate power peacefully every five years.

On October 22, 2006, the Panamanian people approved through a referendum the Widening of the Panama Canal, which together with other large infrastructure projects and the boom of tourism, will further place Panama on the route to greater development.

Torrijos-Carter Treaty, 1977
Courtesy of Panama Canal Authority (ACP)
December 31st, 1999: Panama Canal Transference from U.S. Administration to the Government of Panama
Courtesy of Panama Canal Authority (ACP)
September 3rd, 2007: Speech delivered by His Excellency Martin Torrijos Espino, President of the Republic of Panama, on the occasion of the Inaugural Ceremony of the Panama Canal Expansion Works.
Courtesy of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Panama

For further historical details, please take a look at the following sources:
Dominio y Sociedad en el Panama Colombiano, Alfredo Figueroa Navarro, 1982.
Historia de Panama, Ernesto J. Castillero, 1989.
Historia de Panama y sus Protagonistas, Jorge Conte Porras y Eduardo E. Castillero L., 1998
El Panama Hispano (1501-1821), Celestino Andres Arauz y Patricia Pizzurno, 1991.