The Spanish Colonial Period
Panama was “discovered” in 1501, though the natives living there did not consider it lost. Rodrigo de Bastidas, who had been on Christopher Columbus’s second voyage to the Americas, sailed west from the Atlantic side of what is now Colombia. He was hoping to map the Caribbean basin coastline, but was forced to turn back by the poor condition of his ships. Before retuning, however, he reached La Punta de Manzanillo, and is acknowledged as the first European to have claimed that part of the isthmus that is now Panama.
Panama is somewhat larger than the state of Florida and bordered on the northern coast by the Caribbean Sea and on the southern coast by the Pacific Ocean. The country of Panama is an isthmus, connecting South & Central America. To Panama’s east is Columbia and to its west borders Costa Rica.
Columbus, on his fourth journey to the Americas, sailed south to the isthmus from what is now Honduras and Costa Rica. Columbus’s voyage produced hand-drawn maps. He landed at present-day Almirante and proceeded up the coast, visiting a place he named Veragua for “to see water” and Portobelo (Beautiful Port).
Vasco Nunez de Balboa, who had been aboard de Bastidas’ ship in 1501, confirmed in 1513 that the territory had another coast and was an isthmus. He referred to the other body of water as the South Sea, but it was later renamed the Pacific.
As would come to be typical, Panama became a pawn in the political and economic games of another country, serving as a crossroads for colonial Spain, to the great enrichment of Spain and the great detriment of the native people.
Panama remained part of Spain for 300 years, doing well when Spain thought it important and not so well otherwise, fading to almost no importance at all to Spain during the late 17th and middle 18th centuries.
Before the Europeans discovered Panama, it was settled by Chibhan, Chocoan an dCueva Peoples. The largest group, the Cuevas, were essentially wiped out during the Spanish colonial period.
Emancipation from Spain – Emergence of Greater Colombia
In 1821 the isthmus joined with several other territories (present-day Venezuala, Colombia and Ecuador) to form “Gran Colombia,” or Greater Colombia. Panama became the Department of the Isthmus and was ruled by a succession of governors.
But things were not always happy, or even for long. In September of 1830, the local military commander, General Jose Domingo Espinar, rebelled against the central government for reassigning him, and led Panama to separate from Greater Colombia and demand, as a condition of reunification, that General Simon Bolivar take command of the isthmus department. Bolivar refused, and called for Panama to rejoin Greater Colombia.
General Juan Eligio Alzuru then undertook a military coup against Espinar. By early 1831, Panama had reunified with Greater Colombia, now called the Republic of New Granada.
In July 1831, Venezuela and Ecuador were establishing themselves as countries, and Panama once again declared its independence, this time under Gneral Alzuru. His abusive administration was defeated by military forces, and he was executed in August, at which point, Panama reunited with New Granada.
In November 1840 a religious conflict became a civil war, and the isthmus, now under the leadership of General Toms Herrera, “Superior Civil Chief,” declared its independence, along with several other member territories of New Granada.
In March 1841 the state of Panama took the name Estada Libre del Istmo, or the Free State of the Isthmus. By 1841 the new state had drawn up a constitution, but within 13 months Panama was reincorporated into the union.
In the 1840’s, the United States and France became interested in Panama because of its potential for railroads and canals. In 1846 the United States and Colombia signed the Bidlack Mallinaro Treaty, which granted the US rights to build railroads through Panama and also gave the US the power to intervene militarily to keep Panama under Colombian control.
The Panama Railway, the world’s first transcontinental railroad, was completed in 1855.
From 1850 through 1903, the US used troops several times to suppress revolts. One of these conflicts, the Watermelon War of 1856, was caused by white US soldiers mistreating Panamanian locals. Widespread race riots were put down by US Marines.
Under frederalist constitutions of 1858 and 1863, Panama and other constituent states gained a great deal of autonomy. This ended in 1886 with the establishment of a new Republic of Colombia.
Panamanian government at this point was controlled by the members of a group of fewer than ten extended families who composed the remnants of the colonial aristocracy.
Life in Panama changed drastically after the building of the Panama Railway, as the building of a canal became a real possibility.
The Building of the Panama Canal
The Panama Canal was many years from concept to completion. In the 1520s-30s, the Spanish crown ordered surveys of the isthmus to determine whether a canal could be built. The decision was that it could not.
In the 1880s, the French Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interoceanique, under the direction of Suez Canal architect Ferdinand de Lesseps, worked on construction of a sea-level canal approximately where the Panama Canal is now. Due to yellow fever, malaria, frequent landslides and other problems, the canal was not completed. The company failed spectacularly, with many of its financial backers in France imprisoned as a result.
In 1902 President Theodore Roosevelt convinced Congress to take on the project. Colombia was in the middle of political turmoil, and the terms of the canal project were bitterly disputed. In 1903, the US began encouraging Panama to declare its independence. The USS Nashville was sent to patrol in the waters around Colon to deter Colombian resistance, and on November 3, 1903, Panama declared its independence, backed by the US and France, which contributed financial support.
Less than three weeks later, the US and France – with no Panamanians present-signed the Hay-Bunau Varilla Trety allowing for the construction of a canal and US sovereignty over the canal zone.
Colombia finally recognized the independence of Panama on December 21, 1921.
On September 7, 1977, the US and Panama signed an agreement transferring the Canal and 14 US Army bases to Panama by 1999, except for granting the US a perpetual right of military intervention.
Noriega and the Invasion of Panama
On August 1, 1981, Panama’s military leader, Brigadier General Omar Torrijos, was killed in a mysterious plane crash which many believed was an assassination.
He was succeeded by General Manuel Noriega, in spite of 1983 constitutional amendments which supposedly prevented military rule of the government.
US-Panama relations worsened in the 1980s, and in the summer of 1987 the US froze economic and military assistance to Panama due to the political situation on the isthmus and an attack on the US Embassy.
In April, 1988, President Reagan invoked the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, which froze Panamanian Government assets in US banks, withheld Panama Canal usage fees, and prevented payments by any American individual or organization to the Noriega regime.
The US began sending troops to is bases in the Canal Zone. Skirmishes occurred between US troops and the Panamanian military, and in one such skirmish a US Marine was killed.
On December 20, 1989, the United States invaded Panama. Noriega was captured and transported to the US, where he is now serving a 40-year sentence for drug trafficking.
The invasion ended on December 27, 1989.
The Panama Canal, Canal Zone, and remaining US military bases were turned over to Panama on December 31, 1999.