THE SPANISH IN PANAMA
Historians have noted that certain members of the vegetable and mineral kingdoms have played a vital part in the discovery and colonization of the Americas.
Columbus, the master spirit of his age, had the noble, imaginative conception of the earth's rotundity which he wished to demonstrate to mankind, but his immediate impulse was to find the shortest passage to the East Indies, where the spices so much prized on the dining tables of Europe could be obtained and brought back more expeditiously than by the long trip around the Cape of Good Hope.
To the North, more than a hundred years later, tabacco was the main product that held the English colonists to Virginia in the face of hostile savages and exile from home. Smoking spread over Europe like an epidemic, making the rewards from the cultivation of the weed immediate and profitable from the start.
The members of the mineral kingdom which held the venturesome mariners to their new found lands, despite every discouragement, human and natural, were gold and silver. No sooner had these precious metals crossed the European vision than their first love, spices, faded completely out of the imagination. Thenceforth, the Spaniards and the Portuguese ransacked an isthmus, a continent, and the islands of the sea with frenzied and appalling barbarities and with splendid success.
Thus spices, tobacco, gold, and silver have been the unheroic causes of epochal movements in the human family. Columbus kept his vision above the sordid greed for gold to the last. On the fourth attempt he made to find a passage to the East Indies he cruised along the isthmian coast from September, 1502, to January, 1503, entering and naming the harbor of Porto Bello on November 2, 1502, and visiting Nombre de Dios on November 9th, in what is now the Republic of Panama.
Columbus, however, was not the discoverer of Panama, as a Spaniard, named Rodrigo de Bastides, had preceded him to this coast, in 1501, so that the period of the Spanish in Panama dates from that year. Bastides visited Nombre de Dios, where eight years later the first Spanish settlement on the Isthmus was planted, in 1509, as a base for the search for gold.
Vasco Nunez de Balboa had been with Bastides on his trip of exploration and he became the head of the new colony at Panama. It had been designated "The Castle of Gold" by the King of Spain because of the plentiful quantities of that metal found among the natives. For a few years the mountains with their dense jungle growth stood as a barrier to explorations farther inland, but the stories of the marvelous wealth of the inhabitants on the other side, told to Balboa by the Indians, so excited his cupidity that, in 1513, he gathered a band of 190 men and started across.
When they approached the summit of a mountain which, the Indian guide said, would afford a view of the new sea, Balboa ordered his men to halt while he alone took the first view. There, in the heart of the Isthmian jungle, four hundred years ago, with what must have been a feeling of awe even to his hardened nature, Balboa discovered the Pacific, on September 25, 1513. Calling his men to him, they had a religious ceremony, claiming all they surveyed as the dominions of His Majesty, the King of Spain. Four days later, after traversing the distance to this sea from the mountain, he waded out into the water and reaffirmed his sovereign's title.
Gold he found in abundance, and pearls of fabulous size and value. After five months' absence, he returned to Nombre de Dios by a more direct course, and spread the news which was to turn Central and South America into a slaughter house, through the made traffic that debauched Spain, made pirates of England's navigators, and reduced the original population to wretched slavery.
Balboa found that he had been succeeded as Governor at Nombre de Dios by a soldier named Pedrarias. Between them a hatred sprang up which, in 1517, resulted in the untimely and unjust execution of Balboa on trumped up charges. Prior to this, Balboa had made other trips to the Pacific, carrying across with incredible labor the parts of ships which were rebuilt in the Pacific. In 1911 the Americans found a cannon of immense weight about halfway across, which evidently had been abandoned by Balboa, and an anchor of great size also has been found.
Pedrarias, in 1515, had sent exploring parties to the Pacific side to select a site for a settlement on that coast. The San Francisco Exposition, therefore, in 1915, will be exactly four hundred years after this event. It was not until 1519 that the settlement was started, and the founding of the city of Panama dates historically from that year.
With the founding of a town on the Pacific side began the interoceanic traffic which ever since has emphasized the need of easier and swifter communication between the Atlantic and Pacific. The site of the city was about twelve miles from the present city of Panama, and a few miles inland. At a huge expense of labor and life a paved road was constructed from Nombre de Dios to Panama, portions of which may be seen in the Canal Zone today. Another route across the Isthmus followed the Chagres River as far as it was navigable to a point near the American town of Gorgona, from there the trip being across the mountains to Panama.
It may be noted that Panama was founded a full one hundred years before the landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth. Nombre de Dios was a town ninety-eight years before the first English settlement in North America, at Jamestown, in 1607. Saint Augustine, Florida, the oldest town town in North America, was not founded until forty-six years after Panama. Indeed, Panama is the oldest part of continental America.
Francisco Pizarro, a pupil of the Balboa school, heard tales about an indescribably rich country south of Panama. He organized an expedition, which left Panama in 1532, and effect the conquest of Peru, which Prescott has immortalized in literature. History does not afford a more daring, a more barbarous, and scarcely a more richly rewarded conquest, nor does Europe or Mexico present a more interesting prehistoric civilization that the land of the Incas.
After nearly a century at Nombre de Dios, it is worth recording that Sir Francis Drake, the great Englishman who had "singed the King of Spain's beard," who had plundered the Spanish Main from boyhood, and had circumnavigated the globe, claiming California for his Queen, died on board ship and was buried at sea off Nombre de Dios in 1596.
Porto Bello at once became the depot of Spanish treasure, accumulated from Peru or other South and Central American countries, and brought across the isthmus from Panama with incredible hardship. From this port the Spanish galleons ran the gauntlet of English pirates to Spain. Drake had been one of the most intrepid of this crew. Henry Morgan, a century later, was another. The English allowed the Spanish to perform all the arduous labor and fighting involved in acquiring the gold and silver, then hovered around the West Indies and took it from them, or died in the attempt.
In 1668, Henry Morgan collected a motley crew of sea vagabonds with the object of capturing Porto Bello. The operations of the English buccaneers usually were plain piracy, but they justified themselves in their own minds by the quarrelsome state of the relations between England and Spain, and a still deeper motive was the implacable warfare between Protestant and Catholic. Morgan, as unprincipled a soldier as ever fought, was knighted for his piracies in Panama.
Porto Bello was captured after a fight not surpassed in history for inhumanities. The treasure they found here whetted their lust for gold, with the result that, three years later, a still bolder enterprise, that of traversing the isthmus and taking Panama, was planned. In 1671 Morgan started up the Chagres River with 1,600 men, and, after abandoning that stream, they struck out overland to Panama. Nine days were consumed in the journey with hardships from hunger and the labor of penetrating the jungle, the like of which have not been exceeded by soldiers anywhere.
When they did get in sight of Panama they were so weak that a more resolute foe easily could have annihilated the army of invasion. The Spanish and natives kept within their fortifications and their first offensive more was to attempt to stampede two thousand bulls upon Morgan's men, who promptly quit fighting to slaughter enough of the animals to satisfy their hunger. Thus what might have been a formidable defensive act, if successfully managed, was turned to vital advantage by the enemy.
A desperate defense was unavailing. The city was captured, but found to be barren of treasure, as the Spanish had loaded a ship with their gold and silver before the attack began, and the ship could not be found. It was an unwise move, because the infuriated pirates proceeded to torture the people, and to murder hundreds, finally burning Panama to the ground. Today tourists go out to see a tower and other ruins of the famous old city of Panama.
Panama was rebuilt on a short promontory in the Pacific, and although captured again by the pirates in 1680 has remained on the new site to this time. Many vicissitudes attended the career of the Spaniards for the following century and a half, the chief ruffle on their calm being an effort by William Paterson, a wealthy Englishman, to found a colony of Scotchmen in the Darien region on the Atlantic coast, east of Porto Bello. The first colony of 1,200 came in 1698 and perished from disease or fighting, and a second company of 1,300 followed the same course, being expelled or killed by the Spanish, so that not more than thirty ever returned to Scotland. It was a lamentable failure of English colonizing south of the American colonies, and was not followed by other experiments in Panama.
During all the stirring years in Panama the Spanish had swarmed over Mexico, Central America, and South America. Yet, early in the nineteenth century the great colonial empire began crumbling away. Province after province revolted from Spain. The explanation is that the Spanish never looked on America as anything other than a place to extract gold and silver. This attitude enabled them to secure the more wealth in the shortest time, but the methods employed, and the treatment of the natives, laid the foundation in unstable elements. In North America regular agricultural and commercial pursuits caused English civilization to take deep root, but, in justice to Spain, it at least is true that she maintained her authority over her colonies as long as England did over hers.
Panama, in 1821, caught the spirit of revolt, and accomplished her freedom from Spain in a bloodless revolution. It then joined the Confederation of New Granada, the Colombia of today, under Simon Bolivar, South America's great soldier and statesman. Here ended the career of the Spanish in Panama.
Easily the most impressive fact in all the Western Hemisphere is the achievement of the Spanish in dispossessing a whole continent of its original tongues and substituting therefor their won language. With the exception of some Portuguese colonies, the language of the Castiles is the language from the Rio Grande to Patagonia. The customs also are Spanish and is is the religion. The explanation of this truly remarkable fact is the the Spaniard absolutely refused to adapt himself to the native tongues, customs, or religion, forcing them to conform to his. But the chief credit for this achievement belongs to the missionaries of the Catholic church, men no less daring than the conquerors with whom they went hand in hand, planting missions and churches in the jungle. These indomitable priests taught the native children to speak Spanish, and in the course of centuries it became the continental language.
What will be the future of English in Latin America? It is not a wild prophecy to assert that in another generation Spanish will be decadent and English everywhere ascendant. Already the higher social and business circles are acquiring English. In every center of population it is making rapid headway, though it must be many years before the mass of the people make it their own. The South American youth is not dreaming of Europe, but of the giant young republic to the North. He wants to see its skyscrapers, its dazzling luxury in every phase of life. Its politics fascinates and amazes him. It seems a land literally rolling in wealth, the land of opportunity and the land where he may learn the arts with which to make a career in his won country. The Americans are as loath to adapt themselves to Spanish customs and dialects as the Spaniards were to the original. Every years Americans find it less difficult to get about anywhere in Latin America. English ultimately will triumph from Alaska to Magellan Straits, and the canal will speed the day.