The Lost Laughter of Darien

Old -- much, much older than the pomp and glory which once was Panama Viejo itself, are the myriad timeworn legends ante-dating and surrounding that nebulous era during which the ancient city was conceived, born, nurtured to a regal maturity and thereafter destroyed even as it had been forged -- in fires of lust and cruelty.

Ponderous tomes minutely chronicling the catastrophic life drama of Spain's wonder city of the west, point down a broad and fairly well traveled roadway leading backward to the past.  By persistently following this main highway, the historical searcher will be rewarded at the end of his journey with a collection of unassailable facts and figures.

However, should he allow his footsteps to turn from the clearly marked roadway into some of the numerous little by-paths of legend and folklore, which beckon at every turn of the journey, he will find himself in a delightful realm of mingled fact and fancy far more enchanting than the stricter and more authentic highway which he glimpses, touches, but never quite follows in all of its logical entirety.

An earnest devotee to authenticity, therefore, may haunt the newer city's imposing archives and find a kingdom of riches in musty piles of elaborately traced parchments yellowing on mouldy shelves.  The yearner after something more intangibly beautiful, however, will turn his footsteps into humbler by-ways.  Mingling with primitive dwellers of the country's outer regions, the sympathetic listener may learn through story, pantomime, and the lilting chant of music, many stirring sagas of early Panama which have grown naturally and spontaneously from the hearts of her people.

Old, old tales, these.  Handed down from father to son through so many generations that their origin has long since been forgotten.  It is these old legends of a by-gone day, however, rather than the less fanciful happenings of actual history, which are told and retold so lovingly by the soft-spoken paisanos throughout the more distant regions of Panama's rolling sabanas at the doorsteps of their humble little casitas in the early dusk of eventide after the rigors of the tropic day are over.

Breathlessly then, to the accompaniment of that mysterious echoing medley which is a tropic night, they wistfully relive among their children and their children's children, the flashing deeds of valor, chivalry, and honor representative of the halcyon long-ago days before the coming of the first pale-faces -- men with god-like faces but with hearts as cruel as those of jungle beasts.

Gradually as the dusk wears on and the night draws closer, there will creep into the droning cadence of their sagas that occasional note of wailing exultation heard only when the souls of mighty forebears from an age long dead, cry out through the lips of a broken race.

With the mournful intensity of singing harp strings their voices rise and fall as they recite for the thousandth time the story that is closest to their hears -- the death saga of Panama Viejo.  It is the story of a white man's fearful affront to an all-powerful jungle god; and a curse reaching down through more than two centuries to find just fulfillment at last in the smoking ashes of a ruined city. . . .

For many, many moons before the coming of the white men, so begins the echoing sing-song, Paquo Meecho, all-powerful god of the jungle world, reigned supreme throughout this pleasant land, and in the hearts of his children.

Kindly benevolent was Paquo Meecho and prodigal with gifts to his little ones.  to them he gave sunshine and flowers, shelter, and the pattering music of raindrops.  He filled the murmuring waters with fish, loaded the mango and avocado with luscious fruit, and guided the hand of the hunter as he grasped his bow and arrow.  Waving patches of rice and cane, wild game in the forests, and the rich herbs of the underground -- all these and more were given the jungle children by Paquo Meecho.

His subjects were happily grateful.  Rich altars laden with offerings of fruit, flowers, and the gay plumage of birds sent daily smoke messengers spiraling through the tree tops to speak to Paquo Meecho saying his earth children were thankful and content.

Throughout the entire land there was plenty and peace, while in the happy, prosperous village of Panama which looked out across the Bay of Many Fish toward the mighty waters beyond, the heart of the High Priest, Cheremanco, was serene and tranquil as he made his devotions, all unaware of any disaster impending.

There came a day of sad portent, however, when the age-old peace of the jungle people was shattered.  A vague hint of disaster filled the air and the face of Cheremanco grew grave and troubled as he bent over his magic potions.  To his dismay and alarm their nebulous mists and grown murky and dark with ill-favored omens.

Again and again with the frenzy of desperation he strove to exorcise a fearful evil which invisible forces seemed bringing nearer and nearer, but his struggles were in vain.

At last, exhausted and defeated, he lifted his face toward the heavens and in a voice vibrant with ominous foreboding, spoke to the silent throngs huddled anxiously near.

"A grievous calamity threatens us, O my brethren!" he wailed.  "I can see approaching a sorrowful visitation more terrible than words can express.  The sky is black with messengers foretelling dread happenings to come!  Long have I besought the fatherly smile of Paquo Meecho, but sunk in his own despair, he heeds me not.  To the eyes of Cheremanco the sun grows darker and all the earth is filled with the sadness of Paquo Meecho.  direst disaster rushes toward us on swift wings, my children but we are powerless.  Everywhere about us the jungle spirits are wailing that the end of all things draws near!"

A sad rumble of thunder shook the earth as he spoke, while the mournful Trade Winds sighing through the branches above, took up the cry and carried it on, on, and on over land and sea -- "The end of all things draws near!"

Terrified, silent, their hearts weighted with dread, the people of the village went about their tasks in the gloomy days that followed.  The very atmosphere grew heavy with foreboding while the altar fires of Paquo Meecho burned fitful and pale with sorrow.

The following weeks dragged by uneventfully, however, and with their passing the fears of the people were gradually dispelled.  Reassured, they began to laugh and sing once more as they went about their work.

Only Cheremanco, seeing beneath the surface serenity which deceived his people, could not shake off the consciousness of impending doom.  His heart was sick and troubled as he sought fruitlessly to bring back the once benevolent smile under which his people had basked for so many centuries.

Then came occasional vagrant rumors, wafted to the village through itinerant messengers from the distant lands beyond the mountains.  amazing reports there were of mighty cayucas with the billowy white wings of sea gulls which were said to have come from beyond the sunrise.  And on them were giant men with faces pale as the morning sky and eyes whose azure was like unto the limpid coolness of deep waters.

The drooping spirits of Cheremanco were revived at this news.  Perhaps the wondrous visitors were gods.  If gods, and friendly, mayhap they would drive away the unseen dangers which threatened his people.  Earnestly he prayed that the heavenly strangers might some day cross the great mountain barrier and bring peace and contentment once more to his sorely troubled land.

Finally came a memorable day when amid great rejoicing, breathless runners panted out the announcement that a band of the pale-faced strangers was even then on its way to the village of Panama.

With gladness the people hastened to make ready for the heavenly visitors.  A great feast was prepared and as the expedition drew near, the entire populace advanced with gifts, making all the while, signs of cordiality and welcome.

Graciously the strangers accepted the food and entertainment offered, their leader making many protestations of friendship and good will.  And then after many days the visitors departed as they had come.  Leaving, they promised that when the Southern Cross should again be high in the heavens, they would return, bringing marvelous gifts for the people of the village.

Amidst the subsequent joyous enthusiasm which marked all reference to the departed strangers when the villagers gathered for discussion, the countenance of Cheremanco alone was grave and his tongue silent.

Questioned as to his troubled mien he answered slowly, his voice heavy with grief, "I am sad, my children, because Paquo Meecho, too, is sad.  These strangers have the faces of the morning sun and they speak words of friendship but their hearts are stone.  their hearts are cold and their eyes have in them the stern, unfeeling glint of cruelty!"

At his words a wave of sorrow swept over his listeners like a breeze bowing the tree tops at eventide.  Lifting their stricken faces to their leader they listened as his saddened voice wailed on, "These white strangers are not our friends, my people, even though their lips smile while their tongues strive to beguile our ears with sweet assurances.  When Paquo Meecho looks at them his countenance grows stern and dark with despair.  Sadly he repeats to us again through his sorrowing breeze messengers the direful warning that the end of all things draws swiftly near and nearer!"

Many months the village of Panama awaited the second coming of the white men, but when they finally arrived, a new commander was at their head.  Captain Pedro Arias de Avila, or Pedrarias, he called himself, and there was that in his cold, imperious face which struck instant terror to the hearts of the simple villagers.

The attitude of these strangers was noticeably less pleasant and friendly than had been that of the first visitors.  When after many long days they took their surly, ungracious departure, the entire village was filled with misgivings and apprehensions regarding the future.

With the third coming of the white men, Cheremanco's tragic premonitions of calamity were fulfilled.  A great expedition unexpectedly appeared one day headed by Pedrarias and a glittering galaxy of aides.  Following, was a long line of shackled slaves panting under cruelly heavy burdens lashed to their sweating shoulders.

Clanking possessively into the village, the haughty captain imperiously summoned Chief Cheremanco to appear before him.  Without preamble the high priest was brutally informed that his village was to be torn down and rebuilt for the white men.  the great white King Father beyond the mighty waters over which they had come, had so ordered and his commandment must be obeyed.

Dazed and unbelieving, Cheremanco listened to the words of the speaker.   Panama, his beloved Panama, the sacred city of Paquo Meecho, to be destroyed and given to the white man?

Never!  Never would the god of the jungle permit such a sacrilege!   Eloquently Cheremanco strove to make the white captain understand the impossibility, the monstrous infamy of what he proposed.

Pedrarias vouchsafed no answer to the impassioned pleading.  With an impatient sneer on his thin lips he suddenly gave a few staccato-quick orders and before the onlookers could raise a hand to prevent, his soldiers had fallen upon the sacred shrine of Paquo Meecho with furious axe and hammer, ceasing only when it was an aching heap of splintered wood and scattered ashes.

Stupefied and momentarily too horror-stricken to move, the villagers stood watching the ghastly outrage.  With realization, however, came maddened fury and with a wail of rage swelling like the echoing reverberations of thunder, they hurled themselves upon the blasphemers of their holy sanctum.

Followed a terrific struggle as wave after wave of infuriated jungle folk flung their naked, unprotected bodies against the armed resistance of the Spaniards.  with stock, stone, and arrow they strove despairingly to beat down the intruders, but were driven back again and again with such slaughter that the streets of the village were strewn with dead and dying.

In a last frenzy of desperation against hopelessly overwhelming odds, Cheremanco suddenly broke through the soldiers and sprang straight at the haughty, sneering captain who stood with one foot planted defiantly upon the shattered remnants of the sacred shrine.  With a heartbroken cry the high priest hurled himself forward, hoping with pitiful, naked hands to thrust back the abominable desecrator of his fathers' gods.

Don Pedro coolly tipped his lance and as the grief-maddened chief leaped forward, brutally pinned him to the earthy.

Pierced through the breast, Cheremanco fell with a gasping scream, clutching despairingly at the shrine of his god with both hands as though even in death he would protect it from the vile defamation of his enemies.

A leer of disdainful triumph flashed across the face of Don Pedro Arias Davila but it suddenly froze on his lips.  Even as he stooped to pluck his spear from the bleeding body at his feet, the heavens turned black while the earth was violently agitated as though some outraged deity were wrathfully protesting the execrable deed he had committed.

The giant cedro amargo tree under which he stood was shattered by a furious blast of lightning and, as the shivering branches moaned and tossed in agony above him, Cheremanco lifted dying eyes to the face of his conqueror.  Summoning the last of his fast ebbing strength, he raised his arms toward the heavens, and in a voice vibrant with ominous prophecy of retribution to follow, spoke the words which sealed irrevocably the doom of Panama Viejo even before it was born.

"Paquo Meecho will be avenged, O Spaniards, for the wrong you have done him this day!" he cried.  "Build your city if you will but it shall not stand!   Even as its ill-omened foundations are being laid in blood and fire, so is it doomed to perish.  It shall live under the shadow of a city accursed and when the jungle god, Paquo Meecho, again lifts his mighty voice, it shall vanish forever from the earth.  It is so written in the heavens!"

So speaking, his head fell back and his gallant spirit took wing into the great unknown.

.   .   .   .   .   .    .   .   .   .   .

Some two centuries later, so the low, muted voice of the story teller continues,the ancient curse was fulfilled.

There finally came the long predicted hour of reckoning when the mighty city built upon the heartbreak of Paquo Meecho's sacred altars, lay seared and bleeding from the ghastly outrages of the pirate captain, Henry Morgan, and his lust maddened buccaneers.

As the far-flung grandeur of her regal arches and towering spires crumbled to earth under murderous onslaughts of fire and sword, it was said that a strangely mysterious cry went reverberating through the tree tops of Panama Viejo.  To legions of faithful watchers from the jungle it spoke in accents of thunder.

They, having heard, melted silent, wraith-like once more into the shadowed safety of their leafy fastnesses.  To their ears it was the voice of destiny speaking, the dolefully triumphant cry of a heartache two hundred years old.

By the mournful breezes the message was wafted far and wide to the listening Bush -- "The curse has been fulfilled and the jungle god avenged!  Paquo Meecho has spoken at last!"

White men, believing, did not again incur the wrath of Paquo Meecho, but as time went on, built a newer and happier city many miles away, wisely deciding to leave the gods of the jungle in final undisputed possession of their own.

For almost three centuries since that day of expiation, the mysterious legions of the forest have reigned supreme in Panama Viejo, somberly bivouacked behind ramparts of clambering vine, moss, and encircling root.

Human inhabitants have steadfastly shunned the spot because oftentimes in the blackness of night, when the cries of the birds are hushed and the waves creep stealthily toward the crumbling armaments of the ruined ocean front, weird voices are said to resound through the deserted streets of the old city.

To listeners who speak the tongue of the jungle the text of the cry is every the same -- "Paquo Meecho has spoken!  Paquo Meecho has spoken!"

As the dying echoes give way once more to the stillness of night, the wailing cadence of the call is taken up by the rustling Trades and wafted to the Bush People far and near -- for it is they only who can hear, and hearing, truly understand.

Historical Notes:

Panama was a peaceful Indian village nestling at the edge of the Bay of Many Fish, which the name "Panama" signifies, long before Vasco Nuñez de Balboa made his famous journey across the Isthmus of Darien and discovered the Pacific Ocean in 1513.

When the Spaniards under Antonio Tello de Guzmán first visited the village in 1515, its site appealed to them as the logical location for a Spanish post on the Pacific.   They so designated it in reports sent home to Spain.

Four years later, Governor Pedro Arias de Avila, known also as Pedro Arias Davila and later simply as Pedrarias, founded the Spanish town of Panama upon the site of the ancient native village.  This he did in the names of Queen Juana of Spain, and of Don Carlos, her son, the king to be.

Pedrarias partitioned all the adjoining lands among his followers.  Immediately he dispatched raiding expeditions to capture Indians so that every settler soon had between forty and ninety slaves.  Under the inhuman treatment accorded them these died off rapidly but their numbers were constantly replenished by others ruthlessly seized by the governor's raiding parties.

The history of Panama Viejo under the leadership of Pedrarias was a chronicle of almost unbelievable inhuman treatment of the helpless and peace-loving natives.  It was his proud boast that during his lengthy tenure of authority in the new world, over two million native inhabitants were subjected to violent death.  This was probably an exaggeration, although vast numbers of Indians were destroyed by him and his ilk.

As time passed, Pedrarias and others of his kind were supplanted by more peaceful, kindly disposed colonists who came to the new world looking for homes.  Panama Viejo in consequence grew in wealth and prestige until it was considered one of the most important cities in the western hemisphere.

One hundred fifty years after its birth, however, at the very height of its power and magnificence, the life of the city ended as it had begun -- in blood-stained violence incited by the lust for gold.

A band of pirates under the English buccaneer captain, Henry Morgan, sacked and demolished the city in 1671.  During the looting and burning which followed its capture,the pirates inflicted upon the peaceful inhabitants the same brutally inhuman treatment which the conquistadores of Spain had visited upon the natives of the country a hundred fifty years before.

The burned city was never rebuilt but a new site was chosen seven miles away.  Upon it now stands the Panama City of today.

From:  Ravelings From A Panama Tapestry by Sue Core
Published by North River Press, Inc, New York, N.Y., 1933 and Reprinted June, 1942

October 3, 1999

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