From the beginning, four and a half centuries ago, the quest was for a crossroads site. The immense Pacific ocean, or South Sea, as it was then called, had just been discovered and man already sensed that here, on this neck of land, lay the passage between the oceans.
It was July 1514. A fleet of 20 ships, flying the Spanish banner, had arrived off Santa Maria la Antigua del Darien - the first mainland settlement in the Americas, founded only 4 years earlier. In command of the expedition was the dashing Colonel Don Pedro Arias Davila (to be known in history as Pedrarias), by royal appointment Governor and Captain General of Castilla del Oro, the gold-rich land along the Atlantic coast of Panama that Columbus had explored during his fourth voyage to the new World in his epic search for the route to the Indies.
Already the conquistadores had planned their next step - an overland trail between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Armed parties had set out south and west from Santa Maria la Antigua to build settlements along the proposed trail. One of the parties had built one such settlement on the San Blas coast and another farther inland from the Caribbean shore. Now it was preparing to push toward the Pacific coast to carry out its orders to build a third settlement there.
But the Indians rose in vengeful rebellion, laying siege to
the Spaniards at the inland settlement. Pedrarias, a resolute man, dispatched a punitive
expedition to rescue his men. The force, under Captain Antonio Tello de Guzman, beat back
the besiegers and then set out to complete the trek southward across the Isthmus. At last,
the Pacific coast was reached - at a miserable fisherman's hamlet the Indians called
Pedrarias himself wrote to the Spanish Court in 1516: "Your Highnesses should know that Panama is a fishery on the coast of the South Sea and the fishermen are called panama by the Indians." By July 1519, Pedrarias was undisputed ruler of Castilla del Oro. At his orders, Vasco Nunez de Balboa, the "Discoverer of the South Sea" and his rival for power, had been beheaded, and now the new ocean was Pedrarias' to explore.
But to carry out his plans, Pedrarias needed a coastal city with a suitable harbor that would serve as a crossroads base for the lands he hoped to discover to the south. He undertook the exploration of the Pacific coastline of the Isthmus by sea and by land. Pedrarias himself set out by ship and after taking possession of the Pearl Islands anchored off Taboga. Anxious for news of the land force of 300 men commanded by his lieutenant, Gaspar de Espinosa, he dispatched a search party to the mainland that soon brought back the news that the men were at the fishing hamlet of Panama.
Pedrarias hurried to the mainland to take council with his captains. Among them were Francisco Pizarro and Diego de Almagro, who were to conquer Peru, and Hernando de Soto, who was to land in Florida 20 years later. The decision: to establish a city at the site of the Indian hamlet of Panama.
Presented by CZBrats
December 24, 1998