The Isthmus of Panama has a very interesting history, -- so the Sophomores and Juniors in this history class have discovered -- dating back more than 400 years.
Columbus, on his fourth voyage in 1502, after many days of labor and toil with the contrary winds of the Caribbean, first sighted land at the present site of Cape Gracias a Dios, in Nicaragua. Continuing with his trip along the coasts of Costa Rica and Panama, on his way passing the famous lagoon of Chiriqui, he landed on what later became Porto Bello. Nowhere along the coast could he find the Cathay of his dreams, and on account of the wretching condition of his ships, it was imperative that he return to Spain.
He obtained some samples of gold, resulting in Governor Nicuesa of San Domingo being sent over with seven hundred colonists, of whom four hundred were lost. This landing resulted in the beginning of the town of Nombre de Dios, one of the earliest settled and most unhealthy spots on the Isthmus. The remaining colonists died of fever.
Other early discoverers and explorers were Bastida, Ojeda, Pizarro, Balboa and Enciso.
Bastida claimed to have visited the Isthmus in 1500 or 1501 even before Columbus.
Ojeda explored the northern coast of South America and established the colony of San Sebastain, but because of the restlessness of the neighboring Indians, delivered his charge over to Pizarro.
Ojeda later distinguished himself by establishing several colonies in Venezuela.
Balboa, as a young adventurer, accompanied Bastida in his alleged trip of 1500. A few years later, he sailed with Enciso bound for South America. Because of his superior knowledge of the coast hereabouts, Balboa directed the ships for San Sebastain, but on arriving, found the town burned and the inhabitants scattered by the Indians. Balboa and Enciso pushed along the coast and founded Santa Maria, the site of the oldest church on the Americas and the first Episcopal See. Soon after this, the fellow explorers quarreled and, Balboa, gaining the ascendancy, sent Enciso in chains back to the continent. Pizarro was dispatched to explore the interior. In 1513 Balboa crossed the Isthmus in quest of the South Sea (as the Pacific was called.)
Pedrarias, the Governor of Darian, founded Old Panama in 1519. The colonists of Santa Maria were transported to this place. A communication was established between Old Panama and Nombre De Dios by the building of a road.
Pizarro sailed the South Sea and conquered the Peruvian Indian. The gold he obtained from the Indians was sent to Old Panama, thence by the Royal Road to the Atlantic. About this time another Spanish settlement, Porto Bello, came into prominence, which soon became recognized as the terminus of the Royal Road instead of Nombre De Dios. In the meantime, Porto Bello had been growing in wealth and power. It was fortified by the Spanish as early as 1600, and at this date became the most important of all of Spain's possessions in America.
However, in 1668, its glory came to an end, as in turn did Fort San Lorenzo and Old Panama. These points were raided by Sir Henry Morgan, the famous English pirate. It was not for England's cause that he committed these outrageous deeds, but for the booty in it.
At this time Porto Bello boasted of a garrison of three hundred soldiers and four hundred families. The buccaneers attacked the town and although the Spaniards put up a brave fight, they could not withstand the raiders, and consequently the town was sacked. The panic stricken people threw their wealth into wells and even today trinkets of small value are often found. Many of the prisoners were put in one cell and the entire fort blown up with dynamite. Only a fragment remains today of the cathedral, churches, government buildings and most important of all, the forts.
On one side of the bay, which is large enough to anchor a fleet, three forts were erected; one at the top of the hill, another about half way down, and the third at the foot. On the other side of the bay where the town itself was situated, were several forts, all of which were backed by the hills.
But Porto Bello promises to regain her old splendor, in that she is to be fortified again; this time by the United States which will take advantage of one of the very best harbors of Central America.
Fort San Lorenzo, the Spanish name for St. Lawrence, was constructed on a mountain bluff commanding the entrance to the Chagres River. The opposite bank is a level stretch of Lowland. A steep palisade added greatly to the protection of the castle, it being impossible to climb. Today it is almost a crumbling mass. In his famous works, James Stanley Gilbert has said:
"Cloud crested Lorenzo guards
The Chagres' entrance still,
Tho' o'er each stone dense moss has grown.
And earth his moat doth fill.
His bastions feeble with decay,
Steadfastly view the sea,
And sternly wait the certain fate
The ages shall decree."
San Lorenzo as were the other Spanish forts, was surrounded as nearly as possible of moats. If the enemy tried to gain entrance to the castles, the only possible course was by climbing these moats, but they also had to deal with their opponents who would be at the top of the moat firing down upon the trespassers.
Morgan, having captured the Isle of St. Catherine and now there, sent four ships and a boat to storm the "Castle of the Chagres." As soon as the Spaniards recognized the buccaneers, they opened fire. The story is told that one of Morgan's men was wounded in the breast by an arrow. Plucking it, he wrapped the blood stained arrow in cotton and shot it. Kindled by the powder, in its course it took fire and struck a shack in the fort thereby exploding the greater part of the ammunition. While the Spaniards were busy in one part of the fort the pirates surmounted the walls in another. Only thirty of the defenders remained alive during the melee. In due time, Morgan himself arrived, and planned an attack on Old Panama.
The party started across to the Pacific in 1671. The men encountered many hardships, the inhabitants fleeing before them and taking all the edibles. The starving buccaneers were said to have eaten leather bags, and even cats and dogs, so great was their hunger. They were nine days on the journey, and at the end of that time climbed Ancon Hill and looked down on the sea. In descending they overtook a herd of cattle. The animals were killed and the men, weak from hunger, devoured the meat while it was only half roasted. Their appetites satisfied, they marched to the city, but needing rest, camped outside for the night.
Upon being discovered the citizens fired upon them, making it impossible to enter by this route. Nothing was left but to select another. The city had been fortified only on one side. The Governor and his men, together with a number of wild bulls, met the buccaneers. They saluted their host by firing a volley into their ranks. The fray lasted two hours. The animals were frightened and fled into the jungles, and the Panamanians, aware of the boldness of raiders, dropped their muskets and followed suit.
The pirates pressed upon the city and in three hours it was delivered over to them. Having secreted their wealth into hiding places, the people fled. What remained in the monasteries, churches and private dwellings was plundered. After securing everything to be had, the city was set afire. It was a beautiful city; but that mattered not, and it was burned to the ground.
Any of the old inhabitants who were captured were held for ransom, and if it failed to appear, they were tortured to death or sold as slaves in Jamaica. The reward Morgan received was great enough to pay him for his trouble. He divided it among his men and returned to Lorenzo. What remained of the forty was razed to the ground, and all that was untouched was that which took too much time to destroy.
Of the three points of interest, Old Panama seems to hold the greatest attraction. A highway has been constructed from the present city of Panama. The greatest part of the old city has been overgrown with dense vegetation, but the old tower, the bridges and cathedral still remain unharmed. The roof of the old cathedral has fallen, but the walls are still standing. This was the old place that withstood the fire, and was used as a hospital for the wounded pirates. It has been used since for service. The tower and bridge are near the beach, and sections of the city wall can be seen through the roots of twining vines. Morgan leaves great cause to be remembered.
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