Estimates vary greatly of the number of Indians who inhabited the isthmus when the Spanish explorers arrived. By some accounts, the population was considerably greater than that of contemporary Panama. Some Panamanian historians have suggested that there might have been a population of 500,000 Indians from some sixty "tribes," but other researchers have concluded that the Cuna alone numbered some 750,000.
Besides the Cuna, which constituted by far the largest group in the area, two other major groups, the Guaymí and the Chocó, have been identified by ethnologists. The Guaymí, of the highlands near the Costa Rican border, are believed to be related to Indians of the Nahuatlan and Mayan nations of Mexico and Central America. The Chocó on the Pacific side of Darién Province appear to be related to the Chibcha of Colombia.
Although the Cuna, now found mostly in the Comarca de San Blas, an indigenous territory or reserve considered part of Colón Province for some official purposes, have been categorized as belonging to the Caribbean culture, their origin continues to be a subject of speculation. Various ethnologists have indicated the possibility of a linguistic connection between the name Cuna and certain Arawak and Carib tribal names. The possibility of cultural links with the Andean Indians has been postulated, and some scholars have noted linguistic and other affinities with the Chibcha. The implication in terms of settlement patterns is that the great valleys of Colombia, which trend toward the isthmus, determined migration in that direction.
Lines of affiliation have also been traced to the Cueva and Coiba tribes, although some anthropologists suggest that the Cuna might belong to a largely extinct linguistic group. Some Cuna believe themselves to be of Carib stock, while others trace their origin to creation by the god Olokkuppilele at Mount Tacarcuna, west of the mouth of the Río Atrato in Colombia.
Among all three Indian groups--the Cuna, Guaymí, and Chocó-- land was communally owned and farmed. In addition to hunting and fishing, the Indians raised corn, cotton, cacao, various root crops and other vegetables, and fruits. They lived then--as many still do--in circular thatched huts and slept in hammocks. Villages specialized in producing certain goods, and traders moved among them along the rivers and coastal waters in dugout canoes. The Indians were skillful potters, stonecutters, goldsmiths, and silversmiths. The ornaments they wore, including breastplates and earrings of beaten gold, reinforced the Spanish myth of El Dorado, the city of gold.
Rodrigo de Bastidas, a wealthy notary public from Seville, was the first of many Spanish explorers to reach the isthmus. Sailing westward from Venezuela in 1501 in search of gold, he explored some 150 kilometers of the coastal area before heading for the West Indies. A year later, Christopher Columbus, on his fourth voyage to the New World, touched several points on the isthmus. One was a horseshoe-shaped harbor that he named Puerto Bello (beautiful port), later renamed Portobelo.
Vasco Núñez de Balboa, a member of Bastidas's crew, had settled in Hispaniola (present-day Dominican Republic and Haiti) but stowed away on a voyage to Panama in 1510 to escape his creditors. At that time, about 800 Spaniards lived on the isthmus, but soon the many jungle perils, doubtless including malaria and yellow fever, had killed all but 60 of them. Finally, the settlers at Antigua del Darién (Antigua), the first city to be duly constituted by the Spanish crown, deposed the crown's representative and elected Balboa and Martin Zamudio co-mayors.
Balboa proved to be a good administrator. He insisted that the settlers plant crops rather than depend solely on supply ships, and Antigua became a prosperous community. Like other conquistadors, Balboa led raids on Indian settlements, but unlike most, he proceeded to befriend the conquered tribes. He took the daughter of a chief as his lifelong mistress.
On September 1, 1513, Balboa set out with 190 Spaniards--among them Francisco Pizarro, who later conquered the Inca Empire in Peru--a pack of dogs, and 1,000 Indian slaves. After twenty-five days of hacking their way through the jungle, the party gazed on the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean. Balboa, clad in full armor, waded into the water and claimed the sea and all the shores on which it washed for his God and his king.
Balboa returned to Antigua in January 1514 with all 190 soldiers and with cotton cloth, pearls, and 40,000 pesos in gold. Meanwhile, Balboa's enemies had denounced him in the Spanish court, and King Ferdinand appointed a new governor for the colony, then known as Castilla del Oro. The new governor, Pedro Arias de Avila, who became known as "Pedrarias the Cruel," charged Balboa with treason. In 1517 Balboa was arrested, brought to the court of Pedrarias, and executed.
In 1519 Pedrarias moved his capital away from the debilitating climate and unfriendly Indians of the Darién to a fishing village on the Pacific coast (about four kilometers east of the present-day capital). The Indians called the village Panama, meaning "plenty of fish." In the same year, Nombre de Dios, a deserted early settlement , was resettled and until the end of the sixteenth century served as the Caribbean port for trans-isthmian traffic. A trail known as the Camino Real, or royal road, linked Panama and Nombre de Dios. Along this trail, traces of which can still be followed, gold from Peru was carried by muleback to Spanish galleons waiting on the Atlantic coast.
The increasing importance of the isthmus for transporting treasure and the delay and difficulties posed by the Camino Real inspired surveys ordered by the Spanish crown in the 1520s and 1530s to ascertain the feasibility of constructing a canal. The idea was finally abandoned in mid-century by King Philip II (1556- 98), who concluded that if God had wanted a canal there, He would have built one.
Pedrarias's governorship proved to be disastrous. Hundreds of Spaniards died of disease and starvation in their brocaded silk clothing; thousands of Indians were robbed, enslaved, and massacred. Thousands more of the Indians succumbed to European diseases to which they had no natural immunity. After the atrocities of Pedrarias, most of the Indians fled to remote areas to avoid the Spaniards.
The regulations for colonial administration set forth by the Spanish king's Council of the Indies decreed that the Indians were to be protected and converted to Christianity. The colonies, however, were far from the seat of ultimate responsibility, and few administrators were guided by the humane spirit of those regulations. The Roman Catholic Church, and particularly the Franciscan order, showed some concern for the welfare of the Indians, but on the whole, church efforts were inadequate to the situation.
The Indians, nevertheless, found one effective benefactor among their Spanish oppressors. Bartolomé de las Casas, the first priest ordained in the West Indies, was outraged by the persecution of the Indians. He freed his own slaves, returned to Spain, and persuaded the council to adopt stronger measures against enslaving the Indians. He made one suggestion that he later regretted--that Africans, whom the Spaniards considered less than human, be imported to replace the Indians as slaves.
In 1517 King Charles V (1516-56) granted a concession for exporting 4,000 African slaves to the Antilles. Thus the slave trade began and flourished for more than 200 years. Panama was a major distribution point for slaves headed elsewhere on the mainland. The supply of Indian labor had been depleted by the midsixteenth century, however, and Panama began to absorb many of the slaves. A large number of slaves on the isthmus escaped into the jungle. They became known as cimarrones (sing., cimarrón), meaning wild or unruly, because they attacked travelers along the Camino Real. An official census of Panama City in 1610 listed 548 citizens, 303 women, 156 children, 146 mulattoes, 148 Antillean blacks, and 3,500 African slaves.
SOURCE: Area Handbook of the US Library of Congress