A BRIEF HISTORY OF PANAMA

By Tim Lambert

Early Panama

The first human beings lived in Panama about 11,000 BC. By 2,500 BC they had learned to make pottery and later people from the region traded with others as far north as Mexico and as far south as Peru.

The first European to land in Panama was a Spaniard named Rodrigo Galvan de Bastidas in 1501. The first Spanish settlement in Panama was made in 1510. Then on 26 September 1513 Vasco Nunez de Balboa became the first European to see the Pacific Ocean (which he called the South Sea and which he claimed for Spain). Then in 1519 Pedro Arias de Avila founded Panama City. Meanwhile the indigenous people were decimated by European diseases, to which they had no resistance. The survivors were enslaved. The Spanish introduced a kind of feudal system in which the indigenous people were forced to work on estates.

When Pizzaro conquered the Incas in 1533 Panama became a transit point for gold on its way from Peru to Spain. The precious metal was taken overland by mule from the Pacific Coast to the Atlantic coast.

However the great riches in the area attracted the attention of the English. In 1572 Francis Drake raided Nombre de Dios. In 1671 a Welshman named Henry Morgan burned Panama City. It was rebuilt in a new location several kilometers away in 1673. Finally in 1746 the treasure route was changed. From then on it was taken by sea around the Cape Horn.

19th Century Panama

Panama became independent from Spain on 28 November 1821. At first Panama was part of a super state called Gran Colombia, which consisted of Panama, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Venezuela. However Gran Colombia soon broke up but Panama remained joined to Colombia.

In 1846 the USA negotiated a treaty to build railways across Panama. A new railway across the Isthmus was completed in 1855. The French made the first attempt to dig a canal across Panama. Work on the scheme began in 1881 but the company went bankrupt in 1889.

In 1899-1902 a civil war was fought in Colombia (which included Panama). It was called The War of the Thousand Days.

20th Century Panama

On 3 November 1903 Panama became independent from Colombia, encouraged by the USA. President Theodore Roosevelt was keen to dig a canal across Panama. The USA signed a treaty with Panama giving them sovereign rights over the canal zone. Work began on the canal in 1904. A huge force of migrant workers from many different countries were brought to Panama to work on the canal and many of them died of diseases like yellow fever. Workers included West Indians, Indians and Chinese people. Nevertheless on 7 January 1914 the first ship sailed through the Panama canal. The Panama canal was officially opened by President Woodrow Wilson on 12 July 1920.

Afterwards Panama was an oligarchy, ruled by a number of rich families.

A new treaty between the USA and Panama was signed in 1936 but resentment about US rights over the canal zone grew. Finally on 9 January 1964 students rioted in Panama. Twenty people were killed in the riots. (9 January is now martyrs day in Panama.)

Then in 1968 an army coup overthrew the elected president, Arnulfo Arias. Afterwards General Omar Torrijos became leader of Panama. In 1977 he succeeded in persuading US President Carter to sign a treaty which would give Panama complete control of the canal by 31 December 1999.

Torrijos was killed in a plane crash in 1981. In 1983 he was replaced by Manuel Noriega. Noriega introduced a repressive regime. However relations with the USA deteriorated. In 1987 the USA began economic sanctions. Then in 1988 Noriega was indited on drugs charges in the USA. In 1989 presidential elections were held in Panama and they were won by Guillermo Endara. However Noriega simply annulled the results of the election. Finally on 20 December 1989 the USA invaded Panama. They bombed Panama City. However on 25 December 1989 Noriega took refuge in the Vatican embassy. He was captured in January 1990.

Meanwhile Guillermo Endara, the winner of the 1989 election was made president of Panama. In 1994 he was replaced by Ernesto Perez Balladares. Then in 1999 Mireya Moscoso became the first female president of Panama. Also in 1999 the Panama canal was handed over to Panama.

21st Century Panama

In 2004 Martin Torrijos in 2004 became president. Then in 2009 Ricardo Martinelli became president of Panama. Between 2007 and 2016 a new project enlarged the Panama Canal.

Today Panama is a rapidly developing country and there is reason to be optimistic about its future. Today the population of Panama is 3.7 million. The population of Panama City is 1.6 million.

A brief history of Nicaragua

A brief history of Guatemala

A brief history of Mexico

A brief history of Costa Rica

A brief history of Honduras

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Last revised 2017