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History Of Panama


Panama’s history doesn’t begin in 1501 with the arrival of the first European. The country has a rich pre-Columbian heritage going back over 11,000 years. Some of the first pottery-making villages in the Americas took root in Central Panama. This includes the Monagrillo culture (2500 – 1700 BC). These evolved into other groups, referred to by their pottery style, such as the La Mula, Tonosi and Cubita, each of whom settled in the Coclé province on the country’s southern coast.

Before the Europeans arrived, Panam was widely settled by Chibchan, Chocoan and Cueva peoples. Some experts estimate the total indigenous population prior to the conquest as being as high as 2,000,000 people. However, the vast majority of these were decimated by disease and warfare once the Spaniards arrived.

Rodrigo de Bastidas inadvertently discovered Panama in 1501 while sailing from Venezuela in search of gold. He was the first European to explore the Isthmus of Panama. A year later Christopher Columbus himself visited Bocas del Toro, Veragua, the Chagres River and Porto Belo. In 1509 Alonso de Ojeda and Diego de Nicuesa were given the go-ahead to colonize territories between the west-side of the Gulf of Uraba to Cabo Gracias a Dios in modern-day Honduras. The first settlement in Panama was La Guardia. Founded in 1510, the city was later renamed Santa Maria la Antigua del Darien and became part of a province governed by Vasco Nuñez de Balboa. Balboa, who waged war against the natives, was executed in 1519.

In 1521 the city of Panama received royal acknowledgement and became the first European trading post on the Pacific. For more than 300 years, Panama was part of the Spanish Empire. The country’s fortunes fluctuated with its geopolitical importance to the Spanish Crown. As Spain’s standing in the world declined, so too did Panama’s relationship with the former world power.

On November 28, 1821 Panama declared independence from Spain. The country became part of Gran Colombia along with Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru. The Panamanians sent a force of over 700 to join Simon Bolivar’s forces in Peru, where the war of liberation was still being waged.


After years of neglect by the declining world power, Spain, Panamanians declared their intention to seek independence from the European nation on November 10, 1821. 18 days later on the 28th of the month, Panama declared its independence from Spain. At this point, the Panamanians were unsure as to whether they should remain a part of the Republic of Colombia, as they had been under Spanish control, or join forces with Peru. Under the 1821 Constitution of Cúcuta, Panama became an official part of the Republic of Colombia, along with Venezuela and New Granada (modern-day Colombia) under the leadership of Simon Bolivar. In 1822 Ecuador would also become a part of this Republic, which came to be known as Gran Colombia. In 1826, Bolivar honored Panama by making it the site of a special congress featuring all the newly liberated Latin American countries.

However, not all was rosy with this new arrangement. In September of 1830, under the guidance of General Jose Domingo Espinar, upset because he was ordered to transfer to another command by the centralized government, Panama separated from the Republic of Colombia only to return shortly thereafter after Bólivar called for the country’s return to the republic. This was accomplished by early 1831.

In July of that year, General Alzuru became supreme military commander of the Isthmus of Panama and declared its independence from New Granada (Colombia). However, Alzuru’s administration lasted only one month. The general was assassinated and the country, this time under the leadership of Colonel Tomas Herrera, reestablished its ties with Bolivar’s liberated nations.

However, Herrera would separate from Colombia in 1840 after a civil war. The country, reunified with New Granada on December 31, 1841. A few years later - in 1846 - Colombia and the United States signed the Bidlack Mallarino Treaty which granted the US rights to build railroads through Panam. This also granted the USA the right to intervene militarily if Panama tried to secede again.

By 1855 the United States had completed the world’s first transcontinental railroad, the Panama Railway. During the years of 1850 to 1903, when the Bidlack Mallarino Treaty expired, the US government quelled a plethora of social disturbances in Panama including the Watermelon War of 1856. During the 1880s, the first attempts to build a sea-level canal were undertaken by the French. However, due to illness and engineering challenges, these were abandoned. In 1902, Theodore Roosevelt, then President of the United States, convinced Congress to take the project on. At this time Colombia was in the midst of the Thousand Days War.

During that conflict, Panamaians struggled to attain independence from Colombia, which had become Gran Colombia by this time. The US, which had originally supported Colombia’s claim to keep Panama part of Gran Colombia, switched sides and backed the Panamanians in their quest for independence. In November of 1903, the United States helped Panama take its first step to sovereignty. A few weeks later, the two countries signed the Hay-Bunau Varilla Treaty allowing for construction of a canal and U.S. sovereignty over a strip of land on either side of the Panama Canal Zone. The United States would build the canal, administer, fortify and defend it “in perpetuity.”


From 1903 to 1968 Panama was a republic. The power in the newly formed nation rested in the hands of a precious and wealthy few. During the 1950s the Panamanian military began to challenge the hegemony of this commercially-oriented oligarchy. On January 9, 1964 Martyrs’ Day riots, which protested the United States’ involvement with the Panama Canal, saw twenty rioters killed. 500 other Panamanians were wounded. In October 1968, Dr. Arnulfo Arias Madrid was elected president for the third time. He was ousted twice prior by the Panamanian military. The third time, the military established a junta under the commander of National Guard, Brigardier General Omar Torrijos. A charismatic leader despite running a corrupt and harsh regime, Torrijos enjoyed great support among rural and urban constituencies that had been long ignored by the oligarchy.

In 1977, Torrijos and US President Jimmy Carter signed a treaty which would transfer the Panama Canal and the US army bases in the country to Panamanian control in 1999. The US would retain a perpetual right to intervene militarily, however.

Torrijos died in a plane crash under mysterious circumstances in August of 1981. By 1983 General Manuel Noriega took control of the nation although he never held the title of president. Initially an ally of the United States – he was put on the CIA payroll in the late 60s – Noriega became implicated in various illegal activities including drug trafficking and selling U.S. secrets to Fidel Castro.

In 1989, Noriega was captured after the United States, under the leadership of President George W. Bush, invaded the country. In 1992 he was convicted under various federal charges in the United States and was sentenced to 40 years in prison. Currently, he is serving a reduced sentence of 30 years at the Federal Correctional Institution in Miami, Florida. A brutal dictator, Noriega also received a long-term jail sentence in absentia by the Panamanian courts.

With Noriega’s departure from the nation, Guillermo Endara became president of Panama. In May of 1994, Ernesto Perez Balladares took over the presidency. Under his leadership, Panama entered the World Trade Organization and privatized both the electric and telephone companies. In 1998, Mireya Moscoso, Arnulfo Arias’ widow, was elected to the highest office in Panama. She became the first woman to hold that position. During her administration, Moscoso oversaw the handover of control of the Panama Canal from the United States to Panama.

In 2004 Martin Torrijos, the son of former military dictator Omar Torrijos, became Panama’s president. He currently remains in office.

History of the Panama Canal

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