Stories of South America - E. C. Brooks

Panama, the Gateway of the World

Within a few years of Columbus's discovery of America, Spanish adventurers were coming to the New World by thousands to seek fortune. One of the most notable of these was Vasco Nunez de Balboa. As was stated in the previous chapter, he arrived at Santo Domingo in 1501 and obtained land in the neighborhood, on which he tried to cultivate sugar cane with little success, and it became necessary for him to leave the island secretly in order to avoid imprisonment for debt.

Learning that two vessels would sail for San Sebastian for the purpose of carrying provisions to that newly-founded settlement, Balboa hid in a box of provisions and had the box carried from his farm to the ship. When he was discovered at sea, the captain of the vessel thought of sending him back to Santo Domingo, but Balboa begged to be allowed to go on with the party, and his request was granted. On reaching San Sebastian, the voyagers found the settlement in ruins. They then decided to sail for the Isthmus of Darien. This was in 1510.

Little was known at that time of the narrow strip of land connecting North and South America. Many Spaniards had touched the coast there at several points, but no one had gone inland. Balboa himself was as familiar with this section as any other Spaniard, since he had visited the isthmus on an exploring expedition a few years earlier. After the party landed a new colony was set up; but quarrels broke out; the captain was deposed, thrown into prison and finally sent back to Spain, and Balboa came to rule in his stead.

Being now in control of the colony, Balboa began to extend his power over the surrounding country. By his bravery, courtesy, kindness of heart, and just dealing with the Indians, he gained the friendship of several of their chiefs. From them he heard for the first time of the great ocean on the other side of the mountains and of the marvelous stores of gold in Peru. Peru, however, could be reached only by sailing down the western coast of South America, which had not then been visited by any Spaniard. While these stories were taking hold of Balboa, an order came for him to return to Spain and answer for the part he had played in the rebellion that had resulted in his becoming the head of the Spanish colony on the Isthmus of Panama. In his despair over this command, Balboa resolved to attempt some great enterprise, the success of which, he trusted, would win the sovereign's pardon.

On September 1, 1513, he set out with one hundred and ninety Spaniards and several hundred natives to discover the great ocean of which he had heard. After finding that, he planned to lead an expedition down into Peru. The natives had told him tales of cities, with palaces ornamented with gold, where food was served on golden plates.

On the isthmus Balboa had married the daughter of an Indian chief. Through her he learned of the nearest way across the mountains. He followed this Indian route. The party pushed its way with great effort across streams, through dangerous jungles, and over steep mountain ridges. The isthmus is only about thirty-five miles wide at its narrowest point, but it is such a mass of twisted mountain ranges that crossing it proved to be a most difficult feat. This narrow chain of high mountains seems to be meant to weld the two continents together. After a terrible journey, on September 25, Balboa, standing on the summit of a mountain, saw the measureless stretch of a great ocean; and four days later, on September 29, he arrived on the shore. Rushing down into the water and waving the flag of his country over his head, he claimed the "Great South Sea," as he called it, and all the land touched by it, in the name of his sovereign, the king of Spain. Later (1519), Magellan in his wonderful voyage around the world named the ocean "Pacific" because of its calm surface. The name Pacific has largely taken the place of the first name of South Sea.

Balboa and his men remained on the Pacific coast for several days. There he heard again of the wonderful country of Peru to the south, and he was filled with a desire to build and equip some vessels to conquer it. The Indians on the Pacific coast had many ornaments of gold, from which fact it seemed likely to the Spaniards that they were on the eve of finding vast treasures.

Many years before, the Spaniards came to the New World, the territory on the Pacific coast of the isthmus had been peopled by a race of Indians that mined much gold and silver. In their tombs were to be found golden images, golden ornaments, golden bells, and other articles of great value. Consequently, the Spaniards readily believed the stories told them of a superior race of Indians to the south, whose rulers lived in golden-covered palaces, bathed in basins lined with gold, and were served on vessels of solid gold.

Balboa collected many gold ornaments, which he carried back to his colony on the eastern coast of the Isthmus of Darien. Some of these he sent to his king, together with the news of his great discovery. The king was so well pleased that he forgave Balboa for his past offenses and named him admiral of the South Sea and governor of the colony. Being thus granted legal authority, Balboa planned to build vessels on the Pacific coast and head an expedition into Peru.

When the story of the great discovery was heard in Spain, the Spaniards began to lose interest in Haiti. They desired to explore the country from which the gold had come and visit the region washed by the South Sea. The number of colonies on the isthmus increased rapidly. The leaders grew hostile to each other, and more than once armed conflicts occurred. While Balboa was planning his expedition to Peru, Pedrarias Davila with a considerable force landed on the isthmus. Balboa and Pedrarias soon became jealous of each other. Balboa was finally arrested by Pedrarias on the charge of treason and thrown into prison. Pedrarias, now having his rival in his power, put him on trial for treason and forced the judge to condemn him to death. Balboa was publicly executed in 1517.

His great discovery, however, had opened the way for the flow of wealth to Spain. Spaniards continued to arrive on the isthmus in increasing slumbers and soon they had a well-made road across the mountains. Within two years of Balboa's death (1519) , a town was built on the Pacific coast by Pedrarias, which was called Panama, or "The Place of Fish," because of the abundance of fish found in the little bay on which the settlement was situated. This was the first city founded by Europeans on the American continent. The country around the town of Panama was fertile, and, as the number of settlers increased, great cattle farms and sugar plantations developed. Soon Panama became the most prosperous Spanish colony in the New World. Being on the Pacific coast, it was untroubled by the pirates, who swarmed in the Caribbean, and the people could live without fear of foreign invasion.

In the centuries that have passed since the founding of Panama, this city has had many changes of fortune and has been in turn rich and powerful, poor and small, and again prominent. During the sixteenth century it was, with one exception to be mentioned in a later chapter, the strongest Spanish fortress and most important city in the New World. The harbor of Panama was filled with vessels built to ply along the coast, and through the streets of Panama flowed enough wealth on its way to Spain to support a vast empire. Here came great galleons, laden with gold and silver, from the countries to the south. Much of the gold and silver remained in Panama to enrich the inhabitants and adorn the city with costly palaces and cathedrals. As the city grew, it was laid off in truly Spanish style, having a wide plaza or open court around which were grouped the government buildings and palaces and cathedrals.

The Spaniards lived in the city, but they enslaved the Indians and imported negro slaves to work on the sugar plantations and cattle ranches or dig in the mines. They were cruel masters, desiring the service of laborers at the least possible expense. Therefore, few nations have made a worse reputation for cruelty than is theirs.

The difficulty of carrying gold and silver across the isthmus to the vessels on the eastern coast was another cause contributing to the prosperity of Panama. It will be recalled that Balboa and his men were nearly a month making the first journey to the Pacific. Even the earliest settlers in Panama saw the necessity of digging a canal across the isthmus. The difficulty of doing this, however, was too great at that time, though a road was built over mountain passes, across streams, and through dangerous swamps and jungles filled with all sorts of reptiles, wild beasts, and insects. Travel between Panama and Europe went that way, except in those rare instances when an adventurer made the journey around Cape Horn. Moreover, all supplies coming from Spain were unloaded on the eastern shore and carried over on horse or mule-back to the Pacific coast. Immense quantities of goods were thus transported across the isthmus for a long period of time. When the Pilgrims landed in Massachusetts and established the first colony on that rock-bound coast, Panama was a hundred years old and had the appearance of a city situated on one of the famous highways of the world. Lines of caravans, made up of horses, mules or oxen, were constantly coming and going over a road worn deep by the unceasing traffic of a century.

In the earlier days this great commerce tempted numbers of pirates to lurk along the northern coast of South America, lying in wait for the galleons freighted with gold and silver and other products going to Spain. Many schemes were formed to capture Panama, but the city seemed to be too secure to be taken. If a prize is large enough, however, someone will usually be found bold and daring enough to make any venture. Panama, however, was one hundred and fifty years old before it was even seriously threatened by the buccaneers who had made such daring raids on the Atlantic and Caribbean coasts of South America.

In 1670, Henry Morgan, a Welshman, and the boldest buccaneer on the high seas, set to work to capture the city. An irregular war had been going on for some time between the English at Jamaica and the Spaniards, and Morgan held a sort of commission from the governor of Jamaica. Morgan sailed for the isthmus and ran his vessels up the Chagres River as far as possible: then with two thousand men, he began his journey across the isthmus. He had to avoid the old trade route in order to take the city by surprise. It was a risky march.

The men were lost in the tangled woods and floundered around in swamps until they nearly starved to death. They carried few supplies, expecting to take food from the natives and from the Spanish plantations. It was easy for pirates to fight and capture ships, but impossible for them to escape the miseries caused by hunger, poisonous insects, and dangerous swamps. As a result, many of them died in the woods. But the old buccaneer, Morgan, knew that great booty lay just ahead and he urged his followers forward.

Traders passing across the isthmus saw the vessels and heard of the large number of men that had disappeared in the wilderness. The inhabitants of Panama were warned. But the city had been secure for so many generations that little fear was felt at first. Then word came that the buccaneers were approaching. At this news the people were at length aroused. The entire male population was called out to defend the city. There was excitement and confusion little order. The officials called out the Indian and negro slaves and secured all the cattle that could be driven in. The slaves were formed into companies and threatened with death if they did not remain in front. About a thousand cattle, on which slaves were mounted, went ahead. Behind them the Spaniards were lined up to rush on the pirates after the slaves, riding on the cattle, had charged them and thrown them into confusion.

The Spaniards expected the cattle to stampede the pirates. They did not care what happened to the slaves. But the pirates proved to be too quick for them. They made a sudden assault on the column of cattle cavalry and frightened the slaves out of their wits. The shouts of the buccaneers, the deafening noise from their guns and their charge terrified the cattle, which, turning around in a panic, broke into the Spanish lines, creating confusion and consternation. The pirates charged behind the bellowing animals and gave no quarter, slaughtering all in their path.

The Spanish soldiers fled in every direction and were slain by hundreds. The inhabitants of Panama were terror-stricken. Some hurried into the swamps, others took to the vessels lying at anchor at the wharves. Women and children ran about the streets, helpless and deserted. Valuables were thrown into wells, carried out into the swamps, or placed on vessels and sent to sea. The pirates pursued the inhabitants and even made some who had sailed out to sea return. These fugitives were put to death.

The city was looted. The invaders spent several days in robbing and pillaging and drinking and gambling. When they had gathered everything that was worth carrying away, they collected the horses and mules. Two hundred of them were loaded with rich spoils. The pirates then set fire to the city, which was completely destroyed. Returning to their vessels on the east coast, they divided the plunder. Morgan gained such wealth as a result of this adventure that he gave up his buccaneer life and went to England, where he was knighted by the king. He returned to Jamaica as lieutenant-governor.

So thoroughly was Panama destroyed that today only a broken tower and a few arches and columns mark the site of the old city. Vines and shrubs and even trees grow over the ruins, so that travelers have to be shown where stood the ancient Panama.

A new Panama, which likewise has its romance, was built near the site of the original town. However, Spain was growing weak, and trade across the isthmus had begun to decline even before the old city fell. Thus, the new town did not grow as quickly as had the former. England and France and the Dutch Republic had now become the great commercial countries. Yet even these nations felt the need of making a canal across the isthmus so that they might more easily reach the western coasts of the two continents.

It was not until after the English colonists in North America had gained their independence, and the revolt of the Spanish colonies in the early nineteenth century, that the present city of Panama became prominent as a trade center. This time the gold of California gave life to the trade route across the isthmus. When gold was discovered in California, the people along the Atlantic coast of the United States went westward by thousands. That was in the days before the West was connected with the East by railroads, and overland travel from the Atlantic to the Pacific was most difficult. The easiest way was by sea to Panama, and thence by the Pacific up the coast to San Francisco. The old route followed by the Spaniards three centuries before became alive with gold-seekers, who went in ships to Colon, crossed the isthmus on mule-back to Panama, and continued the journey by sea to California.

In this way much of the gold of California flowed through the streets of Panama and helped to re-build the city. The inhabitants drove a prosperous trade with California gold-seekers. It is said that they charged twenty-five cents apiece for eggs, and the ground rent for the space on which to swing a hammock for sleeping was two dollars a night. In Panama the gold-seekers had to buy provisions enough to last until they reached the coast of California. Many for the first time beheld in the markets of the city monkey meat and other tropical or semi-tropical food, which they learned to eat.

In 1855 a railroad across the isthmus was completed. This was the first railroad to connect the Atlantic and the Pacific, and it at once became the most profitable railroad in the world for its capital. No wonder! The rate was fifty cents a mile; the trip across cost twenty-five dollars. Panama was for a time the liveliest town on the Pacific coast, but when the Union Pacific Railroad crossing the United States was finished it lost much of its importance. This was regained when the United States decided to make the dream of the Spaniards, Portuguese, French, and English come true by digging a canal across the isthmus. All nations had seen the great value of such a canal, and France attempted it but failed. Finally in 1902 the United States prepared to undertake the tremendous task.

The great question was what was the best route for an Atlantic-Pacific canal across Panama or Nicaragua. The matter was decided by a revolution. The state of Panama, which had been a part of the United States of Colombia since the independence of the South American colonies, desired the canal to come to Panama. Being unable to secure the consent of Colombia, the people of Panama revolted, set up an independent government, and sold the United States a strip of land ten miles wide across the isthmus. This is known as the canal zone, for which the United States agreed to pay $10,000,000, with an annual rental of $250,000 for the canal privilege.

When the United States decided to build the canal, few places in the world were more unhealthy than Panama. Consequently, it was necessary to drive yellow fever from the isthmus so that laborers might be able to work in safety. This task was given General William C. Gorgas of the United States army. It was a great task to put on any man, but he succeeded so thoroughly that the result of his work has had a vast importance for all the world and especially for South America. He first planned to kill the mosquito, since scientists had already shown that mosquitoes convey yellow fever and malaria. Three million barrels of oil were poured into the swamps and streams, and not only the mosquitoes but also their breeding-places were destroyed.

Panama canal


But this was not all that he did. It is said that the engineers under his command "cut down each year five square miles of brush, drained one-third of a square mile of swamp, cut ten square miles of grass, maintained 530 miles of ditches, emptied 1,300,000 cans of garbage and fumigated 11,000,000 cubic feet of residential space, all to stamp out the mosquito" and destroy the breeding-places. It was the greatest fight against a disease pest ever waged in history, and as a result Panama has become a healthy city.

The task of building the canal went to General George W. Goethals. He was placed in charge of the work in 1907 and, by August 15, 1914, the canal was practically completed at a total cost of about $700,000,000. On this date the first vessel carrying passengers passed through the great waterway. At the Caribbean end is the city of Colon (the Spanish name for Columbus) and at the Pacific end is Panama, the capital of the republic. Both cities, though partly in the canal zone, belong to the republic of Panama. The canal is 43.84 miles long. Beginning on the Caribbean side, it follows the Chagres River until the latter stream reaches the mountains. By a series of locks, vessels are raised eighty-five feet to Gatun Lake. Thence for thirty-two miles, they move under their own power until they arrive at a point where a lake of one hundred and sixty-four square miles has been formed. Thence, by another series of locks, the boats are lowered to sea-level again.

Panama, therefore, is at the threshold of a new life that will give fresh chapters to its history. Great merchant vessels go by daily, carrying the trade from the east to the west. The most powerful war vessels, immense floating arsenals, thunder with their guns in formal salute as they sail by on their errands of defense. The flags of all nations pass in review before the city. Such is the contrast between the modern water-way and the mule-road over the mountains in the days when, the old city was famous.

How did the wealth of Peru find its way to Panama and why did the center of Spanish control pass from Panama to Peru? This development was made possible by the courage of another Spaniard, Francisco Pizarro, who carried out the plans of Balboa by first discovering and then conquering the land of Peru. His story will be told in the next chapter.