Latinamerica Collection
History of Panama

Pre-Columbian Period

Panama, like many Latin American countries had a rich Pre-Columbian Period. Discovered artifacts have been dated back over 11,000 years while evidence shows that a more civilized culture existed around 2500-1700BCE. Such evidence includes some of the earliest pottery ever recovered in the area. Though pottery remained a significant cultural aspect of this civilization, it also became known for its impressive burial sites around the years 500-900CE. Prior to the arrival of the Spanish, the Panama region had been settled by many different peoples. Population estimates were once said to have reached two million though this number has recently been reduced to only 200,000 inhabitants.


Colonial Period
Marked by the Spanish arrival in 1501, Panama quickly became an important commercial route due to its tiny isthmus being all that separated the seas. It has been documented that during this period, gold and other commodities were brought from South America, hauled along the isthmus, and loaded onto Spanish ships. The trek quickly became known for the many deaths that resulted during each haul mostly due to disease.


Panama would remain part of the Spanish empire for 300 years until 1821 when the nationalism spawned by this colonial period began to take effect. During that period of 300 years, Panama proved to be the spot of most strategic and economic importance to Spain as the majority of all gold entering Spain had been first transported across the isthmus of Panama. However, the mid to late 1700s marked a change in the importance of Panama to the Spanish. As Spain's power in Europe began to recede, advances in transport also allowed for the transport of goods around Cape Horn, South America. This route also became the preferred manner because of the isthmus' vulnerability to pirates and escaped slaves during transport.


Due to the arrival of the printing press in 1820, many stories were spread through the population about freedom, liberty, and the effects of the French Revolution in hopes of sparking the country's inhabitants to fight for their own independence. This sparked a great deal of tension between the two most significant populations, one in Azuero fighting for their freedom and another in Veraguas loyal to the Spanish crown.


Finally in November of 1821, a decision was made by the inhabitants of Azuero to declare their independence from the crown. This was seen as treason by those of Veraguas and was not met with much excitement from Panama City as their plans to follow through with a claim of independence were not yet solidified. The heaviest fear of the Azueros was the retaliation by the Spanish crown's Colonel José de Fábriga, a staunch loyalist. However, the influence on those in the capital city fighting for Independence was overlooked and turned out to be much heavier than anticipated. This group effectively turned Fábriga into an independence supporter and successfully gained support from the significant groups within the town. He convened a meeting and officially declared Panama independent and a part of the Republic of Colombia.


By 1831, Panama felt that the chain of events occurring as part of the Republic of Columbia was not aligned with what was originally anticipated. After a number of attempts at finding a better option Panama and Columbia alone joined together, leaving the other countries and formed the Republic of New Granada. This alliance lasted for 70 years.


United States Intervention
In the 1840s, the United Sates grew interested in creating railroads and canals through Central America that would one day prove economically prosperous. In 1846, New Granada signed the Bidlack Mallarino Treaty which not only granted the U.S. rights to build railroads across the isthmus but also the use of American military to intervene against revolts in the area. Through the years, the troops were used to curb separatist uprisings which led to resentment against the American troops. These uprisings caused a great deal of instability in the nation and led to a new Republic of Columbia in 1886.


After the French failure to construct a canal through Panama, the U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt convinced congress to take on the challenge. The U.S. presented their plans of a U.S. controlled canal though Bogotá did not like the idea especially considering the controversy created by the American military presence. Instead of changing his terms, Roosevelt decided to support the Panamanian separatist movement and pushed for Panama's independence. In 1903, Panama celebrated its separation from Columbia, though it was not considered a form of independence as Panamanians never considered themselves Colombians to begin with. A treaty was signed giving the U.S. sovereign rights to a portion of land 10 miles by 50 miles, and the U.S. would then go on to build a canal and fortify it against any attacks. The canal was completed in 1914.


Through the 1900s, unrest continued regarding the presence of U.S. troops in Panama which led to riots and Panamanian deaths. Finally, in 1977 a treaty was signed that would lead to the transfer of power of the canal and the surrounding military bases into Panamanian control by the year 1999. This occurred during a period of the regime rule of Omar Torrijos, which lasted until 1981 when he was killed in a mysterious plane crash.


At this point a new regime was in full control, led my Manuel Noriega until 1989 when a public election led to the placement of Guillermo Endara. The election was claimed by Noriega to have been controlled by the United States' intervention. For that reason, Noriega refused to give up power which led to the deployment of thousands of U.S. troops to the region. After the death of an American marine who was involved in affairs outside of U.S. jurisdiction, a full U.S. invasion was commenced. This led to the placement of Endara and the imprisonment of Noriega, who is currently serving a drug trafficking sentence. The canal and surrounding military bases were turned over to Panamanian control on December 31, 1999 as originally promised. Since the 1989 conflict, Panama has experienced free elections and a constitutional democracy.