History grants Christopher Columbus (Cristobal Colon in Spanish/Portuguese) the title of having discovered America in 1492. However, Columbus was not the first to reach the lands of the Panamanian Isthmus. Christopher Columbus laid the foundations for the Spanish discovery in America, but this Spanish was not the first to arrive to the Isthmus. The feat of reaching the lands of Panama corresponds to the Sevillian Rodrigo De Galván de Bastidas.
The Spanish discovery of Panamanian lands
Columbus travels and the discovery of America, undoubtedly represented a fact of great value to the Spanish Crown during the 16th century. Although, despite the fact that Columbus began his exploration of the American territory with his travels, it was not he who discovered all the corners of these new lands.
This was mainly due to the fact that during his third trip, Columbus was arrested and the Catholic Monarchs of Spain took away the exclusivity of his companies. And it was because of this that an explorer named Rodrigo Galván de Bastidas requested the license to embark on the exploration which was granted to him.
In 1501, Bastidas was the first to surround the Isthmus of Panama, at the head of an expedition of Spanish conquerors. Rodrigo de Bastidas traveled the north of Colombia to the Gulf of Urabá and the coasts of Venezuela, and almost came to surround the site of the current Panama Canal. However, because his ships were affected by shipworms, which damaged the ships hulls, he was then forced to return to Spain.
After this, it was Columbus who officially arrived at the Atlantic coast in the provinces of Veraguas and Bocas del Toro (North/West of Panama) in 1502. And on November 2nd of that same year, Admiral Cristóbal Colón arrived at a bay which he named Puerto Bello (Beautiful Port) or Portobello (in portugués) since at the arrival of Columbus to this place he express how beautiful it was (currently this place is Colón Bay). On a intresting fact the name of the area (and province where the Colon Bay and Portobello) comes from the navigator Christopher Columbus, since this province of Colon was visited by Columbus during his fourth trip.
With this, the Spanish incursion into the Isthmus of Panama began.
History and geography of the Isthmus of Panama
The Isthmus of Panama is located as such between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, in the southeast of Central America. According to experts, the Isthmus is a geological accident that separated the Pacific Ocean from the Atlantic Ocean. In its more than 700 kilometers of extension that compose it, it includes the Republic of Panama and a small portion of the Department of Chocó, in Colombia. It is also rugged by the Talamanca mountain range which comes from Costa Rica, bounded on the south by the Gulf of Chiriquí and on the north by the Gulf of Mosquitoes.
Before the arrival of the Spanish in the territory of the eastern Isthmus, they were inhabited by various indigenous peoples such as the “Chibchenses”. And in addition to this tribe were the “Chucures”; those who came from Honduras, “those from Birú” and those from “Quarequa” or “Carec”.
Thanks to the expeditions initiated by Columbus and Rodrigo de Bastidas, many other explorers and conquerors were encouraged to set out in search of those places. And among these men eager for discovery was Vasco Núñez de Balboa.
Núñez de Balboa was born in Jerez de los Caballeros in 1475 and died in the current Old Panama City in 1519. In his youth, Balboa was attracted by the stories of Columbus’s travels, and for this reason he decided to embark on the expedition of Rodrigo de Bastidas ; in which one of the boats was wrecked.
However, this company reported good profits to Balboa with which it bought land on the island of Hispaniola. But when he began to fill himself with debt, he had no choice but to flee the site.
Later, he joined as a stowaway in the expedition led by Martín Fernández Enciso. Historical records tell that Balboa was discovered, and that only his knowledge of the territory saved him from being thrown overboard.
Subsequently, Núñez de Balboa dismissed and replaced Enciso and ended up becoming governor of Santa María de la Antigua del Darién, which is known as “The first American population (Town) on the mainland”. From then on, countless expeditions and power struggles would begin for Balboa, which would accompany him all his life. During the independency from Spain and joining the “Great Colombia” and later separation from Colombia, the territory where Santa Maria de la Antigua del Darien is located (that was part of Panama) became part of Colombia.
Exploration of the Isthmus of Panama
Balboa was intrigued by the stories that related lands full of gold and abundant wealth and new Seas, so he armed a new expedition of men to embark towards those seas.
According to chroniclers, while Balboa, along with his men, sailed through the waters of the Atlantic, they encountered “a sky that seemed to open in waterfalls of rain.” At that moment, Núñez de Balboa had finally reached the Isthmus of Panama; a territory full of indigenous people, wild beasts, mosquitoes and howler monkeys. The encounter with that territory moved Balboa. For this reason, Núñez de Balboa set out to cross and conquer the Isthmus of Panama, and to achieve this he decided to ally himself with Chief Careta, in a pact that was sealed in the year 1512.
With this pact, Spaniards and indigenous people entered the territories of other caciques, finally managing to enter the Chucunaque river ranges and venturing into the inextricable jungle of the current territory of Panama, saw the Pacific Ocean from the top of a Mountain. Vasco Núñez de Balboa, was the first European who, after crossing jungle of Panama, saw the Pacific Ocean. Such a feat, which was possible thanks to the instructions of the indigenous guides, occurred on September 25, 1513.
From then on, Núñez de Balboa would continue his adventure towards the South Sea. And during this time, although Balboa preferred to trade and make deals with the natives, he was involved in fights with the local chiefs who, when defeated, allied themselves with him. Most of Balboa’s exploration of the Isthmus of Panama occurred while it was sailing through the South Seas.
Some time later Pedro Arias Dávila, the governor of Castilla de Oro and founder of the Panama City (in Nov/1519), who was characterized by his innumerable cruelties against the natives and their Spanish rivals, arranged the marriage between María de Peñalosa (his daughter) and Núñez de Balboa. Avid for gold and pearls, Balboa undertook the construction of solid vessels that would allow him to travel the south coasts, but he was suddenly arrested and accused of conspiring against the king by Pedrarias himself, allegedly for trying to create an independent government in the South Sea.
Balboa was a victim of Pedrarias’ ambitious temperament. Gaspar de Espinosa, the mayor of Castilla de Oro, sentenced him to death and was taken to the gallows in Acla, and was beheaded in January 1519. However, with the conquest of Núñez de Balboa of the Isth mus of Panama, the gap was then opened for exploration and settlement by the Spanish in this territory; a place that would end up becoming one of the points of greatest territorial and political value for Spain, and later for other countri