There was a time, millions of years ago, when there was a gap where Panama is today that joined the waters of the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.
The isthmus of Panama, the land bridge between North and South America, formed roughly 3 million years ago. However, it has only been inhabited by humans for about 10,000 years and it’s estimated that a few dozen indigenous groups, namely the Guna, Ngöbe-Buglé, Emberá, Wounaan and the Naso already lived here much before the arrival of the first colonizers.
Although not much is known about pre-Columbian Panama, some discoveries have shown that the existing groups were part of a large trading zone that roughly covered from Peru all the way up to Mexico and impressive gold ornaments and other artifacts have been uncovered in the area.
First spotted by the Spaniards in 1501, the colonization of Panama began on the Caribbean coast. In 1513, conquistador Vasco Núñez de Balboa trekked across the Isthmus and reached the Pacific Ocean, claiming it for his king. Spaniards began to settle colonies in the south of the country and Panama became a starting point for expeditions to South America and the cornerstone of Spain’s colonial trade. Nowadays it is still a very important axis for world trade thanks to its geographic position, its airport connectivity and the Panama Canal, which has been operating for over 100 years and has recently undergone an expansion.
Panama City, the country’s capital, is considered the most cosmopolitan city in Central America. A city of contrasts between a shimmering skyline and the colonial architecture of its old quarter, Casco Antiguo, growing day by day with a vibrant community of great cultural diversity that makes this country a true melting pot.
The coast of Panama was first spotted by Spanish adventurer Rodrigo Bastidas in 1501. One year later Christopher Columbus explored the Caribbean coast in search for a passage that would take him further to the west. During one of these expeditions the conquistadors learned from the natives that a vast ocean not far away south promised a way to wealthy, distant kingdoms, but in was not until 1513 that Vasco Nunez de Balboa crossed the Isthmus of Panama and first observed what we know today as the Pacific Ocean.
In 1519 Spain decided to build Panama City on the Pacific and a town called Nombre de Dios on the Caribbean coast to control what would become the most important colonial trading route. Panama then began to be used as a starting point for expeditions to South America and soon enough huge quantities of gold, silver and other precious items were being shipped from Lima to Panama City and then carried through the jungle to the Atlantic coast before being sent to Spain.
Of course all this gold readily sparked the interest of the pirates, and the history of colonial Panama is marked with a great number of attacks, looting and destructions from the infamous privateers. The most famous of them, Henry Morgan, took the fort of San Lorenzo in 1671 before attacking Panama City. The defeated Spanish governor ordered the city to be burnt so it wouldn’t fall intact in the hands of the pirates.
The Gold Rush and the Panama Railroad
It would be again the thirst for gold, but this time from California, what would awaken the sleepy western Colombian province of Panama in 1849 and put it back on the map as one of the safest and fastest routes for the forty-niners to reach El Dorado.
This human rush directly led to the decision of building the first transoceanic railway ever. A train through the tropical forest was not an easy task. Chinese were brought to Panama to work for the railway and though many died, they represent today a large minority among Panamanians.
The task was completed in 1855 and its overwhelming financial success over the following decade proved once again the advantages of Panama’s exceptional location.
Ferdinand de Lesseps and the French Canal
In the meantime on the other side of the world, an event of considerable importance occurred: Ferdinand de Lesseps and his French engineers built the Suez Canal, allowing ships to go directly from the Mediterranean Sea to the Indian Ocean without having to go all around Africa.
After his immense success Ferdinand de Lesseps turned his eyes to Panama and went headfirst like a bull in what was going to be the most gigantic work-site of all times. Convinced by the old man’s extraordinary charisma the ”Compagnie Universelle du Canal” was soon created with funding from private investors.
The French started digging in January 1881 and the first serious problems occurred with the rainy season about three months later. De Lesseps stubbornly stuck to his plan of a sea level canal up to 1886, when he was forced to change for a lock system. But it wasn’t the problems on the ground that caused the French to fail. Nor was it the 25.000 or more dead of malaria, yellow fever or dysentery. The French failure was mainly a financial one. From the beginning, De Lesseps deliberately underestimated the required investment in order to obtain funds more easily from his investors. In 1889 investors simply refused to put in any more money, and the company went bankrupt.
This occurred in the middle of a huge corruption scandal that stained all of the French political class. The financial director of the company, Baron De Reinach committed suicide and De Lesseps’ own son, Charles, who was the company’s chairman, was sent to jail.
After the Compagnie Universelle du Canal filed for bankruptcy, another company was created, the “Compagnie Nouvelle”, which continued to work at a much smaller scale until it was sold to the United States in 1903.
The Panama Canal under U.S. administration
In 1903, Panama obtained its independence from Colombia and the United States would resume work on the project in 1904. In 1914 the Canal was inaugurated and that great human adventure finally concluded as a great success.
In 1977 Panama and the United States signed the Torrijos-Carter treaty which stated that the control of the Canal operation and the adjacent Canal Zone would be handed over to Panama by the turn of the century. So it wasn’t until December 31st of 1999 that Panama could officially claim its sovereignty and absolute control over the entire country.
More recently, Panama decided to undertake the formidable feat of expanding the Canal by building two additional locks, thus creating a third lane that allows for the transit of much larger vessels. The inauguration of the Expanded Canal took place on June 2016 and, so far, has exceeded traffic expectations as it brings substantial benefits to the maritime industry as well as significantly reducing CO2 emissions.