Bits & Pieces

December 16, 2010

The New City of 1673

In 1567, Panama was attached to the Viceroyalty of Peru. Beginning early in the 16th Century, Nombre de Dios in Panama, Vera Cruz in Mexico and Cartagena in Colombia where the only three ports in Spanish America authorized by the crown of Spain to trade with the homeland.  Fleets from these three ports would gather in Havana, Cuba, and sail together to Spain.
The shipments to Spain consisted mainly of gold stolen from the Aztecs in Mexico and the Incas in Peru, but also included some agricultural products such as sugar, cotton, wine, indigo, chinchona, vanilla and cacao.  As gold ran out, the Spaniards began to mine for silver in Peru and increased the shipments of agricultural goods.  Nothing was allowed to be manufactured in the colonies.
Except for African slaves, the colonies were not allowed to trade with foreign powers.  Any foreign goods arriving at the colonies had to go through Spain first.  The African slaves were brought to the Spanish colonies in America under contract by Portuguese, English, Dutch and French slavers.
During the time of Spanish power in the Americas, pirating was also a common way of life and the Spanish colonial ports were of great temptation to the sea bandits.  The first serious attack on a Spanish port came the English.  Between 1572 and 1597, Sir Francis Drake made several attacks on Nombre de Dios, about 50 kilometers (31 miles) east of present day Colon. If one visits Nombre de Dios, one can appreciate immediately why this nice anchorage is so difficult to defend.  The geography is totally flat and difficult to fortify.  Thus, in 1597, the Atlantic terminus of the trans-isthmian route was changed to Portobello. an anchorage surrounded by high hills on which fortresses commanding a wide view of the ocean could be built.
Panama City on the Pacific also flourished during the 1500 and 1600s and became a tempting prize for those with the courage to assault it. A serious fire had almost destroyed the city in 1640, but it was rebuilt and soon counted with more than 1400 residences "of all types".  This count probably included the huts used by the slaves.  However, most business places, churches and the residences of the wealthier inhabitants were built of stone.  After the rebuild, Panama City was considered, after Mexico City and Lima, the most beautiful and opulent settlement in the Spanish colonies.
By the late 1600s, the Spanish colonies were in decline due to the depletion of the Peruvian mines and the Mexican gold.  But there was still enough going through Panama from Peru to whet the appetite of one of the last great Buccaneers of the period, Sir Henry Morgan.  On January 29, 1671, Morgan appeared at Panama City after having attacked Fort San Lorenzo on the mouth of the Chagres River on the Atlantic side, and crossing the isthmus on foot.  With him were 1400 men who defeated the Spanish garrison of 2600 men in a pitched battle outside the city.  The officials and citizens fled while the battle was raging; some to the country and others to Peru, having loaded their ships with the most important church and government funds and treasure.  Meanwhile, Panama City was destroyed by fire, the looters being blamed for starting it.  After 4 weeks, Morgan left Panama City with 175 mule loads of loot and 600 prisoners.
In 1673, a new city was founded at the location of the present day capital and was heavily fortified.  Based on a historical map of the period, the new city had its sea wall beginning someplace near where the Cathedral of San Jose, with the Golden Altar, stands, went all around Plaza de Francia, Las Bobedas and the National Theater ending up where the old Panama main Market was (I don't know if it is still there).  Then the wall went inland and appears to have gone through Calle 11, the Lottery Building (again, I don't know if that building is still there), made some sharp turns heading towards Santa Ana Plaza and coming back to the Cathedral of San Jose.  The photos below will give you an idea of the size of this new city and its general location in relationship to the present.
Unfortunately, the economic situation of Spain, and by association, that of Panama, continued to decline so that by the 19th century, many of the large stone buildings in the city were empty and devoid of roofs.  More will be forthcoming later,but space limits the recitation for today.
Layout of the new city of Panama, 1673.  I am showing this picture
upside down to keep North on top and to match newer layout.
Another map of original New City
Rough overlay of the New City of 1673 over the present Casco Viejo and the rest of the city.
Economic hard times in Panama during the 19th Century.  On the Left: The old Sea Wall looking toward Las Bobedas.
On the Right: The old Sea Wall looking from Las Bobedas toward the Cathedral of San Jose and the Golden Altar.

- Luis R. Celerier
Longview, Texas