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
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