Bits & Pieces

April 5, 2011

San Sebastian & Nombre de Dios

On the last issue, I covered the settlement of Santa Maria de la Antigua del Darien. But this was only one of the several settlements the Spaniards made on the North Coast of Panama and, interestingly to me anyway, all these settlements are located between the mouth of the Chagres River and the Gulf of Uraba on the Colombian side of the present country borders.  Why?  The only explanation I can find to suit me is that the explorers, after Balboa "discovered" the South Sea (Pacific Ocean), found the mountain range of western Panama too formidable to cross.  But how could they know this if they never made the attempt to settle on the northwest coast of Panama, much less try to cross there?
Anyway, as the story of settlements in Panama continues, you will note how all the activity concentrates in this inhospitable area of Panama.
Castilla del Oro in the 1500s
As I read the history of the area from various sources, I have set these settlements in Chronological order as best as I can.  In all the historical data available to me there is one constant: Inaccuracy.  Dates vary, the story line changes, etc.  I guess this is due to the passing of time and the lack of better recorded information.  Thus I list the northern coast settlements in Panama in this chronological order:
1.  San Sebastian - 1509
2.  Nombre de Dios - Early 1510
3.  Santa Maria de la Antigua del Darien - Later in 1510
4.  Acla - 1515
5.  Puerto Bello - 1518
6.  Fort San Lorenzo - 1595
I have already covered Santa Maria de la Antigua del Darien in the March 29, 2011 issue of The Longview Journal.  I am sorry I did this, but it was done before I paid more attention to the founding dates.  Now, however, I shall write about these North Sea settlements in chronological order before we move on the the Pacific Coast of Panama.
San Sebastian
Alonso de Ojeda (1466-1515?) joined Columbus on his second voyage and in 1499 he explored the northeastern coast of South America. Sailing around what is now Venezuela, he entered Lake Maracaibo (a fresh water lake which has an opening to the ocean) and seeing the native huts erected over the lake, he named the area Venezuela, meaning little Venice.  Heading west during his travels he came upon what is now Cartagena, Colombia and continued west until reaching the entrance to the Gulf of Uraba.  Here, in or around November 1509, he founded the settlement of San Sebastian.  This was the first European settlement on the American continent.
Left: Ojeda and Nicuesas routes.  Right: Ojeda's Caravel
Having done this, Ojeda sent his fastest ship to Hispaniola for reinforcements and supplies as the natives, with deadly arrows were a constant menace and their only source of food was the meager supplies they had brought with them.  While they waited for supplies from Espanola, the natives continued to harass the colonists causing great loss of life and the lack of food became a great concern.  The natives were making it impossible to venture outside the stockade, even to get fresh water, when a small ship, under the command of a privateer named Bernardino de Talavera, arrived looking for the riches that Ojeda had said to exist. The small amount of food they could spare was an immediate relief, but not enough to sustain the colony.  With no hope of the relief ship ever arriving in time, Ojeda decided to  sail with Talavera for Hispaniola to press his case for help, leaving Francisco Pizarro,the future conqueror of Peru, in charge of San Sebastian.
The trip to Hispaniola was an epic in itself with Talavera taking Ojeda prisoner, stealing the booty Ojeda had stolen from the natives and facing a storm that nearly drowned them all.  As they approached Jamaica, Panfilo de Narvaez came to Ojeda's rescue in a caravel.  Talavera was hanged in Jamaica for piracy, but, arriving at Santo Domingo, Ojeda was unjustly thrown in prison.  Eventually set free, it is believed he died in 1515.
Meanwhile, at San Sebastian, the settlers continued to wait for supplies.  Some sixty days after Ojeda's departure, the remaining settlers, under the leadership of Pizarro, boarded the two brigantines left and sailed away from San Sebastian.  On the way out, a storm broke one of the brigantines in half and all hands perished. Soon after, the 30 men left with Pizarro were sighted by the relief ships coming to the help of the colony.  I have not been able to confirm the date of the departure from San Sebastian, but I would guess that its existence did not last more than a year making it sometime in late 1510 or early 1511.
Nombre de Dios
Nombre de Dios is one of the two surviving towns from the early days of the Spanish colonization of Panama.  The Other one is Puerto Bello, now known as Portobelo.  Yet, Nombre de Dios is known by name only by most Panamanians, few of whom have ever visited this major historical location.
After Rodrigo de Bastidas "discovered" Panama in late 1500 or early 1501, Columbus made his fourth and last voyage to the New World and arriving on the isthmus on October 6, 1502, entering Almirante Bay, in the Bocas del Toro area.  From there, he continued sailing East along the coast of Panama entering what he considered a beautiful bay which he promptly named Puerto Bello.  He did not attempt to settle or explore the location, but did stay in it with his ships for 7 days due to inclement weather. Leaving the harbor, Columbus continued Eastward and may have also entered the harbor now called Nombre de Dios.  Some claim that he was the one who gave the bay its name and that he made a temporary settlement here while he searched for gold.  Finding none, he continued east until reaching a point close to where Acla was later founded.  He named this point El Retrete, which could have meant "the point of retreat", or the point from which they could go no further.
The next person to enter the Bay of Nombre de Dios was Diego de Nicuesa, the appointed governor of Castilla del Oro in early 1510.  It is he who is given credit for founding the settlement of Nombre de Dios.
Bay of Nombre de Dios, by Luis Celerier 1984
A few months later that year, Martin Fernandez de Enciso and Vasco Nunez de Balboa established the community of Santa Maria de la Antigua del Darien in the Gulf of Uraba near the mouth of the Atrato River. As it was, the residents of  Santa Maria, or Antigua , as it was also known, resented Enciso's autocratic rule and removed him.  Since they were in territory under Governor Nicuesa, Balboa invited him to move from Nombre de Dios to Antigua and be their leader.  Nicuesa left Nombre de Dios, where they were starving and in bad shape, to the striving town of Santa Maria to oust Balboa whom he thought was trying to take over his governorship. Instead, he was ousted by the population of Santa Maria on March 1, 1511, and set adrift on a leaky boat with 17 of his followers and never seen again. In the meantime, the residents of Nombre de Dios abandoned the settlement and moved to Santa Maria de la Antigua.
Balboa was named the mayor of Santa Maria and went on to be the first European to see the Pacific Ocean which he name Mar del Sur (The South Sea) in 1513. Meanwhile, Pedro Arias de Avila, also known as Pedrarias,  was named governor of Castilla del Oro to replace the unfortunate  Nicuesa. Believing Balboa as the leader of the revolt against Nicuesa, he charged Balboa with treason, sent him to Acla and had him beheaded on January 15, 1519.
That same year, Pedrarias moved the "capital" of Panama, Santa Maria, to the Pacific coast to the location we now know as Old Panama. That same year, Diego de Albites moved back to the abandoned settlement of Nombre de Dios and reestablished the town.  Nombre de Dios became the northern terminus of the trans-isthmian trade connected to the new city of Panama by El Camino Real (the Royal Road).
The Camino Real was some 50 miles long and about nine feet wide at its widest point. On either side there was nothing but thick jungle in which could lurk "cimmarones" as well as "corsairs".  Cimmarones were black slaves who had managed to break free from the Spaniards and make their way into the jungle.  The corsairs were mostly French that lived in the jungle near Nombre de Dios and knew their way around the jungle.  These corsairs would sometimes team up with the English, as well as with the cimmarones and raid the treasure trains with some success.  After the rape of Peru in 1532 by Francisco Pizarro, this road became more used, more important and more dangerous.
Town Square, Nombre de Dios, by Luis Celerier 1984
Nombre de Dios church, by Luis Celerier 1984
But Nombre de Dios never really prospered  and remained a town of some 50 permanent residents.  This number would swell up to 500 when the galleons arrive to pick up the treasures from Peru.  The heat was excessive and very unhealthy.  The bay offered little protection from storms and, because of the flat terrain surrounding it, also difficult to defend from land or sea attacks. In 1565, and entire Spanish fleet was lost there during a storm.  On July 29, 1572, Francis Drake attacked the town with 73 men and captured it.  However, Spaniards reinforcements arrived shortly afterwards and Drake, wounded, was forced to retreat with little loot, leaving behind silver bars valued at millions of pounds sterling.
On April 1, 1573, Drake attacked again, this time capturing a mule train loaded with treasure taking everything they could carry.  In August 1595 Drake returned with a larger fleet with the intent of crossing the isthmus and capturing Panama city.  He was stopped midway through El Camino Real and beaten back.  He set fire to Nombre de Dios and sailed for Puerto Bello where he got sick and died.  On January 29, 1596, he was buried in the waters of the harbor.
On March 20, 1597, Nombre de Dios ceased to be a port of embarkation when the heavily fortified Puerto Bello was officially opened for business.
Sources:  Library of Congress -;;;

- Luis R. Celerier
Longview, Texas