Bits & Pieces

May 20, 2011

The First City of Panama

Subsequent to Vasco Nunez de Balboa discovery of the "South Sea" (the Pacific Ocean) on September 29, 1513, Pedro Arias de Avila, also known as Pedrarias, was appointed governor of Castilla del Oro in August 1514.  Pedrarias and Balboa did not get along well and, finally Balboa and four others were accused of treason and beheaded by Pedrarias at Acla, Panama, in the later part of 1517.
Castilla del Oro
Pedrarias continued to rule from Santa Maria de la Antigua on the Northern coast (Atlantic) of Panama in the region of Darien, but seeing the advantage of a settlement on the shores of the new ocean as an outfitting station for future explorations, he crossed the isthmus and, on August 15, 1519, the same day on which the Panama Canal would  officially open 395 years later, he founded the first European city on the Pacific shore.  The name "Panama" is supposed to have come from a Native word meaning "a place abounding in fish" and legend relates that the new town was built on the site of a Native fishing village.  This new settlement is what we now know as "Old Panama".
In the same year, Nombre de Dios became the main Atlantic port and a short time later, Acla and Santa Maria de la Antigua ceased to exist as Spanish settlements.
On September 15, 1521, the town of Panama was made a city by royal decree, and the first Diocese (bishop's office) in the Americas was moved there from  Antigua.  For nearly two hundred years following the founding of Panama, the roads across the isthmus, Las Cruces Trail and El Camino Real, were the riches trade routes in the world.  Not only did these two roads carry the plunder from Peru, beginning in 1532, but also the trade originating in the Philippines and the Indies.  By the end of the 16th Century, the population of the city had increased manifold to an estimated 10,000. In its time, several terrible fires damaged the city, and several earthquakes were also reported, an event not very common during my life in Panama.
Key to Red Numbers: 1 - King's Bridge; 2 - San Jose Church and Convent; 3 - Convent of Santo Domingo;
4 - The Bishop's home and office; 5 - The Cathedral, Nuestra Senora de la Asuncion; 6 - Municipal Building;
7 - Slave Market; 8 - Royal Houses Complex, included Quartermaster, the Court, the Chancellery, Gun Powder
 Deposit, Royal Audience Court and Residency of the Governor; 9 - Jail; 10 - Kitchens for Slaves and Garrison;
11 - Slaughter House; 12 - San Juan de Dios Hospital; 13 - Convent of San Francisco; 14 - Convent of La Merced;
 15 - Fort of The Nativity; 16 - Matadero Bridge; 17 - Church and Convent The Company of Jesus; 18 - Church of The Conception; 19 - Convent of The Conception; 20 - Monastery San Cristobal.  Map made by Spanish engineer Roda.
How Old Panama may have look, viewing it from the sea with Index 8, Royal Houses
Complex, in the forefront. The Cathedral can be seen with its tower and plaza.
By the time of its destruction by the pirate Henry Morgan, Panama had a population of about 30,000.  It was a beautiful place with 7,000 houses, most of them of carved native cedar and others of stone, erected in Moorish style ( a reflection of the Moors influence on Spain during their 400 years of occupation).  Of its stones monasteries and convents the most pretentious was the Cathedral of Nuestra Senora de la Asuncion, a truly glorious building whose ruins still stand.
Ruins of the Cathedral, Nuestra Senora de la Asuncion,
Index 5 in map.  The ruins of the Bishops House can be seen
 to the right of it, Index 4 in map. Photo by IPAT
Ruins of the Cathedral.  The hollow on the side of the tower is where the spiral stairs led to the bells.
The tower has been totally reconditioned and tourists can now go to the top.
Photos by LRCelerier, 2005
Left: The altar of the Cathedral. The tower is to its right. Middle and Right: Other ruins around the Cathedral.
Photos by LRCelerier, 2005
Besides the royal treasure storehouses, which were built of stone, there were some two hundred merchant warehouses guarded constantly by slaves. In addition, there were ample stables to house the large number of mules used for the transport of the treasures across the isthmus.  The port of old Panama was really not the best for shipping because the 21-foot tide changes the waterfront to a mile of sticky black mud at low tide.  The Bay itself was spacious enough for the largest ships to ride at ease at some distance from the shore.  At one place in the bay, an arm of the sea creeps inland, North of the city, to a little creek over which an arched bridge, King's Bridge, still stands.  This bridge was the starting point of El Camino Real to Portobelo.  The Cruces Trail started on the west side of the city at Matadero Bridge, also called "Morgan Bridge" because it was the bridge Morgan crossed to enter the city.
Basement of the Church of La Concepcion. When I lived in Panama, this basement was full of black water, you can still see the water level line.  This was drained and repaired possibly around 2000.
Photos by LRCelerier, 2005
Left: The Convent of La Concepcion. Right: Road by Convent.
Photos by LRCelerier, 2005
Left: Kings Bridge, Index 1 in map. Photo by IPAT.   Right: The top of the Cathedral tower as it appears today.
Photo by Koops Photo Gallery.
One of many water wells that used to dot the landscape  at Old Panama when
I was growing up.  They usually where not kept up and were full of black water.
This one has been filled with gravel for obvious reasons.
Photo by
In the end, it was an attack by Henry Morgan, with 1400 men, that sealed the fate of Old Panama on January 28, 1671.
Morgan had an astute plan.  He would sail to the Spanish Island of Santa Catalina, in the Archipelago of San Andres and Providencia, off the coast of Costa Rica and Nicaragua, to prevent the possibility of a warning of his proposed attack on Panama.  Having captured the island, he kept most of his fleet in plain sight, while he sent James Bradley with 400 men to attack Fort San Lorenzo on the mouth of the Chagres.  The fort was heavily fortified and Bradley's men suffered many casualties, including Bradley who had his legs shattered by a cannon bal and died a week later, but they did captured the Fort. Of the 320 men at the fort, only 30 survived to surrender to the pirates.
Left:  The Archipelago de San Andres, Providence and Santa Catalina. 
Right: The pirate Henry Morgan.
Photo sources unknown.
Shortly after the fall of San Lorenzo, Morgan arrived with the bulk of his force.  In spite of Morgan's plan of deception, the Spaniards became aware of his whereabouts and were preparing for the defense of Panama.  Nevertheless, Morgan continued with his plan to go up the Chagres River to Cruces and then proceed by foot to the city of Panama.   Leaving 150 men guarding the ships and 500 at San Lorenzo, he started his dangerous trip up the river on January 12, 1671. The men were crowded in too few Cayucos, took no provisions and the heat and mosquitoes were a nightmare.  When they arrived at Panama, the strong Spanish garrison  proved to be under very poor leadership and a series of errors and confusion gave the advantage to the pirates who overwhelmed the garrison.
Morgan is credited with burning the city, but that is probably not true as his men were not through sacking the city when the fire started and drove everyone away.  Having been denied the expected riches because of the fire, the pirates stayed around sacking what they could from the area, including a $30,000 ransom for a woman by the name of Maria Eleonora Lopez y Ganero, for a month before returning to Fort San Lorenzo.  Morgan had trouble controlling his disgruntled men and had to put several insurgents in irons.  Finally, as discipline dissolved and Morgan heard of plans to kill him, he collected a band of trusted followers and, after getting the others drunk on the masquerade of a celebration party prior to dividing the treasure, he took off for Jamaica with most of the loot.  But not without disabling the other ships so they could not pursue him.
With the town of Old Panama in ruins, the remaining Spaniards rebuilt their town a few miles away in the present day area of Santa Ana and San Felipe.  The city was never again sacked by pirates.

- Luis R. Celerier
Longview, Texas