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.
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
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
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
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
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
The tower has been totally
reconditioned and tourists can now go to the top.
Photos by LRCelerier,
Left: The altar of the
Cathedral. The tower is to its right. Middle and Right: Other ruins around the
Photos by LRCelerier,
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
Photos by LRCelerier,
Left: The Convent of La
Concepcion. Right: Road by Convent.
Photos by LRCelerier,
Left: Kings Bridge, Index 1 in
map. Photo by IPAT. Right: The top of the
Cathedral tower as it appears
Photo by Koops Photo
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.
In the end, it was an attack by Henry
Morgan, with 1400 men, that sealed the fate of Old Panama on January 28,
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
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
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
- Luis R. Celerier