Eastern Panama Feature


A Bit of Panama History

The first European to visit this part of Panama was Rodrigo de Bastidas, a Spanish explorer who sailed along the San Blas Islands in 1501. The following year Christopher Columbus made it to the coast near El Porvenir on his final voyage to the Americas. In 1510 conquistador Vasco Nuñez de Balboa founded the first Spanish town in Central America, Santa María la Antigua del Darién, in a bay on the eastern end of what is now Guna Yala. Three years later, Balboa departed from Santa María with a group of men to look for a sea that local people had told him lay to the south. After hiking through the Darién jungle, Balboa reached the Gulf of San Miguel, where he became the first European to lay eyes on an ocean he dubbed "Pacífico," referring to the gulf's calm waters. Shortly thereafter the Spaniards discovered gold in the mountains of the Darién; mines here became so productive that Spain brought in African slaves, as the region's indigenous population succumbed to old-world diseases and inhumane working conditions. Meanwhile, a late 17th-century attempt by Scotland to colonize the Darién failed miserably. Some historians credit the so-called Darién Scheme with so weakening Scotland economically that it had no choice but to agree to a 1707 union with England.

When the conquistadors first arrived in Panama, the Guna lived in the jungles of northern Colombia, but in the 16th century they began moving up the coast into present-day Panama, where they eventually established their villages in the San Blas Islands. During the 17th and 18th centuries the Guna allied themselves with French and English pirates, providing them safe harbor and food in exchange for protection from Spain. Guna warriors often joined the pirates on raids of Spanish gold mines and ports. The Spaniards never subjugated the Guna, who lived independently until the early 20th century, when the new Republic of Panama government tried to establish a military presence in the San Blas Islands.

In 1925 the Guna rebelled against the Panamanians, killing or capturing all government officials in their territory in what the Guna call the Revolución de Tule. Subsequent negotiations led to the creation of the Comarca Guna Yala, an independent territory governed by the Congreso General Guna, a democratic congress of Guna chiefs. Decades later the Guna model was copied by the Emberá and Wounaan, who now share two comarcas in the eastern and western lowlands of the Darién, though they gained their autonomy through political pressure rather than revolution.

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