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History

Colonial Period

Christopher Columbus established Spain’s claim to Central America in 1502, when he sailed along its coast from the Gulf of Honduras to Panama. His reports of great wealth beyond the mountains that ran the length of the heavily populated isthmus stimulated Spanish conquest, which was launched from Hispaniola under Columbus’s son, Diego. The charismatic Vasco Núñez de Balboa founded Spain’s first truly productive colony in America at Darién in 1510, and went on to reach the Pacific Ocean in 1513. His successor, Pedrarias Dávila, who ordered Balboa’s death in 1517, extended the colony considerably, founding Panama City in 1519, from which he initiated the subjugation of Nicaragua and Honduras. The subsequent conquest of Central America became a bloody struggle among Spaniards representing interests in Panama, Hispaniola, and Mexico. Eventually, Pedro de Alvarado, the loyal lieutenant of the conqueror of Mexico, Hernán Cortés, consolidated control over most of the isthmus. The conquerors killed many Native Americans, but the majority died from devastating epidemics of smallpox, plague, dysentery, and influenza, introduced by the Europeans. The Spanish reduced to serfdom those who remained, establishing an agricultural society based on institutions they had brought from Spain. Native American customs and traditions survived, however, because most of the relatively few Spaniards remained in the towns and cities.

Colonial Central America was divided into two jurisdictions. The captaincy general of Guatemala extended from Chiapas (present-day Mexico’s southernmost state) through Costa Rica. Although nominally part of the Viceroyalty of New Spain, it was relatively autonomous. Its capital city, Antigua Guatemala, became a center for bureaucrats, clerics, and the landholding and commercial elite of the colony. The rest of Central America (all of what is present-day Panama), with its important transit route, became attached to New Granada (modern Colombia) in the Viceroyalty of Peru.

Spanish decline during the 17th century permitted increased autonomy for the colonial elite who, with the cooperation of church and state, dominated the oppressed Native American and mestizo (mixed Spanish-Native American heritage) working class. In the 18th century Spain’s Bourbon kings, trying to regenerate the empire, inaugurated reforms that promoted new economic activity, but also challenged the longtime accommodation between the landholding elite and the bureaucracy.

 
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