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History, Spanish Colony

Pedrarias Davila, treasure fleet, Isthmus of Panama, great empire, Spanish colonists

In 1501 Spanish explorer Rodrigo de Bastidas, sailing west from Venezuela, was the first European to reach the Isthmus of Panama. A year later explorer Christopher Columbus visited the isthmus. In 1508 the king of Spain, Ferdinand V, awarded settlement rights in Panama to explorer Diego de Nicuesa, and within a few years colonies were established along the Atlantic coast. Panama became important to the Spanish Empire in 1513 when explorer Vasco Nunez de Balboa led an expedition across the isthmus from the Atlantic and became the first European to see the Pacific Ocean from the Americas. He named it the South Sea and claimed it, and all the territories it touched, for Spain. In 1519 Pedrarias Davila, the Spanish governor of the area, founded Panama City on the Pacific coast. Many of the regionís native peoples were killed by Spanish colonists or by diseases brought by the Europeans, while others fled to remote areas.

Panama quickly became a crossroads and marketplace of Spainís empire in the Americas. From Panama, soldier Francisco Pizarro sailed south to conquer the great empire of the Inca in Peru in the 1530s. The silver and gold of the Inca, spices, and other commodities were shipped from South America to Panama City, carried across the isthmus, and loaded onto fleets of treasure ships bound for Spain. The route to the Caribbean harbor of Portobelo became known as the Camino Real, or Royal Road. The riches stored in Panama made it a frequent target of pirate attacks, while its importance in trade led to development of a wealthy merchant class. Panama also became a major shipment point in the slave trade, sending most African captives on to other colonies. But slaves who remained in Panama formed the beginning of its black population.

Because of its close trade ties with Peru, Panama was originally part of the Viceroyalty of Peru, the Spanish government unit for most of its South American colonies. After 1718, however, Panama was put under the newly created Viceroyalty of New Granada, which covered present-day Colombia, Venezuela, and Ecuador. The viceregal capital in Bogota was distant, and its authority was weak. As a result, Panama largely governed itself. The treasure fleet, meanwhile, sailed less frequently and then stopped altogether as other routes were used, so that Panama no longer enjoyed the riches of the empire.

Article key phrases:

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