Panama was the native name of a village on the Pacific Coast of the Gulf and Isthmus of Panama. Before its discovery by the Spanish, Panama was inhabited by a large number of Amerindians. The groups lived in organized chiefdoms, depending on the area’s fish, birds, and sea turtles, and on starchy root crops for food. Numbering nearly one million when the Spanish arrived in 1501, the largest group was the Cuna. The country’s name, which means “land of plenty fish,” may also come from the Cuna words panna mai , or “far away,” a reply to Spaniards who wondered where to find gold. The name Panama is also believed to be a Guarani Indian word meaning “a butterfly,” and also signifying a mud fish, perhaps because the flaps of the mudfish resembled the wings of a butterfly.
Panama has been subjected to numerous occupations by foreign powers since the Renaissance period. Since 1513, when the Spanish explorer Vasco Nuñez de Balboa crossed a narrow strip of land and discovered the Pacific Ocean, the Isthmus of Panama has been a major crossroad of the world, linking two great continents and separating two great oceans. His discovery opened up a shorter route to Peru and the gold of the Incas. Fortune seekers from Europe could land at Colón, cross the narrow isthmus, and set sail on the Pacific for Peru.
By 1519 Spanish settlements had been established, and the king’s appointed governor, Pedro Arias de Avila, had settled in the village of Panama. Under his rule, Balboa’s Indian allies were killed and other Indians were enslaved. Many fled to the jungle or to the swampland and isolated islands on the northeast coast. A priest, Bartolomé de la Casas, was outraged by the Indian enslavement and persuaded Spain’s government to send African slaves in their stead. The separation of Indian groups from Panamanians remains today. African slaves became so important that the British were given a contract to deliver 4,800 slaves a year for 30 years. Slave revolts moved the Spanish king to interrupt the delivery for a time.
The California gold rush in the 1840s renewed interest in travel between the oceans. In 1845, the United States helped build the first transcontinental railroad that crossed Panama. Meanwhile, France, Britain, and the United States explored the possibility of a canal to join the two oceans by way of either Panama or Nicaragua. In 1879 Ferdinand de Lesseps of France, and builder of the Suez Canal, began construction of a canal in Panama under a license from Colombia. However, disease (yellow fever, malaria), rain, and mud made him abandon the project. From 16,000 to 22,000 workers had died.