Panama: Peeps at Many Lands - Edith A. Browne

The Spanish Main

There is a large crowd of steerage passengers on our ship when she leaves Bridgetown. These newcomers are Barbadians, who are going to Panama. The majority of them are men, but some of the recruits for the Canal labour force are taking a wife and family with them. The party has reserved quarters on the lower deck. A few of the darkies have provided themselves with a hammock, but most of them have brought a deck chair, in which lounging accommodation is afforded by a gaudy piece of carpet. Their clothes are made after a Western fashion, but suggest an Oriental love of colour without any of the good taste in finery which is common among Eastern races. However, a darkie in workaday costume generally looks picturesque in this sunny part of the world.

At Port of Spain, in Trinidad, our next port of call, we make the acquaintance of East Indians. These people are quite different from the aboriginal Indians of America; they are natives of India, belonging to what is commonly known as the "coolie" class, who come to Trinidad to work on the sugar and cocoa plantations. Their passage is paid, and they are employed under a system that is very much like apprenticeship. When they have served their time as indentured labourers they are under no further obligation to the planter. A few of the coolies have re-emigrated from Trinidad to Panama; but they are not, as a rule, sufficiently muscular for the Canal work. However, we shall see some East Indians among the motley population of the Canal Zone. The women will be wearing their national costume of pretty draperies, nose rings, silver anklets and numerous bangles, as is the custom in Trinidad; but the men will have discarded their draperies for trousers and a vest.

A short drive through the country around Port of Spain gives us some idea of the luxuriance of tropical vegetation. But it is not until our good ship has carried us out to sea again that we begin to understand why this part of the world is so famous for its beauty. In form, the scenery of Trinidad is a fair sample of West Indian grandeur; in richness of clothing it is typically tropical.

In making her way from Port of Spain through the Gulf of Paria into the Caribbean Sea, the steamer hugs the shore of Trinidad, thereby affording us a series of magnificent views—mountains of volcanic formation, jungle-clad hills, palm groves, wooded valleys, plantation. bedecked plains, all basking in the sunshine beneath a gloriously blue sky.

Presently we notice there is land almost as close to the other side of the ship. Trinidad was once part of the mainland; we are now in the neighbourhood in which volcanic disturbances isolated a peninsular portion of Venezuela, and the little islands to the west of Trinidad are the remains of the link. Only a few miles to the west of this island blockade is the coast of Venezuela, hence the part of the Gulf of Paria which we have now reached is almost completely land-locked. The straits which give access to the Caribbean Sea are called the Bocas del Dragone, meaning Dragon's Mouths. It was through one of these mouths, perhaps the very one we are now entering, that Columbus sailed soon after his discovery of Trinidad; and our ship is steering a similar course to that which helped the famous explorer to find the South American continent. As we emerge into the Caribbean Sea the shore of the Paria Peninsula comes into view—we are getting a peep at the Venezuelan district in which Columbus first set foot on the mainland of the New World.

For the remainder of the journey our route lies along the coast of the Spanish Main, past Venezuela and Colombia, and by way of the north coast of the Isthmus of Panama to Colon. We are on the threshold of a theatre in which have been enacted many of the most thrilling dramas in the world's history—things that are supposed to have happened in imaginary stories of adventure are tame in comparison with the things that actually happened on this New World stage. A few of the actors are remembered by name, others merely as the "Spaniards," the Portuguese," the "Indians," or the "English "; and some are spoken of as great explorers or mighty conquerors, whilst others are dubbed bloodthirsty pirates or savage heathen. Differences of nationality and religion have led some critics to bid us believe one man was a villain and others to assure us that same man was a hero; but innumerable facts tell us simply and clearly that the bulk of the actors were among the bravest of all the brave men that ever lived.

Whilst you are on these historic waters you will want leisure and quiet for dreaming your own dreams. Very soon you shall be free to conjure up pictures of Spanish galleons sailing this sea, pirate boats chasing the treasure vessels, the Spanish Fleet wreaking vengeance on the sea-rovers, Hawkins coming along with a ship-load of slaves, Drake on his way to plunder the "Treasure of the World," Raleigh bound for El Dorado. But first I want to make sure that you know a few important facts concerning the development of Panama.

In 1501 Rodrigo de Bastida commanded an expedition to the New World, and discovered that part of the coast of the Spanish Main lying between Cape Tiburon, on the Gulf of Darien, and the port to which Columbus gave the name of Retrete on his arrival there a year later. Following in the wake of Bastida and Columbus came Alonso de Ojeda, who began to colonize the country round the Gulf of Darien, calling the district New Andalusia. He founded a town, to which he gave the name of San Sebastian, on the eastern shore of the Gulf.

Glowing accounts of the newly discovered world were received by the Court of Spain, and most of these reports were accompanied by samples of gold, So Spain gave the name of "Castilla del Oro," or "Castle of Gold" to the region between Cape Gracias a Dios and the Gulf of Darien, and sent over a governor together with several hundred colonists. Nicuesa, first Governor of the Spanish Main, founded the town of Nombre de Dios, in Panama. Owing to the unhealthiness of the site and numerous misadventures the Governor and most of the colonists died.

A new expedition was sent to the mainland. It fitted out at Hayti, and with it as a stowaway went a high spirited young rascal, named Balboa, who was running away from several people to whom he owed money. When he was discovered, hiding in a cask, the Commander threatened to throw him overboard. But he had a good tale ready, and a true one, too. He had already been to the Spanish Main, with Bastida's expedition. The Commander decided that it would be well to spare the life of such an experienced stowaway; and influenced by Balboa's stories of the gold to be found in the Darien district he steered a course for San Sebastian. When the expedition arrived at this destination they found only the deserted ruins of a town. Evidently the settlers had been obliged to flee from the Indians. Balboa told his Commander that there was a much better site for a settlement on the opposite shore of the Gulf, and thither he piloted the expedition. The Indians tried to drive them away, but were defeated, and the white men founded a new town, to which they gave the name of Santa Maria la Antigua del Darien. Then Balboa and the Commander disagreed, and the quarrel resulted in the latter being clapped into irons and sent back to Spain.

Balboa was now deputy-king of the Golden Castle. With great zeal he set about the work of exploring the interior. Under his leadership a party of picked men plunged into the Bush; they had to cut their way through dense forest, or follow a trail which led to an Indian encampment, where there were hundreds of warriors armed with bows and arrows to dispute their way. At last they reached the territory of a very powerful and wealthy Indian chief, who received them peaceably; his eldest son took a great fancy to the "white chief" and gave Balboa some valuable presents and some very exciting information. From his Indian friend Balboa learnt that back of the mountains whose highest peaks could just be seen in the far distance there was a sea, on the shores of which dwelt a rich and powerful nation, who, like the Spaniards, possessed ships with sails, and that about a hundred miles from Darien there was a temple of gold situated on the banks of a big river.

Balboa departed to look for the golden temple, but after hunting for it in vain for some time he thought he ought to return to headquarters, to see how the colonists were faring. Upon arriving at Santa Maria he found his services were badly needed to frustrate a widespread Indian plot for driving the white men out of the land. Balboa did not wait to be attacked; he at once made war on the Indians, who were taken by surprise and defeated. Soon after he had given the natives this further proof of the white man's power, reinforcements arrived from Spain, bringing to him from the King a commission as Captain-General de la Antigua. Balboa now decided to lead an expedition southwards in quest of the sea about which his Indian friend had told him.