"A man, a plan, a canal - Panama"
Before 1903, Panama was just another province of Colombia
. Even before that, it was an isthmus discovered by Spanish explorer Vasco Núñez de Balboa
in 1510. He deemed this narrow girth suitable for a trade shortcut between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. Since then, Panama became known as the "Camino Real" (Royal Way)... but locals also have a less-than-flattering name for it: "Camino del Cruces" (Way of Crosses), because there's the chances of dying within its treacherous, mosquito-infested jungles before one can even reach the other end of the isthmus.
For all its potential wealth, however, Panama proved to be a geopolitical headache for the rulers in Bogota. Isolated from the mainland by the formidable Darién marshlands
, Panama was rocked by indigenous rebels and Dutch/English pirates, as well as the occasional freed African-American group. One English privateer, Sir Francis Drake
, was so successful Spain only managed to pacify him by forging an alliance with him, guaranteeing Drake freedom in exchange for providing them with military support
. And even when Spain finally completed its conquest of Panama, the same nationalist spirit started to pervade its new Spanish majority.
Even as New Granada is shaking off Spanish rule, separatists in Panama City, the trade route's southern terminus, are slowly influencing José de Fábrega, the colony's staunchly loyalist head of military, to turn to their side, giving them an advantage. After some negotiations with Simon Bolivar, in 1821 Panama was admitted to the newly-independent New Granada, now under the name Gran Colombia, and would maintain a precarious alliance with Colombia long after Gran Colombia broke up — which would also break down like it did with Venezuela and Ecuador.
At the same time Panama's relationship with mainland Colombia is breaking down, the Americans began showing interest in continuing an audacious plan abandoned by the French — to cut a waterway through the isthmus, allowing for faster maritime travel. When the Colombians refused to ratify a treaty granting America a six-mile-wide strip across the isthmus, within which the Panama Canal would be built, then-President Theodore Roosevelt assisted the Panamanians' drive for independence by placing a Naval Blockade
on Colombian waters, allowing the Panamanians to declare independence in 1903.
During The Seventies the country became a dictatorship under General Omar Torrijos. When he died on a mysterious plane crash, his "benevolent"
dictatorship became a Banana Republic
under the command of CIA pawn Manuel Noriega, who then became a despot rebel. His reign ended when the United States invaded in 1989, removing Noriega in an attack called "Operation Just Cause", notable for the first use of the F-117A Nighthawk... destroying half the city in the process.
Since then, it's been a democracy.
Panama's most famous feature is the Panama Canal, fully under the control of Panama since 1999, although the US retains the right to intervene to ensure the free use of said canal if need be. The canal was built, at great expense of life (estimated at 27,500 for the two attempts), between 1904 and 1914, after a failed French attempt in the 1880s. It is a major shipping route for the obvious reason that one would otherwise have to go round Cape Horn instead, an area known for strong winds.
The canal's lock dimensions are a major factor in shipping design, with many ships built to "Panamax"
size. However, modern ships tend to be large and the canal is now being widened.
Panama is well known as a "flag of convenience"
for shipping, a status going back to the Prohibition era.
As a final note, in 1698, the then-independent Scottish government attempted to colonize Darién. The expedition was an Epic Fail
: dysentery, malaria and the natives made short work of the ill-prepared colonists. By 1700, most of the 4,000-person strong colony were dead, taking with them a quarter of the total wealth of Scotland. To deal with the debt, Scotland merged itself with England. And that's how a land half way across the world created the United Kingdom.
Panama in fiction
The Panamanian Flag
- Deus Ex: The Fall
- Licence to Kill features a fictionalised version of Panama, the "Republic of Isthmus", complete with Noriega analogue in the form of the main villain, Franz Sanchez, who reminds the puppet President for Life of the last two words of his title after his escape from prison.
- The Tailor of Panama
- The Sierra game Gold Rush allows traveling through Panama as an option to get to the west.
- One episode of JAG, "The Colonel's Wife", takes Place in Panama.
- A major setting in Call of Duty: Black Ops 2. The various characters discuss in loving detail what a backstabbing doublecrossing slimeball Manuel Noriega is. The Cold War half of the plot climaxes during the 1989 invasion.
- The Rising Sun by Douglas Galbraith is about the ill-fated Darien colony. Alan Reid of the Scottish group Battlefield Band also wrote a song about the expedition.
The flag's blue and red quarters symbolize Panama's conservative and liberal factions, respectively, and the white quarters signify peace and harmony between both parties. Blue and red can also symbolize the seas and the blood shed by its liberators, respectively. The blue star represents purity and honesty, while the red star authority and the law.