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Santa María la Antigua del Darién

Santa María la Antigua del Darién, the first city founded by Europeans on the American mainland

Santa María la Antigua del Darién
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The fate of cities is, sometimes, very curious. Some cities prosper, mainly thanks to their advantageous geographical location or because trade flows favor them: Others, however, go into decline and are abandoned, only to fall completely into oblivion, without remaining at all in the memory of successive generations.

One of the most important Spanish adventurers of the 16th century was Vasco Núñez de Balboa, who had the merit of reaching the Pacific Ocean first, thus demonstrating that the American mainland was separate from the Asian mainland. However, Balboa was also the founder and mayor of the first city built by Europeans on the American mainland: Santa María la Antigua del Darién.

The Darién is an isthmic region between the current republics of Colombia and Panama. On one side, there is the Pacific Ocean, while on the other, there is the Gulf of Urabá, belonging to the Caribbean Sea, where the Atrato River flows.

On the eastern coast of the Gulf of Urabá, Captain Alonso de Ojeda built, in January 1510, a fort called San Sebastián de Urabá.

The village was promptly attacked by the neighboring populations because Ojeda had not known how, once again, properly manage relations with the local inhabitants, since he tried to appropriate the gold riches and was completely disinterested in both the places themselves and the its inhabitants.

The restless Ojeda, seeing that this town did not provide any special advantage, decided to return to Santo Domingo. He entrusted command for fifty days to a certain Francisco Pizarro, a brave soldier who was unaware in those years of the future to which he was destined.

Meanwhile, Vasco Núñez de Balboa, after having explored, in 1500, the current Colombian Caribbean coast, spent some years in Santo Domingo and had fallen into debt.

In order to flee from his creditors, he clandestinely embarked on a ship that, directed by Martín Fernández de Enciso, left Santo Domingo to provide aid to the town of San Sebastián de Urabá.

He hid in a barrel with his dog Leoncico. When Fernández de Enciso found him, he wanted to throw him into the sea, but, realizing his experience as a sailor and pilot, he considered it wiser to keep him alive. When the expedition arrived in San Sebastián de Urabá, Francisco Pizarro, in charge of the military post, was getting ready to leave, since the fifty days of imprisonment that had been imposed on him had already elapsed.

The indigenous people regularly attacked the town. Then it was thought, according to Balboa's own proposal, to found it again west of the Gulf of Urabá, in the region called Darién, where the land was more fertile and where it was believed that the indigenous people were more tame, which did not turn out to be true.

In Darién there was a brave chief named Cemaco who commanded a group of five hundred combatants armed with spears and poisoned arrows. He quickly resolved to fight. The Spaniards were afraid, since the indigenous people were numerous, and they made promises to the Virgin of Antigua, venerated in Seville. It was a bloody battle, and the clashes were extremely violent.

The Spanish were victorious, although they suffered one hundred and fifty-seven casualties during the battles. The indigenous people were decimated, as more than four hundred lost their lives. However, the chief Cemaco managed to escape and retreated inside.

Santa María la Antigua del Darién
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Subsequently, the Spanish looted neighboring villages and killed other natives, leaving only women and children alive; The loot was considerable, consisting mainly of gold objects and precious stones. Then Vasco Núñez de Balboa, fulfilling his promise to the virgin, founded the village of Santa María la Antigua del Darién in gratitude.

The first mayor was Fernández de Enciso, but his government did not last long, since the settlers saw him as a greedy despot who wanted to keep the magnificent profits that came from exchanging junk for gold and precious stones with the indigenous people.

Vasco Núñez de Balboa took advantage of the situation of discontent among the colonists and, allying himself with them, overthrew Enciso and managed to be elected mayor along with Martín Samudio.

Over time, thanks to his charisma, he gained the admiration of the troops and was named mayor of Santa María.

During his rule, Balboa established friendly relations with the indigenous people, earning their respect. He encouraged agriculture, planting corn and cassava, and started pig farming.

The church was built and the city prospered, reaching, among Spanish and indigenous settlers, a population of approximately five hundred inhabitants. In 1513, Santa María la Antigua was already the episcopal seat and capital of Castilla de Oro, the name by which the current Colombian territory was called.

Then the charisma of Vasco Núñez de Balboa grew, and the majority of the soldiers were on his side.

For Balboa, the land belonged to those who conquered it at the risk of their own lives, and then occupied and worked it. His was one of the oldest versions of the principle that 300 years later would guide the American revolutionary movements against the oppressive power of the Spanish empire.

A single blow was enough for Balboa to assume the title of governor of Veragua; Then he put Nicuesa in prison, expelling him from the continent by sea in a boat in terrible conditions, along with seventeen of his followers. Enciso was imprisoned, his property was confiscated and he was sent back to Spain to be tried by the Crown.

Meanwhile, Balboa decided to inspect the interior of Veragua, advancing on foot and horseback. He explored the rivers, confronted the natives and he too began to let himself be possessed by the ambition and desperation of finding the gold vein, the great mine or the fabulous city of gold that he fantasized about. During his expeditions he managed to appropriate a lot of gold, almost always taking it by force from the indigenous people, who were then massacred.

In the first months of 1512, Balboa arrived in the valley of the chief Careta, who did not resist, but, on the contrary, established a peaceful relationship with the Spanish. His objective was to gain Balboa's trust in order to defeat the Ponca chief, his rival.

Ponca's possessions were taken, resulting in considerable loot. Balboa continued towards a fertile and wild territory, ruled by the chief Comagre, who also seemed peaceful, so much so that he was later baptized along with Careta in an official ceremony.

It was in the land of Comagre where Balboa first heard of the existence of another sea beyond the mountains. He brought up the subject because Comagre's son, Paquiaco, seeing the Spaniards so eager to find gold, said:

If you are so eager and greedy for gold that you left your distant land to come and create trouble in ours, I will show you a land where you can find all the gold you want. It is Birú, a land where there is more gold than land.

Balboa took into consideration the news that Paquiaco gave him, and in 1513 he decided to return to Santa María la Antigua to organize the trip. He needed more men and sufficient means to launch such an important company. In his mind he not only harbored the idea of ​​the discovery of the new sea, the mythical voyage to the Indies that would make him famous in Spain, but he also thought of Birú, that fabulous and inaccessible city where he would discover the legendary city of gold.

The expedition left on September 1, 1513. There were 190 Spaniards, about fifteen indigenous people and also fifteen dogs trained for the attack. Sailing in a small sailboat, they reached the lands of chief Careta and from there, with thousands of indigenous people, they headed to the territories of the Ponca chief, who had prepared to attack again. Balboa decided to respond with force, and the chief was defeated and subdued. Many of his men allied themselves with the Spanish and joined the expedition.

They took the road again and continued advancing through the jungle.

On September 24, 1513, they arrived at the lands of chief Torecha, where another fierce battle took place and Balboa himself began to fight.

The chief was defeated, but the Spanish suffered great losses, so many of them decided to return to Santa María.

The few who followed Vasco Núñez de Balboa walked throughout September 25, 1513 along the Chucunaque River mountain range, guided by an indigenous person, until they finally reached the top of the mountain range, from where they could see, in the distance, the new sea.

The chaplain of the expedition, Andrés de Vera, intoned the Te Deum Laudamus. After the epic moment of discovery, the explorers continued towards the sea, where they arrived after three days of walking. Balboa submerged himself in those unknown waters, then raised his hands; In one he had a sword, in the other the shield of the virgin.

He took possession of the new sea in the name of the sovereigns of Castile, in the presence of a notary of the king; He baptized it South Sea. Seven years later, Ferdinand Magellan called it the Pacific Ocean.

In the following months, he continued touring neighboring territories because he kept in mind what Paquiaco had told him about the gold from a land called Birú, located right in the South Sea. He did not know the distances and thought it was a nearby land. He unscrupulously plundered Coquera (on today's Panamanian Pacific coast), collecting a magnificent loot of gold and pearls.

Then, he continued sailing by canoe to some neighboring islands dominated by the powerful chief Terarequi. He did not confront this chief because he had already acquired experience in how to treat the indigenous people of the place, gaining his trust; He returned to the continent loaded with pearls and precious stones. The archipelago was called “of the pearls”, a name that it still retains.

In November 1513, Balboa decided to return to Santa María la Antigua, but traveling a different route. He crossed the territories of Teoca, Bononaima and Chiorizo. During the return trip, there were new confrontations with the indigenous people, looting of gold and wealth, but Balboa tried to punish the violent behavior of his troops, despite the obvious disappointment of not having found Birú. He arrived at Santa María la Antigua in January 1514.

He ordered Pedro de Arbolancha to sail to Spain to communicate the news of the new sea, and sent the king a fifth of the loot, as established by the laws of the empire.

Meanwhile, the kings had appointed Pedro Arias de Ávila as the new governor of Veragua and Castilla de Oro, which corresponded to the coast north of Veragua, the current territory of Costa Rica and Honduras.

When Arbolancha arrived in Spain, the news of the discovery of the new sea caused great impact. The new governor, better known as Pedrarias Dávila, set out with the largest fleet ever organized for America, composed of seventeen ships and fifteen hundred men.

Fernando de Enciso also participated in this expedition, who had revenge against Balboa; several captains and sons of Spanish noblemen, among whom Hernando de Soto; religious and several women, including Isabel de Bobadilla, wife of Pedrarias.

There were also many soldiers who had taken part in the war in Italy, but several died upon arrival in Santa María del Darién, due to malaria or due to intestinal infections.

Upon the arrival of the new expedition, Balboa received the new governor with respect and submitted to his authority. He understood that he could not face Pedrarias, and he had a feeling that Fernández de Enciso was plotting something against him. He was then convinced that the best thing was to leave again and continue the search for the lost kingdom of Birú.

He went with a small group of men inland, up the Atrato River, but was attacked by hosts of warlike indigenous people, who forced him to take refuge in Santa María.

Suddenly, it seemed that fortune was smiling on him again, since the kings of Spain recognized him as advance of the South Sea and governor of Panama and Coiba. Pedrarias was assigned the coast of the Caribbean Sea, while Balboa was assigned the coast of the South Sea. With the aim of gaining an ally, Pedrarias offered Balboa his daughter María de Peñalosa as his wife, whom he sent for from Spain to marry.

After the marriage, Balboa left for the South Sea and, in 1517, in the village of Acla, he began the construction of four caravels, with the help of indigenous people and African slaves. His intention was to sail to Birú, since he could never forget either Paquiaco's words or expression.

Shortly after his departure, he received a friendly letter from Pedrarias in which he asked him to return to Acla to discuss some important things. The serious and calm nature of the letter deceived him, and he decided to return. On the way back he was taken prisoner by some men under the command of Francisco Pizarro, who, by order of the governor, accused him of treason for proposing to create his own government on the coasts of the South Sea.

The sentence, issued by the governor with the endorsement of Espinoza, mayor of Acla, which was to be carried out immediately, was the death penalty by beheading.

During this period, the situation in Santa María la Antigua had rapidly worsened. The Europeans were very numerous and the corn and manioc crops were not enough to feed all the settlers.

On top of that, relations with the indigenous people had soured again. Pedrarias Dávila failed to gain his trust and the first skirmishes occurred for control of some lands. Just a few months later, the general condition of the colonists was deteriorating dangerously: many of them were starving and others were falling ill with malaria and intestinal diseases.

With the approval of Pedrarias Dávila and Bishop Juan de Quevedo, the indigenous people began to be hunted, who were enslaved and forced to work hard in the fields.

Santa María la Antigua del Darién
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This period of decline lasted until 1519, when Pedrarias Dávila realized that it would be more profitable to found a city in the area where the isthmus of Panama was narrowest. Rumors about a very rich kingdom located in the South Sea (Birú) suggested to him the possibility of shamelessly enriching himself, and so he decided to transfer many settlers and most of the animals and goods (carts, weapons, provisions) to the new city of Panama, which was also proclaimed the new capital of Castilla de Oro.

Saint Mary the Ancient of Darién survived for another four years. At that time, Gonzalo Fernández of Oviedo was appointed mayor, but the incessant attacks by the indigenous people terrified the population, who slowly became convinced to move to Panama.

In 1524, the few residents of Santa María la Antigua decided to abandon it completely and, a few months later, it was completely destroyed and burned by the indigenous people. During the following centuries, the Darién area was the scene of constant clashes between Cuna and Emberá indigenous people, in addition to being declared a “prohibited zone” by the Spanish Crown, given that Dutch, English and Scottish pirate troops had tried to conquer it repeatedly.

The jungle completely covered the area where Santa María la Antigua had been founded and no one, for several centuries, was able to locate its remains.

A few years after 1950, the Colombian anthropologist Graciliano Arcila Vélez managed to identify the ruins of the church of Santa María la Antigua.

This discovery was confirmed in 1957 during an expedition financed by King Leopold III of Belgium and led by the Colombian-Austrian archaeologist Gerardo Reichel Dolmatoff.

The remains were near Tanela, a town in the municipality of Unguía, in the Colombian department of Chocó. In the following years there were further excavation and study works, carried out by Paolo Vignolo and Virgilio Becerra, from the National University of Colombia, Department of History and Anthropology.

The total recovery of the archaeological site of Santa María la Antigua could be a good incentive for tourism in the Colombian Darién area, where the beautiful beaches of Capurganá are located.


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