Spain laid claim to all of Central America in the 16th century, the absence
of precious metals, the lack of a large indigenous work force, and the
difficult climate and topography kept the Spanish from maintain a physical
presence along the Atlantic coast of the isthmus. But for British pirates,
the swampy coastal lagoons and rivers were perfect supply and refuge sites;
and there were valuable timbers to be harvested.
In 1655, after capturing Jamaica from Spain, Britain
moved into the Atlantic coast to challenge Spain's nominal claim. Based
at Providence Island and Cape Gracias a Dios, the British founded settlements
along the coast as far north as Belize, the former British Honduras.
The English colonization of the Atlantic coast was
primarily done in two ways: (1) With Indians living along the Miskito Coast
of Nicaragua and Honduras, the British traded firearms and metal tools
for turtle meat, lumber and fish. They formed alliances with the Miskito
Indians, using them as guerilla forces to counter Spanish attempts to regain
control. (2) In Belize and in the Bay Islands off the coast of Honduras,
they cut logwood and mahogany, grew indigo, sugar and bananas. These industries
required a large labor force, so the British brought in African slaves
captured from the Spanish or purchased in Jamaica. In Belize, slaves accounted
for 71% of the population by 1745.
Throughout the Caribbean, revolts were breaking out
and after the success of the Haitian insurrection in 1803, subjugated people
in the Greater and Lesser Antilles were given courage to to fight. On St.
Vincent, a group known as the "Black Caribs" revolted under the leadership
of their chief Chatoyer. The Black Caribs, were a population of slaves
intermixed with the native Carib indians who had resisted both French and
British rule from the first attempts at colonization and exploitation.
The British defeated the uprising and deported the surviving Black Caribs
from St. Vincent to the Bay Islands in Honduras.
The British presence was soon to be challenged by
the emerging power to the north, the United States. Then president, James
Monroe, warned the European powers against further colonization in the
western hemisphere, leaving the way open for future U.S. expansion. In
1848 the California Gold Rush began and and it was profitable for business
interests to provide a fast route to the west coast. Overland, covered
wagon crossing was slow and dangerous and so the preferred method was around
the continent by steamship, requiring a passageway across Central America.
One such route was through Panama, and in 1855 the construction of the
Panama Railroad was completed. A shorter route lay to the north of Nicaragua,
through the San Juan River. However, the mouth of the San Juan river was
a British protectorate and England quickly challenged the right of the
U.S. to monopolize transit through the area. The issue was temporarily
resolved by the Clayto-Bulwer treaty of 1850, in which it was agreed that
neither the U.S. nor Britain would unilaterally build a canal through Central
America. The treaty also prohibited either side from attempting to occupy
or rule any part of the isthmus.
Until the 1890's when U.S.' interests moved into
the Atlantic coast region to begin large scale banana exports, along with
with lesser exports of cocoa, sugar and timbre. This began the era of the
Banana Republic whose holdings while primarily in Honduras, Costa Rica
and Panama extended to Cuba, Jamaica and Puerto Rico.
The failure and threat of the French attempt to build
a canal on what is now the Columbian/Panamanian border, spurred the the
U.S. to build one themselves. The French canal was a costly failure, with
thousands of death among the West Indian contract laborers who did the
digging. These West Indians imported for something akin to indentured slavery,
settled in Panama.
Spanish, French, British and later the U.S. contributed,
if not spurred the trans-atlantic migration of African populations enslaved
or revolting in the Caribbean. The maintenance of traditional African cult
and the adaptation of the indigenous culture created the diffusionism present
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