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The First Arrivals
When Columbus anchored his storm- damaged vessels—Capitana, Gallega, Viscaína, and Santiago de Palos—in the Bay of Cariari, off the Caribbean coast, on his fourth voyage to the New World in 1502, he was welcomed and treated with great hospitality by indigenous peoples who had never seen white men before.
The tribal dignitaries appeared wearing much gold, which they gave Columbus. “I saw more signs of gold in the first two days than I saw in Española during four years,” his journal records. He called the region La Huerta (The Garden). The great navigator struggled home to Spain in worm-eaten ships (he was stranded for one whole year in Jamaica) and never returned. The prospect of vast loot, however, drew adventurers whose numbers were reinforced after Vasco Nuñez de Balboa’s discovery of the Pacific in 1513. To these explorers the name Costa Rica would have seemed a cruel hoax. Floods, swamps, and tropical diseases stalked them in the sweltering lowlands. And fierce, elusive Indians harassed them maddeningly.
In 1506, Ferdinand of Spain sent a governor, Diego de Nicuesa, to colonize the Atlantic coast of the isthmus he called “Veragua.” He ran aground off the coast of Panamá and was forced to march north. Antagonized indigenous bands used guerrilla tactics to slay the strangers and willingly burned their own crops to deny them food. Nicuesa set the tone for future expeditions by foreshortening his own cultural lessons with the musket ball. Things seemed more promising when an expedition under Gil González Davila set off from Panamá in 1522 to settle the region. It was Davila’s expedition—which reaped quantities of gold—that won the land its nickname of Costa Rica, the “Rich Coast.” Alas, the local peoples never revealed the whereabouts of the fabled mines of Veragua (most likely it was placer gold found in the gold-rich rivers of the Osa Peninsula).
Later colonizing expeditions on the Caribbean failed as miserably as Davila’s. When two years later Francisco Fernández de Córdova founded the first Spanish settlement on the Pacific at Bruselas, near present-day Puntarenas, its inhabitants all died within three years.
For the next four decades Costa Rica was virtually left alone. The conquest of Peru by Pizarro in 1532 and the first of the great silver strikes in Mexico in the 1540s turned eyes away from southern Central America. Guatemala became the administrative center for the Spanish Main in 1543, when the captaincy-general of Guatemala, answerable to the viceroy of New Spain (Mexico), was created with jurisdiction from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec to the neglected lands of Costa Rica and Panamá.
Prompted by an edict of 1559 issued by Philip II of Spain, the representatives in Guatemala thought it time to settle Costa Rica and Christianize the natives. Alas, barbaric treatment and European epidemics—opthalmia, smallpox, and tuberculosis—had already reaped the indigenous people like a scythe and had so antagonized the survivors that they took to the forests and eventually found refuge amid the remote valleys of the Cordillera Talamanca. Only in the Nicoya Peninsula did there remain any significant indigenous population, the Chorotegas, who soon found themselves chattel on Spanish land under the encomienda (serfdom) system.
In 1562, Juan Vásquez de Coronado—the true conquistador of Costa Rica—arrived as governor. He treated the surviving indigenous people more humanely and moved the few existing Spanish settlers into the Meseta Central, where the temperate climate and rich volcanic soils offered the promise of crop cultivation. Cartago was established as the national capital in 1563.
After the initial impetus given by its discovery, Costa Rica lapsed into a lowly Cinderella of the Spanish empire. Land was readily available, but there was no indigenous labor to work it. The colonists were forced to work the land themselves (even the governor, it is commonly claimed, had to work his own plot of land to survive). Without gold or export crops, trade with other colonies was infrequent at best. The Spanish found themselves impoverished in a subsistence economy. Money became so scarce that the settlers eventually reverted to the indigenous method of using cacao beans as currency.
A full century after its founding, Cartago could boast little more than a few score adobe houses and a single church, which all perished when Volcán Irazú erupted in 1723.
Gradually, however, towns took shape. Heredia (Cubujuquie) was founded in 1717, San José (Villaneuva de la Boca del Monte) in 1737, and Alajuela (Villa Hermosa) in 1782. Later, exports of wheat and tobacco placed the colonial economy on a sounder economic basis and encouraged the intensive settlement that characterizes the Meseta Central today.
In other colonies, Spaniard married native and a distinct class system arose, but mixed-bloods (mestizos) represent a much smaller element in Costa Rica than they do elsewhere on the isthmus. All this had a leveling effect on colonial society. As the population grew, so did the number of poor families who had never benefited from the labor of encomienda indigenous people or suffered the despotic arrogance of criollo (Creole) landowners. Costa Rica, in the traditional view, became a “rural democracy,” with no oppressed mestizo class resentful of the maltreatment and scorn of the Creoles. Removed from the mainstream of Spanish culture, the Costa Ricans became individualistic and egalitarian.
Not all areas of the country, however, fit the model of rural democracy. Nicoya and Guanacaste on the Pacific side were administered quite separately in colonial times from the rest of Costa Rica. They fell within the Nicaraguan sphere of influence, and large cattle ranches or haciendas arose. The cattle-ranching economy and the more traditional class-based society that arose persist today.
On the Caribbean of Costa Rica, cacao plantations became well established. Eventually large-scale cacao production gave way to small-scale sharecropping, and then to tobacco as the cacao industry went into decline. Spain closed the Costa Rican ports in 1665 in response to English piracy, thereby cutting off seaborne sources of legal trade. Smuggling flourished, however, for the largely unincorporated Caribbean coast provided a safe haven to buccaneers and smugglers, whose strongholds became 18th-century shipping points for logwood and mahogany.
© Christopher P. Baker from Moon Costa Rica, 8th Edition