Colonial Costa Rica


On September 18, 1502 , during his fourth and last voyage to the New World , Christopher Columbus anchored in the Bay of Cariari (now Limon), after a violent tempest wrecked his ships. During the 17 days that he and his crew were resting and making repairs, they visited a few coastal Indian villages. The Indians treated them well and they left with the impression that Veragua (a name that Columbus used for the Caribbean Coast between Honduras and Panama ) was a land rich in gold, whose gentle and friendly Indians could be easily conquered.

A few years later, in 1506, King Ferdinand of Spain sent a governor to colonize Veragua. Governor Diego de Nicuesa and his colonizers received a different welcome. First, their ship went aground on the coast of Panama , and they had to walk up the Atlantic shore. Food shortages and tropical diseases reduced the group by half. Then they met the Indians, who burned crops rather than feed the invaders. The Spanish realized that their task was not going to be easy. There was no centralized Indian empire to conquer and sack, and the scattered tribes were at home in a climate and terrain that the explorers found devastating. This first attempt at colonization was a miserable failure.

After Vasco Nunez de Balboa discovered the Pacific Ocean in 1513, the Spaniards started exploring the west coast of Veragua. In 1522, an exploratory land expedition set out from northern Panama . Despite sickness, starvation and tropical weather, the survivors of the long, hazardous trip called it a success: they had obtained gold and pearls and their priest claimed he had converted over 30,000 Indians to Catholicism between Panama and Nicaragua .

More explorers and would-be colonizers arrived. There were attempted settlements on both coasts, but they ended in tragedy for the settlers who died of hunger, were driven out by the Indians or fought among themselves and dissolved their corn mutinies.

Juan Vasquez de Coronado arrived as Governor in 1562. He found a group of Spaniards and Spanish-Indian mestizos living inland from the Pacific coast. Coronado explored Costa Rica, treating the Indians he met more humanely than had his predecessors. He decided that the highlands were more suitable for settlement, so he moved the settlers to the Cartago Valley where the climate was pleasant and the soils were rich from the lava deposited by Volcan Irazu . In 1563, Cartago was established as the capital of Costa Rica .

In contrast to the pattern in most Spanish colonies, there was no large exploitable workforce in Costa Rica. The Indian population was decimated early on by war and disease. At one point even the governor was forced to work his own small plot of land to survive. Costa Rica's Spanish population remained small and their lifestyle humble through the seventeenth century. In 1709, Spanish money became so scarce that settlers used cacao beans as currency, just like the Chorotegas . Women wore goat hair skirts; soldiers had no uniforms. Volcan Irazu erupted in 1723, almost destroying Cartago. Nevertheless, they survived, and the area settled by Spaniards actually grew through the 1700's. Three new cities were founded in the Meseta Central: Cubujuquf (Heredia) in 1706, Villanueva de la Boca del Monte ( San Jose ) in 1737 and Villa Hermosa (Alajuela) in 1782.

Costa Rica had no riches and was difficult to reach from Guatemala, the seat of Spain's Central American empire, so it was left free from foreign intrusion into its affairs. Forgotten by its "mother country", Costa Rica was almost self- sufficient in its poverty.

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