Early History of Costa Rica

Early History of Costa Rica


Someone once wrote, “Happy is the people with a dull history.” The early development of Costa Rica fits that description. Not only is the pre-Columbian history of what is now Latin America largely shrouded in mystery, little is known of the cultures of indigenous peoples during the conquest except for the Aztecs, Mayas and Incas. In fact, it is not absolutely certain that Christopher Columbus really touched Costa Rica briefly during his fourth voyage to the New World in 1502 and the bay he named “Cariari” has not been definitely identified. What little that is known of the early residents is that they refined gold and crafted exquisite artifacts in that metal, in jade and in pottery. But even that record is sketchy, partly due to the raiding of huaqueros (grave robbers and illegal exploiters of ancient artifacts) who have long carried on the defiling of sites that could have helped piece together a coherent record. (The U.S.-born artist and Costa Rican resident Ruth Fendell told of visiting a Colombian businessman’s palatial home in the 1950s and seeing glass display cases full of fine pre-Columbian artifacts from Costa Rica, so common was the black market.)

It is said that Spanish explorer Gonzalez Davila named the country “Rich Coast” because of the quantity of gold ornaments worn by the natives. Yes, there is gold to be found in such places as the Osa Peninsula but not in grand quantities that warrant more than small mining operations and some speculate that native Costa Ricans may have traded for most of what they worked. Likewise, there is little or no jade here so the ornaments archaeologists find were certainly mined elsewhere. But concrete proof of trade and contact with other Central American cultures has been hard for archaeologists to confirm. Unlike Francisco Pizzaro and Hernán Cortez, the Spanish came to this country not as conquerors but mostly as settlers—and poor ones, at that. Even Juan Vasques de Coronado who came as governor in 1562 had to work his own land since the Indians in the Central Valley area of Cartago, where he established his capital, had fled into the remote, rugged Talamanca Mountains to escape European diseases. This factor accounts for the beginnings of a tradition emphasizing hard work as the path to success.

In the 20th century, the nation developed a strong middle class with no obscenely wealthy oligarchy ruling it. One still hears the myth that the reason this country did not develop like Peru or Ecuador is that there were few indigenous people, so avoiding the mestizo mixing of the gene pool. This is rubbish. As President Jimenez, a realist, once said, “Cut a Costa Rican and part of the blood he bleeds is Indian.” What really happened was that the poor male Spanish immigrants, lacking the funds to send back to Spain for their brides, intermarried with the native women (those who had not died of European epidemics), a typically Costa Rican solution. Thus, the Spanish did not exterminate the indigenous people but absorbed them. (This is not a whitewash of the Spanish in Costa Rica—there was a search for gold and atrocities connected with it. But genocide just is not part of the story.) Lacking hoards of gold to loot and slave-cultivated cash crops of great demand in Europe, the few Europeans who immigrated were farmers, not Spanish aristocrats. And the country benefited from a benign neglect of the motherland, the colonial capital at Guatemala being far away.

One of the early documents still preserved here is of a 18th century Costa Rican governor who complained that his farm work demanded so much of his time that he was unable to tend properly to colonial administrative duties. Evidently, the budget for Costa Rica was not a high priority in the Guatemalan colonial capital. Is it any wonder Costa Ricans developed differently from other Latin American nations, with no rich exploiters of the peon or rigid caste system? In fact, while many other Latin countries achieved liberation from Spain only after much bloodshed, Costa Rica was handed her independence without a fight—in fact, they were literally free before they knew it, when word finally trickled down from Guatemala in 1821. They languished briefly under a confederation based in the old colonial capital of Guatemala before opting for full independence.

For two centuries, the economy remained one of barter, with the result of little export to allow an influx of foreign exchange. The first real cash crop was coffee with the first shipload leaving the Pacific port of Puntarenas in 1820. Bananas followed as the Caribbean province of Limon received the attentions of the United Fruit Company and, later, other foreign operators. With the banana plantings also came imported black workers from the Caribbean islands, making up an English-speaking conclave basically ignored by the rest of the country. Others came to work on Minor Keith’s Atlantic railway, the first connection between the Caribbean coast and the more densely populated Central Valley where the capital, San Jose, had been created. (From the 1930s to the 1948 civil blacks were prohibited to ride the railway they had built into the capital, a segregation policy that liberal Costa Rica would like to forget ever existed.)

In a country with a basically peaceful history, the standout is the defeat by a hastily organized army, no more than a militia, of William Walker, a Tennessee-born. soldier of fortune who dreamed of subjugating the region into a united pro-slavery country ruled by white English-speakers, while his own country careened toward the Civil War. This is a fascinating story, including such figures as Wall Street tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt, but the critical part for Costa Rica was the Battle of Rivas (April, 1856) in southern Nicaragua, where Costa Rican forces defeated Walker and set him on the downward slope that ended before a firing squad in Honduras in 1860. The country’s only war hero, Juan Santamaría, is remembered from the fight in Rivas.

**Article from the archives of the American-European Real Estate Group**

Print Friendly, PDF & Email