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A brief history of Costa Rica II: Exploration
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A brief history of Costa Rica II
The land and climate

By Clifford Fain Dukes, Jr.
Special to Retire NOW in Costa Rica

The Americas were not new to explorers when Columbus made his voyages.

During the middle to latter parts of the 10th century A.D., sailors from the British Isles and the Brittany coast of France began making long voyages to the Georges Banks south of Nova Scotia since the traditional fishing grounds of Europe were being depleted. The Vikings also used North America as an excellent source for their ship building timbers and masts.

The fishing and seafaring communities were aware that the earth was not flat and that land and another continent existed on the western side of the Atlantic at least 500 years before Columbus. However, the few educated elites and intelligencia were virtually oblivious to this information.

The voyage of Christopher Columbus was Europe’s first government-sanctioned search of the Atlantic. He was looking for an alternate trade route to the Far East and for that reason the trip earned its place in history.

Columbus had been seeking European sponsorship for his voyage for some time, and in 1491 sent his brother Bartholomew to talk with England’s King Henry VII. Henry the VII declined the offer. This allowed Spain to conquer the southern Americas and Spanish to become the official language of most of Latin America.

In the 15th  century Western Europe received gold, silver, tea, spices, silk and perfumes from Japan, China, and Indonesia via the expensive, slow, and dangerous Silk Road across Asia and the Middle East. Soon thereafter, Portugal monopolized the sailing route around the horn of Africa to the Far East forcing Spain to choose the cross-Atlantic route to the Far East.
Columbus: Contempary portrait

In 1492 Columbus knew that the earth was not flat and most certainly had access to maps of the Atlantic region prepared by Chinese mariners from 1405-1433 as well as those prepared by Andrea Bianco and published in 1448. The four voyages of Columbus explored most of the important islands of the Caribbean as well as the coastal areas from Honduras to Brazil.

The first black African slaves arrived in Hispaniola in 1501 while the first black slaves in the United States didn’t arrive until 1650. The black slaves played an important role in the culture of Latin America. Their breeding with the Native Americans produced a class of people called sambas or pardos in Spanish. They were hard-working gifted people that the Spanish conquistadores used as overseers as well as workers for their huge plantations.

Each of the eight native tribes Columbus encountered in Costa Rica was headed by a chief called the cacique.  Most of the eastern indigenes fled the conquistadors for the mountains of Talamanca where they remain in government-protected isolation today. The Chorotega of Guanacaste became assimilated by the Spanish. The ultimate conquest of Costa Rica required some 70 years to accomplish involving numerous explorers and governors. Incidentally, the
name cacique was subsequently adopted by the Costa Rican government for their national liquor that is distilled from the fermentation of sugar cane. It contains 30 to 35 percent alcohol and is a clear liquor close to many vodkas in taste. While the conquest of Costa Rica occurred from west to east, due to the barrier-mountains in the eastern part of the country, the Caribbean plain proved an unhealthy place to live. When the conquistadores on the Caribbean coast began dying in large numbers due to mosquito-borne malaria, dengue fever, and yellow fever, they packed up and moved inland to Orosi in the mountains east of Cartago where the original seat of Costa Rican government eventually was established.

Some sixty miles east of San José, a culture existed as early as 3,000 years ago called Guayabo. They died out shortly before the conquest, but archeologists have discovered their highways, aqueducts, and food warehouses. During the rainy season they saved water in reservoirs for the dry season and managed to avoid flooding via an elaborate drainage system. The American Society of Civil Engineers has established Guayabo as an international engineering heritage site. The origin of this civilization and the reason for its demise are still not known.
A.M. Newspapers archive photo
Overview of the excavated Guayabo site.

It needs to be explained that Costa Rica was of very little interest to Spain primarily for lack of major deposits of gold and silver. Also with the sparse indigenous population there was a scarcity of slave labor for mining and agriculture activities.  The Spanish had to resort to a process called encomienda to encourage white Europeans to settle in the country.

Prospective settlers were given huge tracts of land in return for taming it and reducing any natives living there to Spanish subjects with emphasis on religion, language, and customs. As the result of encomienda, the province of Guanacaste became the ranching and livestock center of the country while the sector between Cartago and Matina specialized in cocoa plantations.

NEXT: A brief history of Costa Rica III: Development of the Latin culture HERE!

Text Copyrighted 2010 Clifford Fain Dukes, Jr. Used with permission.

A brief history of Costa Rica:

I. The land and climate  HERE!
II: Exploration
III: Development of the Latin culture HERE!
IV: Government  HERE!
V: Economic considerations HERE!
VI: Some problem areas HERE!

Planning resources for would-be expats HERE!

Copyrighted 2014 A.M. Costa Ltda., San José, Costa Rica