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
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
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
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.