The Embera People
The Embera People live in the Darien of Panama and the department of Choco in Colombia. In Panama they inhabit the same areas as the Indigenous group Waounan with whom they share many cultural similarities. The Darien of Panama is also home to a few Kuna communities and more and more Latino homesteaders in search of land for cultivation or cattle. The Embera women are known as one of the world’s finest basket makers, creating beautiful objects made out of palm leaves and dyed with natural pigments.
In 1850, with the coming of gold seekers headed for California and Alaska, Aspinwall (now named Colon) began as the starting point of a railroad on the Atlantic that was to carry people across the Isthmus of Panama.
Before the railroad was built, gold seekers sailed from the eastern United States up to Chagres at Fort San Lorenzo, crossed the isthmus by boat up to Gorgona or Cruces, and the rest by mule up to Panama City, then continued by ship to California. The original name of the town Aspinwall was named for William Henry Aspinwall. In 1848 Aspinwall founded the Pacific Mail Steamship Company, to provide service to California. This turned out to be a rather good year in which to start a steamship line to California, since the Gold Rush started the next year. The company's first vessel to make the trip was packed with passengers. Pacific Mail eventually became American President Lines.
Aspinwall then promoted a train to cross the Isthmus of Panama to transfer passengers between Atlantic seaports and Pacific seaports.
Covering the entire island was a dense growth of the water-loving mangrove and poisonous manzanillo trees, growing out of the swamp of unfathomable ooze which was the habitat of alligators and other huge reptiles. The air was filled with poisonous insects and heavy with the unhealthy vapors rising from the marshes. Columbus sailed away to a point fifty miles west of Colon and made a settlement which he named Belen. Here he left his brother Diego with one hundred men. The settlers remained there for some time and the sad story of the privations, hardships, and the final destruction of the entire group by the Indians. Portobelo San Lorenzo The Panama Railroad Nombre de Dios, Porto Bello, San Lorenzo Balboa and the other navigators sailed by its site without heed, making for Porto Bello or Nombre de Dios, the better harbors.
San Lorenzo, whose ruins stand at the mouth of the Chagres River, looked down upon busy fleets, and fell before the assaults of Sir Henry Morgan and his buccaneers while the coral island that now upholds Colon was tenanted only by pelicans, turtles, alligators and serpents.
The town had been built by the railroad on Manzanillo Island, a coral flat, no more than a mile by three-quarters of a mile in area, at the entrance to Limon Bay. When the engineers first came to locate there the beginnings of the Panama railroad, they were compelled to make their quarters in an old sailing ship. In his "History of the Panama Railroad," published in 1862, F. N. Otis describes the site as being "cut off from the mainland by a narrow frith contained an area of a little more than one square mile. It was a virgin swamp, covered with a dense growth of the tortuous, water-loving mangrove, and interlaced with huge vines and thorny shrubs defying entrance even to the wild beasts common to the country. In the black slimy mud of its surface alligators and other reptiles abounded, while the air was laden with pestilential vapors and swarming with sandflies and mosquitoes. Residence on the island was impossible.
The in 1851 a storm prevented two New York ships from landing their passengers at the mouth of the Chagres River. The delayed travelers were instead landed at Colon where rails had been laid as far as Gatun. This route proving the more expeditious the news quickly reached New York and the ships began making Colon their port.
Residents suffered from disease, violence and torrential tropical rain -- more than 11 feet annually -- and wild fires during the dry season, when the tinderbox town was gutted by flames. Corpses of murdered men were found each morning lying in the gutters or floating face down in the bay. In their attempts to avoid fever and dysentery, railroad officials and businessmen of Manzanillo sometimes went on regimens of champagne doused heavily with quinine. This was supposed to be an effective cure for tropical affliction, but when pursued too long the practice brought delirium tremens and other symptoms as deadly as the fever itself.
Local business prospered, especially the prostitutes. Their pimps stood outside in ankle-deep mud to hawk the claims of their lovelies and to propel drunks bodily through the swinging doors of the stalls. Over the years liquor bottles tossed into the street created a solid layer of glass beneath the mud. In the 1890's pavement-laying contractors found it unnecessary to put down a gravel foundation because the thousands of bottles buried there served the purpose.
As in many port cities, disenfranchised women from around the world, especially from low-earning areas such as England, sailed in and turned to prostitution to survive.
Fair-skinned girls were very popular in Panama but unfortunately short-lived, being especially susceptible to fever. The girls and their pimps - "Buttock and Twang" as they were called in the cockney jargon - slept most of the day and commenced their business as soon as darkness fell. The Buttock made the approach and fulfilled her part of the contract leaning back spread-eagled against a building wall. While her client performed, she picked his pocket. The Twang stood by with drawn dirk, ready to give assistance. If the client seemed well-heeled, the Butt signaled and the Twang leaped forward and struck with his dirk. Then he and the girl dragged the dead man away to rifle his pockets and money belt at their leisure.
On February 29, 1852, the railroad company laid the cornerstone of a new passenger station and office building, the first brick structure the island. The ceremony brought railroad officials, members of consular staffs, local businessmen, and others.
Among the dignitaries were George Law, John L. Stephens - Vice-President of the Panama Railroad, Minor C. Story -- a large railroad construction contractor -- and a local resident whose name is listed in the record only as R. Webb of Manzanillo Island. During the celebration the town was given a formal name.
July 10, 1852, Daily Alta California, San Francisco, California
CITY OF ASPINWALL. -- In one of the Eastern journals we find the following account of the ceremonies of dedicating and naming the new city of Aspinwall. So intimately connected is the Isthmus of Panama with California, both commercially and through the constant travel between the two places, that our readers cannot but feel interested in all the improvements going on there.
Arguments ensued about the naming of the town as local officials insisted that it was Colon. Railroad officials refused to change it causing confusion over the actual name until 1890 when the government at Bogota ordered its post office department to return all mail to sender addressed with the name "Aspinwall" on the envelope.
Once the search for gold waned, Colon settled down to a period of lethargy and there was no sign of a renewal until late in the 70's the French engineers arrived to begin the surveys for the Canal.
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