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Christopher Columbus gazed from his ship ...
Happy is the country that requires no heroes. ~ Bertold Brecht, 1898-1956Christopher Columbus gazed from his ship at the rich green vegetation of the shore near the present-day Costa Rican city of Limón, which he called “Cariari.” It was September 8, 1502. Still convinced he would find a passage to India, he was on his fourth and final trip from Spain to the Americas, a decade after his first voyage opened the New World to Europeans.
Following his discoveries, Spanish conquistadors and carpetbaggers got rich exploiting the islands of Hispañola and Cuba. This trip was Columbus’s last attempt to discover a route to the Orient – plus finally to acquire a little something for himself.
The Carib natives he encountered on the shore of this verdant land wore gold pendants around their necks and seemed friendly enough. They approached his ship with goods to trade and stories of the wealth and gold of the lands farther south. Immediately, he decided to petition the Spanish Court to govern this rich coast of Veragua.
Fortunately, Columbus could sail better than he could name a land because the Veragua moniker was soon dropped in favor of his descriptive adjectives, rich coast (costa rica). When he finally made it back to Spain, however, Isabella had died and the King refused to see him.
Columbus spent his final few years in failing health and would never return to the New World. Ironically, the joke would be on those that cheated him out of Costa Rica, for the rich land he expected turned out to be one of the poorest of Spain’s American colonies.
Impassable terrain, huge mountains, raging rivers, floods, heat, swamps, at least 19 separate hostile tribes, plus a lack of mineral wealth would keep the tiny colony out of the spotlight right into the 1800s and independence.
Those factors made the eventual “conquest” of Costa Rica more like a stern test of survival than a military victory. For years, would-be conquerors had to content themselves with excursions close to its Pacific shores, reached by sea from Panama after Vasco Nuñez de Balboa discovered the Pacific Ocean in 1513.
Captain Gil González organized the first major invasion in 1522. He and his men acquired enough gold to make the “rich coast” name stick for good, but they failed to establish a permanent settlement. González’s remarkable exploits include marching his men up the coast to Nicaragua.
According to his own accounts, he baptized 32,000 Indians along the way. But the treasury of gold nearly cost him his life when he returned. Threat came not from the natives, but from jealous Governor Pedrarias of Panama, a ruthless tyrant who had even beheaded his own brother-in-law, Balboa, discoverer of the Pacific.
The grandson of Columbus, Luis, mounted an expedition in 1546, after the King of Spain at last granted his family’s long-sought title, Duke of Veragua. Most of his 130 men were lost and the New World’s last direct link with its European discoverer ended.
Finally, in 1563, Juan Vásquez de Coronado founded the settlement of Cartago, Costa Rica’s first capitol and its first real city. Coronado could be considered the true “conqueror” of Costa Rica. During his tenure he organized expeditions and explorations around the country and made alliances with warring indigenous tribes. By the late 1560s, after Coronado was lost at sea on his way back to Spain, the native inhabitants of Costa Rica were either in slavery, dead from the many diseases that decimated the population, or living in remote, inaccessible areas.
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