03 November 2013

Interesting Facts about Colombia: Part III

Posted in Blog

Previously, I've share interesting facts about Colombia concerning indigenous groups and flowers. Today, I want to focus on two interesting facts that have to do more with history.

1. Colombia used to include Panama within its national boundaries.

For Latin American history buffs, this fact might not be so interesting or new, but for the rest of you maybe it's a small part of Latin American and Colombian history that you haven't heard before. Officially, until 1903, Panama was another department of Colombia. How and why, you might be asking, did Panama separate from Colombia? Let me expound...

It all started in the late 1880s when the search in Central America for the perfect location to build a canal that would allow "easy" passage of ships between the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean intensified. Two locations were originally chosen for canal project, including sites in both current-day Nicaragua and Panama1. In Panama, a French company began excavations and surveys, while in Nicaragua, the United States began construction. After the French company in Panama fell into financial troubles, the right to build a canal in Panama was put up for sale, and, after much deliberation, the United State government decided to halt construction in Nicaragua and buy the rights to build in Panama. There was only one problem: Panama was part of Colombia.

Uncover Colombia - A Kuna woman explaining her work
A Kuna woman explaining her work—the Kuna indigenous group are one thing
Panama and Colombia continue to share across borders.

When the Colombian congress refused the Hay-Herran Treaty that would have given the United States canal rights for 100 years for an annual fee, then-president Theodore Roosevelt set about coming up with a plan to make the canal his1. Key to his plan was using the previous Panamanian resurrections against the Colombia government. Soon after the Hay-Herran Treaty was blocked, unrest unfolded in Panama, and the United States government almost immediately lent its support to the rebel Panamanian group fighting against the Colombian government. To further assure Panamanian independence from Colombia, the U.S. sent battleships to support the Panamanians and block Colombian military from entering the area. In the end, in November 1903, Panama was declared independent from Colombia with the United States government, followed by many other countries around the world, recognizing its status as an independent country.

2. The Legend of El Dorado has its roots in a Colombian indigenous ceremony.

We have all heard the legend of El Dorado at some point; however, most probably don't know that the legend originated in Colombia. The legend of El Dorado that we all know is quite different, though, from the real story of El Dorado. It turns out, El Dorado was not a golden city, but a sacred ceremony carried out by the Muisca indigenous group that lived in the area around Lake Guatavita in central Colombia. The Muiscas performed the El Dorado ceremony when a new leader was taking over the community; in this ceremony, the new leader would cover his body with gold flakes and sail out to the middle of Lake Guatavita with offerings of gold and emeralds while the rest of the community stood on the shore watching2. This ceremony, combined with the greed of colonizers to find gold, is what eventually led to the creation of the El Dorado legend we are all so familiar with that focuses on a city of gold.

Bogota Gold Museum - Balsa Muisca
Piece of Muisca art in the Museo de Oro depicting the El Dorado ceremony

And, while that city of gold doesn't exist in Colombia, there is still an impressive collection of gold Muisca artwork on display in the Museo de Oro in Bogotá, and you can visit descendants of the Muisca tribe in the areas surround Lake Guatavita, where the "legend" of El Dorado is still very much alive.

Paige M. Poole,

About the author:

"Paige M. Poole is an Alabamian and traveler at heart who has settled, for now, in Barranquilla, Colombia, and earns her living as an English professor at the Instituto de Idiomas (Language Institute) at la Universidad del Norte (University of the North). When not teaching English, she enjoys blogging, traveling, relaxing on the beach, and spending time with her partner and two cats, Milo and Sophie. You can see more of Paige's traveling experiences in her personal blog www.trotamunda.wordpress.com