The Isthmus of Panama offered transit from Atlantic to Pacific for centuries before the French began the canal. The various indigenous peoples, who apparently preferred peaceable trade to violent conquest, established trade routes across the isthmus and up and down both Caribbean and Pacific coasts. This year when we drove through Montana we found a historical marker about historical trade routes from that area into South America.
In 1513, by which time the first stable Spanish settlement had been established on the continent of South America, at Darien (a province in present-day Panama), Vasco Nunez de Balboa sighted the Pacific Ocean from a mountain top in Panama. In perhaps the first non-indigenous utilization of the isthmus, Balboa had a fleet of ships built on the Atlantic side and transported, in pieces, to the Pacific side for exploration of the surrounding lands.
The Spanish route over the isthmus was used extensively for transporting slaves and stolen gold. I don’t like reading those chapters of history about gold-hungry, murderous, back-stabbing men whose actions demonstrated not a whit of the Christian faith they claimed. The best that can be said for most of them is that they didn’t treat their compatriots any better than they did the indigenous peoples.
Balboa himself was beheaded on trumped-up charges of treason by Pedrarius, the governor of Darien who succeeded Balboa, in spite of a supposedly peaceable agreement and the betrothal by proxy of Pedrarias’ daughter to Balboa. To quote Donald Trump, “and I suppose some of them were good people.”