Question set for Brady, S. 1999. “An historical geography of the earliest colonial routes across the American isthmus.” Revista Geografica, 126: 121-143.


1. What are the differences between site and situation?

Site includes a place’s physical characteristics: absolute location, physical geography.

Situation refers to a place’s relative location and how it fits into larger cultural systems.


2. What was the situation of the Central American isthmus during the Spanish colonial period?

The Central American isthmus was an interruption in the network of maritime trade routes that linked Spain to its far-flung sources of precious goods (silver from Peru; silk, spices, ivory…from the Orient).


3. What were the routes, destinations and functions of Spain’s three “maritime lifelines”? 

1. Manila Galleon AKA “nao de la China”; linked Manila with Acapulco; carried Oriental goods mentioned above to Acapulco and Mexican silver back to Orient in payment.

                        2. Galleons that linked Spain to Cartagena, Porto Bello and Havana; carried silver from Peru to Spain.

                        3. Flotas; linked Spain to Veracruz and Havana; carried Oriental goods to Spain.


4. What were the most important ports on the Pacific side of Latin America? Acapulco, Panama


5. What were the most important ports on the Atlantic side of Latin America? Cartagena, Porto Bello, Veracruz, Havana


6. You really need to learn the maps in this article.


7. How did Spain’s policies of “colonial exclusivism” and “mercantilism” influence Spain’s colonial transportation network?

Colonial exclusivism prevented Spain’s American colonies from trading with each other.  They could only trade with Spain.  Colonies also were prevented from developing manufacturing.  Commitment to mercantilism caused Spain to horde precious metals mined in the Americas in Spain.  All of this made inter-oceanic transport and infrastructure more important than intra-isthmian trade.  Spain’s emphasis was on developing and maintaining infrastructure that linked its ports to its colonial ports.


8. Learn the three locations, distances and time of discovery of the three primary isthmian crossings.  Look at map 2.


9. What three factors did each of these three crossings share?

                        1. A portion of the route was fluvial.

                        2. Rivers had eroded relatively low passes that defined the routes for the colonial roads.

                        3. River transport remained part of cargo transport.


10. Skim the section on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. It provides context for the discussion of the other two crossings.


11. Describe the site of the Nicaraguan crossing.  Use the terms Mar Dulce and Desaguadero in your description.

The Nicaraguan crossing allowed water-borne transport for most of its route. Lake Nicaragua, also known as Mar Dulce (“freshwater sea”), was drained by the Rio San Juan, also known as the Desaguadero (“the drain”). Twelve miles of low ground separated the lake from the Pacific Ocean. Cataracts on the Rio San Juan required portaging.


12. Which colonial settlements emerged because of the Nicaraguan crossing?  What was the purpose of each?

Granada (informal economic capital embedded in trail networks that carried agricultural products, slaves and metals to Atlantic ports), San Juan de la Cruz (Atlantic port), Realejo (Pacific port, ship-building center)


13. What was Nicaragua’s colonial function?

Nicaragua was source of agricultural products (cacao, pork, cotton, tobacco, sugar cane) and slaves, both often sent to mines in Peru.


14. How was the Desaguadero a “two-edged” sword for Nicaragua?

The Desaguadero and Mar Dulce provided extensive water-borne transport across the isthmus.  They allowed extensive water-borne piracy and attacks within Nicaragua.


15. How and when did events in California bring the influence of Cornelius Vanderbilt to the Nicaraguan crossing?

The California Gold Rush in the late 1840s stimulated movement from America’s Atlantic to its Pacific coast before the trans-continental railroads had been built. Travel by steamer to Panama and Nicaragua was faster than overland wagon train. Cornelius Vanderbilt established a steamship line that connected New York to San Francisco by way of the Desaguadero and Mar Dulce.


16. Describe the crossing at Panama.

“18 leagues of misery and curses”. The 50 miles that separated Panama City and Porto Bello were comprised of rugged mountains covered in tropical rainforest.  Eventually, the Spanish incorporated the channel of the Rio Chagres into trans-isthmian transport.


17. What discovery made Panama the most important isthmian crossing?

The discovery of massive silver deposits in Peru.


18. Note how Pedrarias was so effective at securing “stimulus funds” from the Spanish crown.


19. Describe Panama’s Atlantic and Pacific ports.

Terrible living conditions.  Humid tierra caliente. Nombre de Dios was established in a swampy place without protected port. Porto Bello had a deeper harbor. Panama City on the Pacific coast was hampered by a shallow sea and large tidal range, which prevented ships from docking on the mainland.


20.  What were cimarrones?

Bands of escaped African slaves and criminals who preyed on the recuas that carried Peruvian silver across the isthmus.


21. When and how did the English force the Spanish to give up on their convoy system?

Spanish reliance on the Panama crossing made the settlements and galleons especially vulnerable to attacks by English privateers and pirates.  As the English established a greater presence in the Caribbean, Panama and ships sailing to and from Panama, became relatively easy picking for rogue ships.  In 1748 the Spanish gave up on Panama’s camino real and directed ships carrying Peruvian silver to skirt the southern tip of South America on its way to Spain.   



22. What events revived the Panama crossing?

Independence from Spain in 1821 and the establishment of Bolivar’s Gran Colombia, and later, the California Gold Rush.