A Brief History of Central America

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Podcast Transcript

Located between Mexico and Colombia, in a strategic area connecting the Atlantic and the Pacific, is the region we call Central America. 

The countries that make up Central America were mostly former Spanish colonies, but unlike other Spanish colonies to the north and south, Central America wound up as a series of small countries rather than one big one.

But why?

Learn more about the history of Central America and how the current borders came to be on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

In a previous episode, I asked the question, why weren’t all of the former British colonies in the Caribbean one single country? They have a similar history, are in the same geographic area, speak the same language, and have similar cultures.  

Yet, instead of one single country, it wound up as nine separate, very small countries. 

In this episode, I want to address the same question, but this time in Central America. 

Central America is a collection of seven small countries. They are Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama.

They aren’t as small as the countries in the Caribbean, but they are much smaller than other former Spanish colonies such as Argentina, Peru, Colombia, and Mexico. 

So why isn’t there one country between Mexico and South America rather than seven, especially considering that they are all very similar geographically, culturally, and linguistically? 

In this episode, I want to discuss the history of the region as a whole. Given the time constraints of this podcast, giving each individual country its due simply isn’t possible. That will be for future episodes.

Pre-Columbian Central America was arguably the most advanced region of the New World. 

The earliest known civilization in Mesoamerica was the Olmecs. The Olmec civilization existed from about 1600 BC to the year 400. 

We don’t know nearly as much about the Olmecs as we do about the subsequent civilizations that arose in the region. 

The heart of the Olmec civilization was actually slightly north of the Countries of Central America in Mexico, but their influence extended south into what is today Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras. 

The Olmecs are best known for their distinctive stone head carvings, which they left behind.

The Olmec Civilization will be the subject of a future episode. 

Following the Olmecs were the Maya. I’ve previously done an entire episode on the Maya, so I’m not going to go into too much detail here, but the Maya were an extremely sophisticated civilization with advanced mathematics, astronomy, and architecture. They inhabited the regions of Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador.

The Maya rose around the year 250, and the height of the classical Maya Civilization existed through the year 900, and a post-classical period continued until the year 1200. The Maya were never a single political entity but rather were a collection of cities and villages. 

The Maya civilization collapsed by 1200 when most major Mayan cities were abandoned. The cause of the collapse isn’t known or agreed upon by scholars, but by the time the Spanish arrived, the great Mayan cities were empty and overgrown by forests. 

Several indigenous groups, including the Pipil in El Salvador, the Lenca in Honduras, and the Chorotega in Nicaragua and Costa Rica, lived south of the Maya.

The tectonic change in the region came with the arrival of the Spanish. 

The first contact with Europeans occurred on July 30, 1502, during Christopher Columbus’s fourth and last voyage. He and his crew arrived on the shore of Honduras.

On this voyage, which took place ten years after his first arrival in the New World, Columbus was still looking for a route to Asia. 

The conquest and colonization of Central America was a process that took place over several decades in the first half of the 16th century. 

In 1506, Juan de Solís and Vicente Yáñez Pinzón explored the coast of Central America.

In 1513, Vasco Núñez de Balboa crossed the Isthmus of Panama and became the first European to see the Pacific Ocean from the New World, claiming it for Spain.

In 1521, the Viceroy of New Spain was established, which included everything from Costa Rica up through Mexico and much of what is today the United States. Even though Spain claimed it, large parts of this territory were still unexplored.

In 1523, Pedro de Alvarado, a lieutenant of Hernan Cortés, led an expedition from Mexico to Guatemala, where he began the conquest of the Maya.

In 1524, Francisco Hernández de Córdoba explored and began the conquest of Nicaragua. 

Central America was never as important as some of Spain’s other possessions in the Americas. Their primary concern at this point was silver and gold.

However, over time, Spanish rule in the new world became more structured as they gained greater control over all of the territory they claimed.

In 1543, they established the Real Audiencia of Santiago de Guatemala, an administrative court that oversaw most of what we know today as Central America. An audiencia was a court that heard cases for the entire region. 

At the start of the 17th century, Spain established secondary administrative units across their colonies. In 1609, the Captaincy General of Guatemala was established. 

The captain-general was a title granted to the person who served as both the governor and the president of the audiencia. They were given a great deal of autonomy to deal with threats, in particular military threats from pirates. 

The Captaincy General of Guatemala was the administrative unit that governed all of Central America, save for Panama, for over 200 years.

Here I need to split Central America into three parts, separating Panama and Belize, because they had separate histories. 

Panama was part of the Viceroy of New Granada, which was established in 1717 and included modern-day Panama, Colombia, Venezuela, and Ecuador. 

Belize came about from a treaty the Spanish signed with the British in 1783. At the Treaty of Paris, where the British finally recognized American independence, several other separate treaties were signed between the major European colonial powers. 

The modern-day country of Belize was a Spanish possession, but in the 18th century, the British set up communities there, along the Caribbean coast of Guatemala and Nicaragua, known as the Mosquito Coast. This wasn’t British territory, so the British mostly kept quiet about it so as not to antagonize the Spanish, who surrounded them. 

According to the 1783 Treaty of Paris, these settlements were supposed to be evacuated, but the residents didn’t want to go.

So, at the Convention of London of 1786, Britain agreed to abandon their settlements along the Mosquito Coast in exchange for logging rights in Belize. 

In 1787, they created the British Settlements on the Bay of Honduras, which was formally changed to the Crown Colony of British Honduras in 1862.

Back to the Captaincy General of Guatemala….

In the early 19th century, the Spanish colonies in the New World were all undergoing revolution and declaring themselves independent. 

Panama became part of the newly independent nation of Gran Colombia in 1819. 

In 1821, the provinces of the Captaincy General of Guatemala signed the Act of Independence of Central America, which formally dissolved their allegiance to Spain. 

While it dissolved their loyalty to Spain, it didn’t necessarily put anything in its place. 

In 1822, the provinces voted five to one to join the newly independent Mexican Empire. One of the provinces voting in favor was Chiapas, which, until this point, had never been a part of Mexico, and El Salvador voting against it. 

The union with Mexico was to be short-lived. 

In 1823, the very next year, the Central American provinces elected to leave Mexico, with only Chiapas choosing to remain in Mexico, where it remains to this day. 

On July 1, 1823, the provinces established their own country, known as the Federal Republic of Central America. 

So, to answer the question I asked at the very beginning of the episode, “Why aren’t the countries in Central America all one country?” 

The answer is that they actually were. 

The Federal Republic of Central America never got off to a good start, and those problems plagued it throughout its entire existence. 

The Federal Republic of Central America had a constitution that was based on the United States and other federal republics. 

The country’s initial capital was Guatemala City, which was also the largest city. It didn’t have a single ruler. The legislature appointed a triumvirate, and each member rotated executive authority monthly.

The first triumvirate was held by Central American liberals.

The new country’s biggest problem was extreme political polarization and ideological divisions. The primary divisions were between liberals, who wanted a decentralized government, separation of church and state, and the extension of voting rights, and conservatives, who wanted centralized government, close ties with the Catholic Church, and limited voting rights.

In September, there was a military uprising in Guatemala City because the country could not pay its soldiers. The conservatives used this crisis as an excuse to get the triumvirate to resign and have a conservative triumvirate appointed, led by Manuel José Arce, one of the leaders of the independence movement against Spain. 

An armed revolt sprang up in Nicaragua, which was put down by the central government without firing a shot. 

In 1825, the country finally got around to electing its first president, but even that was messed up. They had an electoral college, and the candidate with the most votes was the conservative José Cecilio del Valle. However, he received exactly half the votes, and the constitution required a majority of the votes. 

So, the election went to the legislature, which selected Manuel José Arce as president. 

Arce’s election angered the conservatives but also angered the liberals when he made promises to the conservatives in the legislature to get elected and appointed several to his cabinet. 

In 1826, a civil war broke out. Conservatives won the governorship of Guatemala, causing liberals to flee to El Salvador. El Salvador then invaded Guatemala, and the federal army was sent to Honduras to deal with a liberal governor who opposed Arce. 

In 1829, the civil war ended with the liberals taking Guatamal City and Arce fleeing to Mexico.

Costa Rica left the federation that year and came back in 1831.

In 1830, the liberal Francisco Morazán became president. Morazán’s presidency was plagued with conflict and strife. He moved the capital to San Salvador because Guatemala City had become very conservative, and he felt it wasn’t open to being a capital city anymore.

In 1833, another presidential election took place, and Morazán lost. However, because his opponent died before the oath of office could take place, Morazán actually won because, according to the constitution, he was the runner-up in the election.

The confusion in the 1833 election called for an election in 1835, which Morazán actually won. 

Nothing went right for the government. In 1837, a charismatic, illiterate pig farmer named Rafael Carrera came to power in Guatemala. Carrera gave moving speeches that mobilized both the local Catholic and Indigenous people. 

By 1838, the Central American experiment was all but over. 

On April 30, 1838, Nicaragua announced its independence from the Federal Republic of Central America. Honduras did the same thing on October 26, as did Costa Rica on November 2. 

On February 2, 1839, everyone in the government resigned, with no one to replace them. On April 17, Guatemalan President Rafael Carrera formally dissolved the Federal Republic of Central America and declared Guatemala to be independent.

El Salvador was the last country in the federation to declare itself independent in January 1841.

Panama, if you remember back to my episode on the Panama Canal, became independent from Colombia in 1903 after serious pressure from the United States and the support of independence groups. 

Belize was the last country to become independent. It finally achieved independence from Great Britain in 1973. 

Even since the dissolution of the Federal Republic of Central America, there have been calls for reunification. The idea pops up every few years in Central America, but no serious action is ever taken. 

The story of Central America doesn’t come anywhere close to ending with the independence of all the constituent countries. Each country followed sometimes very different paths, which led them to be the nations that they are today. 

The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel. 

The associate producers are Ben Long and Cameron Kieffer. 

Today’s review comes via email from 11-year-old Persephone in Surry, England. She writes:

Dear Gary,

My dad and I love Everything Everywhere Daily. I start secondary school in September, and we are trying to make sure we can get some episodes in every day on the way to school. We hope to be part of the completions club soon. We drove around Namibia at Easter. You were the fourth person on our trip. We loved Namibia—we can see why you did, too.

I use your little bits of information every day at school.

It is my dad’s 50th birthday on the 5th of June and he would love it if you could read this on the day. We would love an episode about Greek mythology especially PERSEPHONE. I would love an episode about Tudor (Henry’s wives) or musical ? theatre or life of Alexander Hamilton.

Please say happy birthday to Chris. This podcast deserves 5stars

Thank you very much, Persephone!

First of all, let me wish your father a very happy 50th birthday. He clearly has good taste in podcasts, naming children, and selecting holiday locations.

As for your episode suggestions, I have been working on some episodes about the mythology of ancient cultures, which may touch on the Greek goddess Persephone.

I have already done an episode on The Wives of Henry VIII a while back, and episodes about Alexander Hamilton and musical theater are already on the list of future episodes. 

Remember that if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read on the show.