Most believe the first Central Americans were peoples from Asia who migrated 20, 000 or so years ago across the frozen Bering Strait from Russia to Alaska and down through the Americas. Others argue that seafaring Asians crossed to present-day California only about 11, 000 years ago. Either way, things have gotten decidedly more tense in the last few thousand years. Ever cruel, Mother Nature has unleashed hurricanes, volcanic eruptions and mudslides, wrecking new settlements, while rival city-states battled each other. Then the Europeans showed up.
By the time the first Europeans with shiny helmets arrived in Central America – Christopher Columbus (Cristóbal Colón to his Spanish crew) made it here in 1502 – the region’s greatest civilizations had already dissipated into the jungle.
Most of the ‘Indians’ who did meet the Spanish lived in small tribes, as corn farmers or hunter-gatherers. Other than a few scattered highland towns, and larger ones at present-day Managua and Granada in Nicaragua, nothing here rivaled the power centers of the Aztecs or Incas of the time.
The Spanish conquistadors – mostly poor, illiterate criminals sniffing out get-rich schemes – moved in independent factions, sometimes warring against each other. The first Spanish settlement in Central America was established in Panama in 1509, but further conquests were put on snooze. Instead, Panama served as a base for Francisco Pizarro’s takeover of the Inca empire in Peru. Meanwhile, in February 1519, Hernán Cortés landed at the isle of Cozumel and led his savage attacks on Mexico to the north.
Also in 1519 Pedro Arias de Ávila settled Panama City and began a bloody trip north, which involved displaying incredible cruelty to the indigenous population. In 1524 he established León and Granada in today’s Nicaragua, while Cortés’ brutal lieutenant Pedro de Alvarado based his own takeover of the Guatemala and El Salvador areas. With control over the region up for grabs, the two forces inevitably clashed in present-day Honduras.
Amid this, indigenous tribes fought each other, the Spanish (though some fought with the Spanish against rival clans) and smallpox (in present-day Mexico about 90% of the indigenous population died in the first 75 years of Spanish occupation). Many who weren’t killed became slaves.
Eventually ‘Guatemala’ (Central America, including Chiapas but not Panama) was established as part of the viceroyalty of Mexico (then called Nueva España). The indigenous population was subjected to violent rule, tempered slightly after pleas to King Carlos V of Spain by Dominican friar Bartolemé de Las Casas in 1542. A colonial capital was established at Antigua in 1543. After a 1773 earthquake destroyed it, a new capital was created at Guatemala City.
Starting in 1823 with the Monroe Doctrine (a ‘civilizing’ policy of ‘America for the Americas’), the USA has butted in on many of Central America’s affairs. William Walker notoriously tried to take over the region in the mid-19th century and spurred on the era of ‘banana republics, ’ the unfortunate tag for some of the region’s more bendable governments. As bananas started bringing in big money, the US-funded United Fruit Company took control in 1899. In 1954, when the Guatemalan government planned to break up large estates into small private plots, the CIA orchestrated an invasion from Honduras. Soon after, the Guatemala civil war broke out, leading to 200, 000 deaths.
In the 1980s Ronald Reagan channeled US$500 million to back the Salvadoran military, and illegally sold weapons to Iran to fund the Contras fight against the Nicaraguan Sandinistas.
Colonial trade restrictions and governments run exclusively by Spanish-born Spaniards eroded the patience of many criollos (people born in Latin America of Spanish parentage). The first Central American revolt, following Mexico’s the previous year, flared in San Salvador in 1811 (led by priest José Matías Delgado and Manuel José Arce), but was quickly suppressed. By 1821 Mexico’s viceroy (Agustín de Iturbide) defected to the rebels and Guatemala’s leaders reluctantly signed the first acts of independence. Spain finally let go for good on September 15, 1821. Guatemala was annexed by Iturbide’s forces; conservatives welcomed the union. But Delgado and Arce staged a brief revolt in El Salvador (and they even wanted to join the USA!).
Iturbide’s reign was soon overthrown, and Central American states declared independence from Mexico in 1823 (Chiapas stayed with Mexico). The federation of five states – Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Costa Rica – led a brief, shaky existence (though they did manage to abolish slavery decades before the USA did). Arce became the first president, but succumbed to dictator tendencies and was overthrown. In 1837 a largely indigenous mob marched on Guatemala City and the federation dissolved in 1838, with the republics setting out on their own. See the History sections in individual country chapters for details on how they panned out.