When Christopher Columbus visited Bocas del Toro in 1502 during his fourth and final New World voyage, he was so taken by the beauty of the area that he affixed his name to many sites, including Isla Colón (Columbus Island), Isla Cristóbal (Christopher Island) and Bahía de Almirante (Admiral’s Bay).
During the 17th century, the archipelago became a haven for pirates. The buccaneers repaired their ships on the islands, built others with wood from their forests and fed upon the many sea turtles that nested on the beaches. The pirates are said to have buried treasure on a number of the islands, but to date none of this loot has been found (or at least reported).
Gold was not plentiful in Bocas del Toro, so the Spaniards did not colonize the region with the same ruthless efficiency that was unleashed on other parts of Panama. However, following the arrival of the French Huguenots on the coast in the 17th and 18th centuries, A Spanish militia was sent to Bocas to dislodge the settlers. As a result, the indigenous populations of Bocas were virtually wiped out by Old World diseases and Spanish swords.
In the early 19th century, wealthy aristocrats looking to establish themselves in the province arrived in Bocas with large numbers of black slaves from the USA and Colombia’s San Andrés and Providencia Islands. However, when slavery was abolished in 1850, the blacks stayed put and began to eke out a living as fishers and subsistence farmers. Towards the end of the 19th century, Jamaican blacks joined them as the province’s banana industry began to develop.
Bocas del Toro’s banana industry dates from 1890, when three American brothers arrived in Bocas del Toro and founded the Snyder Brothers Banana Company. In the years that followed, the brothers planted banana trees all along the shores of the Laguna de Chiriquí. In 1899, however, the United Fruit Company planted itself in Bocas town and took complete control of the Snyders’ young company. In the century that followed, United Fruit established vast plantations that stretched across the entire peninsula. They also constructed elaborate networks of roads, bridges and canals as well as entire towns and cities to house their workers.
Today, United Fruit is part of the multinational Chiquita Brands International. Chiquita’s workers in Bocas del Toro Province grow and export three-quarters of a million tons of bananas annually. They also comprise the largest workforce in the province and the most diverse workforce in the country; on the payroll are West Indians, Latinos, Chinese and indigenous workers.