Taboga is part of a chain of islands that were inhabited by indigenous peoples who resided in thatch huts and lived off the bounty of the sea. In 1515 Spanish soldiers announced their arrival on Taboga by killing or enslaving the islanders and establishing a small colony. Naturally, peace was not established, especially since Taboga became the favorite spot of English pirates.
On August 22, 1686, the ship of Captain Townley was lying in front of Taboga when it was attacked by three Spanish ships armed with cannons. During the ensuing battle, Townley destroyed one of the ships and took the other two vessels captive as well as a fourth ship that had arrived as reinforcement. Afterwards, Townley sent a messenger to the president of Panama demanding supplies, the release of five pirates being held prisoner and ransom for the Spanish captives.
When the president refused to send anything other than medicine, Townley replied that heads would roll if his demands weren’t met. When the president ignored the threat, Townley kept his word by sending him a canoe that contained the heads of twenty Spaniards. Townley’s message got the president’s attention and all of pirate’s demands were immediately met.
For years afterward, peace continued to elude the little island. As late as 1819, Taboga was still sought after for its strategic location, a fact made abundantly clear when the pirate Captain Illingsworth and his party of Chileans sacked the island and killed most of its inhabitants.
During the 1880s, when the French took a stab at digging a canal across the isthmus, Taboga became the site of an enormous sanatorium for workers who had contracted malaria or yellow fever. The Island of Flowers might well have earned its name from all the flowers placed on graves here. Sadly, Taboga’s centuries-old cemetery has been looted so many times that it looks like it was hit by artillery fire.
Real artillery fire also took a toll on Taboga. The US Navy used the broad hill facing the town for artillery practice during WWII and even installed a number of anti-aircraft guns and machine-gun bunkers atop the island. Although they were abandoned in 1960, these ruins can still be visited today.
In recent decades, peace has finally come to Taboga, though the island is continually assailed by weekend vacationers from Panama City and groups of foreign tourists.