Costa Rica
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Pre-Colombian history


Human occupation in Costa Rica has dated back over 10,000 years. Anthropologists believe that, around the time of the discovery by the western world, there were four major tribes living in the area including Caribs, Borucas, Chibchas, and Diquis. Unlike many indigenous cultures in Central American, these communities had populations of only a few hundred thousand. For this reason, they were mostly killed off after the introduction of Small Pox from the European colonists. Today 1% of the total population of Costa Rica is of indigenous heritage. Although the country is not known for its ruins, thousands of perfectly spherical granite relics have been found by archeologists near the west coast. Some ancient cities have been unexcavated as well as gold and jade pieces from the southwest.


The Spanish Invasion


Christopher Columbus was the first European to land in Costa Rica. He brought, in his wake, treasure hunters, land grabbers and missionaries, all trying to lay their clam to a land named after the gold jewelry worn by the Caribs tribesmen. After all but completely wiping out the indigenous population with disease, the Spanish settlers found that they had to work their land themselves. They began buying slaves from Africa. But, because labor was still relatively hard to come by and Spanish colonists were averse to physical labor, Costa Rica remained overlooked by many settlers and was virtually ignored by the Crown in favor of the riches of Peru or Mexico. Costa Rica stayed a rural area, mostly used for farming, until the first colonial city was built in 1562. After the discovery of rich volcanic soil in the mountains, and because of the mild climate, more Spaniards began to pour into the region.



In the early 1800s, coffee was brought to the region from Cuba and it became the principle crop. This further increase the appeal of the country and many more Spanish came to settle the fertile land. Several coffee plantations were established within a relatively short amount of time.




In 1821, Mexico rebelled against Spain. Central America followed suit and gained their independence in that same year. For a brief period of time the countries of the region were under Mexican control but the 1823 the congress of Central America declared full independence.



That same year, the nation of Central America was formed. Originally called “The United Provinces of Central America” it was a nation modeled after the United States. But this union, which was full of idealism and expectations of a great nation, was dissolved in a civil war which lasted between 1838-1840.



Costa Rica gained its independence in 1838. It moved the capitol to San Jose and set up a government to rule as an independent nation.


William Walker


William Walker is a well known political and historical figure in Central American history, mostly because he was a lunatic. An American, lawyer, physician and adventurer, he decided that it would be a good idea to attempt a takeover of Central America. Many Central American citizens did not agree with him. He began his campaign by organizing several military expeditions to Central America and Mexico. In 1854, Walker offered support to the Democratic party of Nicaragua during a bloody civil war. He shipped in 60 U.S. mercenaries from San Francisco and gathered nearly 100 more Americans on the ground. He eventually defeated the opposition and took control of the country. In 1856 his regime was recognized as the official government of Nicaragua.



Soon after, seeing Walker as a major threat to his country, Costa Rican President, Juan Rafael Mora, declared war on his regime. Walker sent an army of men to invade Costa Rica as a preemptive strike but they were quickly defeated. Costa Rican troops took the opportunity to march into Nicaragua and defeated Walkers troops at the Second Battle of Rivas. The solider Juan Santamaría was instrumental in defeating Walker’s men and he later became a Costa Rican hero.



Walker retreated to Granada where he established himself as the President of the country after staging a fraudulent election. From there, he reinstated slaves, declared English as the official language and did his best to support the interests of rich landowners in Southern U.S., which included a campaign to spread slavery.



While Walker did receive the support of the American South, his troop power eventually weakened because of disease and defection. Soon he found himself surrounded by 4,000 Salvadorian and Guatemalan troops who were not pleased with his polices. One of Walker’s generals ordered his troops to set the city of Granada on fire. The capital burned as they escaped.



The U.S. Navy eventually pulled Walker out of the country. Upon his return to Central America, he attempted to set up an English speaking government on the Bay Islands in Honduras. The British colonists, wary of his radical methods, determined it was better to have him out of their hair so they turned him over to the government of Honduras who executed him by firing Squad.


Civil War of 1948


After the country gained independence and helped to defeat of the threat of William Walker, it enjoyed a fair amount of peace and political stability. This continued with a brief interruption in 1917 when Federico Tinoco Granados declared himself dictator. He was over thrown only two years later and the country retuned to stability until 1948. During this time, José Figueres Ferrer led an uprising as a result of a disputed election. The ensuing civil war lasted 44 days. With the death toll at over 2,000, it was the bloodiest Costa Rican conflict of the 20th century.



In 1948, after the country was governed by a junta that drafted a new constitution by a democratically elected assembly, power transferred to a new democratic government led by the newly elected president Ferrer, who was seen as a national hero after the coup d’état. He was an extremely popular and progressive president. During his term, banks were nationalized, women and people of African descent were given the right to vote and presidential term limits were established.


The Railroad in Costa Rica



Because Costa Rica’s economy was based primarily on the exportation of coffee, the growers needed a reliable way to get the beans from the plantations to the Caribbean coast so that they could be shipped to Europe. A railroad system seemed like the best plan but because of the dense jungles and rugged terrain, the installation of the tracks proved to be extremely difficult. Upwards of 4,000 died during construction of the first 25 miles of track due to diseases like malaria or yellow fever or from injury. A track from Puerto Limon and San José took 19 years to build. By 1890 there were several tracks running all over the country and connecting to track in Nicaragua and Panama.



Here are some related tips to help plan your trip to Costa Rica: History, Caribbean Coast History and Overview and Time Line .

14 Oct 2010

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