They speak English, French, or an English patois at home and are mostly Protestant. The official language is Spanish, but English is used widely in business, especially banking and tourism, and by some people of African descent. Some coins bear the image of Urraca, an Indian chief who resisted the Spanish conquests, but most coins depict Vasco Nuñez de Balboa, the discoverer of the Pacific Ocean. Panama became an autonomous nation because of its function as the custodian of the transisthmus shipping route—the "path between the seas." It gained independence in 1903 as part of an American-sponsored revolt against Colombia that led to the signing of a treaty granting the United States the right to build the Panama Canal.The Spanish discovered and conquered Panama between 15.After failing to build a sea-level canal in the 1880s, the French sold their concession to the United States, which conspired with the elite in Panama City to declare independence when they could not obtain a favorable treaty from Colombia.From 1903 to 1978, the United States controlled the Canal Zone, a five-mile strip on both sides of the canal.Together, these two groups constitute 70 percent of the population.
From 1519 through 1538, the area that is now Panama was a base for soldiers sent to conquer the Andean civilizations in South America.
Outside the city walls was a neighborhood of free blacks living in thatched structures.
Farther out were the cattle ranches and farms of the elite, which were staffed by slaves.
The country is a natural land bridge connecting the South American continent with Central America.
The isthmus runs east-west in the form of an inverted "S." Low mountains run through most of the country, leaving a gap in the center that is nearly at sea level.