History of the Cayos Holandes

The tropical paradise islands Cayos Holandeses are little, not even 1/10 of the Isle of Wight. We met Ivin and he pioneered here on one of the islands and built a restaurant.

The Cayos Holandes have a moving history and Ivin knows a lot of it. He tells about the ‘Beyond people’ who seem to have slaughtered themselves. About the settlement of pirates and the Guna people, living together and fighting side by side, about the diaspora and the Guna lobby and the United Nations, and Ivin tells about Ivin.

Ivin telling his about the history of the Guna


The “Indios Cueva”

In the sixteenth century the Spanish discoverers entered the San Blas Islands. The indigenous people living on the Northern part of the mainland of what is called Panama now, already heard stories about these intruders, and about the gold they wanted and the diseases they brought. So whenever some stranger came and asked if there was gold, they answered: “Cueva” and pointed to the South. In their language it meant “beyond” or “more far away”. Funny side effect: In Spanish this could also mean ‘cave’ , so up to them that made sense. Ever since these indigenous people are called the Indios Cueva.

The Spanish entering the coast of Central America to explore and colonize it.

Very a pity, but about hundred years later the islands were deserted. They only found bones. Could it because a disease brought by the Spanish? Ivin told that there must have been a big fight between clans or families, since they found broken and damaged bones.  Perhaps a combination? However, in the early 17th century the new settlers only found bones.

Edward Mansvelt entered, pirates settled

Early 17th century, Central America was occupied by the Spanish. The Spanish were dominant and by far too strong for any other country. But the English, French and Dutchmen tried to weaken them by sending private ships, the so called ‘privateers’, or corsairs or buccaneers. They got an official letter with a mission, mostly including to damage and rob any Spanish ship they met at sea. A part of the loot was for the country, the rest was for them. These buccaneers were just as pirates, raiding settlements and attacking and robbing the full loaded Spanish ships. It was dangerous work, but you could get very rich from it. Famous men were the Welsh man Henry Morgan, and the Dutchman Piet Hein, who once robbed a Spanish silver fleet and sailed back to Holland.

The heydays of this sort of piracy were in the 17th century, thanks to Edward Mansvelt.

Edward Mansvelt portraited when he was the admiral of 10-15 ships, see the background.

Around 1760, Mansvelt got a letter from the Dutch officials stating the mission to raid settlements on Cuba, as well as to make as much damage to Spanish ships in general and get as much goods from them. Which he did, for years. In contrary to earlier buccaneers, his raids were large scale projects. These led to great success. Once his fleet counted 15 ships. By the way, it is said that his right hand and protégé was the young Henry Morgan, who later invaded Panama successfully.

Now, every pirate needs a base, a safe place to retire with his ships, for maintenance et cetera.  Most preferable this base should be in a remote area where no armada could come and where you can see ships coming from far away. The Cayos Holandeses (Dutch Islands)  were perfect for that. It was a group of five islands, beautifully surrounded by sandbanks and coral reefs, and only small shallow gullies to enter.

The red arrow shows on which island we are in the Cayos Holandes

On the neighbouring islands the English, French and Portuguese made the same bases. On the islands was some water, there are coconuts, and plenty fish around. And the mainland was close to get many fruits and vegetables. You could survive a Spanish surrounding for a long time.

If you dig a 1 meter deep hole in the ground some hundred meters from the sea, the water is fresh. At least potable enough for the pirates.

Guna and pirates in perfect harmony

In the 17th century, Spanish conquered the current Colombia. Many Guna died, but a part managed to go North, to the current Panama and the San Blas islands. They also settled on the Caya Holandeses. Probably the first Guna settled before the pirates came, we don’t know. But sure is, that the combination was great: the buccaneers had the ships and the guns to defend the waters and keep most of the Spanish army on a distance. And the Guna were with many to repulse the final intruders.  The Guna and the pirates together were considered unbeatable and they lived in perfect harmony, enjoying their sovereignty.

The Guna saw the Dutch ships driven by the sails, so they took this over on their canoes. The long lateral plan prevents the leeway (drift) very well. (on a later blog we show a video).

Diaspora and international acknowledgment

Living healthy and in harmony for centuries, the Guna population grew. Many young Guna men left for the mainland and tried to find a job. With their roots, many became seamen. The Guna were spread all over the continent. Many were also in the USA, we will see later.

In 1904 Panama formed its own nation. It was with help from the USA (read: to dig their Panama Canal). The government also had the ambition to make the Guna law abiding Panamanian citizens and started an assimilation program.

The Guna preferred to keep their own, long fought and cherished culture and laws. They resisted. A US anthropologist studying the Guna, Richard Marsh, supported them on communication and organization of the revolt, often called the ‘San Blas Revolt.’ The government answered by setting up an ‘police army’ that should invade all Guna territory, including the islands.

Meanwhile, Gunas living in the USA, created a lobby and got their message into the networks of American politicians. Their message was simple: we Guna people are free, for centuries we are sovereign. Now this new Panamanian government wants us to colonize.

This got the US citizens in the heart. No colonization anymore! (read: the USA wanted no distractions in digging the Panama Canal).

A political pressure developed. It was even brought into the United Nations. There was decided that Panama should leave the Guna alone. The Americans sent a frigate to the San Blas to make clear that they mean what they say. Panama, also under influence by the US owned Panama Canal, stepped back and started to talk with the Guna. A treaty was made. The Guna kept their sovereignty but was officially a part of Panama.

Ivin lives the history and the future

Now a century later. Ivin is a Guna who left the islands 30 years ago. He tells: “I started working in a kitchen of a restaurant in Panama City. The restaurant hired a great French chef and I learned a lot.“

He continued: “I was lucky. The kitchen won international prizes and the restaurant became famous, so I could get good jobs as a cook. Last years I ran the kitchen of a super yacht and I traveled the Caribbean and the Pacific Ocean. I have seen much.”

That was his diaspora and now he is back. He started his restaurant here on Baledup, an island of the Cayos Holandeses. “I do everything my way here. Just like the Guna people doing it for centuries now”, he said. More and more sailors come here, enjoying the golden beaches, the nature, the fish.

“And now again the sailors come from the sea. Especially the Dutch, to buy my bread and to eat my meals,” he says.

He concludes rhetorically: “You see how history repeats itself?”

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