This is a study of frontier colonisation in Spanish America. It focuses on a remote and inhospitable region of dense rainforest and heavy rainfall situated on the Pacific flank of the colonial territory of the Nuevo Reino de Granada, the New Kingdom of Granada. The region extended across the entire lowland area stretching from the isthmus of Panama in the north to Buenaventura in the south, was separated from the interior by the Cordillera Occidental, and, by the 15603, had come to be known to the Spaniards as El Chocó. The area was inhabited at first contact by a multiplicity of indigenous groups, a native population that was, at least initially, for the most part fiercely hostile to outsiders. But the Pacific lowlands contained gold as well as hostile Indians, and this ensured that the Chocó was to experience not the neglect associated with other similarly inaccessible regions of the empire, but repeated Spanish incursions. From the beginning of the sixteenth century, armed expeditions of conquest (entradas), peaceful penetrations by secular priests and prospective settlers, and Jesuit and Franciscan missionaries all attempted, with varying degrees of success, to extend Spanish control over this extremely desirable gold-producing area.
Colonisation of the Chocó proved, however, to be a complex and lengthy process for Spaniards and Indians alike, a process that in many respects was not complete even as the colonial period drew to a close. Each expedition of exploration and conquest launched from the directions of Uraba/Darien, the Pacific coastal stretch and the New Granadan interior between 1510 and 1570 was violently resisted and successfully repulsed by the indigenous population. More than a century then elapsed between the first sustained experiment in settlement, which took place between the 15703 and 15903, and effective domination, achieved in the 16903. Thereafter, the Chocó was converted into a major mining district of the territory that was to become, in 1739, the Viceroyalty of New Granada. But despite the undoubtedly profound transformations that occurred over the centuries of contact between Indians and Europeans in this isolated corner of the empire, colonisation led neither to large-scale Spanish settlement and development, nor to the conversion of native peoples to the Christian faith.
Over the period 1570–1670, the indigenous population of the Chocó suffered severe demographic decline – a result of conquest, disease, enslavement . . .