History Files

The Americas

Central American Colonial Settlements


Modern Costa Rica
AD 1838 - Present Day

Located in Central America, the modern republic of Costa Rica borders Nicaragua to the north, and Panama to the south, with the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea lying along its western and eastern coastlines respectively. One of the most advanced of countries in the Americas, and historically amongst the most stable, its capital is San Jose. Founded in 1738, the city was heavily influenced by European architecture, primarily due to the region's early settlement by the Spanish.

Although Christopher Columbus was the first European to reach Costa Rica in 1502, it wasn't colonised until the Spanish conquistador Pedro de Alvarado explored and captured territory to the south of his base at the new colonial capital of Mexico City between 1523-1527. Costa Rica was created a province the 'New Kingdom of Granada', which was administered from Peru until 1717. Costa Rica was eventually lost to Granada, becoming instead part of the 'Captaincy General of Guatemala' to the north. This consisted of the provinces of Chiapas, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua.

These provinces passed onto the 'Federal Republic of Central America' after independence, but when that began to disintegrate in 1838, the five provinces were given permission to become independent states in their own right on 31 May (although this was already happening anyway). Costa Rica declared its independence in November 1838, and in 1842 the new country gained General Francisco Morazan, former president of the federal republic, as its head of state. However, that very year his attempt at re-unification led to his own people deposing and executing him. Since then the people of Costa Rica have traditionally been the least enthusiastic about attempts at reunion.

1842 - 1844

The attempt by General Francisco Morazan to establish the 'Confederation of Central America' leads to his death, but the confederation itself lingers on in name alone for two years.

Map of Central America in the 1830s
The Federal Republic of Central America was formed of Chiapas, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. This lasted from 1823-1841, by which time Mexico had grabbed much of Chiapas and the republic itself dissolved into the separate nation states known today - although Nicaragua did not control the independent Mosquito Coast until the end of the century, and British troops occupied eastern Belize (click or tap on map to view full sized)


In April 1856, Costa Rican and mercenary forces defeat the self-appointed president of Nicaragua, William Walker, at the Second Battle of Rivas.


The country gains most of its modern three per cent population of Jamaican immigrants when they arrive in this decade to work on the construction of the country's railways.

1917 - 1918

In one of only two periods of disturbance during the country's independent history, the minister of war, Federico Tinoco Granados, and his brother, Jose Joaquin, grab power on 27 January 1917 in a coup d'etat. Tinoco Granados establishes a repressive military regime which attempts to crush all opposition. In the middle of the dictatorship, in May 1918, Costa Rica sides with the First World War allies against Germany and the Austro-Hungarian empire, although it plays no active role.

1917 - 1919

Federico Tinoco Granados

Dictator. Overthrown and exiled. Died 1931.


Tinoco Granados has never been recognised by the USA, who support the deposed government. The dictator's brother is assassinated in early August amid growing popular discontent, and on 13 August Tinoco Granados resigns and accepts exile in Europe.

National Theatre, Costa Rica
Costa Rica's architecturally beautiful National Theatre is located in the country's park-filled capital, San Jose, which is one of the Americas' most heavily-European-influenced cities in terms of its buildings

1941 - 1945

Costa Rica joins the Second World War as an ally of the USA and Great Britain on 8 December 1941, against Japan, Germany and Italy, but takes no active role in the conflict.

1948 - 1949

Jose Figueres Ferrer leads an armed uprising in the wake of a disputed presidential election. The resulting Costa Rican Civil War leaves more than 2,000 people dead and lasts for forty-four days; one of the country's bloodiest events in modern history. The following year, the junta abolishes the military as a permanent institution (something which remains in force today), and oversees the drafting of a new constitution which leads to new presidential elections in 1953. Ironically, Figueres wins those elections.

Jose Figueres Ferrer
Jose Figueres Ferrer (pictured centre, in white) was president of Costa Rica on three separate occasions between 1948 and 1974


Costa Rica's reputation as the 'Switzerland of Central America' is badly dented when allegations of high-level corruption leads to two former presidents being imprisoned on 'graft' charges. Despite this, the country remains Central America's most stable and developed nation.