- Historic Sites
Incident On The Isthmus
Back when Panama was a jumping-off place for Eldorado, a piece of melon became a symbol that led to a massacre. Its seeds of anti-Yankee resentment are still bearing fruit
June 1968 | Volume 19, Issue 4
This was hard for those in the compound to realize, however, and as it grew dark and the rioting continued outside, they began to panic. A drunken American at the head of the station steps began to fire his pistol into the air. Inside, those few who were armed had their pistols out and ready; others were demanding arms and ammunition from the railroad and steamship officials. Captain McLane tried to quiet them, urging those with pistols not to fire them for fear of inviting retaliation, insisting that the station would not be attacked. He told them that he had sent a messenger to Colonel Garrido, the chief of police, and that it was only a matter of time until he and his men would arrive and put an end to the riot.
But the minutes went by and the police did not come. A group of about fifteen men, unwilling to wait any longer, went out—unarmed—to try to rescue the women and children in the upper floors of Ocean House and Pacific House. They were met by twice their number of natives and were stoned and driven back; as they tried to re-enter the depot in the darkness, they were fired upon by their jittery fellow Americans. One was shot through the body as he came up the steps, and another through the leg as he went back to get the wounded man.
In the darkness inside the station (the ticket office downstairs and the telegraph room upstairs were the only rooms with lights), Captain McLane and William Nelson considered trying to organize a few men to preserve order and prevent any acts of provocation by the Americans, but by now organization was utterly impossible. Everyone who could possibly get into the station had crowded in—nearly three hundred men and women—and now that it was dark, they were hysterical with the fear that the natives would rush the station. They were as unreasoning as the mob.
Superintendent Center had distributed, reluctantly, all the weapons that could be found in the station: a double-barrelled shotgun, a pair of pistols, a saber, and fourteen old flintlock muskets that were rusty and barely usable. Thus armed, and well fortified with whiskey, some of the men began darting out and firing into the huts of the Cienega, and then rushing back. Inside, many were frantically searching for family or friends from whom they had been separated.
Shortly after seven, the United States consul, Colonel Thomas Ward, rode up on horseback with his secretary, Theodore de Sabla; they had ridden out from town along the beach to avoid the rioting mob in the Cienega. They found twenty or more Americans just outside the gate of the railroad compound. A cannon loaded with boiler rivets (for lack of any other ammunition) had been dragged up in front of the gate, in a position commanding the principal street of the Cienega. Pistols and muskets were much in evidence. Men, talking wildly of killing the “savages,” were firing reckless shots at the native huts. Every round fired brought more shots in return from natives in trees bordering the Cienega.
Colonel Ward was a grizzled old man with a wooden leg and a stump for an arm. He was not popular with the American residents of Panama; he was much too blunt and outspoken. He assessed the situation quickly. He considered Center’s distribution of arms weak and irresponsible. Angrily, he ordered the Americans to put away their guns, to go back inside, to avoid further provoking the natives in any way. His voice was commanding and his authority evident; they put down their weapons, and the man tending the cannon said he would fire only if directly attacked.
Ward was informed that the governor of Panama, Francisco Fábrega, had come out to the Cienega. He sent de Sabla to fetch him, while he himself rode toward the bands of Negroes drawing up to return the Americans’ fire. Impervious to the danger, he gave orders as brusquely as he had to the Americans; the natives grew quiet and began to lay down their arms. Firing had ceased on both sides. For a brief moment, it seemed as if the riot could be controlled.
De Sabla had entered the Cienega and located Governor Fábrega, who was as resentful of American arrogance as any other Panamanian; he did not care to be fetched to the Consul’s presence by the Consul’s secretary. And he had a still more compelling, though unvoiced, reason for being reluctant to act: he was a white man, a member of one of the few remaining Castilian families in Panama and the state’s only white official. The mob’s anger was now directed at the white Americans; he was afraid that any move on his part to restrain them would make them turn on the native whites as well. He refused to go.
De Sabla went back to tell Ward, who said that he would meet the Governor halfway, in Main Street. The Consul and his secretary rode into the street together and then de Sabla went on-to tell the Governor that Colonel Ward was waiting for him.
This time Fábrega agreed, with persuasion, to go, and they went back through the Cienega toward Main Street. There was more firing in the distance. As they reached the street, just below Pacific House, de Sabla suggested that it would be safer for the Governor to wait while he went on ahead. It seemed to Colonel Ward that he had been waiting too long for his secretary to come back. Impatient, he decided to go into the Cienega himself to look for the Governor, and so, as de Sabla and the Governor were emerging into the street just beyond Pacific House, Ward, together with William Nelson, was leaving the street and making his way through the cane huts of the Cienega.