- 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
In the dark, silent street the Governor waited as de Sabla rode ahead to where they were to meet the Consul. Ahead of him, in the shadows, the secretary saw a band of natives come out into the street. As he stopped for a moment to see what they would do, an American suddenly rushed to the compound gate and fired out at the natives. There was a roar of answering fire from the Cienega, then more fire from the Americans. De Sabla screamed with pain as a musket ball hit his thigh and another glanced off his knee. A third whistled through Governor Fábrega’s hat; he turned and ran. In the Cienega, William Nelson threw himself flat on the ground. Colonel Ward was caught in four separate lines of fire, his horse rearing as one ball after another—seven in all—hit it. The horse ran off as Ward, miraculously unharmed, tried his best to hang on with his one arm.
Nelson was a long-time resident of Panama and was well liked by the natives. As he picked himself up he was warned that he had better go home if he hoped to avoid being killed, for the mob was determined now to attack the station itself. He ignored the warning and slipped back into the station. There was now incessant fire from the Cienega on the railroad buildings and yard. As Nelson entered the gate a musket ball struck and broke the arm of a passenger beside him. He went on to tell Ward, who had managed to guide his wounded horse back into the compound, and McLane and the others that the blacks were about to attack the station. Ward had no hope of controlling the riot now; if Colonel Garrido and the police did not come, there was little anyone could do.
In the station the terrified people waited in darkness. They had few weapons, and most of their ammunition had been used up in the irresponsible firing into the Cienega. One plan after another was suggested for escape, but escape was impossible. It was dangerous to stay, but even more dangerous to go outside. And even if they could get to the Taboga , there was no assurance that the ferry would not be attacked too.
Shots were coming from every direction, as though the buildings were surrounded. All at once there was a burst of shots from the bushes behind the old blacksmith’s shop, a short distance from the station. Then a bugle sounded. Railroad Superintendent Center told those who could hear him that everything was all right: the police had arrived.
But instead of stopping, the firing grew heavier than ever—it was coming in volleys now—as the police bugle sounded again and again. Center ventured outside and, creeping along the side of the building, saw a mob of Negroes coming down the railroad track to attack from the rear. He ran up the steps and into the freight room. It was crowded with terrified people.
He could not even get back out again. The doors were blockaded by terror-stricken Americans. The noise was fantastic—musket balls crashing through the walls, the bugle sounding, the doors suddenly rattling as yelling rioters tried to force them open. Center managed to get from the freight room into the railroad office through a broken panel in the connecting door. As he stepped through, a man fell dead before him; another, hit, clutched his throat and fell.
Smoke filled the station office. Its doors too were blockaded with people. Center turned and went back into the freight room and, climbing up the wall, managed to get on a plank across the ceiling beams. From there he could see outside all too clearly: the police were firing at the building; Colonel Garrido, the Negro police chief, was urging them on.
There was no one left to appeal to but the Governor, and he had gone back into town. (It was later learned that, infuriated at being fired at by the Americans, Fábrega himself had ordered the police to attack the station.) At the mess house, next to the station, Ward, Nelson, and McLane decided to go after the Governor to plead with him to come back and use his authority to halt the massacre. They set out along the beach, sloshing through the mud flats at the very edge of the water in the hope of avoiding any natives. They had gone a few hundred yards when they were challenged by an armed band of Negroes. As they raised their guns, Nelson quickly told them who he was; the many years of good will and respect he had earned from the natives enabled the three men to pass safely.
At the station, the mob and the police, swarming within the compound, were trying to force their way in through one of the windows of the ticket office. Inside the building, a wounded man named Ewing rested his revolver on the edge of a counter and fired with deliberate aim whenever a head appeared at the window, until all his bullets were gone. There was no holding them off any longer. In possession of the window, they fired down on the passengers lying on the floor. The Americans scrambled wildly to escape, some into the adjoining baggage room and some upstairs, leaving behind ten of their number dead or wounded. The mob poured in through the window and began to strip the bodies of money, keys—everything of value.
At the other end of the building the door to the baggage room had given way too, and in rushed the natives, hacking indiscriminately with machetes. The Americans were completely defenseless, “open to the covetousness and barbarity,” as Colonel Ward later put it, “of as rude a people as exist upon the globe.” A man was killed trying to get away, and a woman with him was wounded; both were robbed. A minister named Sellwood was shot though the head as he tried to run through the door. Some managed to escape from the building and ran blindly down the beach into the muddy tidelands or back to hide in the trees, only to be found, attacked, and robbed by roving bands of natives.