- 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 city, Ward, Nelson, and McLane had found the Governor in San Juan de Diós Street, surrounded by a crowd of shouting, vengeful natives. He declined to help, insisting that he could do nothing, that he had no control over the police or the people. Colonel Ward doubtless reminded him that a U.S. ship of war would surely be dispatched to Panama immediately, as a result of the riot. What happened to the city and to the Governor, he intimated, might depend largely on what the Governor did right then.
Fábrega knew well enough what the arrival of the U.S. Navy could mean; he—and a great many other Central Americans—remembered that less than two years before, the U.S. sloop of war Cyane had destroyed the town of San Juan del Norte, the Atlantic terminus of the trans-Nicaragua route, in a much smaller dispute between natives and Americans. Reluctantly he agreed to go and do what he could, and he and McLane and Nelson set out. Ward stayed in town; he had done all the walking he could do on his wooden leg.
Nothing that had happened before equalled the horror that was going on in the station house now. Once the mob had gained entry there was little more shooting. The main impulse was to rob and loot. The only safety for the stranded passengers lay in pretending to be dead. Doing so, one man felt his clothing being ransacked again and again—ten times, he thought; finally his feet were lifted up and his boots stolen. Any resistance—any movement, even—met with a savage reply. A man seen to move was pounced on. He begged for mercy, but a machete and a club descended on his head simultaneously; a wounded man near him “seemed to hear his skull crash,” and the victim rolled over without a groan.
Colonel Garrido, satisfied that he had achieved his objective at the station, had gone to the pier with some of his adjutants and had boarded the Taboga . There had been no provocative action from the passengers aboard the stranded ferry steamer; nevertheless, the police chief informed its captain that he had come to disarm the ship. If they gave up their arms the natives would not attack; otherwise he would not be able to control them. The passengers watched helplessly as he collected two pistols, the only ones in evidence, while the ship’s cannon was dragged off. A short time later a remarkably similar cannon was set up on shore, loaded, and aimed at the Taboga .
It was to this spot that the Governor and the two Americans hurried first, when they finally got back to the station area at about ten o’clock. The Governor ordered the man with the cannon, a huge Negro named Dolores Urriola, to give it up. Urriola refused, insolently telling the Governor that he was going to fire it at the ship. McLane remembered suddenly and thankfully that when the riot first began he had sent two Panamanian women who had come to see the sailing, Señoras Ansoatique and Feraud, aboard the Taboga for safety. He quickly whispered to the Governor to tell Urriola that he would be killing his own countrywomen if he fired. That persuaded the Negro to hold his fire, but he would not surrender the cannon.
Nearby some natives were breaking open a black trunk they had dragged from the freight room. Tabrega made no effort to stop them; it was frighteningly evident that, as he had insisted earlier, he no longer had any control over the people. McLane and Nelson went on to the station without him.
Looters were still busy in the freight room and in some of the freight cars. Colonel Garrido and several of the police were drawn up between the station house and the mess house, about to fire a volley at the upper floor. Garrido blustered that they had been fired on and were going to retaliate, but he was disconcerted by the arrival of the two Americans, and he handed them a lantern when Nelson said they would go up and guarantee that there would be no further shooting.
There were four rooms on the second floor. The first, the small telegraph room, was locked and empty; the telegrapher had escaped without harm. A bloody corpse blocked the doorway to the second room. Nelson and McLane managed to shove the door open far enough to step over the body and into the room; its only occupant was a wounded man lying on a cot in the corner. The third room was crowded with cowering people (including Center), and so was the fourth, which looked down on the area where the police were gathered. One woman had been wounded here. The rest had escaped injury by lying on the floor; the police had been so close to the building, and their angle of fire so sharp, that they had been able to hit only those standing up. One of the men had a rifle, but he insisted that no one had returned fire from that room.
McLane and Nelson went back downstairs and asked Garrido to go up to see for himself. Garrido, now very much on the side of law and order, did so, and was easily convinced; he returned below to hold back the crowd while the passengers were sent out to join the others on the Taboga . He had all he could do, as did McLane and Nelson, to keep the mob from attacking and to keep his own policemen from bayoneting the Americans as they passed. Nevertheless, the riot was over. It was a little more than four hours since Jack Oliver had refused to pay a dime for a piece of watermelon.