- 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
There remained only the dreadful task of cleaning up. McLane, Nelson, and Center went back inside, turning grim and white at sight of the carnage. Among other horrors, they found a man’s body with more than thirty wounds in it and a woman’s body, naked except for her corsets, with the front of her thighs blackened with powder burns from a musket fired into the groin at close range. The mutilated bodies of several others lay in the freight room and on the railway tracks that led up to it. In all, there were fifteen dead, another who would die two days later, and more than fifty wounded. There were also at least three natives dead and a number wounded.
The John L. Stephens sailed the next morning. The natives of Panama were proud of their “victory,” openly displaying the money and valuables they had stolen, bragging of the women they had raped. It was rumored that they would attack again when the Golden Gate arrived on Saturday, but they did not. Gradually the Isthmus sank back into lethargy; when the U.S. warships inevitably arrived at Panama and Aspinwall later that spring, it did not seem necessary to land troops to protect American interests.
The United States quickly set an official inquiry in motion under Amos Corwine, who had formerly been a consul in Panama. He found that it was “the universal opinion of respectable foreigners residing in Panama” that Miguel Habrahan was “notoriously a bad character”; more than that, he concluded that the massacre, “in view of the evidence,” was the result of Habrahan’s “rashness.”
It was Corwine’s recommendation that the United States take over and occupy the Isthmus. That opinion was shared by most of the American residents of Panama and by popular sentiment in the United States. The New York Herald said, “We can see no reason why the United States should not garrison Panama, Aspinwall and the line of road;… if the precaution is neglected we may hereafter rue the neglect.”
The United States did not find an appropriate way to do that until 1903, when with a show of force Theodore Roosevelt helped set up the Republic of Panama and extracted from it a permanent lease on a strip of the Isthmus suitable for a canal. In the meantime, passage across the Isthmus had to be kept free from interruption; “for this purpose, as well as for the ends of justice,” wrote Secretary of State William L. Marcy, “exemplary punishment should be inflicted upon the transgressors.” He did not mean Jack Oliver, of course, and certainly not the railroad management (although it was Colonel Ward’s opinion that “had the railroad managers … been a little more circumspect this unfortunate slaughter of our people would not have taken place”); and it was impossible to punish Miguel Habrahan, because he had prudently fled the country shortly after the riot. New Granada must be punished, and it was: it was ordered to pay an indemnity of $160,000.
The indemnity was eventually paid, the Panama Railroad armed all its white employees, the transit was kept open, and, for the time being, the situation simmered down. But if the periodic outbursts of the last hundred years—including the nationalistic riots in the Canal Zone in 1964—are accurate indicators, the seeds of antipathy that first bore fruit in 1856 have shown remarkable hardiness.