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The Strange Affair Of The Taking Of The Panama Canal Zone
What happened at 6:40 p.m., November 18, 1903?
October 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 6
For a time Amador resisted the whirlwind of Bunau-Varilla’s self-confidence, then gave in and placed himself at the Frenchman’s disposal. Bunau-Varilla virtually flung himself on a train to Washington, and on Friday morning was closeted with Hay. He announced to the Secretary: “Prepare yourself for the outbreak of a revolution.” So far as is known, the expression on Hay’s grave, bearded face remained unchanged. He neither smiled nor winked. But he said that he, too, expected trouble and that orders were out sending cruisers toward the Gulf of Panama. That was all Bunau-Varilla wanted to know.
On Saturday morning Amador showed up again in answer to a wire that Bunau-Varilla had sent him as his train rumbled through Baltimore. This time Bunau-Varilla had an unpleasant surprise in store. Amador was assured that the revolt would be supported by the Americans. He was to show up the following Tuesday to receive a flag, a declaration of independence, a constitution, and a secret communications code. He would also get his hundred thousand dollars—half when the revolt was proclaimed and half when it was completed. But the first act of the new government must be to appoint Bunau-Varilla minister plenipotentiary.
Amador considered darkly what he was going to tell his compatriots in ten days. They were supposed to make a revolution, entirely on the assurance of an insane French civilian that the United States would safeguard them. They were to get not six million but a hundred thousand dollars from the madman, and he was to be appointed their minister plenipotentiary. Poor Amador demurred, struggled, argued feebly. Bunau-Varilla, who was at the moment Amador’s only possible card to play, drew himself up. No one but he could guarantee success. “Any motive of vanity, of ambition, or even of national pride,” he orated, “must yield to the imperative necessity of succeeding.” Amador sighed, agreed, and made his date for the following Tuesday morning.
Bunau-Varilla, who was enjoying making revolutions as much as Theodore Roosevelt enjoyed big-game hunting, proceeded to Macy’s, where he bought some colored silk. He then entrained for Highland Falls, some sixty miles up the Hudson, where he had a weekend invitation from his friend John Bigelow, former American minister to France. Ignoring the crisp outdoor delights of a pleasant fall weekend, he set to work composing his documents, assisted in English by Mr. Bigelow’s secretary. The flag was sewn by Bigelow’s daughter Grace and Mme. Bunau-Varilla, following an attractive design. It consisted of blue, red, and white rectangles, with a red and a blue star, presumably for the two oceans that were to be joined.
These were the creations Bunau-Varilla handed to Amador early on the twentieth as he sent him off to board the Yucatán . The goal was at last in sight.
The day began badly and in anxiety. Great anxiety. Early in the morning the Tiradores Battalion of the Colombian army came marching into Colón. Somehow Bogotá had become suspicious and ordered the movement. The Panamanian plotters were not entirely taken by surprise. In panic Amador, only two days back from New York, rushed to the telegraph office to send Bunau-Varilla a wire in the code they had devised, which would have delighted the hearts of a boys’ club: “ FATE NEWS BAD POWERFUL TIGER. SMITH .” It meant: “For Bunau-Varilla. More than two hundred Colombian troops arriving on the Atlantic side within five days.” “ URGE VAPOR COLON ,” continued Amador. (“Send a steamer to Colón.”)
Bunau-Varilla, who had no authority whatever over any American VAPOR, took the train to Washington once more, asked questions, predicted disasters—but, above all, read the newspapers. He noted that the u.s.s. Nashville was at Kingston, Jamaica, the nearest point to Colón. His sense of the situation was that U.S. action was imminent. And so he wired back: “ PIZALDO PANAMA ALL RIGHT WILL REACH TON AND A HALF OBSCURE. JONES .” This went to Amador in care of a bank in Panama City, and meant that help would arrive in two and a half days.
Now it was the first Tuesday in November, the slated hour for the uprising. The two and a half days were almost gone, and the Panamanian underground in Colon looked in vain for the comforting gray hull of an American battleship, full of armed men who would land and prevent the Colombians from moving on down to Panama City.
While the hours ticked away the railroad officials worked at their part of the plot. They explained that rolling stock for conveying troops and equipment was temporarily unavailable. But perhaps General Tobar, the commander, would like to go on ahead, with his staff, in a passenger car? In Panama City there were more comfortable facilities available for them. Leaving his troops in charge of Colonel Eliseo Torres, the general accepted. He reached Panama City in midafternoon and soon found himself arrested by the forces recruited by the insurgents—the Colombian garrison, which had been promised its back pay, and the city’s police and fire brigades.