The Strange Affair Of The Taking Of The Panama Canal Zone

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With this done, a provisional revolutionary committee felt safe enough by six in the afternoon to go out to the cathedral plaza and announce to a happy crowd, which had gathered in response to rumors, that on the next day Panama would formally become independent. This news was somehow conveyed to a Colombian gunboat, the Bogotá , sitting in the harbor. Her commander loyally fired five shells into the town, then withdrew. They killed a donkey and a Chinese named Wong Kong Yee, the only two victims of the revolution.

The American consuls in Panama City and Colón knew what was happening. The former had already received a message from the State Department at 5 P.M. : “ UPRISING REPORTED .” Calmly, he cabled back: “ NOT YET .” Washington was unwontedly eager, possibly because President Roosevelt was due in from New York on an evening train, having gone home to Oyster Bay to vote in local elections.

The consul in Colón knew that the Nashville was en route because he had already gotten cabled orders to deliver to her captain. They were, not surprisingly, to bar the railroad to all troops. Late in the afternoon the American vessel arrived. After some confusion Commander Hubbard got his directive and by 10:30 had acknowledged and executed it.

Wednesday, nonetheless, found the revolution only half completed. Hearing of its proclamation in Panama, Bunau-Varilla had sent his first cash installment. But in Colón, Colonel Torres remained stubbornly waiting for his trains. Finally one of the local revolutionary committee members took him to a hotel barroom and gently broke the news to him over a drink. Perhaps more than one drink. The colonel was outraged at the arrest of his superior and ready to do his duty as a soldier. He sent word to the American consul. Either they would get a train for his men or he would kill every American in town.

Commander Hubbard, confronted with this news at mid-day, sent boats out to evacuate U.S. nationals to ships in the harbor, deployed an armed landing party, and swung his cannon in a deadly arc aimed at the Colombian position. Before any shooting started, cool heads reached Colonel Torres. His patriotism was admirable, but he could not fight the United States Navy. Honor was satisfied by his gesture. It would now be the better part of wisdom, as well as valor, to withdraw to a waiting steamer in the harbor—troops and all—and leave. A night of meditation helped Torres to see the essential logic of this view, particularly when it was reinforced by a gift of two cases of champagne and eight thousand gold dollars for himself and his men.

And so, on Thursday afternoon, the fifth of November, the Colombian troops left, and Panama was free. The New York papers had the story now, including an interview with Bunau-Varilla, who opined:

It is a spontaneous combustion, due to the accumulation of injured feelings, and the result of the Spanish colonial system, for Panama was as much a colony of the Bogota government as Cuba was of the grandees at Madrid.

But the more important statement was yet to come. At 10 A.M. on Friday the sixth, in Colón, in the presence of a gathering of all the foreign and local officials who could be mustered, the steering committee of the revolution announced that Panama had joined the family of nations. A United States Army officer on hand was given the honor of raising the Panamanian flag over the city hall. No sooner had he finished than official cables notified the American State Department. And at 12:51 the consuls on the isthmus had the equally official response. The people of Panama having “resumed” their independence, the United States representatives were told, and a new government having been established, “you will enter into relations with it as the responsible government of the territory.”

Panama was made and recognized. That night Bunau-Varilla, after some telegraphic dickering, got his official appointment as minister plenipotentiary and sent off the final fifty thousand dollars. He had given Amador instructions on October 20. It had taken just seventeen days to carry them out.

ACT FOUR: THE BARGAIN AND THE VERDICT Scene I. Washington, November 13, 1903

Wearing a uniform came naturally to Bunau-Varilla, and he looked formidably official in the one he had quickly ordered for his presentation to President Roosevelt as the official spokesman for Panama. As he waited for Secretary Hay to take him in and present him, thus converting the de facto recognition of November 6 to a de jure one, his mind was busy as always. And as always it lingered over possible plots against the future of the dream of four centuries, the Panama Canal.

Bunau-Varilla had experienced some difficult moments since assuming his new office. On November 7 he received a wire sent by the revolutionists prior to his being named minister plenipotentiary. It declared that the provisional government appointed him a confidential agent to negotiate a loan from the United States. Confidential agent indeed! The minister bristled at the very thought of the implied demotion. Fortunately, he could disregard this piece of conspiratorial “impertinence” because the higher appointment had subsequently come through.