Balancing Independence and Imperialism: The Panamanian Revolution of 1903

By Justin J. Masucci

A coalition of Panamanian leaders declared independence from the nation of Colombia in November 1903. The United States, which had tried and failed to conclude a treaty with Colombia to construct and maintain a canal across the Isthmus of Panama, unscrupulously encouraged and supported the Panamanian independence movement. As illustrated by the New York World political cartoon below, U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt went so far as to order a detachment of U.S. gunboats to Panama to protect the revolutionaries from Colombian military forces.

roosevelt--panama-1903-granger (1)
Roosevelt & Panama, 1903

Shortly after Panama secured its independence, the U.S. and Panama signed the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty. According to this treaty, Panama granted the U.S. the right to build and operate an inter-ocean canal and also gave the U.S. de facto sovereignty over a ten mile-wide territory around the canal in perpetuity — in effect creating a U.S. colony in Panama. In return, the U.S. paid Panama an up-front sum of $10 million and promised annual payments of $250,000.[1] Considering the circumstances surrounding the Panamanian Revolution and the subsequent Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty, why did Panamanian leaders acquiesce to the creation of a U.S. colony if their goal was national independence? Did Panamanian leaders believe that a canal, even if it was controlled by the U.S., would yield economic prosperity for Panama? Were they so thoroughly dissatisfied with the national government in Bogotá that they were willing to surrender some of their sovereignty in exchange for political independence from Columbia?

From pre-Columbian exchange networks to the roads of the Spanish Empire to the highly profitable Panama Railroad, there is a long history of trade across Panama.[2] As such, many Panamanians believed that “a canal across the Panamanian isthmus would transform Panama into one of the great commercial centers of the world.”[3] Furthermore, several of the leaders of the 1903 Panamanian Revolution, such as Senator José Augustín Arango and Dr. Manuel Amador Guerrero (the first President of Panama), had previous profitable dealings with the U.S. through  the Panama Railroad Company. Arango was a company lawyer and Amador was the company’s head physician.[4] In light of their positive experiences with the U.S., it is understandable why Panamanian leaders like Arango and Amador allied with the U.S. and believed that a U.S.-owned and operated canal would, like the railroad, benefit them.

image041
Founding fathers of the Republic of Panama. Seated (left to right): José Agustín Arango, Dr. Manuel Amador, Federico Boyd. Standing (left to right): Nicanor de Obarrio, Carlos C. Arosemena, Manuel Espinosa, Tomás Arias, Ricardo Arias

Despite the importance of the Columbian government’s rejection of a canal treaty with the U.S. in 1903, the roots of the Panamanian Revolution date back to the early-mid-nineteenth century. Between 1830 and 1840, there were three Panamanian attempts at independence from Columbia. These unsuccessful attempts stemmed from Panamanians’ animosity over the national government in Bogotá formulating economic policies for Panama without Panamanian consent.[5] Several decades later, the War of the Thousand Days set the stage for Panama’s independence from Columbia.

In 1899, Columbian liberals launched a war against the conservative government in Bogotá. The war, which lasted until 1902, killed over 100,000 people, caused hyperinflation, and distracted the Columbian government from its negotiations with the U.S. over a canal across the Isthmus of Panama.[6] It also exacerbated Columbia’s weak authority in Panama. As part of their campaign, Panamanian liberals undermined Columbian rule by spreading their message of federalism. Additionally, after the conclusion of the war with the Treaty of Wisconsin, “Colombia returned to its traditional policy of benign neglect for Panama and thus confirmed in the minds of many Panamanians that neither the conservative nor the liberal parties were the answer to the region’s needs.”[7] Seen in this light, the 1903 Panamanian Revolution was not merely a knee-jerk reaction to the Columbian government’s failure to sign a canal treaty with the U.S., but the culmination of a much longer history of grievances.

So why did Panamanian leaders acquiesce to the creation of a U.S. colony if their goal was national independence? The answer has two parts. First, based on the very long history of profitable trade across the Isthmus of Panama, as well as several Panamanian revolutionaries’ positive experiences with the U.S.-owned Panama Railroad Company, most Panamanian leaders believed that an inter-ocean canal, even if it was owned by the U.S, would be a boon to Panama’s economy. Second, by 1903, Panamanian leaders were disillusioned and anxious with the national government in Bogotá, which had ignored Panamanian demands for decades. Out of their desire for a canal and their desperation for political independence from Columbia, Panamanian leaders agreed to the terms of the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty and surrendered a ten mile-wide section of their new nation over to the U.S.

Justin J. Masucci is a doctoral candidate at the University at Buffalo. His research fields include U.S. history, modern Latin American history, and the history of U.S. imperialism. You can reach him at jmasucci@buffalo.edu.

Title image: “The Man Behind The Egg,” Sunday Times, 1903.

[1] Noel Maurer and Carlos Yu, The Big Ditch: How America Took, Built, Ran, and Ultimately Gave Away the Panama Canal (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011), 84 – 85.

[2] Ibid, 6.

[3] Ibid, 189.

[4] Matthew Parker, Panama Fever: The Epic Story of One of the Greatest Human Achievements of All Time—The Building of the Panama Canal (New York: Doubleday, 2007), 221.

[5] Robert C. Harding, The History of Panama (Santa Barbara: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2006), 16.

[6]  David Bushnell, The Making of Modern Colombia (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 149 – 151.

[7] René De La Pedraja, Wars of Latin America, 1899 – 1941 (Jefferson, NC : McFarland & Company, Inc., 2006), 45.

Further Readings

Busnell, David. The Making of Modern Columbia. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.

De La Pedraja, René. Wars of Latin America, 1899 – 1941. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2006.

Harding, Robert C. The History of Panama. Santa Barbara: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2006.

Maurer, Noel and Carlos Yu. The Big Ditch: How America Took, Built, Ran, and Ultimately Gave Away the Panama Canal. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011.

Parker, Matthew. Panama Fever: The Epic Story of the Building of the Panama Canal. New York: Anchor Books, 2009.

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