The start date for history is that first moment in time when a human being recorded some past event — that, were it not for the record of that event, we could not know about it. In Panama, that moment occurred in 1501, when Rodrigo de Bastidas began his exploration of the Isthmus of Panama’s east coast. This is not to say that there were no human beings in Panama — only that we don’t know very much about them beyond the guestimates of archeologists and anthropologists.
Christopher Columbus’s fourth voyage in 1502 took him in a southeasterly direction from the upper region of Central America to the areas of Bocas del Toro, Veragua, the Rio Chagres and Portobello (named by Columbus). In these early times, Spanish explorers referred to the Isthmus of Panama as Tierra Firme.
Several years later, the Spanish Crown granted Alonso de Ojeda and Diego de Nicuesa the right to colonize the area between the Gulf of Uraba (northern Colombia) and present-day Honduras. The plan was to create a unitary administration somewhat similar to what later became Nueva España (New Spain (Mexico)). Tierra Firme was later appointed to control over present-day Jamaica and several other Caribbean islands. Vasco Nunéz de Balboa created the first permanent settlement, called Santa Maria la Antigua del Darien (later, Dariena) (northern Colombia) in 1513, from which he began his famed expedition — one that made him the first European to set eyes on the Pacific Ocean — which he named the South Sea.
It was Balboa’s fantastical descriptions of the isthmus that prompted King Ferdinand II to name this new territory “Golden Castile.” Ferdinand appointed Pedro Arias Divila (also Pedrarias) (a veteran soldier) as its governor. He arrived in the New World in June 1514 with 22 ships and 1,500 men. In 1519, Pedrarias moved his capital to Castilla del Oro, founding a new location for a city he named Nuestra Señora de la Asunción de Panamá (Panama City). Without any concrete evidence to support this contention, the origin of the word “Panama” is believed of native origin, its meaning “many fish.” Pedrarias was also instrumental in settling present-day Nicaragua.
Panama remained part of the Spanish Empire for over 300 years. In the total of the Americas, no other region would prove to be as strategically or economically important. Encroachment attempts by other European countries to seize Panama prompted the Spanish Crown to establish the Viceroyalty of New Granada in 1713 and Panama was placed under its protection. Unfortunately, the capital of New Granada was located at Santa Fe de Bogotá — its remoteness was a major obstacle in effective governance. Equally problematic was the competition between the Viceroyalty of Bogotá and the Viceroyalty of Peru — a somewhat infantile competition that lasted for over a hundred years.
The Spanish Empire reached its zenith under Habsburg rule in the late 18th century. But as order unraveled in Europe in 1808, political instability in new world colonies increased as well. It was the beginning of the Latin American independence movement that swept through Spanish-American colonies like a cholera pandemic.
New Granada finally achieved full independence from Spain in 1819, freeing Panama as well. The citizens of Panama considered uniting with Peru or other Central American federations but eventually joined Gran Colombia at the urgings of the much-admired Simón Bolívar. Panama declared its independence in 1821.
The very notion of a man-made canal between the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea originated in the 1500s when Señor Balboa envisioned a shortcut across the narrow isthmus. But at the time, such an undertaking was deemed impossible — which is where the matter stood until around 1826 when U.S. Secretary of State Henry Clay considered the advantages of a canal across the newly independent Federal Republic of Central America. By this time, of course, American engineers had bragging rights over the construction of the Erie Canal — demonstrating that men were not just dreamers, they were also doers.
Secretary Clay’s idea (and those of others) was to cut across Nicaragua to the lake of the same name, which would, he supposed, provide a ready supply of water for a canal with locks to raise and lower ships for the journey from the Pacific and Atlantic. Congress, however, turned Clay down because of Nicaragua’s political instability. There was some talk about the likelihood that Nicaragua would separate into a half-dozen countries. If this should happen, the instability would interfere with American ambitions. In fact, political power in Colombia changed several times.
In 1843, Great Britain announced its plans to embark on a canal project, focusing its attention on Panama. Compared to Nicaragua, the distance in Panama coast-to-coast was less, but it too was a fleeting idea — one taken up by the famed engineer Ferdinand de Lesseps, builder of the Suez Canal.
In 1846, the United States signed the Mallarino-Bidlack Treaty with New Granada (Colombia y Panama) — a mutual cooperation treaty granting the U.S. significant transit rights within the isthmus, as well as certain military powers to suppress social conflicts and independence struggles targeting Colombia. Over the years, the United States intervened in Panama many times — usually confronting rebellious civilians, peasant guerrillas, or independence struggles.
From the beginning of the California Gold Rush (1848), the U.S. spent the next seven years building a trans-isthmian railway, a project which (according to the Mallarino-Bidlack Treaty), granted the U.S. political and economic access to Panamanian affairs. The province of Panama, of course, was part of New Granada — later an independent country of the same name.
In March 1885, Colombia reduced its military presence in Panama by reassigning troops to quell disturbances in Cartagena. Panamanian insurgents, with fewer soldiers to shoot at them, took full advantage of the situation, and this, in turn, triggered U.S. intervention pursuant to the Treaty of 1846.
Between 1869 – 1877, U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant ordered seven survey expeditions to study the feasibility of a cross-isthmus canal. As travel and trade in the Western hemisphere increased, the desirability of a canal increased. The distance between New York and San Francisco around Cape Horn, through treacherous seas, was 13,000 miles. The journey took months.
The War of the Pacific
This conflict involved Chile vs. the Bolivia-Peruvian alliance that lasted between 1879 – 1884. It was a territorial dispute that eventually increased the territory of Chile. Initially, the argument involved Bolivia and Chile; Peru was dragged into the fray because of its alliances with Bolivia. Chilean armed forces occupied the Bolivian port city of Antofagasta on 14 February 1879.
Oddly, hostilities weren’t declared between Chile and Bolivia until 1 March, and another month passed before Peru joined the fight. Initially, the fight was a naval campaign with Chile struggling to establish a seaborne supply corridor for forces operating in the world’s driest desert. Subsequently, Chile’s land campaign became overwhelming. Bolivia withdrew after late May 1880, and Chilean forces occupied Peru’s capital in January 1881. Afterward, the fight became a guerrilla war that simply wore down Peruvian forces to the point of agreeing to territorial concessions. The three countries signed peace accords in 1883 and 1884.
The U.S. Navy had no part in this war, but this is not to say that there was no connection to the United States. During the war, a lone U.S. Navy ship sat in the harbor at Callao, Peru — ostensibly to protect American interests during the war’s final stages. The ship was U.S.S. Wachusett (commissioned in 1861), and its commanding officer was a somewhat mediocre seaman named Alfred Thayer Mahan. Sitting in a foreign port isn’t a very exciting duty, although it was probably great fun for the crew. As for Captain Mahan, he spent his time reading books in the English Gentleman’s Club. Historians tell us that it was at Callao that Mahan began to formulate his concept of sea power.
The Chilean Navy had recently acquired a protected cruiser from a British shipbuilder known as Armstrong-Mitchell in 1882 or 1883. A protected cruiser is constructed in such a way as to provide maximum protection to that area of the ship most critical to its operation: the propulsion plant and its magazines. The Chilean navy commissioned this ship Esmeralda and proclaimed her the swiftest and most powerfully armed cruiser in the world. In 1885, Esmeralda appeared along the coast of Panama to observe U.S. activities ashore. The ship was, in its time, an awesome sight, particularly when compared to the wooden-hulled ships of the line of the United States Navy.
President McKinley and Roosevelt’s Canal
In 1897, President McKinley became the 25th President of the United States. He was an advocate of protectionist policies and tough diplomacy. Within twelve months, McKinley took the United States to war with a major European power (although one on standing on its last Imperial legs). The United States won the Spanish-American War (in record time), but that feat had more to do with Spanish incompetence than American might. The war might have gone “the other way” had it not been for the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps … and one very talkative Assistant Secretary of the Navy whose name was Theodore Roosevelt.
The condition of the American navy following the Civil War was abysmal. The Navy’s ships were rotting at the waterline. The Navy and Congress were guilty of criminal neglect. The Navy for not raising holy hell about the state of its ships, and Congress for failing to provide sufficient funds to maintain the fleet. Worse, perhaps, the Navy didn’t have much of a mission, and its officers were retired on active duty. In short, the U.S. Navy was a disgrace.
How bad was it, really? In 1884, a French naval officer visited a U.S. Navy ship and complimented its captain for the ship’s brilliant display of antique weaponry — suggesting, of course, that an American ship of the line was a floating museum. A year later, President Grover Cleveland’s first message to Congress was a scorching indictment of the U.S. Navy. In the President’s opinion, what made the state of the Navy humiliating was that Italy, Spain, and Holland boasted a more powerful navy than the United States — and Chile had more powerful ships, as well. Captain Mahan must have been deeply embarrassed.
The impetus for a modernized, stronger Navy capable of projecting U.S. power overseas was competition for colonial possessions, the creation of numerous coaling stations, and an 1889 war scare between the United States and Germany over territorial claims in the Samoan Islands. Two years later, a Chilean mob attacked U.S. sailors on shore leave in Valparaiso, killing 2 and wounding 17. President Benjamin Harrison tried to take a hard line, but as soon as the President understood that Chile had a stronger navy than his own, he soon backed off.
In 1897, the U.S. Navy was not ready for war — simply “more ready” than the Army, and that wasn’t saying much. The one service that was ready for war was the U.S. Marine Corps. See also First Marine Battalion.
The one thing the U.S. Navy/Marine Corps did not lack in 1898 was a strategic vision. Even though the U.S. and Spain had been at peace for over 80 years, Navy and Marine Corps thinkers imagined and contemplated war with Iberia and planned for it. These men were keen observers of the conflict between Spain and the Cuban revolutionaries (1868 – 1878).
President McKinley, of course, was assassinated in 1901, which propelled Theodore Roosevelt into the presidency. Arguably, the most important action President Theodore Roosevelt ever took in foreign affairs related to the construction of the Panama Canal. It was controversial abroad —it was controversial at home. Those who opposed the canal claimed that Roosevelt’s actions were unconstitutional. The charge was possibly true — the denizens of Washington never worry about such things as violations of the U.S. Constitution. Roosevelt, of course, was a man of action.
Driven by patriotic fervor, supported by the investments of a hundred-thousand investors and the expectation of great wealth, the Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interoceanique began work that would cross the Colombian isthmus of Panama and unite the Atlantic with the Pacific. There was ample evidence that Lesseps had done his due diligence.
The Panama Railway had made in excess of $7 million in the first six years of its operations. The railroad, which had cost upwards of 6,000 human lives to build, failed to dampen Mr. Lesseps’ enthusiasm. The project would be a sea-level canal dug along the path of the Panama Railroad. It would extend fifty miles in length (half as long as the Suez Canal), and it would cost around $132 million. Lesseps estimated a project lasting 12 years.
The canal became a French project on 1 February 1881, but ultimately, it was another failed attempt. Neither Lesseps nor any of his company was prepared for the harsh Central American environment. Ultimately, Mr. Lesseps gave up 22,000 workers who died of one cause or another; all the money spent on the project was wasted, and the project ended in 1888.
Shortly after ascending to the presidency, Theodore Roosevelt spoke of the Panama Canal in a speech to Congress. He argued enthusiastically, “No single great material work which remains to be undertaken on this continent is as of such consequence to the American people.” The President acted quickly. In 1902, the United States reached an agreement to buy the rights to the French canal and property and its equipment for a sum of $40 million. The U.S. then began to negotiate a treaty with the government of Colombia. The U.S. Department of War would direct the excavation. The American public sensed a scandal in the making — or worse, good money is thrown after bad.
In a short time, Colombia grew reticent in its negotiations. Roosevelt and Panamanian business interests collaborated on the instigation of a revolution. The battle lasted only a few hours because Colombian troops in the city of Colón accepted bribes to lay down their arms. On 3 November 1903, the Colombian province of Panama became the independent country of the same name. And, since the U.S. initiated the hullaballoo in the first place, it assumed a parental interest in Panamanian affairs. Members of the Roosevelt administration prepared Panama’s Constitution in advance of the “revolution,” the wife of a prominent Panamanian lobbyist sewed the country’s first flag (her husband became the Panamanian ambassador to the United States), and a treaty was signed that were favorable to American interests. The United States promptly deposited $10 million to the Panamanian government.
(Continued next week)
- Wicks, D. H. “Dress Rehearsal: United States Intervention on the Isthmus of Panama, 1886. Pacific Historical Review, 1990
- Collin, R. H. Theodore Roosevelt’s Caribbean: The Panama Canal, the Monroe Doctrine, and the Latin American Context (1990)
- Graham, T. The Interests of Civilization: Reaction in the United States Against the Seizure of the Panama Canal Zone, 1903-1904. Lund Studies in International Relations, 1985.
- Nikol, J. and Francis X. Holbrook, “Naval Operations in the Panama Revolution, 1903.” American Neptune, 1977.
- Turk, R. “The United States Navy and the Taking of Panama, 1901-1903.” Military Affairs, 1974.
 The idea of a canal across Nicaragua did not end in the mid-1800s. The United States ordered a survey in 1916 as a hedge against the unworkability of the Panama Canal, and the People’s Republic of China evaluated prospects in 2012. Concern for the safety of Lake Nicaragua settled the matter — for now.