Modern history


Remarkable Revolution

It was a remarkable revolution—I think the most remarkable I ever read of in history.



Manuel Amador’s arrival at Colón had been without incident. By prior agreement none of his fellow conspirators were waiting to greet him when his ship docked. He was met only by Herbert G. Prescott, assistant superintendent of the Panama Railroad, who came on board with the port captain, as appeared perfectly routine, to carry off any papers or documents Amador would not wish to have found in his possession. The doctor came ashore looking innocent enough, and there seemed nothing unusual about the fact that he and Prescott departed together on the next train to Panama City. Had the doctor been searched, however, he would have been found to have an odd-looking flag wrapped about his waist.

The trouble started that evening when the flag and the rest of Philippe Bunau-Varilla’s revolutionary paraphernalia were presented to the others at a secret gathering in a house on Cathedral Plaza, the home of Federico Boyd. Amador’s report evoked only disappointment or harsh disapproval. The mere promises of an unknown Frenchman impressed no one. The idea of an independence movement that did not include the whole of the Isthmus was viewed as asinine, since several of those present owned extensive properties outside the Frenchman’s proposed zone. The expectation had been that Amador would return with an actual agreement signed by John Hay or possibly even Roosevelt himself. Nobody liked the flag, which was thought to look too much like the flag of the United States.

It was nearly midnight when the meeting disbanded and the only agreement reached was that emissaries should be sent to the interior to drum up revolutionary support. Amador went home thoroughly dejected.

The following day it appeared that the whole game was up. Tomás Arias, one of the wealthiest, most influential members of the junta, came to tell Amador that he was backing out. “You are an old man,” Arias said, “Arango is an old man, and you don’t care if you are hung. I do not like to be hung.”

Within hours Amador further learned from José de Obaldía, governor of the Department of Panama, that a force of picked Colombian troops—a detachment of tiradores, or sharpshooters—was on its way to Colón from Barranquilla. Obaldía, another wealthy landowner, had been appointed governor by José Marroquín only the summer before and because Obaldía was known to favor separation from Colombia in the event the canal treaty fell through, the appointment had caused a great stir in Bogotá. He was not involved in the conspiracy, only sympathetic and a close personal friend of Amador’s. In fact, he happened to be living temporarily in Amador’s house.1

Amador decided, first, that he himself had gone too far to pull back and, second, that for the time being he would confide this latest piece of information to no one except Herbert Prescott, who would be described as a “very energetic and typical railroad man, one who does not do things halfway.” Together they agreed to “bluff it out.”

That was October 28. Early the following day, Amador made his move. He would demonstrate to the others what could be achieved by merely saying the word. The crucial telegram—“Fate news bad powerful tiger. Urge vapor Colón.”—went off to New York. Conferences were hastily arranged with Porfirio Meléndez, a stout, highly political police chief and part-time straw boss for the railroad at Colón, who agreed to manage the uprising on the Atlantic side, and with General Ruben Varón, commander of thePadilla,one of two Colombian gunboats presently in the Bay of Panama. For the promise of $35,000 in silver, Varón agreed to turn his ship over to the junta the moment their revolution commenced. The uprising was scheduled for November 4.

By Sunday, November 1, Amador had his answer from New York, which “had the effect of putting fresh life into the conspirators.” Tomás Arias instantly regained his faith in the scheme. Dr. Carlos Mendoza, leader of the Liberals, and two of his prominent compatriots, Eusebio Morales and Juan Henróquez, agreed to prepare a proper manifesto and to improve upon Bunau-Varilla’s declaration of independence. A new flag was designed by Amador’s son Manuel and was sewn together by Señorita María Amelia de la Ossa, the fiancée of Herbert Prescott’s brother, who was the railroad’s chief telegrapher. The flag was composed of four rectangles, the lower left of blue, the upper right of red, the upper left of white with a blue star in the center, the lower right of white with a red star in the center. And it was rapidly duplicated by other ladies, including Señora Amador and her daughter Elmira (who was married to the nephew of United States Vice-Consul Felix Ehrman), and various members of the Arango and Arosemena households.

Even J. Gabriel Duque lent his unqualified support, promising that the city’s fire brigade, of which he was the leader and major financial support—some 280 men—could be counted on when the time came.

None of the so-called inner circle, not even Arango, was as yet aware that Colombian troops were en route. Only Amador knew, probably his wife, Herbert Prescott, and, as of now, Colonel James Shaler, superintendent of the railroad. Shaler had to be included: the railroad was not only the one means of moving men from Colón (where the troops would land) to Panama City (where the revolution was to begin), the railroad had the only telephone and telegraph system between Colón and Panama City.

Prescott had gone over to Colón to confer with Shaler as soon as Amador apprised him of the situation; and with Shaler’s blessing, Prescott had shifted all idle rolling stock, every car that might be used to transport troops, out of the yards and back to the Panama City end of the line. The railroad, these two men saw immediately, was the key. Shaler remained where he was; Prescott returned to Panama City to “wait until something turns up.”

Which is how things stood on Monday, November 2, when the Nashville came over the horizon.

•   •

The urgent cable to Commander Hubbard of the Nashville, a cable classified as secret and confidential, had been sent on October 30, the day of Philippe Bunau-Varilla’s chance encounter with Assistant Secretary Loomis in Lafayette Square. The Nashville was to proceed at once for Colón; Hubbard was to telegraph in cipher the situation there once he had consulted with the United States consul; and he was to keep his destination secret. Nothing was said of an expected revolution on the Isthmus or of any action to be taken in such event. So to Hubbard and his crew as they steamed out of Kingston, it had seemed a relatively routine matter. The long, white two-stacked gunboat had called at Colón on other occasions and as recently as two weeks before.

Nor was the ship’s arrival at Colón taken as any particular cause for alarm by those Colombian or local officials who knew nothing of the schemes afoot. It only surprised them that the ship had returned so soon.

To Amador’s fellow conspirators, however, it was the long-awaited decisive moment, the irrefutable sign that the United States stood prepared to guarantee their success, that Amador’s Frenchman was truly their deliverer. “Have just wired you that theNashvillehas been sighted,” James Shaler wrote in a quick letter to Prescott at about four the afternoon of November 2. “This, I presume, settles the question.”

The ship dropped anchor in the harbor at 5:30, or only about eight hours later than Bunau-Varilla had specified. Hubbard went ashore and found that “everything on the Isthmus was quiet.” But he also talked to Shaler and there is no reason to believe that Shaler kept anything from him. So Hubbard undoubtedly appreciated exactly what the situation was when the Colombian gunboat next arrived in the harbor.

According to Hubbard’s log it was nearly midnight when the Cartagena steamed in, her lights all aglow. Whether anyone was on duty at the railroad office at that hour or could determine what ship she was, what message Shaler may have put on the wire to Panama City that night, if any, are not known. But at daybreak, November 3, Hubbard took a launch to the Colombian ship, went aboard, and was informed by General Juan Tobar that she was carrying nearly five hundred troops and that he, General Tobar, intended to put them ashore at once.

Hubbard made no protest, despite what he knew. He had no orders to prevent such a landing and as yet there was not a sign of disturbance of any kind by which he might have justified his own intervention.

News of the landing was immediately telephoned to Panama City, and to those conspirators who had been kept in the dark this whole time, it was a crushing revelation. Word of a Colombian warship standing off Colón would in itself have had a devastating effect; but far worse was the realization that the American ship had made no move to prevent the Colombian troops—and assuredly a Colombian firing squad—from coming ashore. All the bravado engendered by the arrival of the Nashville the evening before was undone in an instant. The conspirators saw themselves as the victims of a diabolic Yankee betrayal. Even Amador, by all accounts, was having his own bleak second thoughts and might have called the whole thing off right then, early on the morning of the third, had it not been for the stately Arango, who declared himself ready to stand by his old friend, and for Señora Amador, a woman “of courage and snap” (as William Howard Taft would later describe her) who was considerably younger than her husband and who declared that it was time to get on with the fight, soldiers or no soldiers.

A plan was hurriedly improvised, an extremely neat stratagem that appears also to have been the inspiration of Señora Amador, and the details were quickly communicated by telephone to Colonel Shaler, he being the one chosen to bell the cat.

•   •

Colonel James Shaler was seventy-seven years old, older even than Amador, and he was widely regarded as the most important and popular North American on the Isthmus. A New York reporter who met Shaler a few months later perceived that “the impress of his personality” could be felt everywhere. In a land where most of mankind was short or medium-sized, brown-skinned and black-haired, Shaler was tall and lean and was made especially conspicuous by a huge white mustache and a great bushy crown of pure white hair. In a society where prolific families counted above all else, he was also a bachelor, a quiet man of quiet, contemplative pleasures (books, billiards). But he openly adored Panama and both his physical and mental vitality belied all traditional accounts of the torpor engendered by permanent residence in such a climate. To the junta he was suddenly indispensable. As several of them were to acknowledge later, without him there would never have been an independent Republic of Panama.

General Tobar and the Tiradores Battalion (plus perhaps a dozen wives) landed at the old Panama Railroad wharf, Tobar and his aides “glittering in elaborate uniforms and bristling with all the arms it was permissible for officers to bear.” They were being received with customary deference by various local officials when Shaler approached from the railroad office. Shaler introduced himself, bid the officers welcome, and calmly recommended that they depart at once for Panama City on a special train, a single car and a locomotive, which had been arranged for their convenience, he said, at the personal request of Governor Obaldía. The troops could not be transported immediately because of a temporary shortage of equipment, he explained, but they would follow shortly. Tobar hesitated; Shaler was insistent, saying that the time fixed for departure had already passed and that there was no reason in the world why the officers should have to stand about in the killing heat a moment longer.

“I pointed out to him,” Tobar explained afterward in his own defense, “that it was necessary for me to take the proper measures for the disembarkation of the troops . . . [but] as he insisted in his efforts, and as I was able to satisfy myself, even by the assurance of the prefect himself, that the troops could and would go over in a special train . . . I found no justifiable reason to persist in my refusal. . . .”

A young officer was picked to remain in command of the battalion, a Colonel Eliseo Torres.

But just as Tobar and his aides—fifteen men in all—were being comfortably settled in their special car, Tobar’s second-in-command, General Ramón Amaya, grew suddenly uneasy about the arrangement, saying he must get off at once. Tobar objected, claiming it would be unseemly if the two of them were not to arrive in Panama City together. The issue was resolved only when Shaler stepped quietly to the rear of the car, pulled the signal cord, and hopped off the train. He was smiling broadly and waving as the train steamed away.

The railroad office now became a kind of command post. Shaler telephoned Prescott and told him to expect the generals at about eleven. He would do all he could to hold the troops in Colón, Shaler said, but he did not know how long it would be before they became suspicious and decided to take things into their own hands.

Sometime between 10:30 and 11:00, Commander Hubbard appeared at the office eager to know the situation, as he had just received a most important cable from Washington. His specific, secret orders now—orders issued the day before, November 2—were to prevent the landing of Colombian troops. The cable, a document of particular interest in time to come, read as follows:




Shaler told Hubbard what he had done with the generals, and Hubbard left to send a return cable to Washington. Colombian troops were already ashore, he reported; however, no revolution had been declared (Washington had said nothing of a revolution) and there had been no disturbances. Still: “Situation is most critical if revolutionary leaders act.”

Hubbard was being scrupulously careful. Nothing would be done out of line, nothing, that is, without specific instructions from Washington. That Shaler had decided to “act,” that things were also moving swiftly on the other side of the Isthmus, were perfectly obvious. Hubbard, in fact, was probably present when Porfirio Meléndez came into the office and Shaler and Meléndez began concocting a plan in the event that the soldiers demanded a train at gunpoint. The plan, as Shaler later explained, was to put all their rifles and ammunition in the rear car. When the train reached Lion Hill, one of Meléndez’ men would pull the rear coupling pin and leave the arms stalled in the jungle. The engineer would then run the train full steam to Culebra, where he would abandon his engine and let the stranded, unarmed soldiers walk out whichever direction they chose.

To inform the others in Panama City of this scheme, and of a plan to hijack the Cartagena, it was decided to make up an unscheduled train and send Meléndez’ daughter across. Aminta Meléndez, a tiny, cheerful eighteen-year-old who appeared considerably younger than her age, made the journey as asked, an act of considerable courage, which she would modestly discount afterward. She was neither stopped nor questioned by anyone. She simply found Arango, whom her father regarded as the real leader of the movement, and delivered the message. And as things turned out, the information had no effect one way or the other, since neither scheme was to be necessary, but Aminta Meléndez and her “ride” would become an essential element in the story of the revolution. In a favorite version she would be pictured as riding in the cab with the engineer, when in fact she sat quite comfortably in a coach.

•   •

The trap for Tobar and Amaya was being neatly set, meantime.

As soon as Herbert Prescott received Shaler’s message that the generals were on their way, he went to Amador’s house and told him it would have to be “now or never.” Some very fast thinking was called for, as they had about two hours to get things ready. Amador was also convinced, from what he had learned during his trip to New York, that excessive bloodshed would seriously jeopardize American sympathy for their cause. The revolution, it was decided, would take place that afternoon.

Amador at once ordered his carriage and drove to the Cuartel de Chiriquí, the barracks of the Colombian garrison, a large pale building by the seawall, facing onto the Plaza Chiriquí. In command of the garrison was General Esteban Huertas, small, smooth-faced, impeccable, young, and very ambitious, as Amador well knew. According to the recollection of one of Huertas’ own men, who was standing nearby when Huertas received the white-haired doctor, Amador said that he himself was old and tired but that Panama and the general had a great future ahead.

“If you will aid us, we shall reach immortality in the history of the new republic.” An American ship had arrived, more were coming, Amador added. “You and your battalion can accomplish nothing against the superior force of the cruisers, which have their orders. Choose here, glory and riches; in Bogotá, misery and ingratitude.”

Huertas is said to have remained “impassive” for a moment, then put out his hand. “I accept.”

But since this appears to have been the only time the two met more or less privately that morning, an agreement must also have been reached regarding the sums Huertas and his men were to receive for their part, unless, of course, the bargain had already been worked out in secret in the days preceding, which is perfectly possible. In any event, payment to the soldiers was to be $50 per man, while Huertas was to be compensated for his revolutionary fervor with $65,000, an absolute fortune in Panama in the year 1903.

At 10:30, in full uniform, Huertas marched at the head of his regiment down the Avenida Central to receive the generals at the railroad station.

At 11:30 the train pulled in and Tobar, Amaya, and their aides stepped down to an amazing welcome. Governor Obaldía was there, accompanied by all his official family; General Francisco Castro, military commander of Panama, with his aides; United States Vice-Consul Ehrman, who was also head of the important Ehrman bank in Panama City; and Huertas with his troops, drawn up on the dusty little plaza across from the station. There was much saluting, much cheering, Obaldía was full of mellifluous words of welcome, and a line of sleek carriages stood waiting.

“There was,” Tobar said later, “nothing that did not show the greatest cordiality and give me the most complete assurance that peace reigned throughout the department.”

An elaborate luncheon followed at the Government House. But as the afternoon wore on, with still no sign of his troops, Tobar grew increasingly suspicious and finally demanded to be taken to military headquarters at the Cuartel, where he promptly assumed command. An officer confided that rumors of an uprising were sweeping the city; a cryptic note from a prominent citizen warned Tobar to trust no one.

Sometime near two o’clock the anxious general sent several of his aides to Obaldía to inform him of these rumors and to request that Obaldía order the immediate dispatch of the troops from Colón. The aides returned saying the governor had assured them that everything would be taken care of.

Apparently satisfied by this, Tobar and a number of his officers crossed to the barracks, where, joined by Huertas and Huertas’ own retinue of officers, they inspected the local troops. The seawall was next, Tobar showing Huertas where he wanted the best marksmen placed to command the streets running from the harbor to Cathedral Plaza.

All this time Amador had been extremely busy completing his arrangements. He had met with Arango, who was to tell Carlos Mendoza to have the declaration of independence ready. He had met with J. Gabriel Duque to tell him the uprising would begin promptly at five, that the fire brigade must be at Cathedral Plaza, ready to march on the barracks. He had met Huertas on a street corner near the plaza, just before Tobar went to the barracks, and had listened rather impatiently as Huertas argued for a different plan. (Huertas wanted to strike later in the evening when there was to be a band concert and it would be easier to take the generals separately.)

Tobar and Huertas were still on the seawall when a secretary to Governor Obaldía appeared to tell Tobar that unfortunately the railroad superintendent, Colonel Shaler, was placing difficulties in the way. The troops could not be moved, Shaler had insisted, until their fares had been paid in full and in cash; it was a company regulation. Tobar told the man to go straight back and inform Obaldía that he was prepared to pay and that the troops were to be dispatched at once.2

Reports reached the barracks that things were getting out of hand elsewhere in the city. The head of the Panama Treasury, Eduardo de la Guardia, arrived to inform the generals that an uprising was certain and that Obaldía would do nothing to suppress it. By now it was nearly 4:30.

At about five o’clock, as Tobar, his officers, and Huertas sat conferring on a bench outside the barracks near the gate to the seawall, Tobar was informed that a crowd had begun gathering at the front of the building. General Amaya went out and returned to confirm the report. Huertas asked if it was not time to order out the first patrol. Tobar assented and Huertas, excusing himself to change out of his dress coat, went inside, followed by General Castro.

When a company of soldiers marched out with fixed bayonets, the generals were still sitting in the same place. The soldiers wheeled to the right of the seawall gate, as if to pass in front of the generals, but then suddenly opened into two files, one going in front of the seated men, the other behind. At a command the soldiers stopped and swung about with bayonets lowered at the astonished generals.

“Generals, you are my prisoners,” said the officer in command, a young captain named Salazar.

“I am the commander in chief,” Tobar declared.

“You and your aides,” answered Salazar.

“By whose orders?”

“General Huertas’.”

Tobar lunged at the nearest soldier in an effort to escape, but was instantly hemmed in by bayonets. He appealed to Salazar, begging him not to be a traitor. He called on sentinels along the wall, the other soldiers, to come to the defense of their country, all to no avail. But neither he nor any of his companions had attempted to draw a sword or reach for a side arm.

Disarmed, they were marched out the seawall gate, through a crowd of several thousand people, and on to Cathedral Plaza, across the plaza and up Avenida Central to the jail, the crowd shouting “Viva Huertas! . . . Viva Amador! . . . Viva el Istmo Libre!” Those in the crowd who were armed began firing shots in the air.

Minutes after the generals were locked up, at 5:49 by the wall clock in the railroad office, Herbert Prescott was on the phone to tell Shaler and Meléndez. It was “the hour of freedom.”

Amador ordered that Obaldía be taken into custody—as a matter of form—then went himself to see the American vice-consul, Felix Ehrman, who dictated a cable to Washington:


Then, immediately, Amador, Ehrman, Arango, Federico Boyd, and Tomás Arias repaired to Cathedral Plaza to be acclaimed by the crowd.

At dusk, as the municipal council met to give the junta its formal recognition, the Colombian gunboat Bogotá opened fire, throwing five or six shells into the city, killing one man—a Chinese shopkeeper who had been asleep in bed—and a donkey. These were the day’s only casualties. When a shore battery responded, the ship withdrew behind an island in the bay and was heard from no more. The Padilla, meantime, had kept perfectly silent.

So by nightfall there remained only the problem of the troops at Colón.


It was very early on the morning of November 4 that Commander Hubbard of the Nashville issued the order addressed to Superintendent Shaler forbidding the movement of “troops of either party [Colombian or insurgent] or in either direction by your railroad.” So when the young Colombian colonel, Eliseo Torres, who had been left in charge, appeared again at Shaler’s office that same morning to resume his effort to get transportation for his men, Shaler had only to tell him that his hands were tied. The troops and the number of women who accompanied them were camped in the streets and were the cause of much curiosity. There had been no friction with the local populace; not the slightest sign of trouble. And Torres, having no means of communication with Panama City, knew nothing of what had transpired there the day before and had yet to grasp the extreme gravity of his own situation.

Not until noon was he told—by Porfirio Meléndez, who, after conferring with Shaler, escorted Torres across Front Street to the saloon at the Astor Hotel. Over a drink, Meléndez explained what had happened to the generals, warned the young officer that more American help was on the way, and offered him a handsome honorarium in cash if he would be so sensible as to order his men back onto the Cartagena and quietly sail away.

The response of the young officer was explosive. He “flew into a violent passion” and, like Pedro Prestan, announced that he would burn the town and kill every American in it unless the generals were released by two that afternoon.

So there followed two extremely critical hours.

Hubbard had all American women and children put on board a German steamer then in port and on another ship belonging to the railroad. He gathered the men inside the railroad’s stone warehouse and landed a detachment of forty sailors with an extra supply of arms. Cleared for action, the Nashville weighed anchor and moved in closer to shore, her guns trained on the railroad wharf and on the Cartagena, which to the surprise of everyone got up steam and departed at full speed.

The Colombians had the railroad building surrounded almost immediately, their purpose being, in Hubbard’s view at least, to provoke an attack. It was a situation ripe for catastrophe. Yet for all the tension on both sides, no shots were fired and at about 3:13 Torres walked up to the barricaded building and told Hubbard that in fact he was “well disposed toward the Americans” and wished only to make contact with General Tobar to find out what he was supposed to do. He proposed that he withdraw his own troops to Monkey Hill, that Hubbard and his force return to the Nashville, and that he be permitted to dispatch an emissary to Tobar to explain the gravity of the situation and to bring back Tobar’s answer.

After a hurried conference with Shaler, Meléndez, and the American consul at Colón, a man named Oscar Malmros, all of whom were impressed by Torres and convinced of his “good faith,” Hubbard agreed to the proposition. Two emissaries were chosen, one of Torres’ men and a local policeman. Shaler at once produced a special train, then put through a call to apprise Panama City of what had happened.

A murderous showdown had thus been averted for the moment. A number of people had kept their heads. However, with the Cartagena no longer standing by to evacuate Torres and his troops, the problem of their departure had also been compounded, and their quickest possible dispatch from Colón—from the Isthmus entirely—was of paramount importance to the success of the revolution. For as long as loyal troops remained where they were, Bogotá’s claim to de facto sovereignty over Panama was quite as valid as that of the junta. Colonel Torres was in a comparatively strong position, furthermore. No insurgent force had as yet made itself known in Colón, and if the American commander stood by his own order that neither loyal nor insurgent forces could be transported on the railroad, then no insurgent force could be brought over from Panama City to challenge him. With nearly five hundred well-armed veteran troops at his command, he was unquestionably a force to reckon with, and he certainly had it within his power to lay waste to Colón as threatened, and to much of the railroad and its property. Most important, as he wrote in a note for Tobar, he and his men were fully prepared to “resist any attack rather than be traitors.”

Torres was, in fact, the trump card and everything depended on how Tobar chose to respond.

•   •

At Panama City it was decided that a personal appeal by Amador (El Presidente, as the crowds were now calling him) might do the trick. The day at Panama City had been a very different one from that at Colón. The junta was riding high; the whole city was celebrating; the new flag had been raised at the Government House and at Cathedral Plaza. “The world is astounded at our heroism,” Amador had told the troops at the barracks that morning. “Yesterday we were but the slaves of Colombia; today we are free . . . . President Roosevelt has made good . . . . Long live President Roosevelt! Long live the American Government!” He and Huertas had stood beside eight large wooden boxes filled with Colombian silver delivered for the troops from the Ehrman Bank. (Huertas and his officers, as they were informed privately, would receive their share in another five days, with checks drawn on another local bank, Isaac Brandon & Brothers.) “We have the money! We are free!” exclaimed Huertas, who was picked up in a chair and borne in triumph through the streets at the head of an enormous crowd. When a sudden downpour struck just as the parade reached the plaza, all who could crowded into the Central Hotel, where for another jubilant hour bottles of champagne were poured over Huertas’ head.

Amador got to the police station about five o’clock, or roughly half an hour before the arrival of the emissaries from Colón. He talked to Amaya first, then to Tobar, and his point was the same with both: that further resistance on their part was useless since the United States was involved. “You must understand that we who started this movement are not insane,” he told Amaya, whom he had known for years but had yet to face in quite this way. They were seated in the guardroom alone. “We fully appreciated the fact that in no case could we withstand all the rest of the nation, and in consequence we had to resort to means that, although painful, were indispensable. The United States has fully entered into this movement . . . and our independence is guaranteed by that colossus.”

With Tobar he had been more explicit, saying that the plan had been sanctioned in Washington, that the United States had already supplied him with $250,000 to meet the expenses of establishing the new republic, which was quite untrue.

The generals refused to be swayed. “I answered Señor Amador,” Tobar later related, “that I would take no account of what he had just told me, as my duty and the duty of the army I commanded was sufficiently clear, and that in consequence no human force could drag from me the order he desired.”

Apparently Amador was no more out the door when the two messengers from Colón were brought in. Tobar read the note from Torres and said he positively refused to order the evacuation. Yet neither would he order Torres not to depart. Colonel Torres knew his duty, the general insisted.

Nor had he anything different to say the following morning, November 5, when it was reported from Colón that Torres and his men had marched back into town from Monkey Hill—claiming the mosquitoes had driven them out—that Hubbard had landed his force once again, and that therefore the situation was fully as serious as before.

Urgent meetings were called on both sides of the Isthmus. Shaler was on the phone to Prescott perhaps five or six times. Then at about five o’clock Tobar, Amaya, and the other Colombian officers were told to get ready to leave for the railroad depot. It had been decided to take them back to Colón.

They left the jail, surrounded by a large, well-armed escort. But at the station Herbert Prescott refused to put Tobar aboard until Tobar gave his word that he would make no attempt to escape. An extended “altercation” took place, Prescott insisting that Tobar must go as a voluntary prisoner because orders from the American government prohibited the transportation of soldiers to guard him.

Tobar, unfortunately for his cause, stood on his dignity. As an officer he could give no such guarantee; they could either transport him as a prisoner in fact, he said, or they could return him to prison. The argument dragged on, more time passed. Prescott called Shaler on the phone to ask what to do. Commander Hubbard, who was in the Colón office at the moment, told Shaler to tell Prescott to put the generals under an armed civilian escort and send them across.

And this was what was about to be done, the generals were actually seated on the train, when Shaler called again, great excitement in his voice. He and Porfirio Meléndez had just succeeded in getting Colonel Torres to agree to embark on the Orinoco, a Royal Mail steamer that had come in the day before. The price, Shaler told Prescott, would be $8,000. Prescott had only to get the money from the junta and he, Shaler, would pay Torres out of the railroad’s safe and the troops could start their evacuation immediately.

Ordering one of the others to hold the generals until he got back, Prescott rushed out of the depot and took a carriage back to Cathedral Plaza where he found Amador, Boyd, and Arango. The only available cash, the three said, had been given out already to Huertas’ troops, but the Brandon bank would vouch for whatever was necessary. Not wanting to lose a minute more than necessary, Prescott raced back to the phone, called Shaler, and told him he had the money. Fifteen minutes later Shaler called back and said the Colombian troops were just beginning to go on board the Orinoco.

•   •

Commander Hubbard, as he later testified in Washington, had had no part in the bargain struck with Torres. Shaler and Porfirio Meléndez had done all the talking, and Torres, as Shaler acknowledged, had agreed to their offer only after Shaler assured him that five thousand American troops were about to arrive. Then, at 6:20, as if on cue, the Dixie had been sighted on the horizon.

The $8,000 for Torres was carefully counted out in the railroad office by the company’s cashier, a Mr. Wardlaw, and by Joseph Lefevre, a local resident who was later to become Minister of Public Works for the new Republic of Panama. The money, all in American twenty-dollar gold pieces, was put in two sacks and was carried out the door.

The only snag had occurred just as the troops were crowding onto the wharf beside the Orinoco. The local agent for the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company had suddenly specified cash in advance for their passage to Cartagena. Shaler told him there was not money enough left in the railroad safe, but not to worry, that whatever the cost it would be covered soon enough. Citing various regulations, the agent at first refused, then said he would clear the ship if Shaler and Hubbard put their signatures on a voucher for the passage money, which came to something over £ 1,000. Both men signed their names, and as a final gesture, Shaler sent Torres two cases of champagne.

At 7:05, while the troops were still going aboard, the Dixie anchored in the harbor. It was pitch dark by this time and raining very hard. At 7:35 the Orinoco cast off and steamed away, and in less than an hour four hundred Marines under Captain John A. Lejeune had landed.

The formal proclamations were read the following morning in front of the Colón prefecture. “We separate ourselves from our Colombian brothers without hatred and without joy,” Porfirio Meléndez read from the declaration of independence, but the joy of the crowd was unmistakable. As a gesture of gratitude, Meléndez then asked Major William Black, the Walker Commission officer, to raise the new flag.

In Panama City that same morning, Señor Don Eduardo Ycaza, who had been appointed paymaster by the junta, began writing checks drawn on the Brandon bank—$30,000 to Huertas, who was to get another $50,000 later on (why he wound up with $80,000 all told, rather than the $65,000 originally promised, has never been explained); $35,000 for General Varón of the Padilla, $10,000 each for Captain Salazar, who had handled the actual arrest of the generals, and several other of Huertas’ officers whose loyalty was deemed important.

Tobar and his generals, who had been returned to police headquarters, were again released and transported by train to Colón to await passage on the next ship to Cartagena.

Cables to Secretary of State Hay were composed and sent in the meantime, one from Arango, Arias, and Boyd, the other from Vice-Consul Ehrman. The authority of the new republic, the cables said, had been established and enthusiastically received throughout the entire Isthmus (in fact no news of the uprising had as yet reached several important parts of the interior), and Philippe Bunau-Varilla had been appointed “confidential agent” in Washington.

The reply came that afternoon. It was dated November 6—12:51 P.M. The United States government had formally recognized the new Republic of Panama.


It had been fifty-seven years since Benjamin Bidlack had signed the treaty at Bogotá, fifty-five years since the United States Senate had confirmed the treaty, fifty-one years since the first trains had begun rolling on the Panama Railroad. And in all that time, throughout the entire second half of the nineteenth century, there had been no serious misunderstandings as to the critical agreements of the treaty contained in Article XXXV. In no way was the arrangement to impair Colombian sovereignty over the Isthmus; Colombia was to remain the sole protector of the Isthmus and of the isthmian transit against domestic obstruction. The clear specific intent was to safeguard for Colombia its sovereignty in perpetuity, a guarantee for which Colombia had been willing to grant to the United States the right to create an isthmian transit—rail or canal. The United States was obligated to maintain order only when requested by Colombia and, as President Cleveland once stated, “always in maintenance of the sovereignty of Colombia.”

“The purpose of the stipulation [Article XXXV],” Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William Seward, had declared in 1865, “was to guarantee the Isthmus against seizure or invasion by a foreign power only. It could not have been contemplated that we were to become a party to any civil war in that country by defending the Isthmus against another party.” Concerning Colombia, the United States desired nothing more, Seward wrote, than the enjoyment of “complete and absolute” sovereignty, and if that were “assailed by any power at home or abroad,” the United States would be ready to cooperate with Colombia to “maintain and defend” its sovereignty.

The same or similar policy had held under subsequent administrations in Washington, including three illustrious Republican secretaries of state—Hamilton Fish, William Evarts, and James G. Blaine. Secretary Fish, for example, had on one occasion notified the American minister at Bogotá that the treaty of 1846 “has never been acknowledged to embrace the duty of protecting the road [the Panama Railroad]  . . . from the violence of local factions . . . it is . . . the undoubted duty of the Colombian Government to protect it [the railroad] against attacks from local insurgents.”

Thus the secret orders cabled to Commander Hubbard from the Navy Department, November 2—to prevent the landing of any armed force “either government or insurgent”—had been contrary not only to the spirit and intent of the treaty but to long-established policy and precedent. Colombia, the sovereign, was to be denied the right to land its own troops on the pretext that the United States was obligated to maintain “free and uninterrupted transit” on the railroad. In addition, the orders had been issued when there was not a sign of disturbance as yet anywhere on the Isthmus, when no revolution had even been declared, let alone physically set in motion.

Since General Tobar and his troops had already landed by the time Hubbard actually received the November 2 order, the United States, of course, had still done nothing out of line up to the moment when Hubbard took charge of the railroad. It was at that point, early on the morning of November 4, that American armed power had become an actual, rather than symbolic, factor in the plot, and at that point there was still no sign of trouble in Colón—no mobs gathered, no guns brandished—and nothing whatever had put the railroad or its operations in jeopardy. Neither had there been the least sign of an uprising in Colón even as Hubbard and his small force faced Colonel Torres from within their barricaded warehouse. No local patriots had rushed to help Hubbard, it should be further noted; the only violence threatening at Colón was between the Colombian troops and the American sailors.

Hubbard had taken command of the railroad because those were his orders. Indeed, as would be revealed afterward, Washington had been so anxious that he understand this that on November 3 two cables ordering Hubbard to take the railroad and keep the Colombian troops bottled in at Colón were sent to Consul Malmros from Washington, and another to Vice-Consul Ehrman at Panama City. The first of these cables, signed by Acting Secretary of State Francis B. Loomis, had been sent at 8:45 in the morning—or nine hours before the uprising took place at Panama City. (In fact, Acting Secretary Loomis was so overly anxious about things in general that a little later that same morning he cabled Ehrman, “Uprising on Isthmus reported. Keep Department promptly and fully informed.” Ehrman replied, “No uprising yet. Reported will be in the night. Situation critical.”)

What settled the fate of the infant republic, however, was the arrival of the Dixie followed, all within a week or so, by the Atlanta, Maine, Mayflower, and Prairie (at Colón), and the Boston, Marblehead, Concord, and Wyoming (at Panama City). The ships had come from Acapulco and Kingston; the Maine, among the last to arrive, had been on maneuvers at Martha’s Vineyard. In several public appearances Theodore Roosevelt by now had mentioned “an old adage which runs, ‘Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far.’ ” By the big stick he meant a strong Navy and he was wielding it for the first time. The latest orders from Washington were to prevent the landing of Colombian troops anywhere within the Department of Panama, not merely in the vicinity of the railroad. On the Pacific side the Boston and the Concord patroled as far east as the Gulf of San Miguel. More American troops were landed, some were sent into the interior. Rarely had there ever been so neat and effective a practice of all that Captain Mahan had preached.

Without the military presence of the United States—had there been no American gunboats standing off shore at Colón and Panama City—the Republic of Panama probably would not have lasted a week. Rear Admiral Henry Glass, for example, would conclude after a careful appraisal of the republic’s capacity to defend itself that at the very most six hundred men might have been furnished with adequate arms. Taft, on his first visit to Panama a year later, would describe its army as “not much larger than the army on an opera stage.” Colombia, had it had free access from the sea, could have landed several thousand veteran troops on both sides of the Isthmus, just as the conspirators themselves had appreciated from the beginning. As it was, a Colombian force of some two thousand men did attempt an overland march through the Darien wilderness, but ravaged by fever, they gave up and turned back.

•   •

The orders that sent Hubbard ashore at Colón, that secured the railroad, that started ten warships converging on Panama from points several thousands of miles off, had all emanated from the State, War, and Navy Building and were accredited to the Secretary of the Navy William H. Moody or to Acting Secretary Charles Darling and to Secretary of State Hay or to Acting Secretary Loomis. But the responsibility for “the dynamic solution of the Panama Question” (in the words of John Hay’s biographer) rested entirely with Theodore Roosevelt, as Roosevelt himself would proudly acknowledge. “I did not consult Hay, or Root [Secretary of War Elihu Root], or anyone else as to what I did, because a council of war does not fight; and I intended to do the job once for all.”

The American flag would “bring civilization into the waste places of the earth,” he had declared in one of his speeches earlier in the year. The burden of empire was to advance liberty and order and material progress. “We have no choice as to whether or not we shall play a great part in the world,” he had told another cheering crowd at San Francisco. “That has been determined for us by fate. . . .” They were popular words and very like those in a novel that was to appear less than a year after Panama became a republic—Nostromo, Joseph Conrad’s tale of a Latin-American revolution and of the self-deceptions men work with the words they summon to deceive others. “ ‘We shall run the world’s business whether the world likes it or not,’ ” a San Francisco financier remarks early in the story. “ ‘The world can’t help it—and neither can we, I guess.’ ”

On the morning of November 3, the morning General Tobar and his tiradores came ashore at Colón, Roosevelt, as expected, had been at Oyster Bay, having taken the night train from Washington in order to vote in his hometown. On the second floor of Fisher’s Hall on Main Street, over a Chinese laundry, with reporters and well-wishers crowding about, he had cast his ballot for two New York state judges and an assemblyman. He was back at the White House shortly after eight that night and from then on was caught up in “the Panama business.”

Yet even as the crisis was still unfolding he had begun to plead his case, searching for exactly the right phrase or expression. In a letter to his fourteen-year-old son written the following night he explained that the United States had been policing the Isthmus for too long, that he had no intention “any longer to do for her work which is not merely profitless but brings no gratitude.” Two days later, the afternoon of the sixth, he was happily talking of a “covenant running with the land” on the Isthmus, an expression his friend Oscar Straus, author, lawyer, diplomat, had used over lunch to suggest a basis for an American claim on the canal zone. Vice-Consul Ehrman’s cable from Panama declaring the apparent success of the “Isthmian movement” had been delivered to the White House at 11:31 that morning; at 12:51, just seventy minutes later, Panama had been recognized by John Hay; and at virtually the same moment, Straus had produced what seemed the perfect legal ground. “Why that is splendid—just the idea,” Roosevelt exclaimed and he sent Straus straightaway from the table to “explain that to Hay.”

On Roosevelt’s orders the following day, Hay assured reporters that “the action of the President is not only in the strictest accordance with the principles of justice . . . but it was the only course he could have taken in compliance with our treaty rights and obligations.”

“It is reported we have made a revolution, it is not so,” Roosevelt confided to the French ambassador, Jules Jusserand. “ . . . it is idle folly to speak of there having been a conspiracy with us,” he assured Dr. Albert Shaw, one of his kitchen cabinet.

The faculty of Yale University was up in arms, meantime. The head of the American Bar Association spoke angrily of the “crime” committed. A torrent of outrage was unleashed in editorial columns.

The first news of the revolt had been given very little play in the papers because of the election news. The front pages of the New York papers, for example, the morning the story broke, were taken up almost entirely by the triumph of George B. McClellan, Jr., the Democratic candidate for mayor. But Panama was the lead story everywhere in the days that followed, and many powerful papers immediately commenced a blistering attack on the Administration, holding Roosevelt strictly responsible for what had happened.The New York Times scarcely let a day pass without some new assault on the President and his “act of sordid conquest.” Cartoons in the World by the brilliant Charles Green Bush showed a brutish Rough Rider, armed to the teeth, pouncing on Panama or glowering down the barrel of an enormous cannon at a helpless little Colombia.

But to the editor of The Northwestern Christian Adovcate Roosevelt wrote of the “oppression habitual” suffered by the people of Panama and insisted that “our Government was bound by every consideration of honor and humanity . . . to take exactly the steps that it took.”

The explaining, the affirmations of high purpose, would continue for weeks, months, indeed for years—in a special message to Congress, in private conversation and correspondence, in magazine articles, speeches, his memoirs.

The United States had a mandate from civilization to build the canal, he told Congress on January 4, 1904, in a message devoted entirely to the subject. “The time . . . for permitting any government of antisocial and of imperfect development to bar the work, was past.” The fundamental purpose—“the great design”—of the treaty of 1846, he claimed, had been to secure the construction of an isthmian canal; so therefore Colombia was violating the treaty, “the full benefits of which she had enjoyed for over fifty years.” No American warships had been present, no American troops or sailors, when the revolution took place at Panama City. At Colón, Commander Hubbard had acted with “entire impartiality toward both sides, preventing any movement, whether by the Colombians or the Panamanians, which would tend to produce bloodshed . . . . Our action was for the peace both of Colombia and of Panama.”

The people of the Isthmus, he said, “rose literally as one man.” (“Yes, and the one man was Roosevelt,” remarked Senator Edward Carmack, of Tennessee.) “I think proper to say, therefore, that no one connected with this Government had any part in preparing, inciting, or encouraging the late revolution on the Isthmus of Panama, and that save from the reports of our military officers . . . no one connected with this Government had any previous knowledge of the revolution except such as was accessible to any person of ordinary intelligence who reads the newspapers. . . .”

“We did our duty, we did our duty by the people of Panama, we did our duty by ourselves,” he wrote in one of his several magazine pieces. “We did harm to no one save as harm is done to a bandit by a policeman who deprives him of his chance of blackmail.” To talk of Colombia as a responsible power—“to be dealt with as we would deal with Holland or Belgium or Switzerland or Denmark”—was a mere absurdity, he informed a correspondent. “If they [the people of Panama] had not revolted, I should have recommended Congress to take possession of the Isthmus by force of arms . . .”

His action had been the farthest thing from impulsive, he would stress in a long chapter in his Autobiography. Nine-tenths of wisdom was to be wise at the right time; his whole foreign policy, he wrote, had been based on “the exercise of intelligent forethought and of decisive action sufficiently far in advance of any likely crisis” and Panama was “by far the most important action I took in foreign affairs.” Colombia had proved itself utterly incapable of keeping order on the Isthmus; Colombia had no right to block a passageway so vital to the interests of civilization. For reasons of national defense no further delays could be tolerated. He had been prepared to act; no bloodshed had resulted. “From the beginning to the end our course was straight-forward and in absolute accord with the highest standards of international morality. Criticism of it can come only from misinformation, or else from a sentimentality which represents both mental weakness and a moral twist.”

John Hay lent his support, sounding more and more like Theodore Roosevelt. “Some of our greatest scholars, in their criticisms of public life, suffer from the defect of arguing from pure reason, and taking no account of circumstances,” he wrote to a member of the Yale faculty. “It was a time to act and not to theorize . . .” An attempt would be made by Hay’s admirers to establish that he had been “disgusted” with all that went on and that on the pretense of poor health he had taken no active part; but the claim was without support and Hay himself, publicly and in private, remained “as emphatic and free from doubt about our Government’s course” as the President.

Others in the Cabinet fell into line, without apparent qualm, nor with anything approaching Roosevelt’s solemn air of righteousness. Attorney General Knox, having been asked by Roosevelt to construct a defense, is said to have remarked, “Oh, Mr. President, do not let so great an achievement suffer from any taint of legality.” At another point, during a Cabinet meeting, Roosevelt talked of the bitter denunciations in the press, then entered into a long, formal statement of his position. When he had finished, the story goes, he looked about the table, finally fixing his eye on Elihu Root. “Well,” he demanded, “have I answered the charges? Have I defended myself?”

“You certainly have, Mr. President,” replied Root, who was known for his wit. “You have shown that you were accused of seduction and you have conclusively proved that you were guilty of rape.”

But years later, on March 23, 1911, at Berkeley, California, at the climax of a speech before eight thousand people in the Greek Theater at the University of California, Roosevelt, in academic gown, was to make the remark that would undo virtually all of his other utterances concerning his “most important action” and that would be remembered afterward, by critic and admirer alike, as the simplest and best explanation of what the Panama revolution came down to. The speech, until that point, had been a heartfelt call to the youth of the Pacific slope to carry on with the high courage and purpose of the vanishing pioneers. And the audience had been profoundly stirred. Then his mood had shifted:

The Panama Canal I naturally take special interest in because I started it. [Laughter and applause.]

There are plenty of other things I started merely because the time had come that whoever was in power would have started them.

But the Panama Canal would not have been started if I had not taken hold of it, because if I had followed the traditional or conservative method I should have submitted an admirable state paper occupying a couple of hundred pages detailing all of the facts to Congress and asking Congress’ consideration of it.

In that case there would have been a number of excellent speeches made on the subject in Congress; the debate would be proceeding at this moment with great spirit and the beginning of work on the canal would be fifty years in the future. [Laughter and applause.]

Fortunately the crisis came at a period when I could act unhampered. Accordingly I took the Isthmus, started the canal and then left Congress not to debate the canal, but to debate me. [Laughter and applause.]

“I took the Isthmus” was an expression of the kind that came naturally to him, “the kind of exaggeration that he liked to make,” as Root observed. It was what Hay called “a concise impropriety,” like “We want either Perdicaris alive or Raisuli dead,” the famous declaration made during the Moroccan kidnapping incident in 1904 (a statement Hay himself had actually written). It was also, in its fashion, as misleading and as self-congratulatory as some of the other things he said in his defense, since it seemed to dismiss out of hand the contributions of Amador and his fellow revolutionaries, not to mention the railroad personnel, or Cromwell, or General Esteban Huertas and his garrison, or Philippe Bunau-Varilla. “I took Panama because Bunau-Varilla brought it to me on a silver platter,” Roosevelt is supposed to have remarked privately, which would be a more accurate summation.

But primarily, questions of morality aside, it was a mistake to have implied a deliberate, master strategy conceived and directed from the Oval Office. Tremendous effort would be made by newspaper reporters and latter-day historians to prove that Roosevelt had told Bunau-Varilla what to do, that Amador too had actually gone to Washington in secret and had been briefed by both Roosevelt and John Hay, that the money for the junta had been supplied, as Amador believed to be the case, from Washington. But no solid evidence, no evidence of any kind, was ever found to support these charges. And in fact one need only review the steps by which the plot unfolded to see how very tenuous it all had been and how many critical turns were determined by the individual responses of people about whom Theodore Roosevelt knew nothing.

Had James Shaler not pulled the signal cord when he did, had Señora Amador failed to fire her husband’s flagging resolve, had the Colombian general Tobar been less concerned over his injured dignity, had he gone peacefully to Colón and merely remained there quietly with Torres and the troops, had any of a dozen small but critical developments gone differently, Theodore Roosevelt’s ships would have arrived to find a wholly different situation and in all probability there would have been no new Republic of Panama either to proclaim or to protect.

If American sea power had settled the issue on the instant, made Panama an immediate fait accompli, it is equally obvious that belief in an American involvement far in excess of reality was for the actual conspirators the vital sustaining force: what Amador and his compatriots believed the situation to be—their mistaken impressions as a result of the arrival of the Nashville—was far more important than were the facts of the situation. An enormous gamble with far-reaching, immensely vital consequences was made by a variety of participants, and by all ordinary rules of chance the story should never have come out as it did. But as Conrad also observed in Nostromo, “Men of affairs venture sometimes on acts that the common judgment of the world would pronounce absurd; they take their decisions on apparently impulsive and human grounds.”

Roosevelt’s haste, his refusal—his inability—to see the Colombian position on the treaty as anything other than a “holdup,” were tragically mistaken and inexcusable. It seems certain that with a modest amount of good will and patience the issue with Bogotá could have been resolved to the satisfaction of both sides; another six months’ delay would have mattered little. In truth he was doing no more than to guarantee that the Compagnie Nouvelle received its full $40,000,000—which would lead to the charge that he was protecting the French investment because certain of his friends and relatives were secret stockholders, a charge that would later precipitate a sensational lawsuit. In 1908 Roosevelt had the government prosecute Joseph Pulitzer, owner of the World, for libel, but the court found that though there were “many very peculiar circumstances about . . . this Panama Canal business,” Roosevelt had no case against the World. And since there was not a shred of evidence to support the charge against Roosevelt, the whole furor came to nothing.

For Colombia, already crippled by a costly civil war, Roosevelt’s “most important action” meant the loss of what since the days of Bolívar had appeared to be its most valuable natural treasure, the Isthmus, with its unique geographic position “between two oceans.” It meant also the loss of the $10,000,000 lump sum that was to be paid by the United States, the $250,000 annual payment by the Panama Railroad (for decades a crucial part of the national income), and the $250,000 annual payment that was to be forthcoming from the United States as part of the canal agreement. There were riots in Bogotá; desperate offers were to be made by special Colombian emissaries dispatched to Washington, including an offer to accept the treaty as it stood, which served only to satisfy the Administration conclusively that the earlier rejection of the treaty had been an outrageous act of extortion.

The damage done to American relations with Colombia, indeed with all of Latin America, was enormous, just as John Tyler Morgan had prophesied. As an American minister at Bogotá, James T. Du Bois, would write in 1912, the breach worsened as time passed.

By refusing to allow Colombia to uphold her sovereign rights over a territory where she had held dominion for eighty years, the friendship of nearly a century disappeared, the indignation of every Colombian, and millions of other Latin-Americans, was aroused and is still most intensely active. The confidence and trust in the justice and fairness of the United States, so long manifested, has completely vanished, and the maleficent influence of this condition is permeating public opinion in all Latin-American countries, a condition which, if remedial measures are not invoked, will work inestimable harm throughout the Western Hemisphere.

“I fear,” declared a much embittered John Tyler Morgan on the floor of the Senate, “that we have got too large to be just and the people of the country fear it.” But in fact the people of the country were generally well satisfied with what had happened, with the results—and with Theodore Roosevelt.

1 According to John Bigelow’s private journal, Bunau-Varilla had actually received a letter from Obaldía leaving no doubt as to his sympathy with the planned revolt.

2 Tobar, as it happens, was well supplied with cash. Knowing that the national treasury at Panama was virtually empty, he had had the foresight to bring some $65,000 in American money to meet his own payroll and that of the local garrison.

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