“The Diplomatic Steal of the Century” 1903

Phillipe Jean Bunau- Varilla

John Hay 1903

Top: Phillipe Jean Bunau-Varilla
Bottom: John Milton Hay, U.S. Secretary of State
Together they were primarily responsible for the
“Diplomatic steal of the Century” of 1903
Images thanks to www.wikipedia.com

For people of color and the lower classes at the turn of the century in that neglected province of Colombia as Panama was, the times called for innate cunning and craftiness that would transform such a person into a visible yet invisible individual, as the occasion required. However, the form that this adaptiveness would take for the West Indian Blacks and Asian Panamanians to survive such an atmosphere was used to the best of their abilities.

Some of the West Indians did migrate to the far flung provinces just as the Asian Chinese did as that year of 1903 unfolded following the tragedy of the sacrifice of a genuine hero to make way for the resulting give-aways in the tenuous independence of our beloved Panama.

At this stage, the West Indian Blacks still apprehensively walked the streets of the capital city of Panama, although they strolled a bit more sure footedly up Front Street of the city named for the American, William Aspinwall of the Panama Railroad, known today as Colon. By then the undercurrents of political intrigue were emerging into their true character. Months after the execution of Victoriano Lorenzo in that benchmark year of 1903, the U.S. protected portion of the region, the railway, offered safe haven not only for the few mostly U.S. citizens brave enough to venture into a place like the Panama of those days, for it was a virulent environment known for certain and swift death for any white person due to the numerous plagues that abounded.

It also offered safety and opportunity for the operators of a rail road the control of which had been recently regained from the bankrupted French Company. Such an opportunity had practically presented itself on a platter to the eager Panamanian citizens who were employed on the rail road. The encouraging and even bribing of those “Panamanian Revolutionaries” from the elite class to accept employment assured them security as they planned the move to separate from the Colombians.

It is noteworthy to remember that a revolutionary junta was being organized at this very juncture even though the Colombian Congress had rejected the Hay-Herran Treaty which, if ratified, “would have allowed the United States to acquire a renewable 99-year lease on a 6-mile wide strip across Panama (which was then part of Colombia) for $10 million and an annual payment of $250,000.” Ratified by the U.S. Senate on March 14, 1903, it was not passed by the Colombian Senate and, therefore did not take effect.

But, a planned uprising was brewing in Panama. The Revolutionary Junta, composed of such names as Jose Augustin Arango, a young lawyer, Manuel Amador Guerrero, the president of the Junta, and Carlos Arosemena who were both from elite Panamanian families and who were all employed by the Panama Railroad Company was completely supported and aided by the United States. Jose Augustin Arango, according to chroniclers, was the brain of the brewing revolt while Amador Guerrero was an active leader.

It was also curious to note that the Frenchman, Philippe Jean Bunau-Varilla, who had not too long before negotiated the bankruptcy sale of the first Canal Digs by the same French Company, would be key man in the negotiations with the US government, and active financier of the cost and terms of the negotiations, while all the privileged actors in the region of Panama enjoyed the protection of the USA Naval forces, acting under the umbrella of the 1846Bidlack-Mallarino Treaty with Colombian authorities.

Such a treaty as the Bidlack-Mallarino had secured for the USA the rights to intervene in any disorder on the Isthmus, and already had previously in other times been invoked as the U.S. armed forces quieted what was described as the Pedro Prestan uprising, a rebellion in which a Black man of Antillean roots was tried under a US Armed forces court martial and sentenced to hanging being a citizen of a foreign country.

On the 3rd November of the year 1903 the Revolutionary Junta, acting under the authority of the city council of Panama City declared itself sovereign and independent. The then president of the United States of America, Theodore Roosevelt, recognized the Panama Junta as a defacto government on November 6 of 1903. Five days later the same Phillipe Jean Bunau-Varilla, acting as the diplomatic representative for the Republic of Panama, concluded the Canal Convention of what later would be recognized as the “diplomatic steal of the century” with Mr. John Hay, U.S. Secretary of State.

The rights granted to the United States in Bunau-Varilla Treaty (signed on 18 November 1903) were extensive, to say the least. However, considering the times, when piracy was one of the acceptable ways in which governments acquired land and kingdoms, the USA acted with some restraint.

This story continues.

4 responses to ““The Diplomatic Steal of the Century” 1903

  1. Kyle & Svet Keeton

    I am beginning to think that the USA is a bunch of crooks. Did we bully the whole world this way. No wonder the world talks bad about the USA.

    Very good articles, I am finally caught up and looking forward to the next article.


  2. Hi Kyle,

    Well, in my ending paragraph I stated that ‘the USA acted with some restraint.’ In the case of Panama, at least, there was a smidgeon of recognition left for the country as a “sovereign” nation and it wasn’t taken over as a territory all together. This, among other factors, paved the way for the 1977 renegotiation of the
    canal treaty.

  3. Kyle & Svet Keeton

    Yes I saw that last ending paragraph. I chose to ignore it because I thought you were trying to be nice. 🙂

    I understand that USA can be diplomatic at times, but I have seen many times in my life the opposite effect. Even now the Russian and American missile placement problem. Russia feels that the USA is on their side of the world and Russia is on the other side. I think Russia would rather see the USA stay on their side.

    America needs to fix some home problems before they try to fix the world.

    Thanks, for letting me grumble. I sometimes get a little bit steamed at the Historical aspects of the USA.


  4. “tenuous independence” is the perfect term. I’ve been trying for some time to figure out a label that tells the truth but doesn’t flat out insult