November 3rd: Panama’s Separation From Colombia

November 3rd: Panama’s Separation From Colombia November 3, 2017

As is fairly well-known the history behind Panama’s independence is a bit complicated. Today is the anniversary of the day Panama declared independence from Gran Colombia. This is just one day they celebrate. They also celebrate on November 28th which is when they separated from Spain. Today’s post is about their independence from Colombia, which is also probably the better known of their splits since a bit of it is taught in high schools in the United States. In my case, I first learned of it in the 7th grade, and then again in both 11th and 12th grades.

The Panama Canal's centennial bridge.
The Panama Canal’s centennial bridge.

Panama, Gran Colombia, And Nicaragua:

Prior to November 3rd, 1903 Panama was a part of Gran Colombia. Gran Colombia is now Colombia, Venezuela, Panama, and Ecuador.  As many know the history of Panama’s Independence has a decent amount to do with U.S. interventionism.

At the end of the 19th century, the United States was searching for ways to quickly and efficiently grant its navy the power to cross through Central America via the Isthmus of Panama (and once the Isthmus of Darien) or through Nicaragua which would also allow mention massive commercial ships to cross quickly from the Pacific to the Atlantic and vice-versa. Originally the U.S.A. was interested in building a Nicaraguan canal but a fear of volcanic activity was just one of the reasons why they ultimately backed down. It’s worth noting that in the present day there are still individuals who want to build a Nicaraguan canal and that it’s actually kind of supposed to happen since the Nicaraguan government approved a bill to allow the Hong Kong Nicaraguan Canal Development Investment Company to finance and manage the building of the Canal.

The United States saw an opportunity when the efforts of La Societe Internationale de Canal interoceanique failed followed by the failure of a second attempt done by many of the same people under the name Compagnie Nouvelle de Canal de Panama known to many non-French speakers as the New Panama Canal Company. By 1902 the company was ready to sell their holdings since they knew they’d never be able to complete the task alone and they feared that the estadounidenses might complete a canal through Nicaragua which would render much of their efforts utterly pointless. They wanted 109,000,000 dollars for their holdings but ending up letting them go for 40,000,000.

Panama’s Separation From Colombia:

Something that’s not as well known among young estadounidenses as our role in fomenting and supporting the revolution that succeeded is that prior to the U.S.A. helping Panama’s revolutionaries we (the USA) had actually played a role in suppressing efforts by Panama’s revolutionaries to gain independence. During the 1,000 Day War Panamanians attempted to free themselves of Colombia’s power multiple times but each time a mixture of Estadounidense soldiers and Colombian soldiers would come together and stop them. One such separation effort was led by future Panamanian president Belisario Porras Barahona and in it, he worked with generals such as Victoriano Lorenzo, before being defeated at the Battle of Calidonia Bridge. He’d flee the country and come back in 1904 before eventually leading his nation as president.

The United States approached Colombia in 1903 to get permission to build the canal in exchange for financial compensation. They created a treaty named the Hay-Herran Treaty which was ratified by the U.S. Senate but was refused by the Colombian Senate. After hearing this the U.S. quietly pushed for a rebellion with existing revolutionary forces in Panama and in order to crush any chances that the revolution could be defeated by Colombian forces the U.S. removed trains from their railroads in Colombia and most significantly sent a warship (the U.S.S. Nashville) to the area to strongarm Colombian leaders into giving in. Days after independence was declared by revolutionaries the United States recognized Panama as an independent nation, entered into diplomatic relations with them, and signed a treaty just 5 days later which was the Panama Canal treaty formally named the Hay-Bunau-Varilla treaty. We’d complete the Canal in 1914. Panamanians discussed and debated the presence of Estadounidenses in Panama until we agreed to hand over control of the Canal to Panama in 1977 with the signing of the Torrijos-Carter Treaties, and our control over the Canal officially ended in 1999. I actually lived in Panama from 1997-1999 and have gotten to see the Canal up close, but I was a toddler and don’t remember much of it.

As a final note, Colombia didn’t officially accept its loss and the independence of Panama until late 1921. Some neat articles on the history of Panama can be found by going to these links: here’s one on the canal, here’s one on the Thousand Day War, and here’s one on the Torrijos-Carter Treaties.


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