This article was first published in the November 2006 issue of BBC History Magazine


The american president Theodore Roosevelt liked to boast “I took Panama”. He was referring to his part in the international negotiations and double-dealing that brought about the construction of the now-famous canal across the central American isthmus in the early years of the 20th century.

The end by which the President justified the dubious means he adopted was to ensure that the powerful navy he was creating could deploy as speedily against an Asian power (probably Japan) as a European one (probably Germany). The colossal engineering task was the first stroke of the “big-stick” diplomacy he preached. It also generated enough deceit and comic bravado for the plot of an operetta.

An inter-ocean canal through the ten-mile strip spanning the 40-mile width of Panama, then a province of the Republic of Colombia, had become an American imperative in 1898. The most powerful warship of that time, the USS Oregon, was caught in San Francisco on the eve of the war with Spain over its colony of Cuba. It took her 64 days at top speed to reach the other side of the country.

President Theodore Roosevelt
President Theodore Roosevelt operating an American steam-shovel at the Culebra Cut, Panama Canal, Panama, circa 1906. (Photo by Fotosearch/Getty Images).

Congress was ready to authorise a project but could not agree on a site. A French attempt to dig across Panama had collapsed in 1889 at a frightful cost in lives and money. The former director general of the bankrupt company, Phillipe Bunua-Varilla, wanted the United States to buy the concession that Colombia had granted the French, together with the abandoned works and equipment, which had been valued at a cool $109 million. If the events had been set to music, Bunua-Varilla, with his waxed moustache and mysterious wealth, would have been principal tenor. The baritone part would have gone to William Nelson Cromwell, a posturing New York attorney hired by the French as a lobbyist.

The pestilential jungle and forbidding terrain of Panama led a strong faction in Congress to favour a longer but seemingly safer route across Nicaragua. In 1902, a bill designating Nicaragua was drawn up in the House of Representatives. The Senate, more powerful in foreign relations, inclined towards Panama. Roosevelt had always favoured Panama too, but he left it to Senator John Spooner effectively to trump the House bill with one that required the President to approach Nicaragua only if the French, “without undue delay”, would accept “no more than $40 million”. That just happened to be the value an independent commission of experts reporting to the President had put on the French assets.

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Another Roosevelt crony, the Washington correspondent of the Chicago Record-Herald, Walter Wellman, tipped off the French. “Move quickly”, he cabled Bunua-Varilla in Paris. Even at $40 million it would be the biggest real estate deal in history; both Bunua-Varilla and Cromwell stood to make millions, one from his moribund stockholding, the other from fees and commissions.

At the start of the 20th century, Bogota, the capital of Colombia, was one of the most inaccessible cities in Latin America. Telegraph connections were unreliable and mail could take weeks. Nevertheless, government and citizens alike followed the canal negotiations avidly, aware of something the other parties involved seemed to have overlooked: under their agreement with Colombia the French were prohibited from selling the Panama concession to a foreign power. If Colombia was to let the deal through it wanted a share of the price. Washington was ready to pay them $10 million and $250,000 a year rent but the Colombians procrastinated. Afraid of being forced to return to the Nicaragua option, Roosevelt exploded, “Those contemptible little creatures in Bogota ought to understand how much they are jeopardising things and imperilling their own future”.

Mischief from the lawyer

In fact, Colombia was well disposed to the United States. Her dispute was with the French. Roosevelt seemed not to realise that the main cause of delay was “the lawyer Cromwell” – as Bunua-Varilla bitingly referred to him – who was insisting that Secretary of State John Hay intervene to warn Colombia that his clients would not part with a cent of their $40 million.

Indeed it was Cromwell who, after a session with the President, planted a mischievous story in the New York World, stating: “The State of Panama… stands ready to secede from Colombia and enter into a canal treaty with the United States”.

There was no denial from the White House of that self-fulfilling prophecy. Neither Roosevelt nor John Hay would admit that was what they wanted but they left visitors in no doubt. After a long talk with Bunua-Varilla, Roosevelt remarked that only a fool would not have understood what had been hinted at, adding “And that gentleman is anything but stupid”.

There was indeed an independence movement in Panama, centred around the American-owned railroad between Colón and Panama City. This also happened to be represented by Cromwell, and it was Cromwell who sent a man he believed to be one of the Panama conspirators, Gabriel Dubuque, to see Hay. During that meeting, Hay claimed that if revolutionaries were to seize power in Panama the United States could stop Colombian troops from intervening under the guise of protecting the railway. Unfortunately for Cromwell, Dubuque reported everything to the Colombian Legation.

Double-crossed, exposed and un-nerved, Cromwell disowned the genuine Panamanian rebel he had also been dealing with, Manuel Amador Guerrero. But Amador was quickly taken up by Bunua-Varilla who sent him back to Panama with a revolution kit: proclamation of independence, draft constitution, home-made flag and the promise of $100,000 to underwrite a government. It was quite by chance, the Frenchman later insisted, that he bumped into the US Secretary of the Navy while strolling around Washington, who told him that an American gunboat was on its way to Colón. Bunua-Varilla sent Amador and his accomplices a coded cable giving them the news, which convinced them of American support for their revolution. The USS Nashville duly arrived – at the same time as a shipload of Colombian soldiers who were planning to cross to Panama City on the railroad.

The situation rapidly lurched towards farce. The American superintendent of the railway, James Shaler, hitched a luxurious coach to a locomotive and ushered the senior Colombian officers on board. Their men would follow in less sumptuous conditions. When the officers became suspicious, Shaler jerked the signal cord and quickly hopped off the train as it pulled out. Alas, no locomotive could be found to move the troops.

Panama gains independence – at a price

In Panama City rebels promised the commander of the garrison $80,000 if he joined them. The commodore in charge of a pair of Colombian gunboats in the harbour pocketed $35,000 and promptly headed for the horizon. On 3 November 1903, independence was declared. Standing in front of a row of boxes from which $50 a head in silver coins was ladled out to the turncoat soldiery, Amador boldly declared, “The world is astounded at our heroism. Yesterday we were slaves of Colombia; today we are free… Long live President Roosevelt!”

The train carrying the hapless Colombian officers was greeted with bands and ceremony on its arrival in Panama City. Soon afterwards its splendidly uniformed passengers were arrested at bayonet point.

Back in Colón things looked grimmer. Shaler and Nashville’s captain had hoped to persuade the stranded Colombian soldiers to re-board their troopship and go home. But the vessel steamed away without warning. A standoff ensued between American bluejackets and the Colombians until Shaler gave their commander $8,000 and paid their fares to go in a Royal Mail steamer that happened along.

Amador cabled Bunua-Varilla in Washington appointing him minister plenipotentiary. The French intermediary was authorised to seek diplomatic recognition of the Republic of Panama and arrange the signing of a canal treaty with the United States. Bunua-Varilla sent off the promised $100,000 to the revolutionaries.

The US State Department granted recognition to the new country within hours. But Roosevelt came under attack, reminded by influential newspapers that the treaty under which America held railroad rights in Panama obliged it to defend the integrity of Colombian territory. The New York Times spoke of “an act of sordid conquest”, but Roosevelt remained defiant. After all, there had been no American ships or troops in Panama City, where the revolution had been proclaimed. The people, he was later to proclaim before Congress, “rose literally as one man”. “And,” said one senator, “the one man was Roosevelt”.

The canal was completed in 1914. Colombia continued to complain and in 1921, the United States, concerned at the prospect of a hostile Latin America, paid an additional $25 million to quell the murmurs of discontent.

President Theodore Roosevelt: a timeline

1882: Elected to New York State Assembly

1884: North Dakota rancher

1895: Police Commissioner New York City

1897: Assistant Secretary of Navy. Manoeuvres Admiral Dewey into position for attack on Spanish fleet at Manila Bay. Resigns, raises Roughrider regiment to fight in Cuba

1898: Governor New York state

1900: Vice-president

1901: Succeeds when President William McKinley assassinated. Sets about “trustbusting” – breaking up big business monopolies. Establishes national parks across America

1904: Elected in own right

1906: Conciliates in Russo-Japanese war; awarded Nobel Peace Prize

1909: Relinquishes presidency

1912: Disenchanted with his successor William Taft, accepts nomination by new Progressive Party, soon to be known from his characteristics as the Bull Moose party. Ill-judged comeback splits Republican vote, ensures victory by Democratic candidate, Woodrow Wilson


Dr Anthony Delano is a visiting professor at the London College of Communication.