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Separation of Panama from Colombia

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Map showing the shrinking territory of Gran Colombia from 1824 (colored areas, including Venezuela and Ecuador) to 1890 (red line) and the Cundinamarca region. Panama seceded in 1903 from Colombia, and comprises the yellow area in the Central American isthmus.

The separation of Panama from Colombia was formalized on 3 November 1903, with the establishment of the Republic of Panama. From the Independence of Panama from Spain in 1821, Panama had simultaneously declared independence from Spain and joined itself to the confederation of Gran Colombia through the Independence Act of Panama. Panama was always tenuously connected to the rest of the country to the south, owing to its remoteness from the government in Bogotá and lack of a practical overland connection to the rest of Gran Colombia. In 1840–41, a short-lived independent republic was established under Tomás de Herrera. After rejoining Colombia following a 13-month independence, it remained a province which saw frequent rebellious flare-ups, notably the Panama crisis of 1885, which saw the intervention of the United States Navy, and a reaction by the Chilean Navy.

During the construction of the Panama Canal, the initial attempts by France to construct a sea-level canal across the isthmus were secured through treaty with Colombia; however French cost overruns and corruption in the Panama scandals led to abandonment of the canal for a decade. During the intervening years, local separatists used the political instability of the Thousand Days' War to agitate for political separation from Colombia and establishment of an independent republic. When the United States sought to take over the canal project, the government of Colombia proved difficult to work with, and with the cooperation of French financier Philippe-Jean Bunau-Varilla, Panama simultaneously declared independence from Colombia and negotiated a treaty granting the U.S. the right to construct the canal.

The United States was the first country to recognize the independence of the nascent republic, sending the U.S. Navy to prevent Colombia from retaking the territory during the early days of the new Republic. In exchange for its role in defending the Republic, and for constructing the canal, the U.S. was granted a perpetual lease on the land around the canal, known as the Panama Canal Zone, which was returned to Panama in 1999 under the terms of the Torrijos–Carter Treaties.

After the United States, many other nations quickly recognized the independent republic, though Colombia refused to do so until 1909, after receiving a $500,000 concession from Panama to cover its share of the debts it owed at independence.


After it achieved independence from Spain on November 28, 1821, Panama became a part of the Republic of Gran Colombia which consisted of today's Colombia, Venezuela, Panama, and most of Ecuador.

The political struggle between federalists and centralists that followed independence from Spain resulted in a changing administrative and jurisdictional status for Panama. Under centralism Panama was established as the Department of the Isthmus and during federalism as the Sovereign State of Panama.

1885 crisis[edit]

An 1846 treaty between Colombia and the United States, the Mallarino–Bidlack Treaty,[1] pledged the United States to maintain "neutrality" in Panama in exchange for transit rights in the isthmus on behalf of Colombia.[1] In March 1885 Colombia thinned its military presence in Panama, sending troops stationed there to fight rebels in other provinces.[1] These favourable conditions prompted an insurgency in Panama.[1] The United States Navy was sent there to keep order, in spite of invoking its obligations according to the treaty of 1846.[1]

Thousand Days' War[edit]

The Thousand Days' War (1899–1902) was one of the many armed struggles between the Liberal and Conservative Parties which devastated Colombia, including Panama, during the 19th century. This new civil war ended with the signing of the Treaty of Wisconsin. However, the Liberal leader Victoriano Lorenzo refused to accept the terms of the agreement and was executed on May 15, 1903.

On July 25, 1903, the headquarters of the Panamanian newspaper El Lápiz were raided on the orders of the military commander for Panama, General José Vásquez Cobo, brother of the then Colombian Minister of War, as a retaliation for the publication of a detailed article narrating the execution and protests in Panama. This event damaged the trust of Panamanian liberals in the Conservative government based in Bogotá, and they later joined the separatist movement.

In 1903, the United States and Colombia signed the Hay–Herrán Treaty to finalize the construction of the Panama Canal but the process[clarification needed] could not be completed because the Congress of Colombia rejected the measure (which the Colombian government had proposed) on August 12, 1903. The United States then moved to support the separatist movement in Panama to gain control over the remnants of the French attempt at building a canal.[citation needed]


Panamanian politician José Domingo De Obaldía was selected for the Governor of the Isthmus of Panama office that he had previously held, and was supported by separatist movements. Another Panamanian politician named José Agustín Arango began to plan the revolution and separation. The separatists wanted to negotiate the construction of the Panama Canal directly with the United States due to the negativity of the Colombian government.

The separatist network was formed by Arango, Dr. Manuel Amador Guerrero, General Nicanor de Obarrio, Ricardo Arias, Federico Boyd, Carlos Constantino Arosemena, Tomás Arias, Manuel Espinosa Batista and others. Amador Guerrero was in charge of going to the United States to get support for the separatist plan; he also gained the support of important Panamanian liberal leaders and of another military commander, Esteban Huertas.

With strong support, the separatist movement set November 1903 as the time for the separation. However, rumors in Colombia spread but the information managed by the government of Colombia indicated that Nicaragua was planning to invade a region of northern Panama known as the Calovébora. The Government deployed troops from the Tiradores Battalion from Barranquilla, and instructed the commander to take over the functions of the Governor of Panama José Domingo de Obaldía and General Esteban Huertas, whom the government did not trust.

The Tiradores Battalion was led by Generals Juan Tovar and Ramón Amaya and arrived in the Panamanian city of Colón the morning of November 3, 1903. It suffered delays on its way to Panama City caused by the complicity of the Panama Railway authorities who sympathized with the separatist movement. On arrival in Panama City, the troops were put under the command of Col. Eliseo Torres. General Huertas, commander of the Colombia Battalion in Panama, ordered the arrest of Tovar and his other officials.

The Colombian gunboat Bogotá fired shells upon Panama City the night of November 3, causing injuries and mortally wounding Mr. Wong Kong Yee of Hong Sang, China. He was the only casualty of independence.[2]

With intentions of building the Panama Canal, the US intervened in this revolt at this time. The addition of the Roosevelt Corollary allowed this intervention. The Roosevelt Corollary was an addition to the Monroe Doctrine that stated the United States had the right to intervene in Latin American domestic affairs, giving them policing power. With this radical addition to the Monroe Doctrine, the United States’ assistance in Panama’s independence was credible. The Roosevelt Corollary provided a solution to their issue of gaining the right to the land of the future Panama Canal. In the midst of the Panama and Colombia conflict, the United States dispatched warships on the coasts of Colombia, primarily the dispatch of USS Nashville by commander John Hubbard. The warship was successful in preventing Colombian troops at Colon. This military move alone sped up the establishment of the Republic of Panama as Colombia agreed to negotiate. The United States had strategic aid to Panama, with the intention of gaining the 10- mile strip of land from Panama.

With the suppression of the Colombian troops, the Revolutionary Junta declared the secession of the Isthmus and later its independence, with the declaration of the Republic of Panama. A naval squadron in the Bay of Panama was captured without resistance.

Demetrio H. Brid, president of the Municipal Council of Panama, became the de facto President of Panama and on November 4, 1903 appointed a Provisional Government Junta, which governed the country until February 1904 and the Constituent National Convention. The convention elected Manuel Amador Guerrero as first constitutional president. News of the separation of Panama from Colombia reached Bogotá only on November 6, 1903 due to a problem with the submarine cables.


1903 political cartoon

On November 13, 1903, the United States formally recognized the Republic of Panama (after recognizing it unofficially on November 6 and 7). On November 18, 1903, the United States Secretary of State John Hay and Philippe-Jean Bunau-Varilla signed the Hay–Bunau-Varilla Treaty. No Panamanians signed the treaty, although Bunau-Varilla was present as the diplomatic representative of Panama (a role he had purchased through financial assistance to the rebels), even though he had not lived in Panama for seventeen years prior to independence, and never returned afterwards.[3] The treaty was later approved by the Panamanian government and the Senate of the United States.

The ambassador of Colombia in Ecuador Emiliano Isaza was informed of the situation in Panama but did not inform his government to prevent a revolt in Bogotá. The government of Colombia then sent a diplomatic mission to Panama in an effort to make them reconsider by suggesting an approval by the senate of Colombia if they reconsidered the Hay–Herrán Treaty instead of the Hay–Bunau-Varilla Treaty and also proposed making Panama City the capital of Colombia.[4][dubiousdiscuss]

The mission met aboard the ship USS Mayflower with the Panamanian delegation formed by Constantino Arosemena, Tomás Arias and Eusebio A. Morales, which rejected all proposals. Colombia then sent a delegation of prominent politicians and political figures; General Rafael Reyes, Pedro Nel Ospina, Jorge Holguín and Lucas Caballero who met with the same representative for Panama and Carlos Antonio Mendoza, Nicanor de Obarrio y Antonio Zubieta, without reaching any consensus.

Panama's independence alarmed Chilean authorities about a growing influence of the United States. This made Chile put great efforts to deny a United States purchase of the Galápagos Islands or the establishment of a United States Guantanamo-like naval base there. Chilean diplomacy was backed by Germany and Britain on this issue.[5]

Recognition of Panama as a country[edit]

No. Country Date of recognition
1  United States 6 November 1903[6]
2  France 14 November 1903[7]
3  Qing Empire 26 November 1903[7]
4  Austria–Hungary 27 November 1903[7]
5  Germany 30 November 1903[7]
6  Denmark 3 December 1903[7]
7  Russia 6 December 1903[7]
8  Norway 7 December 1903[7]
9  Sweden 7 December 1903[7]
10  Belgium 8 December 1903[7]
11  Nicaragua 15 December 1903[7]
12 Peru 19 December 1903[7]
13 Cuba 23 December 1903[7]
14  Italy 24 December 1903[7]
16  United Kingdom 26 December 1903[8]
17  Japan 28 December 1903[7]
18   Switzerland 28 December 1903[7]
19  Costa Rica 28 December 1903[7]
20  Guatemala 15 January 1904[7]
21  Korea 24 January 1904[7]
22 Venezuela 3 February 1904[7][9]
23  Netherlands 6 February 1904[7]
24 Persia February 1904[7]
25 Chile 1 March 1904[7][10]
26 Mexico 1 March 1904[7][11]
27 Brazil 2 March 1904[7][12]
28  Argentina 3 March 1904[8]
29  Siam 4 March 1904[8]
30  Honduras March 1904[7]
31  El Salvador March 1904[7]
32 Spain 10 May 1904[7][10]
33  Holy See May 1904[7]
34  Portugal 21 May 1904[7][10]
35  Serbia June 1904[7]
36 Paraguay July 1904[7]
37  Romania July 1904[7]
38  Greece 1904[7]
39  Uruguay 1904[7]
40 Ecuador 21 September 1904[8]
41  Colombia 7 January 1909[13]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e Wicks, Daniel H. (1980). "Dress Rehearsal: United States Intervention on The Isthmus of Panama, 1885". Pacific Historical Review. 49 (4): 581–605. doi:10.2307/3638968. JSTOR 3638968.
  2. ^ McCain, William David (1970-01-01). The United States and the Republic of Panama. Arno Press. ISBN 9780405020360.
  3. ^ "The 1903 Treaty and Qualified Independence". U.S. Library of Congress. 2009. Retrieved 2009-05-01.
  4. ^ [1]Archived 2007-08-24 at the Wayback Machine (in Spanish) Biblioteca Luis Angel Arango: CAPITULO XIV MEMORIAL DE AGRAVIOS, Luis Angel Arango Library Accessed 28 August 2007.
  5. ^ Fischer, Ferenc (2008-01-01). "La expansión (1885-1918) del modelo militar alemán y su pervivencia (1919-1933) en América Latina". Revista del CESLA (in Spanish). 11. Uniwersytet Warszawski: 135–160.
  6. ^ "A Guide to the United States' History of Recognition, Diplomatic, and Consular Relations, by Country, since 1776: Panama". Retrieved 23 July 2016.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa ab ac ad ae af ag ah Luis Martínez Delgado (1972). Panamá: su independencia de España, su incorporación a la Gran Colombia, su separación de Colombia. p. 158.
  8. ^ a b c d Willis Fletcher Johnson (1906). Four Centuries of the Panama Canal. New York, H. Holt and Co. p. 186.
  9. ^ "Relaciones Bilaterales". Retrieved 23 July 2016.
  10. ^ a b c "Memoria 2011-2012" (PDF) (in Spanish). p. 195. Archived from the original (PDF) on 6 August 2020. Retrieved 23 July 2016.
  11. ^ "MANUAL DE ORGANIZACIÓN DE LA EMBAJADA DE MÉXICO EN PANAMÁ" (PDF) (in Spanish). December 2008. Retrieved 23 July 2016.
  12. ^ "Panamá sede de la Primera Reunión Técnica Preparatoria de las Comisiones Mixtas de Cooperación entre Panamá y Brasil" (in Spanish). Retrieved 23 July 2016.
  13. ^ "SECESSION OF PANAMA". Sydney Morning Herald. 8 January 1909. Retrieved 23 July 2016.

Further reading[edit]

  • Collin, Richard H. Theodore Roosevelt's Caribbean: The Panama Canal, the Monroe Doctrine & the Latin American Context (1990), 598pp.
  • Graham, Terence. The Interests of Civilization: Reaction in the United States Against the Seizure of the Panama Canal Zone, 1903-1904 (Lund studies in international history, 1985).
  • Mellander, Gustavo A., Mellander, Nelly, Charles Edward Magoon: The Panama Years. Río Piedras, Puerto Rico: Editorial Plaza Mayor. ISBN 1-56328-155-4. OCLC 42970390, 1999)
  • Mellander, Gustavo A., The United States in Panamanian Politics: The Intriguing Formative Years." Danville, Ill.: Interstate Publishers. OCLC 138568, 1971)
  • Nikol, John, and Francis X. Holbrook, "Naval Operations in the Panama Revolution, 1903," American Neptune, 37 (1977), 253–261.
  • Lafeber, Walter. The Panama Canal: The Crisis in Historical Perspective (3rd ed. 1990).
  • Turk, Richard . "The United States Navy and the 'Taking of Panama, 1901-1903, Military Affairs 38 (1974), 92-96.

External links[edit]