South of the Border – Down Panama Way

  • Posted: May 7, 2018
  • Category: Blog
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There is something about Denver in mid-January. To say that January is not Denver’s best month is a bit of an understatement. The dreary browns of the Colorado landscape make the idea of buying an RV sound attractive to me. Instead of scooping snow, I could be playing pickle ball at an RV resort in Phoenix showing to one and all the depth of my angst. Mid-January drives me to think about fun in the sun, or at least the need to see something green. Sensitive to my suffering, my wife discovered Copa Airlines, an airline new to Denver International offering non-stop service between Denver and Panama City.

So here I am, three months later, in Panama City. An irregular visitor to newspaper headlines for over five hundred years, Panama City resembles, at least to me, nowhere so much as Dubai, that monument to Middle Eastern excess on the Persian Gulf. Just as at Dubai, Panama City looks as if someone magically transported an island of skyscrapers to the middle of nowhere. Block after block of modern buildings soar into the sky, spires of glassy corporate egotism seemingly disconnected from the shabby streets from which they rise. Just as at Dubai, a large new modern airport hosting an upstart luxurious airline sits in a landscape closely resembling wilderness.

It was around here that Vasco Nunez de Balboa first saw the Pacific Ocean, some five hundred years ago. As a Yanqui, I have nodded in passing at such obscure bits of historical trivia. I doubt whether my grandchildren will be exposed to such factoids in their schoolrooms, as the history associated with the Spanish Conquest is somewhat fraught with ambiguity.

Is Vasco Nunez de Balboa a dead white male to be burned in effigy for his ruthless oppression of Native Americans or a person of color to be celebrated for his historic achievements? Perhaps our educators’ caught on the horns of this dilemma believe it best to simply let Balboa and his fellows slide into obscurity. After all, it is well established that the schoolroom is no place for shades of grey.

But whether sinner or saint, Senor Balboa was here on the site of Panama City in 1513, leading a mixed force of Spanish Conquistadores and friendly natives. Balboa’s visit might be called a reconnaissance in force, or an expedition of discovery some two hundred years before Lewis and Clark. It all depends on your point of view. After all, Balboa’s mission was no different than that of Lewis and Clark. It is worth remembering that Balboa was here in Panama City, only twenty years after Columbus made his historic landfall in the Bahamas (?), a man believing himself to have landed in Indonesia rather than having discovered a new continent.

Balboa soon left the area of Panama City, untouched except for the polluting stain inflicted on Mother Nature whenever Western Civilization makes one of its ill-mannered forays into pristine wilderness. However six years later, another more permanent encroachment by Western Civilization resulted in the founding of Panama City. In a short time, Panama City was a thriving town while two thousand miles further north, the obsidian blades of Aztec priests were cutting the hearts out of living human sacrifices on their Pyramids of the Sun. Across the Atlantic Ocean, Henry VIII, still a good Catholic and obedient servant of the Pope in Rome, was executing ministers in his government opposed to his recent marriage to a daughter of the Spanish King while burning Protestant heretics at the stake. Anne Boleyn was still fifteen years in his future.

Panama City had come into existence in 1519 but Vasco Nunez de Balboa missed out on those heady days of growth and adventure in the New World. In an unfortunate turn of events, he had lost his head. Really! One of his companions on the visit to the site of Panama City, a man of no small ambition named Francisco Pizarro Gonzalez, had conspired with senior government officials to remove Balboa. Permanently! It seems that the powers that be, men of titles, wealth and noble birth, were unsettled by Balboa’s unseemly ambition, especially in a man of common birth. As a reward for his key role in Balboa’s demise, Francisco Pizarro was appointed as Panama City’s first mayor even as Vasco Balboa’s head rotted on a stake in the town of Acla, Panama City’s twin on the Atlantic Coast.

Eventually Senor Pizarro moved on from his position as mayor of Panama City to seek fame and fortune in Peru. It is not known whether Pizarro hiked up to Machu Picchu, anticipating modern explorers of the Andes outfitted by REI, but all agree Senor Pizarro is a big reason that Machu Picchu became a ruin. In any case Panama City became the great hub, a transportation center, through which the riches coming from the mines of the now vanquished Incan Empire made their way into the treasury of the Spanish king.

For a span of time measuring in the hundreds of years, the America’s were Spain’s golden goose. Gold and silver from the America’s were transported back to Spain, a river of wealth unsurpassed in history. But as the third chapter in Genesis makes clear, into every garden comes weeds. The weeds in the Spanish garden of the Americas were the English.

It is said that amateurs study tactics while professionals study logistics. Logistics made Spain’s Wealth Machine otherwise known as America work, but logistics were also its Achilles heel. Pack mules and wagons brought silver and gold from the mines in the mountains down to seaports where the galleons of the Spanish Treasure Fleet’s convoys would take this treasure on a long sea voyage back to Spain. These ports and these ships were the property of the Spanish throne, His Most Catholic Majesty and Defender of the Faith.

To lust after these riches and be Catholic was reason for a visit to confession with the local priest, but also a reason to seek service with the nobility of Spain. For a non-Catholic, this lust for the riches of America was an inducement to self-interested patriotism. And so beginning with that great friend of Queen Elizabeth I, Sir Francis Drake, English mercenaries/privateers/adventurers/pirates were the weeds in the Spanish garden. The English traditions of naval daring bringing future victory in places such as Trafalgar and Quiberon Bay began in raids on the Spanish Treasure Fleet.

And so it was in 1671, one hundred and fifty years after Vasco Balboa lost his head to Francisco Pizarro’s ambition, another ambitious adventurer arrived at Panama City. Henry Morgan, a Welshman of humble origin but now infamous “admiral”, arrived in the vicinity of Panama City with thirty ships loaded with “privateers”. Morgan’s five hundred “good men and true” opposed a Spanish force of some 1,600 men defending the town and its gold. Morgan outmaneuvered and killed most of the Spanish troops, putting him on the brink of becoming a rich man. But Panama’s governor, a poor loser that one, used his remaining gunpowder to blow up the town. What happened to the gold is unknown, but Admiral Morgan vented his frustration in a fit of wholesale arson on what remained of Panama City after the explosion.

But it was Mr. Morgan’s bad luck to burn down Panama City just as England and Spain were trying to make nice with each other. Spain was understandably upset at the smoldering ruins where Panama City had once stood. And so “Admiral” Henry Morgan was arrested (?) and sent to London, where it appears he became a figure of some celebrity in both the pubs and counting houses of the City. In a testimonial to that always mysterious but potent mixing of celebrity, politics and monied interests, Henry Morgan arrived in London under arrest but returned to the Americas two years later, the knighted Governor-General of British Jamaica.

So one walks the streets of Panama City realizing that Panamanian history, while not quite Game of Thrones territory, has a past somewhat more colorful than say, Kansas City or Omaha. One of the enduring values coming from travel is to see the familiar more clearly. Panama City is a long way from Denver, five hours thirty minutes by Boeing 737 from DIA to be exact. But like Panama City, Denver’s main reason for being anything other than Midland/Odessa North is its role as a transportation hub.

The reason el turistas, most displaying pale flesh in baggy shorts and garish shirts, come to Panama City is to see the Panama Canal. Panama City is at the Pacific Coast entrance to the Panama Canal. The sea view from all those skyscrapers in Panama City reveals ships parked out in the Gulf of Panama, waiting their turn to go through the Panama Canal. The Miraflores Locks just a few miles north of the city will lift these ships, one at a time, some 85’ up to the level of Gatun Lake. The ships will travel some seventy miles across Gatun Lake and then into the Gatun Locks, lowering them back down into the Atlantic Ocean, or to be pedantic – the Caribbean.

Denver grew into a city of consequence as the transportation hub servicing the gold and silver mines of the Colorado Rockies. Without those mines there was little need for a city where Denver now stands. I suspect an impartial government study of the time would recommend Cheyenne, Wyoming to be the proper place for a future transportation hub for the Great Plains.

So too, Panama City was a city created by gold and silver mines. We already touched on the adventures of Francisco Pizarro and Henry Morgan, but it was the California Gold Rush that provided the next kick to prominence in Panama City. In the 1840’s, the addition of California, Washington and Oregon to the United States had created a steady stream of immigrants headed for the west coast of the United States. Salt of the Earth types, like farm families, made their way on the Oregon Trail, but others of a more mercenary frame of mind looked for something faster and with fewer hardships. The fastest way to reach the west coast of the United States was take ship to Panama, cross the 85 miles to the Pacific Coast and then take passage on another ship to a port on the west coast.

Gold was discovered in California at Sutter’s Mill in 1848, sparking a rush of would-be miners to California. By 1855 this rush of travelers had spurred American entrepreneurs to build a railroad across Panama, pretty much where the Canal now exists. There had been talk of a canal since almost the time of Balboa, but the California Gold Rush put a point on it. The US Government had always expressed interested in a canal, but in repeated studies, the learned folks hired by the US Government thought the canal should be further north in Cheyenne, whoops I meant Nicaragua.

But in truth, probably nothing was going to happen. A canal in Central America was a dicey proposition, good in theory but outrageously expensive. It was also an enormous challenge in engineering and construction, not to mention the risk posed by the rickety governments in Central America left by the slow motion collapse of the Spanish Empire. Sober men with the resources to attempt a canal remembered the adage about “fools rushing in”.

But then a fool rushed in, or rather a Frenchman. I am tempted to make a joke here but will hold off, fearing the label of racist or Francophobe. Ferdinand de Lesseps, a diplomat by profession, fresh from “building” the Suez Canal in Egypt took on the challenge. He thought building a canal along the route of the railroad would be a straightforward project. Raising nearly $ 300 MM, construction on a Panama Canal under the direction of Ferdinand de Lesseps began in 1881. By 1889, the project was bankrupt and an estimated 22,000 workers had lost their lives to tropical disease, mostly malaria and yellow fever. Wikipedia dryly comments on De Lesseps effort – “The project was plagued by a lack of engineering.”

Back in France, as well as the streets of New York, there was hell to pay. Nearly one million private investors had bought stock in De Lesseps company. They were not happy. There was strong rumors of corruption, bribery and misappropriation of funds. There was a rush to judgment and a search for scapegoats. Newspaper headlines of the time detailed the heavy involvement in the bankrupt canal by bankers with a Jewish heritage. This story line sold newspapers, feeding off the anti-Jewish feelings of the time and at the same time as the Dreyfus Affair.

Back in Panama, the ruins of a massive construction project remained. The United States was interested. Complex financial and diplomatic negotiations went on. The United States still thought a canal through Cheyenne, whoops I meant Nicaragua, was a better idea. Also and importantly, Columbia was very opposed to the idea of the United States building the canal through Panama as well. But, and a large but, politically connected investors in the bankrupt French canal effort lobbied the US government relentlessly for the Panama option, which purchase of the remaining assets would allow them to partly recoup their investment.

At this time, Panama was part of Columbia. Columbia was a large fragment of what had been the Spanish Empire in the Americas, an empire that had been slowly falling apart for over a century. Simon Bolivar, the Great Liberator, had broken that empire into pieces eighty years before; but the eighty years since had seen those pieces continue to crumble into ever-smaller pieces. The Republic of Columbia of which Panama was a province had only been in existence itself since 1886. This Republic of Columbia, some twenty years old, was against US involvement in a canal in Panama.

Negotiations dragged on, but in the background there was change afoot which would make the canal a necessity. The 1890’s saw a revolution in warfare. The British, those old weeds in the garden, launched a revolutionary new warship, HMS Dreadnaught. The Dreadnaught was an armor plated, steam turbine powered warship with heavy turreted guns. We would recognize it as a battleship, the first of its kind. HMS Dreadnaught changed everything.  An arms race was on. Any nation intending to play a role on the world stage needed a fleet of these new monsters.

But the United States was in a pickle. The US has both an east coast and a west coast needing fleet protection. In addition, the Spanish-American War just past had given the United States the beginnings of empire, i.e. island colonies in the Caribbean and the Pacific. But even the United States could not afford two fleets of these new monsters. With 13,000 sea miles between New York harbor and San Francisco harbor, it is a journey months long, requiring multiple fuel stops. That is no way to operate a battle fleet during wartime. A canal was now a necessity. It was no longer a commercial issue, but a matter of national defense.

As it happened, the US had a President who knew how to handle problems. The French lobbyists’ had done their job and the US government was by now now committed to a Panama Canal, but Columbia remained a stumbling block. Theodore Roosevelt, he of the “speak softly but carry a big stick” foreign policy, let it be known to dissident factions in Panama that the United States would look with favor on an independent Panama.

In short order, a rebellion in Panama took place. Unlike more modern Presidents, Teddy Roosevelt was true to his word and ordered the US Navy to blockade the ports of Columbia. With Columbia’s military landlocked and unable to move against the rebels, Panama gained its independence from Columbia. Panama then granted the US sovereign rights to a Panama Canal Zone roughly the width of Panama and 10 miles wide, but only if the US would build a canal, administering, fortifying and defending in perpetuity.

So we have the Panama Canal. Over the years there has been endless hand wringing over the arrogant and self-interested way the United States has dealt with the nations of Central America, including Panama. It is true for the most part. As recently as 1989, President Bush the Elder deployed the 82nd Airborne Division into Panama City, deposing Manuel Noriega’s government. The US has held to itself the role of judge, jury and executioner here in Panama.

And yes we have been self-righteous and hypocritical about it. Most recently, when Russia acted in a similar way in the pursuit of its own interests in the Crimea in 2014 we were outraged. To an outside observer, there would appear little difference between Russia’s action and our own. But I must pay homage to a Frenchman who was not a fool. Charles de Gaulle was an arrogant a**hole, but he had it right when he said, “Nations have no friends, only interests.”

The Panama Canal is too important to us to not protect it to the limit of our ability. Perhaps this is arrogance on our part, but one can ask, has Panama done so badly out of the deal? One has only to look at her neighbors, countries such as Nicaragua, Honduras, Columbia or even Venezuela. To quote that philosopher of the possible, Absolom Bracer – “It is what it is.”



2 Responses to “South of the Border – Down Panama Way”

  1. Terry Todd says:

    Thanks for this Cliff Notes commentary on historical events. Much appreciate your perspective!

  2. Geoff Singleton says:

    Henry VIII’s behavior was very erratic. The latest theory is that this was due to a jousting accident when he fell off his horse and it then fell on him. He suffered brain damage as a result of the accident. His behavior after the accident changed dramatically.The history of the UK (and in some part the US) might have been different if he hadn’t turned his back on the Pope after the jousting accident.
    I enjoyed your view of Panama.
    De Gaulle was visionary at times. He is not loved by the British and was not trusted by the other US President called Roosvelt.

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