The separation of Panama from Colombia was formalized on this date in 1903, with the establishment of the Republic of Panama, formerly the Republic of Colombia’s Department of Panama. After its independence from Spain (part of the independence of the Viceroyalty of Peru) on November 28, 1821, modern-day Panama became a part of the Republic of Gran Colombia which consisted of today’s Colombia, Venezuela, Panama, and 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. Panama had tried to separate from Colombia throughout the 19th century but was not successful until the U.S. intervened on behalf of Panama because of its interests in building the Panama Canal which Colombia would not agree to.
The Isthmus of Panama had been an important trade route between the Pacific and the Atlantic for centuries. Panama was enormously important to Spain strategically because it was the easiest way to transship silver mined in Peru to Europe. Silver cargos were landed at Panama and then taken overland to Portobello or Nombre de Dios on the Caribbean side of the isthmus for further shipment.
Spanish authorities exercised little control over much of the territory of Panama, large sections managing to resist conquest until very late in the colonial era. Because of this, indigenous people of the area were often referred to as “indios de guerra” (war Indians) and resisted Spanish attempts to conquer them or missionize them. Because of the incomplete Spanish control, the Panama route was vulnerable to attack from pirates (mostly Dutch and English) and from New World Africans called cimarrons who had escaped enslavement and lived in communes or palenques around the Camino Real in Panama’s Interior, and on some of the islands off Panama’s Pacific coast. One such famous community amounted to a small kingdom under Bayano, which emerged in the 1552 to 1558. Sir Francis Drake’s famous raids on Panama in 1572–73 were aided by Panama cimarrons, and Spanish authorities were only able to bring them under control by making an alliance with them that guaranteed their freedom in exchange for military support in 1582.
The prosperity enjoyed during the first two centuries (1540–1740) while contributing to colonial growth; the placing of extensive regional judicial authority (Real Audiencia) as part of its jurisdiction; and the pivotal role it played at the height of the Spanish Empire helped establish a distinctive sense of autonomy and of regional or national identity within Panama well before the rest of the colonies.
In 1846 Colombia and United States signed a treaty under which the United States was obliged to maintain neutrality in Panama in exchange for transit rights in the isthmus on behalf of Colombia. In March 1885 Colombia thinned its military presence in Panama by sending troops stationed there to fight rebels in other provinces. These favorable conditions prompted an insurgency in Panama. The United States Navy was sent there to keep order, invoking its obligations according to the treaty of 1846.
In 1885 the United States occupied the Colombian city of Colón, Panama. Chile, which had by the time the strongest fleet in the Americas, sent the cruiser Esmeralda to occupy Panama City in response. Esmeralda ’s captain was ordered to stop by any means an eventual annexation of Panama by the United States.
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 last 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 assaulted by 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 was not achieved 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. Panamanian politician José Domingo De Obaldía was selected to become the Governor of the Isthmus of Panama office that he had previously held and was supported by the 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. Manuel Amador Guerrero was in charge of traveling to the United States to get support for the separatist plan; he also gained the support of important Panamanian liberal leaders and the support of another military commander, Esteban Huertas.
With a 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, who were not trusted by the government.
The Tiradores Battalion was led by Generals Juan Tovar and Ramón Amaya and arrived in the Panamanian city of Colón on the morning of November 3, 1903. The battalion suffered delays on its way to Panama City caused by the complicity of the Panama Railway authorities who sympathized with the separatist movement. Upon arrival in Panama City, the troops were put under the command of Col. Eliseo Torres. General Esteban 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 Wong Kong Yee of Hong Sang, China. A United States Navy gunboat, USS Nashville, commanded by Commander John Hubbard, who had also helped to delay the disembarkation of the Colombian troops in Colón, continued to interfere with their mission by alleging that the “neutrality” of the railway had to be respected.
With the suppression of the Colombian troops, the Revolutionary Junta proceeded to declare the separation of the Isthmus and later the independence with the declaration of the Republic of Panama. A naval squadron in the Bay of Panama was captured without resistance. Demetrio H. Brid the president of the Municipal Council of Panama became the de facto President of Panama appointing on November 4, 1903 a Provisional Government Junta that governed the country until February 1904 when the Constituent National Convention was established and elected Manuel Amador Guerrero as first constitutional president. News of the separation of Panama from Colombia reached Bogotá on November 6, 1903 due to a problem with the submarine cables.
On November 13, 1903 the United States formally recognized the Republic of Panama (after recognizing it unofficially on November 6 and 7). France did the same on November 14, 1903 followed by other 15 countries. 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), despite the fact he had not lived in Panama for seventeen years before the incident, and he never returned. The treaty was later approved by the Panamanian government and the Senate of the United States. Colombia recognized the sovereignty of Panama in 1921, only after the United States compensated Colombia with US$25 million for its intervention in the Panama – Colombia conflict.
Panamanian cooking has some important differences from other Latin American cuisines. For example, they make corn masa from freshly boiled corn rather than from cornmeal and water. So dishes made with masa are quite different in taste in Panama. But there’s a lot that is familiar too. You can get ox tongue in tomato sauce or soft tacos throughout Latin America. Like most organ meats, ox tongue’s not popular in the U.S., although you can often find it sliced in Jewish delis. Cooking a whole tongue is a bit of a rigmarole, but not terribly complicated. You need a pot big enough to hold the whole tongue which you then cover in water and simmer for about 2 hours. Then let it cool and peel off the skin. For this dish you should cut it in thick slices like cutlets. The indigenous hot pepper in Panama is the chombo. Use it if you can find it; otherwise use any hot red chile you like.
1 cooked ox tongue, sliced
2 cups red wine
2 onions, peeled and chopped
1 leek, washed and sliced
1 green bell pepper, sliced
6 cloves of garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
1 can of tomatoes
1 tbsp tomato paste
2 carrots, peeled and chopped
1 stalk celery, washed and chopped
1 chombo (or other hot) pepper, minced
salt and pepper
Sauté the onions, carrots, leek, peppers, garlic, and celery in a heavy-bottomed sauce with a little olive oil until they are soft. Do not brown. Add the tomatoes, tomato paste and wine, and bring to a gentle simmer. Add a bay leaf, plus thyme, salt, and pepper to taste. Let simmer uncovered for about 1 hour, letting the sauce reduce and thicken. Check for seasoning and then add the tongue slices to warm through. Serve the tongue on a warmed platter with the sauce, accompanied by corn tortillas, or crusty bread.