Filibusters in New Granada?
A riot on the Isthmus of Panama was hardly surprising in the context of gold rush history. As America grew west and south in the first half of the nineteenth century, and its citizens began to move beyond its borders fulfilling manifest destiny, signs of U.S. imperialist tendencies began to appear with the Mexican War. In its aftermath, a body of U.S. citizen-adventurers, called "Filibusters" felt compelled to pursue what they considered to be a righteous cause. Central Americans found themselves at risk from these so-called "filibusters"and began a love-hate relationship with the North Americans as California-bound gold seekers made their way across Nicaragua and Panama to the gold fields.
North American shipping and transit interests had delivered a welcome infusion of capital and technical know-how into Panama and Central America bringing with it African labor from the West Indies. By 1856 unwanted by-products of the business bounty began to appear. Construction jobs vanished creating a black labor surplus. The transit business crowded out native entrepreneurs, and gold rush passengers inundated the Isthmus. Unemployed natives came face to face with arrogant gold-crazed "Yankees."
A "filibuster" was a specially hated Yankee--a "pirate" or worse. A man of this name was an arms-bearing American intent on occupying Central America in a personal way--with guns and violence. These inland privateers operated without official blessing of the U.S. Government. Nevertheless, right or wrong, they rationalized their acts as being within the limits of citizen foreign policy. Filibusters were also called "annexionists." Their goals were obvious.
Several significant events took place the year preceding the 1856 Watermelon Riot. At that time the Panama Isthmus fell within New Granada which consisted of Colombia and the Territory of Panama. To its north, Central America consisted of Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras and Salvador. Internal revolutions were common. Panama was engaged in a revolution to form a confederation of its provinces, create a new constitution and install a new territorial government. At the same time in Nicaragua, democratic revolutionaries fought the old established aristocratic "Legitimist" government.
In May 1855 American Filibusters followed William Walker into Nicaragua to insert themselves into the revolution in order to colonize the country. Walker contracted with the Nicaraguan revolutionary democrats to provide armed forces in exchange for land. The revolutionaries with the help of Walker as Commander-in-Chief, prevailed in October 1855. Walker gained spirited support from many Americans especially in California. He recruited hundreds of men to join his movement over the objections of the U.S. Government.
The other countries of Central America protested that Walker intended to annex them all. Walker's doctrine certainly gave credence to Central American misgivings. In his own words Walker said that his goal was "not to destroy, but to re-organize society wherever they went." As to slavery--which the Nicaraguan government had abolished--Walker said: "without [slave] labor ... the Americans could have played no other part in Central America than that of the Pretorian Guard at Rome."
About Africans he said:
"The White man took the negroe from his native wastes, and teaching him the arts of life, bestowed on him the ineffable blessings of a true religion."
Walker set out to invade Costa Rica in March 1856. He would soon be inaugurated President of Nicaragua and slavery would be reinstated. Only Costa Rica stood between Walker and Panama where the considerable black population feared Walker and the threat of slavery.
Nicaragua also had an isthmus. Cornelius Vanderbilt had operated a successful transit business across it to support his steamship line from New York. He had survived a convoluted series of slippery deals between competing shipping interests in Panama and Nicaragua. His shipping and transit line started to founder when the Panama Railroad began operation in February 1855.
Events in Nicaragua in March 1856 brought Vanderbilt in conflict with two rivals: (1) competing capitalists in Panama, and (2) Walker with his cronies in Nicaragua. The situation prompted Vanderbilt to shut the line down completely. The President of Nicaragua had revoked Vanderbilt's license to operate in response to pressure from William Walker.
Vanderbilt suspended service from New York to Nicaragua on March 8, 1856. He then set about to intercept the steamer Cortes en route from San Francisco to prevent it from landing at San Juan del Sur on Nicaragua's Pacific coast. To accomplish this he ordered his Panama agent to board the steamer Golden Gate bound for San Francisco, and request its captain to rendezvous with the Cortes to prevent that ship's passengers from debarking at San Juan. Letters ordered the Captain of the Cortes to divert to Panama. The strategy was flawed: the Cortes carried Filibuster recruits bent on landing in Nicaragua.
On April 2, 1856 the Golden Gate, with Vanderbilt's agent on board, steamed to within twenty-five miles of San Juan where it met the Cortes. The agent boarded the Cortes. Reports get a little muddled. Two scenarios have been described. One version claimed the Cortes proceeded as instructed to Panama with hundreds of disgruntled passengers who had planned to disembark at San Juan, including at least twenty-five Filibusters who had intended to fight with Walker. When the Cortes arrived in Panama its New York-bound passengers and its freight of California gold proceeded east across Panama to Aspinwall to wait for the New York steamer. Any passenger remaining in Panama would therefore be presumed to be a Filibuster.
The other version claimed that William Garrison, son of Vanderbilt's adversary, C.K. Garrison, was also onboard the Golden Gate. On boarding the Cortes Garrison and several others coerced its captain to land them and their goods at San Juan. The captain took them ashore in a small boat and learned that Costa Rican troops had ambushed and humiliated one of Walker's reconnaissance teams. Meanwhile some of Walker's officers had boarded the Cortes. The Captain returned to the ship convinced that Walker's men intended to force passengers into service or even capture the ship. He told the Filibuster recruits about Walker's bad luck, and steamed on to Panama with at least one of Walker's officer's aboard.
In both versions Filibuster warriors were left behind in Panama on April 6--deprived of their mission in Nicaragua--and waiting for a ship back to San Francisco. That ship was to be the John L. Stephens but it would not depart Panama until April 15. The stranded passengers had nine idle days before them. One of the Filibuster passengers told the San Francisco Bulletin:
"[The Filibusters on the Cortes] did not fear any attack on them, but on the contrary courted it and were perfectly sanguine as to their success.... Walker's army has reached to the number of nearly 2,000 and will have ere this an addition of 450 men from New Orleans, all well armed and equipped."
On April 9 the Costa Ricans won a significant battle. On April 11 Walker marched south and declared war on Costa Rica. The Costa Ricans defeated him but it was only a temporary set back for Walker. He was not yet at the peak of his power. Was there any reason to believe Walker had aspirations for Panama? Why was his officer, Captain W.C. Waters, in Panama on the fateful day? Regardless of Walker's intent, the presence of Filibusters in Panama coupled with news of Walker's advance into Costa Rica, filled local natives, especially those of African descent, with fear and outrage. Perception was all that mattered.