Panama Declares Independence from Colombia Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Maneuverings surrounding the construction of the Panama Canal sparked a revolution in Panama.

Summary of Event

In the early nineteenth century, when other parts of the Spanish Empire declared independence, Panama, a part of the Spanish viceroyalty of Nueva Granada, remained loyal to the crown. For economic reasons, however, many Panamanians reconsidered their loyalty before the king of Spain, Ferdinand VII (r. 1808, 1813-1833), allowed free trade in 1813. Panama prospered until free trade was repealed. The repeal resulted in a resurgence of patriotic fervor that caused Spain to appoint governors who were determined to retain the Panamanian isthmus at any cost. Violations of civil and political rights occurred with regularity. The patriots’ cause benefited from the dissatisfaction created by the governors’ use of censorship, arbitrary arrests, and persecution of suspects. Panama;revolution Revolts;Panama [kw]Panama Declares Independence from Colombia (Nov. 3, 1903) [kw]Independence from Colombia, Panama Declares (Nov. 3, 1903) [kw]Colombia, Panama Declares Independence from (Nov. 3, 1903) Panama;revolution Revolts;Panama [g]Latin America;Nov. 3, 1903: Panama Declares Independence from Colombia[00830] [g]Panama;Nov. 3, 1903: Panama Declares Independence from Colombia[00830] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Nov. 3, 1903: Panama Declares Independence from Colombia[00830] [c]Independence movements;Nov. 3, 1903: Panama Declares Independence from Colombia[00830] Amador Guerrero, Manuel Bunau-Varilla, Philippe-Jean Roosevelt, Theodore [p]Roosevelt, Theodore;Panama Canal Hay, John

In October, 1821, Colonel José de Fábrega became the first native-born isthmian to serve as governor. The patriots guessed correctly that Fábrega would be reluctant to shed the blood of his fellow countrymen. On November 27, 1821, shortly after an uprising began in the interior towns, the citizens of Panama City invaded the main plaza and demanded a meeting of the cabildo (council) to decide the future of the isthmus. The next day the cabildo met, declared independence from Spain, and accepted union with Colombia. Colombia;union with Panama

The union with Colombia led to much civil unrest. Political instability in Colombia, opposition to the dictatorship of Colombian ruler Simón Bolívar, and the breakup of the extensive republic of Gran Colombia in 1830 gave the isthmus opportunities to express its desire for autonomy or independence. Unsuccessful rebellions occurred in 1827, 1830, 1831, and 1832. Both political and economic factors played a part in the uprisings. Panamanians could not accept the arbitrary exercise of power by officials from other areas and wanted free trade, free ports, and free transit.

Panamanians responded to civil war in Colombia by proclaiming the Free State of Panama in November, 1840. External threats from England and Colombia, however, forced the Free State to sign a treaty of reincorporation after only thirteen months.

Various projects for canals, roads, and railroads across Panama’s narrow isthmus had been proposed since early in the colonial period. Panamanians would have welcomed such projects and partially blamed Colombia’s government for lack of progress in this area. Colombia, however, thought the interest that France and England expressed in such projects was a threat to its control of the isthmus and signed the Bidlack Treaty of 1846 Bidlack Treaty (1846) with the United States to guarantee the neutrality of the isthmus and Colombian sovereignty. Panama regarded the treaty as an attempt by the United States to increase its influence and power in the area. Nevertheless, a half century and many North American military interventions later, Panama turned to the United States for assistance in achieving independence and constructing a canal. Panama Canal

The French, undeterred by the Bidlack Treaty, pursued their plans for a railroad across the isthmus but were unable to find financing. The settlement of Oregon in 1848 made people in the United States aware of the problem of transit. William H. Aspinwall, Aspinwall, William H. a U.S. citizen, organized the Pacific Mail Steamship Company and planned a trans-isthmian railroad. His efforts led to the organization of the Panama Railroad Company, Panama Railroad Company which completed the railway on January 27, 1855.

From the time of the completion of the railroad until the country’s independence, Panama experienced international, national, and local problems. Disputes between liberals and conservatives involving civil disturbances in Colombia, the withdrawal of local self-government by Bogotá, and economic and racial problems on the isthmus resulted in forty different administrations, fifty riots, five attempts at secession, and thirteen major interventions by the United States. By the end of the nineteenth century, Colombia had pushed Panama into independence by refusing to consider the desires of the area’s populace, failing to provide security for property and persons, denying Panamanians the vote, conducting illegal arrests and detention, and imposing censorship as well as arbitrary and excessive taxation.

A small group of Panamanians became convinced that Panama could never expect any permanent, satisfactory political arrangement or economic progress as long as Panama remained under the control of Colombia. The failure of two French canal companies between 1879 and 1898 convinced them that independence under the protection of the United States was the only answer. The United States had a definite interest in a canal and, after the failure of the New French Canal Company, New French Canal Company had assumed the right to build one in Panama.

In the first months of 1903, a group of influential Panamanians began meeting secretly to plan an insurrection. Captain James R. Beers, Beers, James R. the port captain working for the railroad company, was leaving for a vacation in the United States, and the group asked him to ascertain the feelings of the railroad officials in New York. The group hoped that Beers could obtain promises of support and aid, perhaps even from the U.S. government. The answers Beers brought back were so encouraging that the insurrectionists sent Manuel Amador Guerrero, the railroad’s medical officer, to New York to make further inquiries.

After an unsuccessful trip, the discouraged Amador Guerrero was preparing to leave New York when Philippe-Jean Bunau-Varilla, the head of the New French Canal Company, arrived. Bunau-Varilla, believing that the United States was the only nation that could complete the canal, was determined to vindicate France and salvage his own reputation. He took control. After a series of “accidental” meetings with high U.S. government officials, including Secretary of State John Hay and President Theodore Roosevelt, he was able to assure Amador Guerrero that the United States would permit a revolution to succeed in Panama and would recognize the new republic.

Bunau-Varilla supplied Amador Guerrero with money, a declaration of independence, military plans, and a national flag. When Amador Guerrero returned to Panama, he found his fellow revolutionaries unhappy with Bunau-Varilla, timid, and unwilling to continue. Resolute action by Amador Guerrero and his wife saved the revolution. Amador Guerrero arranged for the commander of the Colombian forces in Panama to aid the movement in return for a generous financial arrangement for him and his men.

The revolution started on November 3, 1903, after the U.S. warship Nashville docked in Colón. The U.S. military presence prevented the Colombian troops in Colón from suppressing the revolt. The officials of the Panama Railroad, who were citizens of the United States, also contributed to the success of the revolt by arranging to keep all railcars in Panama City, making it impossible for Colombian troops to be transported across the isthmus.

The municipal council of Panama City declared Panama’s independence the same day and called a public meeting for the next afternoon. The meeting selected a junta of three men as a provisional government. The junta provided for a constitutional convention and for presidential elections, in which Amador Guerrero was chosen as the first president.

Panama was forced to pay a price for the assistance of Bunau-Varilla and the United States. As a condition of his support, Bunau-Varilla demanded appointment as Panamanian minister to the United States. He was replaced one month later by a Panamanian, but in that month he negotiated a canal treaty with the United States that was similar to one Colombia had rejected. Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty (1903)[Hay Bunau Varilla Treaty] The few new provisions in the treaty made it more favorable to the United States. Bunau-Varilla pointed out to the two Panamanian diplomats sent to help negotiate the treaty that any delay in accepting the treaty could lead to withdrawal of U.S. protection and to new negotiations for a canal treaty with Colombia. U.S. protection was essential for the preservation of Panamanian independence, and his arguments were not lost on the diplomats or on the Panamanian junta. The junta accepted the treaty, as did virtually every town council in the new republic.


When Panama became independent in 1903, the new government accepted the canal treaty with the United States, giving the United States a physical presence in the new nation and an interest that led to limitations on political action by the government of Panama. The average Panamanian citizen did not gain political power either. A small group of elite families controlled the republic until the end of the 1960’s, when the commander of the national guard seized control of the country. The United States ratified two new treaties in 1978 under which the Panama Canal was made permanently neutral and under which the Panamanian government regained full sovereignty and control on December 31, 1999.

Observation of civil rights was not characteristic of the colonial period or of Colombian rule in Panama. Censorship, arbitrary arrests and imprisonment, exile, illegal taxation, and physical abuse were commonly used against political opponents of the ruling regimes and against the poor. Independence improved the abusive conditions but did not eliminate them. The political patterns of electoral fraud, political violence, arbitrary decision making, suppression and abuse of opponents, and use of political control for economic benefit characteristic of the previous periods continued to be the norm. The masses, who had only rarely participated in the political process, remained passive. The poor were given no economic consideration by the elite factions that dominated Panama.

The construction of the railroad in the 1850’s and the later construction of the canal (which was completed in 1914) depended heavily on the recruitment of black laborers from the English-speaking Caribbean. Many blacks remained in Panama and congregated in their own sections of Panama City and Colón. They continued to speak English and to attend Protestant churches, and their racial and cultural differences from other Panamanians made them a conspicuous minority.

Some economic development came with the construction and operation of the canal, but the more technical and higher-paying jobs were given to U.S. citizens during the first forty years of the canal’s operation. Over time, Panamanians reacted to the political and economic influence of the United States with increasing negativity, and nationalism increased. When U.S. interventions aroused Panamanian anger, the black immigrants became an easy target for protests; the United States itself was not so easily attacked. Blacks also competed with “native” Panamanians for jobs. The administration of the canal used the division between the blacks and other Panamanians to maintain an adequate and docile labor supply.

The growth of Panamanian nationalism gained impetus from U.S. cultural influences on everyday life, which were pervasive and readily apparent to the average citizen. The canal remained closely tied to the independence of Panama and to the lives of the Panamanians. Panama;revolution Revolts;Panama

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bishop, Joseph Bucklin. Theodore Roosevelt and His Time Shown in His Own Letters. 2 vols. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1920. The author, who was secretary of the canal commission, paints a favorable picture of Roosevelt. Includes interesting insights about the canal and Roosevelt’s participation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bunau-Varilla, Philippe-Jean. Panama: The Creation, Destruction, and Resurrection. London: Constable, 1913. This self-serving account of events vindicates the author and France. Includes some of the author’s letters.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Diaz Espino, Ovidio. How Wall Street Created a Nation: J. P. Morgan, Teddy Roosevelt, and the Panama Canal. New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 2001. Argues that a combination of American imperialist attitudes and the prospect of financial gain led to the building of the Panama Canal.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">LaRosa, Michael, and Germán R. Mejía, eds. The United States Discovers Panama: The Writings of Soldiers, Scholars, Scientists, and Scoundrels, 1850-1905. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003. Collection of articles about Panama published from 1850 to 1905 in two of the most influential American periodicals of the time, Harper’s Monthly Magazine and The Atlantic Monthly. Illustrates the evolution of debates about Panama in the United States and how Americans came to view control of the isthmus as vital to U.S. economic and political well-being.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McCullough, David. The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1977. A detailed account of events surrounding the creation of the canal and a brief summary of the pre-1903 period. Includes an extensive bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Millander, G. A. The United States in Panamanian Politics: The Intriguing Formative Years. Danville, Ill.: Interstate Printers, 1971. Provides a good, brief explanation of the 1903 revolution. Includes an extensive annotated bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Niemeier, Jean Gilbreath. The Panama Story. Portland, Oreg.: Metropolitan Press, 1968. Based on newspaper articles that appeared in the Panama Star and Herald.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Perez-Venero, Alex. Before the Five Frontiers: Panama from 1821-1903. New York: AMS Press, 1978. Contains a good history of nineteenth century Panama but does not include the 1903 revolution. Extensive bibliography.

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Categories: History