In the Throes of Revolution


The political history of the isthmus is marked by many a wound and many a scar, but its troubled waters has been stirred so often in times past that the breaking out of a revolution ceased to excite more than passing comment abroad.  Many of these internecine struggles were insignificant in their nature and of short duration, but the war of 1900 to 1902 was of an entirely different character and constituted the most sanguinary epoch in the annals of the Isthmus.

The trouble first started in the interior of Colombia, and before hostilities were finally suspended, the flame of revolt had spread the length and breadth of the country.   For more than fifteen years the ruling party in Colombia had been the Conservative or clerical party as it was sometimes called.  In 1898 this party lost the reins of government through a deflection from its ranks of a group of men calling themselves Nationalists.

The Nationalists favored a milder course toward the Liberals and elected Dr. Manuel Sanclemente, President.  Meanwhile the Conservatives were not idle, and the following year succeeded in having the Sanclemente deposed by "golpe de estado" [A sudden act performed by the State for state reasons.]  This brought the the Conservative party back into power with José M. Marroquin, vice-President under Sanclemente, at its head.

The Liberal party at this period is said to have constituted about seventy percent of the entire population, exclusive of the uncivilized Indians.  Many years before when in power, this party had incurred the enmity of the property for the use of state and education.  Since then, to check the party's growth and to stamp out liberal tendencies, it is alleged that the offices of the church were frequently used.  Many are said to have been excommunicated; the marriage service and rites of burial refused, and their children denied admission to the schools.   Furthermore they were not entitled to the privileges of the courts, and often awoke in the morning to find their property confiscated and an order of arrest confronting them.   They were permitted no representation in local or federal offices, nor in Congress, with the notable exception of General Rafael Uribe-Uribe, a man of uncommon intelligence and a natural born leader whose personal following was too strong to be easily thrust aside.

Disaffection Reaches Panama.

It only needed a decided incentive at this state to plunge the country into a civil war, and the incentive was furnished by the deposing of Sanclemente.  The strife that followed lasted three years, and according to official reports cost the lives of over 50,000 men.  The information that had been coming to Panama, sometimes false, sometimes true, had the effect of stirring up a bitter political feeling which came out openly upon the landing of a revolutionary expedition from Nicaragua on the coast of Chiriqui in April, 1900.  This expedition consisted of 110 men under the command of Generals Emiliano Herrera and Belisario Porras.  With this small force they attacked and captured the garrison at David, the capital of Chiriqui Province, and then commenced a march on Panama.

General Herrera having a personal knowledge of the country and people through which he was passing succeeded in securing numerous recruits, so that at Bejuco, which he encountered the first serious opposition to his progress, he was able to defeat General Lozada at the head of 650 men of the Colombian Line.  The revolutionists continued their advance upon Panama and were practically unopposed until they arrived at Corozal, three miles from Panama.  Here he was again met by the government troops who, after giving battle, retired to the city.  By this time General Herrera had under his command about 1,500 men.

Attack on Panama.

Upon the withdrawal of the government troops, General Herrera proceeded to occupy a position commanding the city of Panama.  He then demanded through the foreign consuls the capitulation of the town without fighting in order to avert loss of life.  The consular representatives labored earnestly to come to some understanding, but the negotiations which occupied two days' time completely failed.  In the meantime the government forces had been working day and night strengthening the defenses and preparing for the attack, while many of the townspeople took advantage of the temporary lull in hostilities by betaking themselves to a place of safety.  Many took refuge on board the British cruiser Leander at anchor in the bay   His delay in pushing the attack subjected General Herrera to severe criticism on the part of his subordinates officers who claimed that but for these dilatory tactics which enabled the government forces to form their plan of defense and dispose their men to the best advantage, the victory at Corozal could very easily have been duplicated at Panama.  Looking at it from a purely humanitarian point of view however, General Herrera's act appears commendable.

The attack on the city commenced from three sides and continued day and night for seventy-two hours, with only an occasional intermission to allow the removal of the wounded.  This was effected in part by an ambulance corps of one hundred men from the Leander who voluntarily placed their services at the disposal of the authorities.

The fighting was very fierce and at times hand to hand in the trenches and behind the barricades.  The operations were principally confined to that part of the town known as Pueblo Nuevo, San Miguel and Caledonia, now directly overlooked by the Hotel Tivoli [Lesley:  Well, where the Tivoli WAS].  On the second night of the battle the government troops were reinforced by the arrival of several hundred men of the Colombian Line from Colon, under the command of General Sarria.   He also brought word that still more troops were being dispatched from Colon by the Governor of Panama, General Campo Serrano.

The above news coupled with the determined resistance offered by the government forces, and a shortage of ammunition discouraged the revolutionists, and at the termination of the three days' fighting, a truce was arranged.   This resulted in the revolutionists accepting the offer of General Alban, the military and civil chief of Panama, to surrender with honor and be placed on parole.

The trenches and outskirts of the city presented a terrible sight after the battle. The streets and fields were strewn with the unburied dead, among them being some of the best of Panama's young men who had espoused the cause on both sides.

From this date until the cessation of hostilities, the city of Panama, being used as the head military post of the Colombian government on the Isthmus for troops and supplies, was kept in comparative peace and quiet, although the ensuing two years witnessed continual fighting in other parts of the country.  At one time the revolutionists were in possession of every important point and post, with the exception of the city of Panama.  The United States Government at the request of the authorities at Bogota finally landed a force of marines to keep the transit open.   Fighting was thereupon stopped along the line of the railroad, and to insure further the preservation of order, from three to four warships rode at anchor in the harbor.

The Sinking of the Lautaro.

The naval battle in the bay of Panama on January 20, 1902, which resulted in the sinking of the Colombian gunboat Lautaro, and the death of General Carlos Alban, the government's chief military representative on the Isthmus, afforded one of the most interesting spectacles connected with the revolution.  A few days previous to this engagement the Lautaro, a boat belonging to the Chilean steamship line, had been impressed into service by the government authorities without waiting for the consent of the head of affairs at Bogota.  Guns were mounted and the boat otherwise put in readiness to go in search of the revolutionary vessel Padilla, and to relieve the garrison at Aguadulce which at that time was being hard pressed by the Liberals.

On the night before the Lautaro met her fate, General Alban with several of his officers went on board and discovered the Chilean crew had broken into the spirit room and were committing drunken excesses, one being the letting of all the fresh water out of the tanks.  Finding it useless to try and discipline them, the general retired and was awakened in the morning with the information that a vessel was steaming into the harbor showing no distinctive colors.  After passing inside of where the American cruiser, Philadelphia lay at anchor, the boat which proved to be the Padilla, opened a well-directed fire on the Lautaro dismounting one of its guns at the first shot, and killing General Alban and several other men at the second fire.

In the meantime the small Colombian gunboat Chucuito with General Esteban Huertas and General H. O. Jeffries on board came up from La Boca and steamed to within five hundred yards of the Padilla.  The Chucuito immediately opened up with a light rapid-fire automatic gun which however, made no impression on the revolutionary steamer.  The latter continued to hammer away at the Lautaro until the vessel caught fire and sank slowly out of sight beneath the waters of the bay.   The noise of discharging cannon and the blowing up of the powder magazine on the doomed boat as the fire reached it, performed a fitting requiem over the dead body of the military chief, General Alban, which went down at the same time.

The upper part of the masts of the Lautaro may be readily seen today at low tide sticking out of the water.  A year or so since there was some talk of dynamiting the clearing away the spot, but no action in regard to it has yet been taken.  The Padilla remained in the ands of the revolutionists until peace was declared.  It was then turned over to the Colombian Government and renamed the 21 de Noviembre.

The Siege of Aguadulce.

In January, 1902, General Herrera, the Liberal leader, with his Indian allies under Victoriano Lorenzo appeared before the town of Aguadulce in the province of Coclé.  The town was garrisoned by a government force of about 1,300 men under the command of General Castro.  The Liberal general demanded the unconditional surrender of the garrison, at the same time conveying the information of the loss of the Lautaro upon which the government troops had depended for supplies.  The demand was refused, and on January 23d, the Liberals commenced the attack.  After twenty-four hours' fighting the government forces were defeated, General Castro and 350 of his men escaping to Panama.  In this engagement some 750 men were killed and wounded on both sides, while the Liberal leaders reported the capture of 700 prisoners.

In June, 1902, the government dispatched a force of 1,200 men to retake Aguadulce.  The troops arrived at the town on June 20th and were immediately surrounded by a superior force of Liberals.  The latter invested the place so closely as to cut off the besieged entirely from obtaining supplies.  The government had provided the garrison with five hundred cattle, but these were mysteriously run off one night leaving the besieged practically without food.  Such straits were they in that they were compelled to kill and eat their horses, and later on other animals, including the dogs.  Decayed fruit, and pieces of palms and shrubs were also utilized to sustain life.  The garrison continued to hold out until August 21, 1902, when it capitulated, over 1,000 prisoners and a large amount of ammunition falling into the enemy's hands.  During the siege the garrison suffered the loss of some two hundred men through sickness and starvation.

Another revolutionary expedition organized in Nicaragua landed near Chame, Province of Panama, on September 1, 1902.  The party consisted of about 120 men, sixty of whom were experienced veterans, and had for their leader General Domingo Diaz of Panama.  At Chame the expedition was met by Papi Aizpuru, Secretary of Victoriano Lorenzo, with 300 Indians.  The force marched to Bejuco where at a conference of the Liberal officers, General Diaz was made the military and civil chief of the Liberal forces on the Isthmus.

The Story of Victoriano Lorenzo.

The Indians of the Province of Coclé have been more or less independent as far back as history has knowledge of.  It has been their custom to select a governor from among their number to whom all tribal differences are referred, and in whose leadership implicit confidence is placed.  The Panama Government has given them the right of suffrage, but they have never evinced much of a desire to take a hand in matters political, and are content to till their fields and to carry on their small trading operations.  In the revolution of 1900-'02 however, they constituted quite a factor in the warring elements, but it is doubtful if they would have taken a part in it, but for the personality of their Governor and leader, Victoriano Lorenzo, who moved by a spirit of revenge joined issues with the Liberal forces, was made a general and afterwards assisted greatly in the victories of that side.  One of the commodities in which these Indians deal largely is salt, and in securing their support to the revolutionary movement, they were led to believe that if the Liberals were successful, they would be permitted a free trade in it.

About the time the revolution broke out, Victoriano Lorenzo had a large farm and was attending strictly to his own affairs.  He had one annoyance and that was the constant nagging of a petty official.  Lorenzo finally gave the latter to understand that if he was troubled any further he would take steps to stop it.  The official paying no attention to this warning, Lorenzo abducted him and took him into the mountains.  The government hearing of this summary action sent troops to Lorenzo's home where they committed various sorts of depredations.  This coming to the knowledge of Lorenzo, and believing himself an outlaw, he proceeded to revenge himself in Indian style by performing savage atrocities on the prisoners he captured.  On one occasion he killed a Spanish priest.

By this time he had enlisted quite a following and tiring of the outlawed existence which he led, he joined the Liberal forces and carried on a guerrilla warfare.  On joining the revolutionists he ceased committing acts outside the pale of civilization, and conducted himself more in accordance with the usages of war.   When hostilities ceased, a general amnesty was declared whereby the adherents of a Liberal cause without exception were allowed either leave the country, or return to their homes unmolested.  Lorenzo believing himself secure under this proclamation made no effort to hide, or flee the country.  By the authorities however, he was regarded as an unsafe man, and later through the efforts of General Benjamin Herrera he was apprehended and turned over to the Colombian authorities.

He was held a prisoner for some months during which time on one occasion he made his escape only to be recaptured the same day.  It is believed by some that the charge might be secured against him.  In 1903, after the country had become tranquil again, a commission was dispatched from Bogota with order to execute Lorenzo.  On May 14, 1903 he was condemned to be shot for committing robberies and assassinations, and performing acts contrary to civilized warfare.   Moved probably by a spirit of fair play, the Governor, foreign consuls and prominent citizens endeavored to secure a mitigation of the sentence, but the Bogota commission declared they were acting under specific orders to have him executed, and he was accordingly shot in the Plaza de Armas on May 15, 1903.

Sign Treaty of Peace on Wisconsin.

In April, 1902, the Archbishop of Bogota issued an encyclical under the authority of the Catholic Church of Colombia, in which it was stated that in order to show a Christian spirit, avoid further bloodshed, and to end the bitter struggle that was ruining the country, the Liberals would be granted immunity and forgiveness, provided they would lay down their arms and agree to peace.  they were also promised equal rights, representation and personal freedom without prejudice to their opinions.  This letter did not have immediate effect in bringing hostilities to a close, but later in the year after an exchange of numerous communications between the Liberal and Government leaders, a satisfactory understanding was arrived at, and on the 21st of November, 1902, a treaty of peace was signed on board of the United States battleship Wisconsin, Captain Casey Commander, in Panama harbor.  In bringing these negotiations to a conclusion, General B. Herrera represented the Liberals, while General Victor M. Salazar, then Governor of Panama, General Alfredo Vasquez Cobo, and General Nicolas represented the side of the Government.

Applied for Annexation.

Under date of November 28th, 1899, before the revolution had broken out on the Isthmus, the Star & Herald printed the following Washington dispatch—

"Panama has applied for annexation, but in view of the fact that Panama is not an independent republic, the authorities deem it advisable not to jeopardize the friendly relations of the Bogota Government with this country, and the application has been filed."


From:  Canal Zone Pilot, 1908

Canal Zone Brats
March 3, 2001

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