No. 184.

Mr. Becerra to Mr. Bayard.


Sir: The Colombian State of Panama, across whose territory exists a railway which brings the two oceans into communication, and where at the present time there is being excavated a canal which will unite their waters, is ruled by its own local institutions, and obeys a government whose magistrates are elected by the vote of its citizens. In conformity with the political constitution of the Colombian nation, to which that State belongs and of which it is an integral part, its government yields obedience to and supports the action of the National Government which holds its seat at Bogota in all matters having regard to foreign relations, to international commerce, to public instruction, to the army, to the collection of the general taxes, and to the security of persons and property.

Until 1880 the autonomous rights of the State of Panama, like those of the other States of the Union, extended to the exclusion of all intervention of the federal Government in the armed contests of the citizens of a State against its authorities; but in 1881 a law of the federal Congress, explanatory of the constitution, imposed upon the National Government, [Page 240] that is to say upon its executive department, the duty of defending the existence and the tranquil operation of the legal governments of the States against hostile attacks on the part of domestic factions. It may be affirmed that this fundamental innovation upon the Colombian political system was in a great measure effected for the purpose of rendering more efficient and assured than theretofore the national intervention for the protection of the great commercial interests established on the Isthmus, and of the enterprises which, like that of the canal now in process of construction, promise to vastly develop those interests for the benefit of civilized peoples.

And, in fact, in the execution of that important law, the central Government established at Bogota gave paramount attention to the military service of the Isthmus, raising the number of its several garrisons to a thousand men, all veterans, endowing them with the best armament and equipment, and intrusting their command to officers of known capacity whose appointment was confirmed by the Senate.

Thanks to this special system of defense and precaution, there was no recurrence in the State of the slight but always prejudicial disturbances which in former years had obstructed its progress; the persons and property of natives and foreigners enjoyed the highest possible degree of security; and even the enormous body of laborers employed in the works of the canal, reaching in number some 15,000 men, many of them of the lowest moral condition, has scarcely made itself felt, watched over as it has been and in many cases repressed in its excesses by the soldiery of the national garrisons. This satisfactory state of things lasted until the beginning of the month of March of this year, when, unfortunately, there began to be felt upon the Isthmus the deplorable consequences of the powerful rebellion which had occurred in the interior of the Republic and in the populous State of Cauca, which adjoins that of Panama; a rebellion which had its origin in questions of constitutional reform, and proposed as its object to perturb this reform and to overthrow from power the legal magistrates of the nation. In order to repress and suppress it in time, it became necessary to concentrate all the military forces of the Union, and among them those which were doing garrison service in Panama and Colon, a large part of which were removed, although merely as a provisional measure, to the States of Bolivar, upon the Caribbean Sea and Cauca, upon the Pacific.

The most important points of the Isthmus being thus left ungarrisoned in a way that was almost reckless, it was difficult, if not impossible, for its local government to immediately organize the militia force, and to this was added the adverse circumstance of being relatively distant from the centers of purely national population, such as are the provinces of Chiriqui and Veraguas, in which it was possible to enlist soldiers or levy a conscription in conformity with the law. In Panama and Colon, whose most active population is either cosmopolitan, or, as in the case of the workmen upon the canal, exempt from all military service, in pursuance of the liberal concessions of the Colombian Government, and where, moreover, the attractions of excessive commercial gain relax to a certain extent the ties of citizenship, such an organization of forces needs time, demands expense, and in no case can be the work of the moment.

Meanwhile, in these same cities of Panama and Colon there are unfortunately not wanting those professional politicians who are in all countries the pest of modern democracies, partisans whose noxious agitation, curbed and kept within bounds until then by the presence of [Page 241] the national forces, found in their temporary removal a propitious opportunity to devote themselves to their natural machinations.

It thus becomes clear how that, notwithstanding that there was at the head of the Government, through legal election by the assembly of the State, one of its most distinguished sons, and notwithstanding the intrinsic excellence and the patriotism of all his public acts, and in spite of this same citizen professing the dominant political opinions of the State, those professional agitators, and in their shadow many criminals of diverse nationalities and origin, conspired against the public peace and order, and at last succeeded in an evil hour in seizing, without resistance, the city of Colon and making a sanguinary attack upon that of Panama.

Thus also are explained the horrible excesses, unprecedented in the political history of Colombia, to which, according to the news furnished by the press, those soulless agitators have abandoned themselves during these last few days, and among which are certainly not the least deserving of chastisement and deplorable the imprisonment of the American consul and of an officer of the Navy of this country, notwithstanding the sentiments of constant amity and respect which have ever been entertained by the people of Colombia and all those of its citizens who have exercised or may exercise therein any power or authority toward this Republic, and toward its officers and agents of whatever rank.

Two other circumstances should be here mentioned, in order that this communication, which is a sort of memorandum, may produce the results which he who has the honor to present it to the consideration and judgment of the honorable Secretary of State hopes for from it, and these are:

  • First, that notwithstanding the straitened and painful military situation in the interior of the country, there nevertheless remained in the city of Panama certain national forces, which have contended against the disturbers of the public order, although without the successful result which was to be desired.
  • Secondly, that in well-grounded anticipation (based upon a knowledge of men and things upon the Isthmus) of the deplorable excesses of which the city of Colon has been the theater and the victim, the writer of this communication had the honor, in a verbal conference sought to that end, to intimate clearly to the honorable Secretary of State how expedient it was, and besides being opportune how necessary, that sufficent American forces on board of vessels of war stationed at Panama and Colon, should be there within sight of events, ready and competent to give to the persons and property of American citizens that effective protection and shelter which, by reason of temporary, but none the less effective deficiency of material force, the Colombian authorities could not afford for the time being. The honorable Secretary took a note of those intimations, and his remarks indicated his favorable reception thereof.

It follows from what has been herein set forth that Colombia, after having assured at the cost of no small sacrifices on her part the advantages of the Panama transit for the enjoyment and benefit of the interests of all mankind, after having there suppressed the national customs duties, and, as a concession toward a more expeditious and free communication, done away with even the most elementary formalities of her maritime coasting policy, and after, lastly, having contracted, without proportionate compensation, and solely in a generous spirit of association in the work of common progress, the responsibility of protecting [Page 242] by means of her forces the great schemes of communication from ocean to ocean and the vast interests thereto related, has done since 1849, and especially since 1880, in so far as the great purpose in view involved modification in the constitutional practices of the Government, all that has been in her power in the direction of fulfilling her pledges. Accidents in her political life, which are not to be wondered at in an incipient nation such as Colombia is, since they occur in others of secular growth, have at times prevented as for instance in the present case, the action of her laws and her Government from being as prompt and effective as is to be desired; but these exceptions, which, as has been observed, likewise occur even under the authority of the better constituted Governments of the world, afford assuredly no ground for forgetting what that Republic has done in contribution to the universal interests of civilization, to which, as an absolutely free arena, the Colombian territory of the Isthmus has been thrown open.

The present unfortunate state of things in that region will, on the other hand, not be of long continuance. The rebellion of the interior of Colombia has been overcome, and the recent submission of the coast of the State of Cauca to the authority of the national Government indicates that there will be dispatched from there, at no distant day, armed expeditions on the part of the nation, competent to restore peace upon the Isthmus and to subject to the operation of justice those who have disturbed it by attempt like that of Colon.

Entertaining the most justifiable confidence in the high circumspection and never-belied spirit of probity of the Government of the United States of America, the undersigned, envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary of the United States of Colombia, has the honor to submit this note, and the details and information which it contains, to the judgment of the honorable Secretary of State, in the hope that the decision which he will reach concerning the recent deplorable events upon the Isthmus will be as fitting to the occasion as is to be desired.

The undersigned renews, &c.,