Bits & Pieces

September 10, 2012

Panama's Role In The Revolt Against Spain

At the beginning of the 19 th Century, Spain was still one of the leading colonial powers and its navy was second in the control of the seas. Its possessions in the Americas were divided into four Viceroyalties including Mexico, Peru, New Granada and Buenos Aires. In addition, it ruled through four General Captaincies consisting of Guatemala, Cuba, Puerto Rico and Chile.

The Viceroyalty of New Granada, with its capital in Santa Fe de Bogota, had colonial jurisdiction over northern South America and included what are now Colombia, Panama, Ecuador and Venezuela. In addition to these areas, the Viceroyalty of New Granada had oversight over what are now Guyana, northern Brazil, Costa Rica and Nicaragua. Under this system, Panama had its own governor with headquarters in the city of Panama and with jurisdiction over the rest of the country. For the purpose of administration, the region was divided into the three provinces of Porto Bello, Veraguas and Darien, each with its own its own governor (1).

It is interesting to note that in 1804, while unrest against Spanish rule was definitely on the rise, Spain was actively inoculating the inhabitants of New Granada with the newly discovered vaccine against smallpox discovered by the English doctor Edward Jenner (2). A Spanish Royal Medical Commission had arrived at New Granada for this purpose and a team, headed by the Panamanian doctor Isidro Arroyo, was instrumental in delivery of the vaccine in Panama during that year.

The Opposing Armies

As with the American Revolution, the population of the Spanish colonies was made up of Royalists (Europeans) and Creoles - - the Creoles being persons of European descent born in the colonies; there were wealthy Creoles as well as a working class and farmers. However, this does not mean that all Creoles were against the Spanish Crown, or that the Europeans were all Royalists. But, militarily, the two opposing forces were the royalist armies , made up of Spaniards and Spanish Americans supporters of King Ferdinand VII (10) of Spain as well as expeditionary troops from Spain facing the revolutionary militias made up mostly of Creoles and native peasants. While Spanish Americans made up to 90% of the Royalist Armies, only 11% of the militias were made up European or American whites. After a revolution in Spain in 1820, no more Spanish soldiers were sent to the Americas. By 1820, there were only 10,000 Spanish soldiers in the Americas and Spaniards formed only 10% of all the Royalist armies. Attrition had become a serious problem and no doubt was a part of the inevitable outcome.

Rebellions Begin

There is no doubt that the Latin American Wars of Independence during the late 18 th and early 19 th centuries were inspired by the American and French Revolutions. Additionally, the conquests of Napoleon (4) in Europe, which included Spain and Portugal in 1804, made the Spanish and Portuguese Creoles question their allegiance to their European mother countries leading to a conflict that lasted almost 20 years.

King Ferdinand VII of Spain, left,
Napoleon Bonaparte of France, middle, and Pedro I of Brazil

It was during the occupation of Portugal by the French that the Portuguese monarchy relocated to Brazil. After Napoleon was defeated and the royal Portuguese court returned to Portugal, prince regent, Pedro I (5), remained in Brazil and in 1824 successfully declared himself emperor of a newly independent Brazil.

The first to follow the American Revolution example was the French slave colony of Haiti which overthrew its French masters between 1791 and 1804. It was not until 1809, however, that the first serious rebellion took place against Spain, when on August 10 of that year the people of Quito, Ecuador, took over the city government.

On April 19, 1810, Venezuelan's Junta declares independence from Spain.
Simon Bolivar joined the independence movement in 1807 and rose to lead the forces in northern South America earning the title of "El Libertador" (The Liberator)

On April 5, 1810, a similar revolt took place in Caracas, Venezuela, with the rebels taking control of the city. They named Simon Bolivar (6) as an emissary to Great Britain to seek help.

Then, spreading as a grass fire, revolts took place in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on May 25, in Santa Fe de Bogota, Colombia, on July 20, in Mexico on September 16 and Chile on the 18 th of the same month. In each case, governing Juntas (Councils) were formed. The Juntas of the revolutionaries in New Granada approached the people of Panama, but the Panamanians, under the governorship of the King's Lieutenant don Juan Antonio de la Mata, chose to remain loyal to the crown.

Porto Bello Under Attack

Due to the isolation of Santa Fe de Bogota, the capital of New Granada in the high mountains of Colombia, the Viceroyalty of New Granada decided to move its capital to the city of Panama under the leadership of the Spanish Brigadier Benito Perez. Thus, Panama became both a military depot for supplies and troops as well as a staging area for operations against the rebels in Quito in the Pacific area and on the Atlantic coast of New Granada. This naturally made Panama the target of the rebels in Cartagena. The first attack came on January 16, 1814, when a force of 8 schooners and 460 men, under the command of the French officer Benito Chasserieux, attacked Porto Bello. The royalists, under Governor Joaquin Rodriguez Valcarcel, easily repulsed the invaders and sent them fleeing back to Cartagena.

The war for the independence of the Americas continued, but it would be another four years before another attempt at Panama would be made by the rebels. During those four years, the rebels had set up an Agency in London, England, for the purpose of recruiting assistance from the British who, naturally, would be more than happy to oblige on any enterprise that worked against their Spanish traditional colonial competitors. Through the efforts of the Agency, General Gregor MacGregor (7), a Scottish nobleman, was employed to lead an expedition to Panama and capture Porto Bello. The expedition left England in December 1818 with 417 mercenaries in two frigates. Arriving at the mouth of the Chagres River on April 8, 1819, they quickly disposed of whatever garrison there was at the old fort and proceeded toward Porto Bello. Near Porto Bello, MacGregor landed 300 men under the command of Doctor Jose Elias Lopez Tagle. They marched toward the town, pushing aside feeble Spanish resistance, and took the high ground around the Fortress of Santiago. During the night, the Spanish governor, Juan M. Van Herch, with the garrison, abandoned that fortress and the town as well allowing General MacGregor to walk in that morning without firing a shot.

General Gregor MacGregor and Porto Bello Custom House, with Fort San Jeronimo in background.

MacGregor immediately organized a civilian government, with local citizens sympathetic to the rebellion, under the direction of Doctor Lopez and Doctor Jose Joaquin Vargas. At the same time, the general planned a military expedition across the isthmus to take the city of Panama and overthrown the Spanish Royalist government there.

General Hore Retakes Porto Bello

The fall of Porto Bello was a blow to the Spanish Royalists in the city of Panama. Field Marshall don Alejandro Hore, governor of Panama since 1815, rounded up all the troops in the area, including the venerable "Battalion Catalina", under the command of Colonel Isidro de Diego. Marching at a fast pace across the isthmus, General Hore and his troops arrived at Fort San Lorenzo to prepare for the assault on the invaders. He decided to leave a small garrison at this fort, and then marched on Porto Bello with 500 men arriving there on April 28.

Meanwhile, while waiting for their march on Panama, discipline among General MacGregor's non-professional mercenaries had fallen apart due to drinking, orgies and sickness. Informed of the situation, General Hore decided to split his force in two with one column under the command of Colonel de Diego and the other under Lieutenant Colonel Jose Santa Cruz. At dawn, on April 30, 1819, they attacked with Lt. Col. Santa Cruz easily capturing the Custom House and taking prisoners both doctors Lopez and Vargas who were immediately executed by firing squad. General MacGregor, with some of his men, managed to escape by swimming to their ships and setting sail. Meanwhile, Col. De Diego attacked Fort San Jeronimo where the British Colonel William Rafter put up a strong resistance. Overwhelmed, however, he surrendered under condition that, after being disarmed, he and his men would be allowed to board their ships and sail away. Royalist General Hore, however, overruled Col. de Diego's terms and the 340 British prisoners were taken away and later put to work on public works in Porto Bello, Panama and Darien. Colonel Rafter was executed in August 1819 along with ten of his officers in Panama three months after the surrender.

The Battle Of Boyaca

The royalist victory at Porto Bello was not indicative of what was happening throughout the rest of the Americas. In Venezuela, on August 7, 1819, the rebel army beat and captured most of the Spanish

The Battle at Boyaca Bridge in Colombia. Bolivar caught the Spanish Royalists by surprise as they were crossing the bridge.

Bolivar accepts the surrender of the royalist forces at the Bridge of Boyaca, taking 1600 prisoners.

royalist army at the Battle of Boyaca (9) after which General Simon Bolivar of Venezuela marched unopposed into Bogota. This battle sealed the independence of the central provinces of New Granada and by December 17, Bolivar had been elected president of the new republican entity.

These victories in New Granada inspired the rebel government in Chile, under General Bernardo O'Higgins, to propose to Bolivar that they attempt once more to dislodge the royalists from Panama to secure better communications and coordination between the rebels on both coasts of South America. They put together a plan and in April 1819 a Chilean fleet with 550 men, including the frigate "La Rosa de los Andes" armed with 36 guns, sailed from Valparaiso, Chile, under the command of the English Admiral Alexander Cochrane.

Captain Illingworth Takes Taboga

The force arrived on isthmian waters in September and captured a well-provisioned Spanish ship near the Pearl Islands. A few days later, the inhabitants of Taboga, in the Bay of Panama, were awakened by the roar of gunfire as the Spanish batteries at El Morro exchange volleys with the Chilean frigates. The first attack repulsed, the "Rosa de los Andes" under the command of the British Captain John Illingworth, returned with the Peruvian frigate "Pichincha" and managed to silence the three cannon manned by 10 Spanish soldiers at El Morro fort. Then he directed his fire on the town, where the Spanish garrison was quartered, and simultaneously launched boats with men who, after a short but fierce combat, overwhelmed the garrison. A few days later, Illingworth sailed for the city of Panama for the purpose of exchanging his royalist prisoners for the British prisoners captured at Porto Bello. Royalist General Hore refused and Illingworth, with the rest of the fleet, gave up the operation returning to southern waters to continue the fight for independence closer to their home base. Panama again remained solid with the royalist cause.

El Morro, where the Spanish had a fort, and the Three Crosses at Taboga

In one of the trails in Taboga there are today three crosses. When Illingworth landed in Taboga, three of his men were killed and, later, buried by the villagers, who marked the graves with wooden crosses. With the passing of years, cast iron crosses embedded in a mortar base replaced the wooden markers. To this day, Taboganos in the vicinity of "Las Tres Cruces" never fail to light a candle in memory of the three who dared disturb the peace of their little island (11).

Spain Tries To Salvage Colonies

By 1820, the Spanish hold on her colonies was precarious. An attempt by King Fernando VII (10) to resolve the crisis by military force met with resistance within his government compelling him to abandon that approach. He, then, turned to diplomacy sending to the Americas commissioners to negotiate with the republican governments the rebels had set up. These negotiations also failed. It is interesting to note that since Panama was still in royalist hands the negotiators in Colombia had considered leaving Panama as a Spanish colony in exchange for the recognition of Colombia as an independent nation.

While all these negotiations were going on, General Hore died on July 8, 1820, eventually allowing Brigadier Pedro Ruiz de Porras (12) to take over the governance of Panama. This caused some rejoicing in Panama as Porras was known to be a sympathizer of the independence movement. This euphoria was short-lived, however, as at the end of the year a new Viceroy arrived from Jamaica to take control of what was left of New Granada. His name was don Juan de Samano y Uribarry (13), previously from Santa Fe de Bogota having made his escape after the disaster of the royalist army at the Battle of Boyaca.

His first stop was at the village of Chagres and Fort San Lorenzo. In spite of efforts to keep him there by the locals from the city of Panama, he made his entry into the city on December 28, 1820. In a short time, he had assumed command of all phases of government, including the "Catalua" battalion, and ruled with an iron fist. Fortunately his tenure was short as he died on August 2, 1821. But Panama continued under Spanish control serving as a depot and staging area for operations against the insurgents with Captain General Juan de la Cruz Mourgeon y Achet(14) in control. Nevertheless, by now, Central America had declared its independence from Spain and Bolivar continued to route the

Don Juan de Samano (left), Jose de San Martin (middle) and Jose de Fabrega.

royalists in several important battles while in Argentina General Jose de San Martin (15) did the same. Finally, seeing the writing on the wall, the Panamanians began to lean toward independence from Spain and unrest was seen all over the isthmus.

Meanwhile, General Mourgeon had raised troops locally and had sailed to Equador to fight the insurgents leaving a native Panamanian, Brigadier General Jose de Fabrega (16), as acting governor. A patriot Panamanian, he used the opportunity of having Marshal Mourgeon out of Panama to promote its independence from Spain. Simon Bolivar named him governor and commanding general of Panama on February 9, 1822, and gave him the honorary title of "Libertador del Istmo" (Liberator of the Isthmus).

November 28, 1821

The inhabitants of the city of Panama immediately initiated plans to declare independence, but the city of Los Santos, Province of Los Santos on the Azuero Peninsula, preempted the move by proclaiming freedom from Spain on November 10, 1821, the so-called "El Grito de Los Santos". This act precipitated a meeting in Panama on November 28, which is now celebrated as the official date of independence from Spain. At that meeting considerable discussion followed as to whether Panama should remain a part of New Granada, as it had been under colonial rule, unite with Peru or form a union with Mexico. In the end, New Granada was split separating Venezuela as a country by itself, leaving Panama as a part of Colombia and Ecuador, which became known as Gran Colombia. Panama then sent 700 men to join Bolivar in Peru, where the war of liberation continued (3).

Termination Of Hostilities

The termination of hostilities against the royalists in 1824 failed to bring tranquility to Gran Colombia. Constitutional disputes became armed conflicts, some wanting a dictatorship, others a president for life a yet another group a monarchy. Panama, being isolated escaped armed violence, but joined other regions in petitioning Bolivar to assume dictatorial powers until a convention could meet to resolve the issues. Panama announced its union with Gran Colombia as a "Hanseatic State" i.e., as an autonomous area with special trading privileges until the convention was held (3).

In 1826, Bolivar honored Panama when he chose it as the site for a congress of the recently liberated Spanish colonies. At this congress, Bolivar sought the protection of Britain against renewed attacks from Spain. But he was reluctant to invite the United States because their neutrality during the war of the colonies against Spain and also because slavery in the United States would be an obstacle in discussing the abolition of the African slave trade. In the end, the United States was invited to send observers only (3).

The Congress Of Panama

The Congress of Panama convened in June and adjourned in July of 1826. It was attended by four American states - - Mexico, Central America, Gran Colombia and Peru. The "Treaty of Union, League, and Perpetual Confederation" it produced was ratified only by Colombia and never became effective. Disillusioned Bolivar declared shortly before his death in 1830 that "America is ungovernable; those who served the revolution have plowed the sea".

The death of Simon Bolivar, December 17, 1830. And monument to Bolivar in Panama.

As for Panama, between 1830 and 1840, three abortive attempts to separate Panama from Gran Colombia took place. The first was undertaken by an active governor of Panama who opposed the policies of the president, but the Panamanian leader reincorporated the department of Panama at the request of Bolivar, then on his deathbed. The second scheme was that of an unpopular dictator who was soon deposed and executed. The third attempt was during a civil war in Colombia, but reintegration took place a year later (3).

Cathedral Plaza in the 19th Century, city of Panama

And there things languished with Panama sinking into a backwater region until the California Gold rush and the French Canal breathed some life back into the isthmus during the remaining years of the 19th Century.


  1. History of the Panama Canal, Ira E.Bennett, 1915
  2. Compendio de Historia de Panama, Epoca de la Colonia, Juan Bautista Sosa (1870 - 1920), Biblioteca Virtual 2005,
  3. Independence From Spain,
  4. Napoleon Bonaparte was born on August 15, 1769 in Ajaccio, Corsica. He made his first trip to France in 1778 and graduated from the Royal Military School of Champ-de-Mers in Paris in 1788. He died at St. Helena on May 5, 1821; the same year that Panama proclaimed its independence from Spain. Napoleon & Empire,
  5. Pedro I, Emperor of Brazil, was only 9 years old when Napoleon invaded Portugal. King John IV and his family, including Pedro, fled to Brazil under escort of the British navy. This made Rio de Janeiro the capital of the Portuguese Empire until 1820 when King John IV returned to Portugal. Pedro remained in Brazil as Regent. Political problems in Portugal decided Pedro to claim independence from Portugal and declare himself Emperor of Brazil in 1824 as Pedro I. In 1829 he returned to Portugal to help his daughter retain her throne and was successful. He died in Portugal in 1834 at the age of 36 from tuberculosis.
  6. Simon Bolivar was born in Caracas, Venezuela on July 24, 1783, of a prosperous family with interests in gold and copper mines in the country. As other young creoles of wealthy families, he received his education in Spain. He married in Spain, but his wife died of yellow fever upon his return home. After her death, Bolivar returned to Europe and kept company with Napoleon, but returned to Venezuela in 1807 when Napoleon invaded Spain. He joined a resistance group against Spain which declared the independence of Venezuela in Caracas in 1810. He went to England on a diplomatic mission to gain support, returning to Venezuela in 1813. He was soon at the head of the rebel forces fighting for the independence of the northern South America states seeking independence. Bolivar was hailed as "El Libertador" and in 1821 saw the creation of Gran Colombia which included Venezuela, Colombia, Panama and Ecuador. By 1824 and 1825, he had also created the states of Peru and Bolivia. He never accomplished his dream of a United States of South America. Bolivar died on December 17, 1830 from tuberculosis. He was 47.
  7. General Gregor MacGregor was born in Stirlingshire, Scotland, on December 24, 1786. He joined the British army at age 16 in 1803 and, in an unusually rapid progression in the ranks, he rose to the rank of lieutenant by 1804. In 1809 he went to Portugal with his regiment in the campaign to drive out the French. He left the army in 1810 and settled with his wife in London styling himself as Sir Gregor MacGregor and claiming falsely to have succeeded to the chieftainship of the clan MacGregor. By now MacGregor had heard of the uprisings in Venezuela and, selling his small Scottish estate, sailed for South America, arriving in Caracas in 1812. He secured an appointment as a colonel in the Venezuelan army lad by General Francisco de Miranda. From then on, his military adventures were marred with varying amounts of errors, incompetency and exaggeration on his part. But his performance on the campaign of 1816, while retreating to Barcelona, redeemed his record and earned him deserved acclaim. Upon his return to England in 1820, he claimed to be Cacique of Poyais, (See The Prince of Poyais, a country he invented to swindle investors. He returned to Venezuela in 1839 requesting and receiving Venezuelan citizenship as a general who fought for its independence. He died in Caracas on December 4, 1845.
  8. Field Marshall don Alejandro Hore came to the Americas from Cadiz, Spain, and was the Governor of Panama in 1815 establishing and entirely military regime. Panama owes General Hore the construction of the first cemetery outside the city limits of Panama and the closing of the cemetery next to the Cathedral, a project that was carried out with the full cooperation of the new bishop of the diocese, Fray Jose Higinio Duran y Martel. Unfortunately, I have not been able to find any biographical information on General Hore.

    First cemetery outside the city limits of Panama established by General Hore

  9. Battle of Boyaca. Operating in Colombian territory, Simon Bolivar decided to march on Bogota and take the capital of Gran Granada. On August 3, 1819, after reinforcing and re-supplying his 2900 men, he advanced towards Bogota. The Spaniards, under General Jose Maria Barreiro, marched to intercept him at Tunja, but was beaten to that city after the rebels marched all night using a little-known shortcut. Bolivar rested his troops 48 hours and, as soon as scouts gave the signal of the approaching tired royalist force of 2700 men, he attacked them as they crossed the Bridge of Boyaca. Bolivar suffered 66 casualties to the royalists 250 and captured 1600. Proceeding to march unopposed to Bogota he secured the independence of Gran Granada from Spain.
  10. King Ferdinand VII. Born on October 14, 1784, he was to be King of Spain twice. He took the throne upon his father's abdication on March 19, 1808 and was, himself, forced to abdicate by napoleon on May 6 of the same year, being replaced by Napoleon's brother Joseph. After the Peninsular War, he was again reinstated on December 11, 1813 and reigned until his death on September 29, 1833. Ferdinand Vii of Spain,
  11. Taboga.
  12. Pedro Ruiz de Porras. Born in Majorca Island in 1762, died in 1821, Brigadier and Governor of Panama in 1820.
  13. Juan de Samano y Uribarry. Born in 1753 in Salaya, Cantabria, he served the Royal Spanish governments as Viceroy of New Granada, Governor of Santa Fe de Bogota, Governor and Captain General of Venezuela and President of the Royal Congress in Santa Fe de Bogota. On receiving news of the royalists defeat at the Battle of Boyaca, he fled Bogota first to Cartagena then to Jamaica before proceeding to Panama. He died there in July of 1821.
  14. Juan de la Cruz Mourgeon y Achet. Born between 1775 and 1780, Mourgeon served the Spanish Royalist government in many capacities including Capitan General and President of Quito, Captain General of Santa Fe de Bogota and Viceroy of New Granada and Field Marshall. Having been named Governor of Panama, he departed for Quito with 800 troops under his command. He died in Quito on April 8, 1822 due to unknown illness.
  15. Jose de San Martin. Jose Francisco de San Martin (1778-1850) was an Argentine General, governor and patriot who led his nation during the wars of Independence from Spain. He was a lifelong soldier who fought for the Spanish in Europe before returning to Argentina to lead the struggle for Independence. He also crossed the Andes to lead the liberation of Peru and Chile. Biography of Jose de San Martin.
  16. Jose de Fabrega. Brigadier General Jose de Fabrega was born in Panama city on October 19, 1774. He played an important role in the Independence of Panama from Spain in November of 1821. Bolivar named him governor of Panama on February 9, 1822. He died in Santiago de Veraguas on March 11, 1841.


- Luis R. Celerier
Longview, Texas