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Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Phila-Trivia: The Stamp That Moved a Canal

In 1902, the U.S. Congress was considering legislation to fund a canal across Nicaragua to connect the Pacific Ocean with the Caribbean Sea. However, engineer Philippe Bunau-Varilla opposed the idea as impractical, and successfully argued against it by presenting a certain stamp as evidence.

M. Bunau-Varilla worked for a French company that had attempted to build a similar canal across Panama. However, engineering crises, financial mismanagement, and deadly yellow fever epidemics eventually bankrupted the company and prevented it from completing the project. Still believing that Panama presented the best way for such a canal, Bunau-Varilla attempted to influence Congress to change its plans, claiming that Nicaragua’s terrain was too unwieldy. In the spring of 1902, nature worked in favor of Bunau-Varilla. Mt. Momotombo, a volcano in Nicaragua, erupted.

Bunau-Varilla knew that publicizing the incident would alter the American Canal vote. Nicaraguan officials immediately began denying reports of the volcanic eruption, and Bunau-Varilla was left struggling for a way to counter the Nicaraguan cover-up. Luckily, he remembered once seeing a Nicaraguan postage stamp featuring Mt. Momotombo, which conveniently depicted with smoke rising from the top. After rummaging through stamp shops in Washington, D.C., he found the one he was looking for and promptly purchased 90 copies. Bunau-Varilla actively campaigned throughout the Northeast, carrying pictures and postage stamps of Nicaragua's Mt. Momotombo spewing ash and lava over the proposed route.
All 45 U.S. senators received the Mt. Momotombo stamp, complete with Bunau-Varilla’s caption, “An official witness to volcanic activity in Nicaragua.” This volcano, they were told, would threaten the canal route.

On June 19, 1902, the Senate voted to change the location of the canal, and the Panama route won. $ 40 million was appropriated to the Buneau-Varilla's New Panama Canal Company, under the Spooner Act of 1902.

However, another obstacle remained. At the time, Panama was a department of the Republic of Colombia. Colombia signed the Hay–Herran Treaty in 1903, ceding land in Panama to the United States for the canal, but the Senate of Colombia rejected ratification. Bunau-Varilla's company was in danger of losing its $40 million from the Spooner Act, so he drew up war plans with Panamanian juntas in New York . By the eve of the war, Bunau-Varilla had already drafted the new nation's constitution, flag (design shown at left), and military establishment, and promised to float the entire government on his own checkbook. Bunau-Varilla's flag design was later rejected by the Panamanian revolutionary council on the grounds that it was designed by a foreigner. Although he prepared for a small-scale civil war, violence was limited to the death of a single laborer. As promised, President Roosevelt interposed a U.S. naval fleet between the Colombian forces south of the isthmus and the Panamanian separatists, ending the conflict and giving Panama its independence.

Bunau-Varilla, as Panama's ambassador to the United States, was invested with plenipotentiary powers by President Manuel Amador. Lacking formal consent of the government of Panama, he entered into negotiations with the American Secretary of State, John Hay, to give control of the Panama Canal area to the U.S.. No Panamanians signed the resulting Hay–Bunau-Varilla Treaty. Bunau-Varilla had received his ambassadorship through financial assistance to the rebels, he had not lived in Panama for seventeen years, and he never returned. Many Panamanians long resented his betrayal of the trust put in him by the new Panamanian authorities. The treaty was finally undone by the Torrijos–Carter Treaties in 1977.

Those interested in becoming part of an international community of stamp collectors, dealers, and investors are welcome to join the "Stampselectors" group at Facebook. The group hosts lively discussions concerning stamp investment and practical aspects of collecting, as is also an excellent venue for those who wish to buy, sell, or trade stamps.


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