Updated date:

The Panama Watermelon Riot of 1856

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

In the middle of the 19th century, there were tensions between Americans and Panamanians over economic stagnation, unemployment, and poverty. Into this bubbling stew of resentment a drunk American committed an act of petty theft that led to an argument. The dispute escalated into gunfire and soon dead bodies, mostly of Americans, littered the streets of Panama City.

Background to a Fight

Panama was a province of Colombia, known as New Grenada, and, through an agreement in 1846, the United States had troops stationed there. The Americans were not popular.

For the U.S., the isthmus of Panama was of great strategic and economic importance. At a time when east-west travel across the continent was sluggish and dangerous, the opening of the trans-Panama railway in 1855 was a boon to commerce. Ships could unload on the east coast of Panama and their cargos and passengers could transit the isthmus by rail, reload onto ships, and head for California.

One such journey saw a trainload of about 1,000 people arrive in Panama City on the Pacific Coast on April 15, 1856. The passengers had crossed the isthmus from the Caribbean coast and were headed for San Francisco, drawn by the Gold Rush. They were planning to board a U.S. steamship called the John L. Stephens.

But, there was no wharf to accommodate such vessels at Panama City, which had to dock at Taboga Island, 20 km away. Because of shallow water, the ferry to Taboga could only operate at high tide, and the train had arrived at low tide. The passengers would have to kill time for a few hours, and that's when the trouble started.

Watermelon at a Nickel a Slice

A man called Jack Oliver, already drunk from boozing on the train, used the waiting time to get even more liquored up. Some people become happy drunks and some become mean and belligerent; Oliver, it seems, was a member of the latter group.

In a run-down part of the city known as La Ciénega, (it translates to 'muddy area'). Oliver saw a street vendor selling watermelon slices for five cents each. He helped himself to a piece of the fruit and refused to pay for it. Several versions of what happened next can be distilled down to the following narrative.

The watermelon man, one Jose Manuel Luna, rightly aggrieved, pulled a knife to back up his demand for payment. Oliver responded by brandishing a gun. As Luna was wisely making a hasty retreat one of Oliver's pals threw a nickel at the fleeing vendor.

By now a sizable crowd of locals and Americans had gathered to observe the altercation. A Panamanian man, Miguel Habrahan, tackled Oliver and took the gun away from him. During the struggle for the weapon, it went off, lodging a bullet in a Panamanian man and causing anger among the bystanders.

Oliver and his friends sought refuge in the railway station and soon pistol shots were fired by both sides. The police arrived in an attempt to bring the mayhem to a close, but a bullet from inside the station hit an officer, which caused the lawmen to ally themselves with the gathering of locals.

Armed with machetes and clubs, gangs of Panamanians went looking for U.S.-owned businesses to trash; they also attacked people who looked like Americans.

At the railway station, a telegraph operator sent out a message calling for reinforcements. Soon, a train arrived with a group of armed railway police under the leadership of Randolph “The Hangman” Runnels, a former Texas Ranger. Runnels and his men took aim at the rioters and called on them to stand down. Runnels was well known and highly respected among Panamanians so the mob dissipated.

The worst of the rioting was finished and it was time to count the cost. Fifteen Americans and two Panamanians were dead and more than 60 people were injured.

A U.S. newspaper depiction of the Watermelon Riot.

A U.S. newspaper depiction of the Watermelon Riot.

Aftermath of the Watermelon Riot

There were concerns in Washington that disturbances such as the Watermelon Riot threatened commerce across the isthmus, so troops were sent to keep order. Waving the big stick, the U.S. demanded that the government of New Grenada (Panama) pay reparations for the American lives lost and property destroyed. A sum of $500,000 was settled on.

The riot gave a boost to the plan to build a canal across the isthmus so that cargo and passenger ships along with naval vessels could cross the terrain without interference from natives. Hidden History notes that “Within a few decades, the United States would arrange another rebellion by the Panamanians which separated the province from Colombia and allowed the Americans to build the Panama Canal.”

Bonus Factoids

  • There appears to be no record of what happened to Jack Oliver, the man whose drunken antics caused the whole mess.
  • Mohamed Bouazizi was a fruit and vegetable street vendor in Tunisia. He suffered harassment from local police who stole his produce. In December 2010, he made a dramatic protest against the mistreatment that made it impossible for him to make an honest living—he set himself on fire in front of government offices. He died a few days later from his injuries but his desperate act started a revolution that led to the downfall of Tunisia's corrupt dictatorship and triggered the Arab Spring uprisings that removed other brutal men from power.
  • The American-owned United Fruit Company (UFC) possessed massive amounts of land in Guatemala on which it grew bananas and coffee beans. It enjoyed the protection of corrupt dictatorships that exempted it from paying taxes and that looked the other way as workers were abused. In 1944, a revolution installed a progressive president who introduced labour and safety laws as well as a minimum wage. A subsequent, democratically elected president, Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán, took reforms further and challenged the supremacy of UFC. The company sought help from the Eisenhower administration, which funded and organized a coup that ousted Árbenz. Warhistoryonline.com commented, “Thus Guatemala returned to being just another banana republic ruled by US-backed dictators.” UFC is now known as Chiquita Brands International.

Sources

  • “The Watermelon Riot: Cultural Encounters in Panama City, April 15, 1856.” Mercedes Chen Daley, Hispanic American Historical Review, February 1, 1990.
  • “The Watermelon War.” Lenny Flank, Hidden History, August 27, 2019.
  • “Drunk American Tourist Started Watermelon War.” Andrew Pourciaux, Vintage News, July 5, 2018.
  • “The Watermelon War.” Dan Lewis, nowiknow.com, August 21, 2013.
  • “The Tragic Life of a Street Vendor.” Yasmine Ryan, Al Jazeera, January 20, 2011.
  • “A Country for a Company – The 1954 US Backed Guatemalan Coup to Support United Fruit Company.” Shahan Russell, warhistoryonline.com, October 27, 2015.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Rupert Taylor

Comments

Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on September 21, 2021:

Hi Peggy. I gave the Pig War a few paragraphs in my article "Should Canada and the United States Merge?" on Soapboxie. I doubt that it's worth a lengthier treatment.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on September 21, 2021:

What an interesting bit of history! Without your writing this article, I doubt that I would have ever tumbled upon this information. Have you ever written about the Pig War? We learned about that many years ago when visiting Vancouver Island.

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on September 21, 2021:

But the only thing I found very foolhardy and dim-witted is the American not paying the watermelon salesman. That's not the American culture.

Cynthia from Philippines on September 21, 2021:

thanks for sharing

Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on September 20, 2021:

Little known to me also John

Umesh Chandra Bhatt from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India on September 20, 2021:

Very interesting. Well presented.

John Hansen from Gondwana Land on September 20, 2021:

This was a very interesting account, and another little known (at least for me) piece of history to help expand my knowledge. Thank you for sharing, Rupert.

Rodric Anthony Johnson from Surprise, Arizona on September 20, 2021:

Good bit of history!

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on September 20, 2021:

Thanks, Rupert.

Related Articles