The Panama Watermelon Riot

In April of 1856, about 1,000 people arrived in Panama City, crossing from the Caribbean coast headed to San Francisco. Many were drawn by the Gold Rush and were planning on boarding the USS John L. Stephens. Since there was no wharf to accommodate such vessels at Panama City, they would have to take the ferry to Taboga. However, the ferry could only operate at high tide, so the passengers would have to kill time for a few hours, and that’s when the trouble started. A man named Jack Oliver, already drunk from drinking on the train, used the waiting time to get even more liquored up. While some people become happy drunks, Oliver was a mean and belligerent one. He saw a street vendor selling watermelon slices for 5¢ each and refused to pay for it. Jose Manuel Luna, the man selling the watermelon, pulled a knife on Oliver to back up his demand for payment. Oliver responded by brandishing a gun. As Luna made a hasty retreat, one of Oliver’s pals threw a nickel at the fleeing vendor. By then, a sizable crowd of locals and Americans had gathered, and one of the locals tackled Oliver and took the gun away from him. During the struggle, the weapon went off, lodging a bullet in the local 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. It wasn't long before 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. The U.S. demanded that the Panamanian government pay reparations for the American lives lost and property destroyed. They settled on a sum of $500,000. 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 locals.