The Watermelon War


On April 15, 1856, a steamboat arrived at a small, four-and-a-half square mile island off the coast of Panama. One of the ship’s passengers, likely drunk, got into a dispute with a local vendor. Before the dispute was resolved, 17 people were dead and another 29 were wounded.

The dispute was over a five cent slice of watermelon.

In 1846, the United States had entered into a treaty with a country then known as New Grenada, which is mostly comprised of what is now known as Panama and Colombia. Under the agreement, the United States established a military presence in modern-day Panama, one which engendered mistrust toward U.S. soldiers among many Panamanians. So when a steamship full of Americans landed on Taboga Island, just outside of Panama City (which at the time, did not have a wharf at which such ships could dock), even a small problem could — and did — lead to tragic results.

One April day in 1856, the John L. Stephens arrived on Taboga Island to pick up roughly 1,000 passengers, as recounted by one scholar. The ferries to and from mainland Panama only ran during high tide, but the tide was out, leading to a few hours of delay. The passengers, waiting in Panama City, had been drinking and weren’t well liked by the locals in the first place. According to most accounts, per Wikipedia, one of the passengers, a man named Jack Oliver, spotted a vendor named Jose Manuel Luna selling watermelon at five cents a slice. Oliver took a slice but refused to pay. Luna yelled at him and pulled out a knife; Oliver responded by pulling out a gun, and one of Oliver’s friends threw a nickel at Luna. Luna, running from the gun-wielding Oliver, never received the payment thrown at him, even though another Panamanian came to his defense and tackled Oliver. In that struggle, the gun went off — and it hit someone. Things went quickly downhill from there, and Marines had to be brought in by train to quell the riots. By the end of the mayhem now referred to as the “Watermelon War,” 15 Americans and two Panamanians were dead.

As a result, the United States demanded (and received) a number of military concessions from New Granada, including the right to establish military bases on islands in the Bay of Panama and take control of the Panamanian Railroad. The now-entrenched American presence in the area likely led to decades of U.S. troops and businesses in the area, and ultimately, to the creation of the Panama Canal. The Canal and the last U.S. military bases in the area were not turned over to Panama until December 31, 1999.

Bonus fact: According to the official website of the Panama Canal Authority, roughly 25,000 people died during the construction of the Canal.

From the ArchivesWatermelon Snow. Don’t eat it.

Related: “The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914” by David McCullough. 4.6 stars on 332 reviews, available on Kindle.