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HE settlement of the Oregon question and the prospect of the acquisition of California naturally gave a new importance to the old plan of a route across the isthmus of Panama that would materially shorten the line of communication with the new possessions and make the bond which held them to the Union more intimate and vital. It is the purpose of this chapter to explain the revival of interest in the project and to show how it worked itself out in the Clayton-Bulwer treaty of 1850.
As early as the reign of the Emperor Charles V. the desirability of better facilities for the carryingtrade between Spain and her colonies of Peru and the Philippines led to a scheme for a waterway across the isthmus; but it was too large an undertaking for the free capital and energy of any European government at that time. By the end of the sixteenth century, when the Armada had been destroyed and the English sea-dogs had broken
'Schouler, United States, V., 260.
'Keasbey, Nicaragua Canal and Monroe Doctrine, 68.
through the Spanish monopoly in the American trade, the dream of such an enterprise for Spain vanished completely and forever.
For the English themselves, however, the achievement was still possible; and with the increasing influence of Great Britain in isthmian affairs it seemed to grow more likely. During the first half of the seventeenth century English settlers obtained lodgment in what became known as Belize, or British Honduras, and farther southward on the Mosquito Coast, in what is now Nicaragua. By the treaty of
Versailles, in 1783, the English settlers in Belize were confirmed in the enjoyment of certain commercial privileges; but all other English settlers who might be dispersed throughout the "Spanish Continent" were to retire within that district within eighteen months, and the sovereignty of Spain over the isthmus was conceded. The settlers, however, were never concentrated as required by the treaty.
In 1823 the Central American states formed a union and declared themselves independent of Spain. In 1835 the British settlers of Belize, which was within the territorial limits claimed by Guatemala, held a convention, changed the name of the district to British Honduras, and petitioned the government in London to recognize it and its dependencies, including the Mosquito Coast, as regular English colonies. Without acting on the petition for the time, the British government, claiming a 1 Senate Exec. Docs., 47 Cong., 1 Sess., VI., No. 194, p. 26.
protectorate over the Mosquito territory, or "Mosquitia," undertook to establish its independence of Nicaragua; but after a few years' delay British Honduras was formally recognized as a British colony. The Nicaraguans were then driven from Mosquitia, and in 1848 were forced to renounce by treaty the control they had claimed over the port at the mouth of the San Juan River, which the British had renamed Greytown. These encroachments seemed to indicate that Great Britain would have to be reckoned with in any attempt to construct and control a transit-way across the isthmus.
By this time the United States, which had for many years been watching the course of affairs in Central America with a degree of interest, but apparently little disposition to interfere, had begun to take a share. The isthmian transit scheme had a logical place in the expansion policy of Polk; and in 1846 a treaty of amity and commerce with New Granada, afterwards known as the United States of Colombia, was signed, at the instance and urgency of the New Granada government, which secured, in the twenty-fifth article, a guarantee to the government and citizens of the United States of a right of way across the isthmus by any available method of transit on the same terms as those that might be fixed for the people of New Granada themselves. On the other side, the neutrality of the isthmus and the sovereignty of New Granada over it were to be 1 Travis, Clayton-Bulwer Treaty, 45.
guaranteed by the United States,' and Polk was doubtful whether this was in accord with the settled policy to "cultivate friendly relation with all nations, entangling alliances with none"; but the treaty was finally ratified, July 12, 1848.
The Panama route was not the only one regarded as available for communication between the Atlantic and Pacific. Great Britain was most interested in the Nicaragua route; but there were many others, and the most northerly was across the isthmus of Tehuantepec, lying wholly within the republic of Mexico. The first letter of instructions to Commissioner Trist in 1847 was accompanied by the projet of a treaty, of which the eighth article secured to the government of the United States the right of way across the isthmus of Tehuantepec. For New Mexico and California, together with this concession, he was authorized to pay thirty million dollars; and for the same territory without the concession twenty-five million dollars. When the instructions were being considered in the cabinet, Walker expressed himself as valuing the right of way across the isthmus of Tehuantepec more highly than he did New Mexico and California, and as wishing to make it a sine qua non of peace; but he was overruled. Buchanan desired that the five
1 U. S. Treaties and Conventions, 204.
Polk, MS. Diary, January 30, 1847.
'Keasbey, Nicaragua Canal and Monroe Doctrine, map, frontispiece.
Senate Exec. Docs., 30 Cong., 1 Sess., VII., No. 52, p. 87.
million dollars to be paid for the concession should be retained until Mexico had constructed a railway or canal across the isthmus; but the majority was against him also.1
When Trist met the Mexican commissioners and presented his terms they offered a counter projet which did not include the transit privilege. They explained that the Mexican government had made, several years before, a grant "with reference to this object" which had been transferred with the consent of the government to English subjects, of whose rights Mexico could not dispose. Here the effort to deal with the subject appears to have dropped. Whether it played any part in the further negotiations, there is nothing to show; but in any case it did not enter into the treaty. On July 15, 1847, Anthony Butler, the former United States minister in Mexico, called on the president and apparently made an effort to sell him some information concerning the Tehuantepec route; but Polk took little interest in the matter, and seems to have been very glad to get rid of Butler.3
The failure of the Tehuantepec scheme centred attention on the more southerly routes. In order to utilize the concession obtained from New Granada in the treaty of 1848, a company of United States capitalists was organized to build a railway
1 Polk, MS. Diary, April 13, 1847.
2 Senate Exec. Docs., 30 Cong., 1 Sess., VII., No. 52, p. 337. Polk, MS. Diary, July 15, 1847.