Philippe Jean Bunau-Varilla

Philippe Jean Bunau-Varilla (1859-1940) was a French engineer and soldier. He influenced the United States decision to build a waterway through Panama and encouraged Panama's successful revolution against Colombia.

Philippe Bunau-Varilla, born in Paris on July 26, 1859, graduated from the École Polytechnique in 1880 and 3 years later left the École des Ponts et Chaussées. After serving a year as an engineer in the French department of public works, he went to Panama to head one of the three divisions of Ferdinand de Lesseps' Panama Canal Company. By the age of 26, Bunau-Varilla had temporarily assumed general management of the company.

When, amid charges of fraud, Lesseps' company went bankrupt in 1888, Bunau-Varilla, working to revitalize French interest, zealously defended the canal idea. He also, unsuccessfully, attempted to gain Russian support. Meanwhile there developed in France the New Panama Company, in which Bunau-Varilla purchased stock. Eventually abandoning hopes of finishing the canal, the new company tried to sell it to the United States. The American government was initially unresponsive, but through determined efforts first of Nelson W. Cromwell, the company's New York lawyer, and later of Bunau-Varilla, the United States eventually selected the Panamanian route.

In various trips to the United States, Bunau-Varilla met prominent people, lectured, and published a booklet entitled Panama or Nicaragua. To illustrate his charge that volcanoes would threaten the Nicaraguan route, he purchased Nicaraguan postage stamps picturing Momotombo belching ashes and smoke and distributed them to every U.S. Senator. Influenced by such efforts, the U.S. Congress in 1902 passed the Spooner Act, which provided for canal construction in Panama if reasonable arrangements could be made with Colombia, of which Panama was a part at that time.

When the treaty with Colombia failed ratification in that country's Senate, Bunau-Varilla supported a Panamanian revolution. In New York he plotted with a representative of the revolutionary junta and provided a proclamation of independence, draft of a constitution, plan of military operations, flag, and promise of money. The United States quickly recognized the independent Panama and received its first minister, Philippe Bunau-Varilla, who negotiated the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty (1903), giving the United States the right to build a canal in Panama.

An officer in the French army during World War I, Bunau-Varilla lost a leg at Verdun. In his later years he continued his interest in the Panama Canal and advocated changing it from a lock to a sea-level waterway. He died in Paris on May 18, 1940.


Further Reading on Philippe Jean Bunau-Varilla

Bunau-Varilla's Panama: The Creation, Destruction, and Resurrection (trans. 1914) and From Panama to Verdun: My Fight for France (trans. 1940) reveal a man of strong opinions, ardently anti-German, confident of his beliefs, and certain of his enemies. Background studies on the Panama Canal that discuss Bunau-Varilla are Dwight Carroll Miner, The Fight for the Panama Route (1940), and Gerstle Mack, The Land Divided (1944).

Additional Biography Sources

Anguizola, G. A., Philippe Bunau-Varilla, the man behind the Panama Canal, Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1980.