Bunau–Varilla, Philippe Jean (1859–1940)

views updated

Bunau–Varilla, Philippe Jean (1859–1940)

Philippe Jean Bunau-Varilla (b. 26 July 1859; d. 20 May 1940), French engineer and promoter of the Panama Canal. Philippe Bunau-Varilla was apparently an illegitimate child from a modest Protestant background whose mother managed to send him to the École Polytechnique on a scholarship. He attended the École des Ponts et Chaussés, where he was spellbound by a lecture of Ferdinand Márie de Lesseps. After graduation in 1884, he headed for Panama, fortunately on the same ship as Charles Dingler, the head engineer of the French Panama Canal project. When Bunau-Varilla arrived in Panama, he was assigned to head the engineering section of the Culebra and Pacific division. After the Panama Canal Company went bankrupt in 1889, he helped organize and manage the New Interoceanic Canal Company from 1894 to 1902.

Bunau-Varilla arranged the sale of the company to the U.S. government in 1902 for $40 million and then lobbied and schemed to have the Panamanians revolt so that the U.S. government could acquire a canal treaty from an independent Panamanian government. He reportedly earned several million dollars from the sale of his canal company stock when the United States acquired the rights. He maintained an intermediary role between a Panamanian revolutionary group formed around Dr. Manuel Amador Guerrero and the U.S. government. Bunau-Varilla met frequently with U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Francis Loomis and occasionally with Professor John Bas-sett Moore, Secretary of State John Hay, and President Theodore Roosevelt. During a meeting with Roosevelt on 29 October 1903, Bunau-Varilla was given the signal that the U.S. government would intervene to prevent Colombian soldiers from landing to combat the revolutionary forces. This signal prompted him to leave the meeting hastily and telegraph Amador that the planned revolt could proceed. While serving as Panama's minister, he quickly negotiated a canal treaty with the U.S. government in November 1903—the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty—which conceded the United States all the terms it wished for in a canal government.

After the de Lesseps canal company failed, Bunau-Varilla returned to France to enter the publishing business. He acquired a share of Le Matin, which he managed for several decades. He was personally involved in exposing as forgeries the documents of the Austrian major C. F. Walsin-Esterhazy, which had suggested that the Jewish officer Alfred Dreyfus was guilty of treason. Le Matin also served as a vehicle to combat opposition to the New Inter-oceanic Canal Company and to promote Bunau-Varilla's views of the New World and transit affairs.

Bunau-Varilla volunteered for military service in World War I. During the war, he lobbied for chlorination of water as a means of reducing disease and illness among the French troops and after the war continued to urge the chlorination of city water supplies. He died during the German invasion of France in World War II.

See alsoHay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty (1903); Panama Canal.


Philippe Bunau-Varilla, Panama: The Creation, Destruction, and Resurrection (1913), and From Panama to Verdun: My Fight for France (1940).

Charles D. Ameringer, "The Panama Canal Lobby of Philippe Bunau-Varilla and William Nelson Cromwell," in American Historical Review 68 (January 1963): 346-363, and "Philippe Bunau-Varilla: New Light on the Panama Canal Treaty," in Hispanic American Historical Review 46, no. 1 (1966): 28-52.

William Spence Robertson, "Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty," in Dictionary of American History, rev. ed. (1976), p. 265.

David McCullough, The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal 1870–1914 (1977).

Gustave Anguizola, Philippe Bunau-Varilla: The Man Behind the Panama Canal (1980).

Additional Bibliography

Bonilla, Heraclio, and Gustavo Montañez. Colombia y Panamá: La metamorfosis de la nación en el siglo XX. Bogotá: Universidad Nacional de Colombia, 2004.

Perigault Sánchez, Bolívar. Cronología complementada del Canal de Panamá, 1492–2000. Panamá: Editorial Universitaria, 1998.

                                       Thomas Schoonover