Philippe Jean Bunau-Varilla

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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

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 Sources

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

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Philippe Jean Bunau-Varilla (fēlēp´ zhäN bünō´-värēyä´), 1859–1940, French engineer, prominent in the Panama Canal controversy. An engineer after 1884 in the original French company for building the canal, he was chief engineer before the company went bankrupt in 1889 and was the organizer (1894) of the new company that took over the rights of the old one. Unable to develop his plans in France, he undertook to sell the company to the United States, converting (1901) Mark Hanna and President McKinley, who had been interested in the Nicaragua route, to the Panama project. After new opposition developed, he persuaded the French directors to reduce the price of the company, and President Theodore Roosevelt was won over to the Panama plan. When difficulties arose with the Colombian government, Bunau-Varilla conspired with insurrectionists in Panama and touched off (1903) a successful revolution. As minister from the new Panamanian republic to the United States, he negotiated the Hay–Bunau-Varilla Treaty, which gave the United States control of the Panama Canal. In World War I a water chlorination process that he had developed was used at the battle of Verdun.

See his Panama (tr. 1913) and From Panama to Verdun (tr. 1940).