A.C. Gunter: Baron Montez of Panama and Paris

A.C. Gunter’s Baron Montez: 4. What The Moon Saw In Panama

This is the last chapter of Book One, dealing with the climax of events on the evening 15th April, 1856, for which the narrator has been preparing the reader. There is a thin line between author and narrator, and in some novels the narrator is distinct, is known, has a name: ‘Call me Ishmael’, so says the narrator in Moby Dick. In such cases the author’s sympathies, concerns, failings, desires and knowledge are limited to the age and experience of the character. Then again, the author may design a character to express their own attitudes and opinions, if ever so discreetly, or the reverse, as with the multi-blood Fernando, a collection of all the author’s antipathies, to act as a prime example of the dissolution of civilization without American standards and values, law and order.

Fernando’s preparations appear haphazard, as he is actually selecting a boat when he happens upon Domingo, his major confederate, who has a crucial part to play in immediate and future events. He is relying on his influence in various quarters, yet this would be insufficient motivation for the action of others, were it not for his knowledge of American behaviour and the underlying resentment for the American presence in Panama. Although the narrator desires the reader to view Fernando Montez as a major instigator, he is only a bit-player in historical events.

‘American exceptionalism’

The United States, of course, has performed exceptionally in fields such as space exploration, scientific research, pharmaceuticals, mass production, education, sport, and many others, but that is only part of the whole.

Exceptionalism requires something far more: a belief that the U.S. follows a path of history different from the laws or norms that govern other countries. That’s the essence of American exceptionalism: The U.S. is not just a bigger and more powerful country—but an exception.

Ian Tyrrell, The Week

The term was first used in English many years after the events of this book, when in 1920 an American Communist, Jay Lovestone, proclaimed that conditions were still more unfavourable for Communism in America in comparison with other countries. Needless to say, he was ejected from the party. It was Abraham Lincoln who first espoused the national principle at the close of his 1864 Gettysburg Address:

…we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedomand that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

November 9, 1863

It is all very well for one president to say such words, but how does this reflect in the general population? Many foreign visitors commented on American exceptionalism, including Karl Marx, Francis Lieber, Hermann Eduard von Holst, James Bryce, H. G. Wells, G. K. Chesterton, and Hilaire Belloc; and they did so in complimentary terms. The theme became common, especially in textbooks. From the 1840s to the late 19th century, the McGuffey Readers, primary school texts, sold 120 million copies and were studied by most American students. The Readers “hailed American exceptionalism, manifest destiny, and America as God’s country. McGuffey saw America as having a future mission to bring liberty and democracy to the world” (Skrabec, p. 223)

Amongst the population of the time there is a growing sense of what it means to be an American, and with increasing influence and power comes a form of self-righteous arrogance when abroad and engaging with different native cultures and lifestyles. This cultural anomaly was put centre stage with the 1963 film, The Ugly American, starring Marlon Brando. Though set in a fictional country, Sarkhan, and shot in Thailand, it was based on a factual study of American diplomatic behavior in South East Asia by Eugene Burdick and William Lederer, for their novel of the same title. They observe how Americans typically failed to engage the concerns of the native populations or learn their languages, which gave Communist regimes who did, a head start in influence and control (‘A Factual Epilogue’.)  President J. F. Kennedy was so impressed with the book he sent a copy to every one of his senate colleagues and took out a full page add in the New York Times to advise the public (Curtis, ‘How to Kill a Rational Peasant”). As a Burmese journalist in the book puts it:

For some reason, the [American] people I meet in my country are not the same as the ones I knew in the United States. A mysterious change seems to come over Americans when they go to a foreign land. They isolate themselves socially. They live pretentiously. They are loud and ostentatious.

Lederer and Burdick, The Ugly American, 122-3

The narrator of Baron Montez is an American exceptionalist, and though the moon may be watching, it is he who is everywhere directing the action, coloring the readers reception of participants and escalation of events. In this he seeks to alter the reader’s impression of an historical event: The Watermelon Riot of 1856, (which actually began in the morning, not the evening).

American press depiction of the “Watermelon Riot” in Panama City, April 1856. From ”Frank Leslie’s Illustrated”, May 1856.

As you read, note the words the narrator uses to describe the native populations and wonder what makes someone unknown ‘vile’, and although the melon vendor is described as a ‘black savage’ his name was José Manuel Luna, and he runs off after the pistol is drawn. Historically, the police only joined the riot once an officer was shot in the arm. And while our narrator exhorts the absence of U.S. troops to defend the American population in Panama, it was actually US troops firing on the native population that caused the riot in which twenty-six Americans and two Panamanians were killed (Daley). US Marines then arrived to attempt to quell the violence. Following the riot, Panama was forced to pay substantial restitution to the US, Britain and France, and the incident was used as leverage to exert more control by the US over Panama.

The next chapter commences twenty-five years after the events in these pages, with the advent of a new American interest: The Panama Canal.

Warning: The following text contains words considered racially insensitive and offensive.



Montez, after gliding through the crowd about the railroad station, joins Domingo, who has been waiting for him, and the two stroll together along the dusty lane leading to the Cuinago, a quarter of the city composed of vermin, filth and native huts, in which the lower orders of this town of Panama make their habitat.

“You half understand my design, my worthy old desperado,” murmurs Montez.

Si, Capitano mio,” returns the swarthier and more stalwart bandit.

“Then I will explain the rest to you. Listen!” and Fernando hastily outlines a plan, which makes the other grind his teeth together in a wild kind of unholy chuckle. “Diablo! This will be a better night than any one of the wild days of my youth!” and Domingo had once been a ship’s boy with Lafitte, the last pirate of the Gulf of Mexico.

“Yes—it will be—fine!” laughs the other. “There are women and children among this crowd of passengers. These people are not like the adventurers of ’49. They are going to be California farmers, not miners. Few of them carry a revolver; fewer still know how to use it.”

“But your American friend bears a very large one.”

“Yes, and is a dead shot; but that is arranged,” says Montez.

“Ah, trust el muchacho diablo!” laughs Domingo, looking in admiration at his little mentor. Then he says suddenly: “But the plan you have mentioned, will take much time. The natives must be aroused.”

“It is almost arranged now. You have but very little to do. The keg of powder I have ordered is already in those huts. You see our savage boatmen and muleteers are prepared to use it,” and Montez points to the crowd of excited Indians, sambos, mulattos, negros, Spanish gypsies, and every other vile race of the Isthmus, who are stimulating themselves in the streets of the native quarter with aguardiente for some work they have on hand, and are even now nearly all armed with old muskets, machetes, or pistols.

Looking upon this, Domingo says: “That little steamer,” pointing to the Toboga, whose smokestack is still visible at the end of the wharf, “has taken away their livelihood from the honest barqueros here, by transferring the passengers that were their customers. Their hatred will be an assistance to us. Besides, the railroad has ruined our mulateros—they will not be backward.”

“Not with American plunder in sight,” laughs Montez. “But they will need a leader—Domingo, you are the man for that kind of thing: you like blood!”

“Ah, but, demonios! we have forgotten the police!”

“We have not forgotten anything!” replies the brighter scoundrel. “The police are arranged for; the governor, I think, is arranged for also. A Dios till six o’clock! Do your work here; I will do mine in the town! Remember at six—the railroad station. There Montez will make his start in life.”

Tertulia de Pulquería (1851), by Agustín Arrieta. Scene inside a Mexican pulqueria (pulque bar)

Leaving Domingo surrounded by a crowd of his old cronies and chums, whom he will excite with strong pulque and bad aguardiente, Montez, turning away from the native quarter, strolls through the Gargona gate, along the Calle de la Merced, into the middle of the old town of Panama.

Here he sees many of the passengers of the Illinois, who are buying jewelry of Choco gold and Panama pearls, sombreros de Guayaquil, and bright-hued stuffs, to take with them to California.

The sun is going down rapidly, flaming lanterns are beginning to appear in the shops; a few Spanish ladies, in short white petticoats and light chemises, scarcely concealed by graceful mantillas and nelosos floating from their dark hair, and draping their bare and gleaming necks and arms, are tripping with slippered feet hurriedly homeward.

The lights are twinkling in the Cafe Victor and the Hotel Francais. The tingling of bells announces mules, ridden by dashing caballeros adorned with all the splendor of Spanish horse trappings. Still the streets seem curiously deserted; the lower classes have left them; few mulateros, boatmen, or ladrones are here; they are nearly all in the Cuinago, and those that are not yet there are hurrying towards the native quarter, as if going to a rendezvous.

Looking on this, Montez thinks: “This will be a glorious evening! But to make sure, I must see His Excellency.”

He passes rapidly to the street San Juan de Dios, and stops before a low stone building, in front of which a negro sentry is parading, with dirty gun and bare feet. He says to him: “Colonel Garrido is here?”

“Yes, Señor, inside.”

“I must see him.”

And word being sent in, Garrido, Commander of Police, makes his appearance. He is half negro, quarter Spanish, quarter cur—all devil. Adorned with great tawdry epaulettes, and buttons and sashes, and a big sword, he wears long dark oily mustachios, which he strokes in an affected and military way.

“Ah, Señor Montez, mio!” he laughs, looking at the little man who has already placed his hand in his pocket and is chinking doubloons together.

 “You have come at last. I have been waiting for you!”

“Yes, I represent the law,” says Montez. “There is going to be an outbreak. The Americanos, the passengers at the railway depot, will attack tonight our poor fruit pedlers.”

“You told me of that yesterday.”

“Yes! I am a prophet! Are the police prepared?”

“The police will do their duty. They are now ready,” and Garrido chuckles and points into the patio where he has already mustered and armed the hundred vagabonds he calls the police of Panama.

“Then the Americanos will bully us no longer,” rejoins Montez. “I thought that would be your decision. The Americanos have women and children with them, also considerable sums of money with which they are going to buy ranchos in California.”

“But the men—those awful Yankee fighters,” stammers the police colonel, growing nervous; “I remember them in ’49 and ’50. How they handled their revolvers!”

“Now—they do not carry many, besides—” Here Fernando’s hand chinks a roll of doubloons into the out-stretched palm of the officer of the law. “Besides—they are unprepared to fight—these rioters.”

“Aah, that settles los Americanos” laughs Garrido. “But the governor—” suggests the other.

“Ah, the governor,” mutters the colonel of police. “He is wavering.”

“Wavering? Diablo! Caramba!” moans Montez. Then the drop of Morgan’s buccaneer’s blood coming to the front in this little man, he becomes tremendous. He cries out: “I’ll see him at once! He shall waver no longer!”

So he directs his way to His Excellency’s house, and begs that he may see the Governor of the town of Panama, but word is brought him that His Excellency is engaged.

At this Mr. Fra Diavolo grinds his teeth, writes four words on a slip of paper, and says: “Give that to His Excellency, curse him, and see if he dares to be engaged.”

A moment after, the answer comes that he can see the potentate of Panama.

Young Fernando is received by this functionary, with a suggestive snarl. He says to this little every-nation gentleman: “What mean your threats, Señor Montez?”

“Nothing, only if the President at Bogota knows what I know, the Governor of Panama will occupy six feet of our quiet little cemetery within the month, though he will not die of yellow fever. Shall I tell him?”

“Certainly not!”

“Not if you do as you promised. There is no danger! The American Consul is a nothing! If it were Englishmen we were killing—Santos! that would be different.”

“Very well, then! Garrido is arranged for?”

“Perfectly! Besides, these people are mostly unarmed; they have women and children with them. They will be easy. Likewise, the plunder will be great!”

“And my share?”

“Will be great also, as I promised.”

“Ah! then I will know nothing about it! I shall go to sleep! I will not be awakened. Buenas noches, Señor Montez! Tell my people that I must be disturbed on no account—not for an earthquake—not even if a riot—nothing till tomorrow morning!”

“Very well, I will give your orders!” laughs Fernando. He is about to depart, when suddenly the governor queries: “How will the riot commence?”

“The Americanos shall do that!”

“The Americanos—how?”

“There are nine hundred and forty passengers; some one of them is sure to be drunk. Drunken men are quarrelsome!”

With these words Montez departs, whistling to himself a jaunty air from one of Verdi’s first operas—the ones with melody divine in them—for this little gentleman has a drop or two of Italian blood, that make him a devotee to the Muses.

So passing along, he joins the stream of passengers bound for the railway depot.

Arriving there, the scene is much the same as when he left it, only there is a greater throng of passengers checking their baggage and seeing about their tickets. More ladies and children are going on board the Toboga, and the laughter coming from the saloons of McFarlane’s hotel and the Ocean House (a rival hostelry) is louder. One or two drunken Americans are strolling about in front of the depot, and bantering in an alcoholic way some negro fruit hucksters, who are plying their trade with a defiant bloodthirsty vim, for they are waving the knives by which they cut up watermelons and pineapples, in a threatening and ferocious manner.

Just back of these stands Domingo and fifty or sixty of his cronies, and perhaps a hundred more are scattered from the depot, along the lane leading to the Cuinago.

Several American ladies, and their husbands and children, together with one or two Spanish señoras of the better class, from the town, are looking at the scene, which is made picturesque by torches, as darkness is coming down.

It is a peculiar contrast of civilization and barbarism.

On one side, the long train of yellow railway passenger cars; the giant locomotive, that is powerless now because it has lost its steam; the railroad track; the puffing steamer at the end of the pier; ladies and gentlemen of Anglo-Saxon race, in the costumes of Paris and New York, for some of the ladies wear little crinolines, that are just now commencing to make their appearance on the Boulevards and Broadway.

On the other side, the flaming torches of the negros; their black, swarthy faces; the waving palms and bamboos and cocoanuts of the tropics; the wild gesticulations and jargons of the savage races who are half clothed, and seem to excite themselves not only with pulque and aguardiente, but with some more subtle yet potent stimulant, for their eyes blaze under the torch glow with some unholy fire.

Between these aggregations—one white and civilized, one black and barbarous—stands one man—drunk and disorderly—and he, alas! of the Anglo-Saxon race. He is bargaining with a negro huckster for a slice of watermelon. He takes the watermelon, the watermelon disappears; the negro holds out his hand, demanding a real.

“Go to the—the—d—devil!” hiccups the drunken American.

“A real, or your life’s blood, Gringo!” screams the negro savage, waving his machete in threatening gestures about the American’s head.

“Here’s your ten-cent piece, Blackey! Don’t make a muss,” cries another Anglo-Saxon, stepping alongside his compatriot, and tossing the negro the demanded coin.

“Curse it! He—he was trying to b—b—bully me!” gulps the drunken American, trying to draw a revolver.

A second later, there is a sound of a pistol shot, and riot and plunder, arson and murder, are let loose upon the defenceless Americans, who, in a foreign land, burdened with their women and children, are almost helpless, in the presence of a debased and armed mob.

The bell of the old church of Santa Anna, in the native quarter, near the Gargona trail, is pealing an alarm. Hundreds of blacks are running up the road from the Cuinago, with wild cries and waving of muskets, machetes, and pistols.

On this Montez looks and smiles, and as he does so, a hand is laid upon his shoulder, and a voice cries in his ear: “Stand the brutes off till the women and children get on board the steamer!” Then George Ripley, drawing his revolver from his belt, runs down the steps of the hotel, and steps in front of the coming negros.

A moment after, McLean of the Pacific Mail Company, and Nelson of the railroad, stand beside him.

“Get the women on board the boat, quick! If they come another step, I shoot!” cries the Californian. “And I shoot to kill!”

A moment more and he would try his pistol, and find it useless, and thus perchance save his own life, did not Montez hurriedly whisper to him: “Hold! the police are coming! Hear their bugle!”

At this moment its clear notes sound over the road running from the town.

“Ah! then all is well!” mutters George, and puts up his revolver.

Then a man named Willis, who has hastily rolled a six pounder out of the railroad depot, and trained it loaded to the muzzle down the lane running towards the Cuinago, which is crowded with coming blacks, turns it away, crying: “Law and order! we’re all right now,” and runs it back down the wharf, as headed, by Garrido, the native police come marching with unsoldierly bare feet, and carelessly carried muskets, to the front of the hotel.

As they see the police, a cry of joy comes from the American ladies and children, who have not as yet escaped to the steamboat.

The bugle sounds again. A crashing volley from the police.

“My God!” cries George. “They have made a mistake! They are shooting at us! They have killed the child beside me! There’s its mother screaming over it.”

Another crashing volley!

Mistake no more! It is no riot. It is a massacre!

Attacking negros rush upon the railway station, butchering those they come upon, and plundering all. Trunks are broken open and looted; and a little baby, torn from its mother, is tossed about by the savage men and more savage women of the mob, till it becomes a clot of gore.

Again the police fire!

Le Désespéré (1843), Gustave Courbet

More Anglo-Saxon blood!

A delicate American lady staggers to Ripley and gasps, “Tell my husband I—I was going to join—Harry Nesmith of Colusa—how I—died,” then falls at his feet, a Minié bullet through her breast.

This sight brings recollection to the Californian.

With a muttered “My God! my wife!” George Ripley rushes back into the hotel to find and save, if possible, his wife and treasure. If not both, the woman he adores.

Montez, Domingo and three blacks glide after him. The register of the hotel lies open in the deserted office. Tearing it to pieces, Fernando says: “There is now no record of the American on the Isthmus! His fate will be unknown. To business!”

A second later, amid crashing volleys. George Ripley, one arm around the slight waist of his wife, who is sobbing on his shoulder, one foot upon the trunk that contains the fortune he has risked his life to gain amid the Sierras of California, stands confronting the negros; foremost of whom, his eyes all blood-red now, is Domingo, a vermilion glow upon his black cheeks and white eye balls, as if they were painted.

The ex-pirate cries: “Death to the Americano! Save the lady! Her beauty gives her life!”

To this Ripley’s revolver makes reply; the lock clicks, but no cartridge explodes. With a muttered curse he turns the cylinder.

They are springing towards him. Again the pistol, that has never failed him till now, when all depends upon it, gives no report to his clicking trigger.

“My heaven! Someone has tampered with my weapon!” he gasps; and taking his wife’s hand, turns to fly, but at the door stands the man he thinks his friend, and he cries: “Thank God! In time. Montez!”

And Alice joins his shout: “Dear Señor Montez, God bless you for coming!”

But tired of diplomacy, the savage drop coming upper most in him, this little every-nation fiend cannot for the life of him keep down a smile of triumph and a mocking laugh, as Domingo cries: “Fear not his pistol! It will not shoot.”

Then suddenly the American knows!

He gasps: “My ruined weapon!—that bath at Toboga—it was you! you! YOU! But, Judas, you go first!

Reversing the revolver, with its butt end the Anglo-Saxon strikes down two negros who spring upon him, and seizing Montez by the throat, is strangling him over the trunk of his desires.

But at this moment there is a flash; and, with a shriek, such as comes only when hope has gone, Alice Ripley sinks fainting on the dead body of her husband. For as he has forced the every-nation traitor down, the back of the Californian’s head has come within two inches of the pistol of Domingo, the ex-pirate; and to the flash of its explosion, George Ripley dies.

Looking on the scene, Fernando, rising, gasps—for the breath has nearly left his body—to Domingo: “Quick! the mules—before the massacre is over! This treasure is mine—all mine! This beauty is mine—all mine! Montez has made his first great start in life!”

As he speaks, more volleys from the murderous police outside tell of more bloodshed in the railway station, and more cruel massacre of unarmed men and helpless women and shrieking children, that, were they English, would have been atoned for by the blood of the Governor of Panama and his satellites and police; but being American, is left to the shallying procrastination of a languid consul, and forgotten soon in the rush of the great Republic towards what it loves best—gold.

Will the United States of America never learn to protect its absent citizens, and make its banner, like the Union Jack of England, a bulwark of defence to its wanderers on the earth and on the sea?

Some two hours afterwards, the moon rising high above the Cordilleras of the Isthmus, lights up the Gargona trail leading into the mountains, where, on the back of a mule, is a defenceless woman insensible, in the arms of Montez, who rides hurriedly along, bearing her farther from any aid that civilized man can give, into the recesses of the upper valley of the Chagres. Domingo, ex-pirate, striding sturdily along in front of his master, mutters: “This has been a pleasant evening!”

The glancing fireflies light up the lianas, parasites and creeping plants that hang from the great trees of the dense torrid forest. The silence is unbroken save by the tramp of the mule’s hoofs as they scatter the decaying leaves, or the rustle of a serpent seeking his nightly prey—when, as he holds the fair victim to his heart, Montez starts.

Her lips are moving—sentiency is coming to her. She is shuddering, and murmuring: “My husband—killed at my side!”

And under that same tropic moon, far out in the waters of the Bay of Panama, “Toboga Bill” and two other tiger-sharks, are munching over and playing with a something that was once George Ripley.

And, in a school dormitory, in faraway America, a child in the white dress of night is kneeling by her little bed, and praying, with happy eyes and expectant lips: “God bless papa and mamma, who are coming home to me again!”

Notes, References, Further Reading

  • Jay Lovestone: ‘In 1929, Communist leader Jay Lovestone informed Stalin in Moscow that the American proletariat wasn’t interested in revolution. Stalin responded by demanding that he end this “heresy of American exceptionalism.” And just like that, this expression was born’ (McCoy).
  • Si, Capitano mio: `Yes, my captain’
  • Pulque: an alcoholic beverage made from the fermented sap of the maguey (agave) plant.
  • Aguardiente: mash-up of the words agua, meaning water, and ardiente, meaning burning, aguardiente is direct translation of the English term, firewater (or vice-versa). Based on sugar-water. a generic term for alcoholic beverages that contain between 29% and 60% ABV (alcohol by volume)
  • barqueros: boatmen
  • mulateros: mule drivers
  • Demonios!: Damn it!
  • Calle de la Merced: Spanish – Street of the Mercy (i.e. leading to the Iglesia (church) of the Mercy.
  • doubloons: a former gold coin of Spain and Spanish America
  • choco gold: gold from the mines of Choco, whose river sands are also auriferous (gold-bearing)
  • sombreros de Guayaquil: A port city in Equador known for somberos and panama hat making
  • mantillas: scarves, shawls
  • caballeros: gentlemen
  • ladrones: thieves
  • los Americanos: the Americans
  • Buenas noches: good night
  • Santos!: Saint, Holy
  • crinolines: ladies stiff petticoats made of horsehair and linen.
  • real: coin – originating Brazil.
  • Minié bullet: “The Minié ball, or Minni ball, is a type of muzzle-loading spin-stabilized bullet for rifled muskets named after its developer, Claude-Étienne Minié, inventor of the French Minié rifle.” simple.wikipedia.org.
  • the lianas: climbing vine found in tropical rainforests.

Ceaser, J. ‘The Origins and Character of American Exceptionalism,’ American Political Thought: A Journal of Ideas, Institutions, and Culture, vol. 1 (Spring 2012). Available in PDF at time.com

Curtis, A, ‘How to Kill a Rational Peasant‘, ‘The Medium and the Message,’ BBC blogs.

Daley, M.C. ‘The Watermelon Riot: Cultural Encounters in Panama City, April 15, 1856‘. Hispanic American Historical Review (1990) 70 (1): 85–108.

“History of Panama”. World Heritage Encyclopedia, available here at Project Gutenberg.

Ignatieff, M., ed. American Exceptionalism and Human Rights. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2005

Lederer, William J. and Eugene Burdick. The Ugly American. NY: Fawcett Crest, 1983. Available on loan from Internet Archive.

McCoy, T. ‘How Joseph Stalin Invented “American Exceptionalism'”. The Atlantic, Mar 15, 2012.

Skrabec, Q.R. William McGuffey: Mentor to American Industry. NY: Algora Publishing, 2009.

Tyrrell, I. ‘What Exactly is “American Exceptionalism”?‘ theweek.com.

Watermelon Riot“. Wikipedia.

Westerhoff, J. H. McGuffey and his readers : piety, morality, and education in nineteenth-century America. Nashville: Abingdon, 1978. Available on loan from Internet Archive.

This edition © 2021 Furin Chime, Brian Armour

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