World Stamps

Stamps that may (or may not) have led to the Panama Canal

May 2, 2021, 11 PM

Nicaragua’s green 3-centavo Mount Momotombo stamp of 1900, part of a set of 13. The active stratovolcano is depicted as a main element of the central design.

One hundred years ago this Aug. 15, the first ship passed through the new Panama Canal.

Both within the philatelic hobby and outside it, a set of Nicaraguan stamps from 1900 often has been credited with influencing the United States Congress to choose Panama over Nicaragua for the route of the new canal. The power that the stamps wielded in shaping congressional opinion is debatable, but it is clear that Nicaragua’s postal display of one of its natural wonders backfired.

Mount Momotombo is a towering (4,255 feet) stratovolcano near the city of Leon in northwestern Nicaragua.

A stratovolcano is a conical volcano built up by layers of hardened lava, ash and other detritus from multiple eruptions, and Momotombo has had plenty.

Its first recorded eruption was in 1524, with at least 18 others since then.

Despite such antisocial behavior, Momotombo has always been one of the famed and beloved symbols of Nicaragua. Thus, it made a reasonable subject for a set of eight stamps, of values from 1 centavo to 5 pesos, each of a different color (Scott 121-133).

The set was issued Jan. 1, 1900. The green 3c stamp (Scott 123) is pictured here.

The designs were engraved, and the stamps were intaglio (recess) printed by the American Bank Note Co. of New York City. The company’s name appears at the foot of each stamp, but the name “Momotombo” does not appear.

However, to make it perfectly clear that this mountain is a volcano, the stamp artist showed smoke and possibly fire and lava spewing from the cone. This depiction was not entirely by artistic license, as Momotombo had erupted at least a dozen times in the 19th century, most recently in 1886-87.

Nicaragua loved this stamp image. The same design was used to create surcharged issues released March 5, 1901 (Scott 134-136), and Oct. 20, 1901 (144-151). Three lithographed values without the American Bank Note Co. imprint were issued in 1902 (159-161), with two more surcharged varieties in October 1902 (162-163). Still more surcharged versions were issued in 1904-05 (Scott 175-178).

The design also was used on surcharged Official stamps (Scott O150-O154) in 1903.

The volcanic design again was used in 1904-05 for provincial stamps (Scott 1L1-1L13, 1L17, and 1L20) of Zelaya (Bluefields), on Nicaragua’s eastern coast.

It is difficult to briefly describe the long and complex history of efforts to create a water passage across the Isthmus of Panama in Central America, to link the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The following is an extremely abbreviated version.

By the late 19th century, technology made it feasible, albeit expensive and complicated, to build a canal through the depths and heights of the terrain, and the French (in the wake of their success with the 1869 Suez Canal), set up a project in 1881. The Compagnie Nouvelle du Canal de Panama obtained a concession for the project from Colombia (what is now Panama was then in Colombia) but ended up bankrupt amid huge scandal in 1889.

Theodore Roosevelt became president in 1901 and wanted a U.S.-controlled canal across Central America. An 1898 U.S. commission had favored a Nicaraguan route, but Roosevelt favored taking over the concession in Colombia, still owned by the French syndicate, headed by Philippe-Jean Bunau-Varilla.

On May 2, 1900, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly (225-35) approved a bill sponsored by William Peters Hepburn of Iowa, authorizing construction on a Nicaraguan route, but it stalled in the Senate. Sen. John Coit Spooner of Wisconsin introduced a Senate bill for construction of a canal, and debate opened in June 1902.

Sen. Mark Hanna of Ohio spoke at length against a Nicaraguan route, using a display of huge maps of Central America with black dots for extinct volcanoes and red ones for active ones. Nicaragua had a band of red and black dots while Panama had none. (One senator reportedly said afterward that he had been converted to the idea of a “Hannama canal.”)

Between the timing of the House (1900) and Senate (1902) bills, on May 8, 1902, the stratovolcano Mount Pelee on Martinique in the Caribbean erupted, wiping out St. Pierre in a matter of minutes and killing more than 30,000 people.

It is safe to say that not a single legislator in Washington, D.C., was unaware of this disastrous act of nature, and the very word “volcano” in the spring of 1902 would have had awful connotations.

Meanwhile, on March 24, Momotombo (which actually was more than 100 miles away from the proposed canal route) erupted, though word of it took a while to reach Washington. When it did, the president of Nicaragua unwisely declared by cablegram that word of the volcanic activity was false, and a French trick to deceive the Americans.

In the face of the Nicaraguan denial, Bunau-Varilla (whose only chance of future solvency was to push through a Panama route) paused in scurrying from legislator to legislator and got his great notion (possibly with the help of William Nelson Cromwell, a New York City attorney who had been hired to help with the lobbying) of letting Nicaragua condemn itself with its own postage stamps.

According to his memoirs, Bunau-Varilla quickly made the rounds of stamp dealers in Washington or New York City, or both, and bought every Momotombo stamp of the 1900 set that he could find. He affixed each one to a piece of paper and added a typewritten caption, “An official witness of the volcanic activity on the Isthmus of Nicaragua.”

Text followed saying that the wharf and locomotive seen in the foreground of the stamp “were thrown into the lake with a large quantity of sacks of coffee on the 24th of March, 1902, at 1:55 p.m.”

These stamped circulars were sent to each member of the Senate June 16, and a similar version went to all members of the House June 24.

The Senate passed the Spooner bill June 19, 1902, by a narrow majority. The House also approved, and Roosevelt signed the bill June 29, authorizing the purchase of the assets of the French syndicate for $40 million (deeply discounted from the original asking price of $110 million).

Did the stamps win the day for the Panama lobby? A 1961 book titled John Coit Spooner: Defender of Presidents by Hunter College history professor Dorothy Ganfield Fowler said, “Adroit ‘postage stamp’ lobbying by the promoters of the Panama route might have had some effect, but the passage of the Spooner Amendment was more probably due to massive pressure from the administration.”

One of Bunau-Varilla’s stamp pages is among the Spooner papers in the Library of Congress, and Nicaraguan philatelist Neal West located other examples in Bunau-Varilla’s papers in the same repository.

West illustrated the circular and carefully described his research in three useful articles (April 1991; April 1, 1993; and Oct. 1, 1993) in Nicarao, the journal of the Nicaragua Study Group. One of the circulars also was illustrated in the July 1, 1992, Nicarao.

In interviews and writing years after the fact, Bunau-Varilla gave almost full credit to the Momotombo stamp circulars for winning the day, perhaps because he was so proud of his ingenuity. More dispassionate observers credit Mark Hanna’s show-and-tell presentation with maps of Nicaraguan volcanoes, while the memory of Mount Pelee was still fresh; the comparative cheapness of the Panama route; and, above all, the feelings of President Roosevelt on the subject.

As Roosevelt famously said in 1911, “The Panama Canal wouldn’t have been started if I hadn’t taken hold of it … I took the Isthmus, started the canal, and then left Congress not to debate the canal, but to debate me.”

On Jan. 16, 1905, Momotombo erupted again, following a series of earthquakes in the vicinity. In our own time, “seismic swarms” of hundreds of daily small earthquakes have been occurring near the volcano since fall 2013.

Meanwhile, Nicaragua plans to begin construction of the Nicaragua Interoceanic Grand Canal this December, for completion in six years. It will connect the Caribbean Sea with the Pacific Ocean. No volcanoes are mentioned in the enthusiastic publicity about the venture.

The 1900 Momotombo stamps may have played a relatively minor role in the Panama Canal, but they still figure in a classic tale in our hobby. The stamps would make an especially good conversational point this year, with the canal centennial, so be sure to have some examples in your collection.

The 2014 Scott Classic Specialized Catalogue of Stamps and Covers, 1840-1940, prices a mint example of the 1c plum stamp (Scott 121) at half a dollar, and the full 1900 set of 13 at $82.75. An attractive set of used stamps should cost considerably less.