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Retelling the Story of Pedro Prestán

In 1885, in the midst of a war between Liberals and Conservatives in the United States of Colombia, a man was hanged for setting fire to the city of Colón on Panama’s Atlantic coast. One hundred and thirty years later, Pedro Prestán’s descendants reveal facets of his personality withheld in the official history of this event that was led by the liberal radical who dared to defy the U.S. government.

By Ana Teresa Benjamín
Photos: Carlos Gómez, cortesía Sonia Ehlers

It is the last day of March and warm trade winds blow through Colón. The city has been at war since the 17th of March. A group of Liberal revolutionaries are fighting against the Conservative forces. The year is 1885.

A Compañía del Ferrocarril (Railroad Company) employee, anxious to get rid of some old documents, steps onto the patio and lights a bonfire. The flames jump higher. The wind whips through the fire and sends bits of burning paper spiraling into the air and onto the roofs of neighboring wooden houses. Colón starts to burn. The fire sweeps through alleys and from one block to the next as people flee in terror. Nothing but ashes and a mere seven houses are left standing in the city. Everyone blames Pedro Prestán.

“You will have heard of the events in Colón which our enemies have explained and commented upon in their own manner,” writes Prestán to General Rafael Aizpuru Aizpuru on April 8, 1885. “The official version I am sending to you is the naked truth and will serve to reveal the vulgar infamy of which we are the victims,” he adds.

But Prestán’s fate had already been decided. In the words of historian Álvaro Menéndez Franco, “From the beginning, Prestán was a victim.”

20th Century Panama

Panama was a Spanish colony until 1821 when, following independence, it joined the territory known as Gran Colombia, which was engaged in a bitter battle between Liberals and Conservatives.  These struggles for political power were rooted in the Conservatives’ desire to maintain old colonial traditions, while the Liberals sought greater personal freedom, separation of church and state, abolition of the death penalty, greater territorial autonomy, and a reduction in military expenditure, among other goals.

Panamanian attempts at secession weren’t long in coming, first in 1830 and again in 1840. In 1846, the Colombian government signed the Mallarino-Bidlack Treaty with the United States, which placed the isthmus under the protection of the northern nation. Radical Liberals saw Colombia’s bid for protection from European powers as a surrendering of territory.

Construction of a transnational railway through Panama in 1850 –with U.S. capital– transformed the isthmus into a popular destination for foreigners seeking employment. The number of foreigners in the country continued to grow as thousands sought the shortest route to the American West during the California Gold Rush.

The desire of inhabitants of the isthmus for greater autonomy was further crushed in 1855, with the creation of the Federal State of Panama. Although the decision pleased Liberals by granting the territory limited administrative independence, Conservatives believed the Colombian government would no longer be able to control it.

The Rionegro Constitution of 1863 consolidated the Liberals’ ambitions.  During this period, radical Liberals gained power and the nation became known as the United States of Colombia.

Pedro Prestán was a product of his time; born in Cartagena in 1852 to a seafaring father and laundress mother, around 1870 he moved to the city of Colón and went to work pushing a wheelbarrow.

Prestán’s Colón

When Prestán arrived in Colón, the city was less than twenty years old. The streets were gaping puddles filled with frogs and mosquitoes, and the inhabitants, almost all itinerant, crossed from one side to the other on boards spanning the floodwaters.

Colón actually began taking shape in 1850, with the first excavations for the construction of the railway, but official city records say it was founded on February 27, 1852. It was a typical port city: chaotic, hot, and noisy. For years North Americans insisted on calling it Aspinwall, while the Colombian government and people of the isthmus used the name that is still used today.

 

Pedro Prestán was still a teenager when he reached the city with his mother and siblings, following his father’s death at sea. He completed primary school in his native Cartagena, but arriving in Colón he took the first job he could get, pushing a wheelbarrow. Later, he began teaching at a school in Santa Isabel before moving on to a job as a scribe for a firm of lawyers, and, in time, he opened his own office in the city.

He eventually married María Félix Ayarza, a woman from Gorgona, one of the villages along the railway line. They had one child, a daughter named América. Prestán became involved in local politics, taking the side of radical Liberals. América was just two years old when she lost her father.

The War of 1885

In 1885 Panama suffered the same fate as other Colombian provinces: bitter ongoing feuds between Liberals and Conservatives. Revolution swept through Santander, Cundinamarca, Atlántico, Antioquia, Tolima, and Cauca and although the government tried to maintain unity through political strategy and even military violence, uprisings ignited like gunpowder.

On the morning of March 16, 1885, liberal General Rafael Aizpuru Aizpuru took over the police headquarters, the convent, and several major edifications in the walled portion of Panama City now known as the Casco Viejo (Old City). “The revolutionaries met with greater resistance than expected at the military headquarters,” writes Juan Bautista Sosa in his Compendium of Panamanian History: 1870-1920, and General Carlos A. Gónima decided to travel with his troops from Colón to face the insurrection in Panama City.

Aizpuru Aizpuru and Pedro Prestán had already fought alongside each other and after Gónima’s troops set off to face Aizpuru Aizpuru’s men, Prestán declared the revolution in the city of Colón, by this time a city of several hundred houses with prosperous businesses and a more orderly urban development. Prestán commanded just eighty men, but the number quickly increased to 250, then 400… Newspaper reports referred to Prestán’s men as being poorly armed and “mostly foreign gold diggers and riff-raff.”

“One of Prestán’s first moves was to order a shipment of arms from the United States,” explains Sosa’s book, “which reached the port on March 30th and was turned away by Compañía de Vapores (Steam Company) agent Captain John M. Dow, on orders from General Gónima. This marked the beginning to the sealing of Prestán’s fate.

Furious at the failed delivery of the guns he so badly needed, the Liberal leader imprisoned the agent, another company employee, two officials from the U.S. warship Galena, and even the U.S. Consul, Robert K. Wright.

Under pressure, Wright gave Prestán his word that, if released, he would hand over the arms, but he failed to honor his promise once the hostages were freed. Prestán again took several prisoners, but Gónima’s troops had already reached Monkey Hill, a location close to the Atlantic city of Colón.

Historical accounts of the confrontation say it lasted only a few hours and that in the heat of battle, Colombian troops set fire to the barricades Prestán’s men erected to protect themselves. They also claim that U.S. troops fired on Colón from the bay and that Prestán’s men, attacked from two directions and weaponless, began to fall and disperse.

Prestán was left with no alternative but to flee with a handful of supporters, first to Portobelo, and later to Cartagena. In Cartagena he took refuge among his allies, but pressure from the Colombian government and Americans forced him to surrender this protection and he was soon taken prisoner by a group of Conservatives.

Pedro Prestán returned to Colón in shackles, but only a shadow of the city remained. In his absence, several of his men had been hanged or shot. Aizpuru Aizpuru was imprisoned, but later signed an agreement with the government in exchange for his freedom.

The End of Prestán

On August 15, 1885, the Comandancia General of the Panama Brigade called for a war council to take place on the 17th of that month. Four witnesses testified against Prestán, accusing him of setting fire to Colón: Giovanni Beltrame, an Italian trader; Clemente Dupuy, Superintendent of the Compañía del Ferrocarril; Hugo Dietrich, a German businessman; and William Connor of the Pacific Mail Steamship Co.

As recorded in 1985 by one of Prestán’s great-grandsons, Domingo Perdomo Ehlers, none of those who accused the Liberal leader understood Spanish and the accused was not allowed to testify in his own defense. “This was not an impartial trial; it was a mock trial, plain and simple. That’s the truth,” wrote Perdomo at the time, in reaction to a series of articles written by historian Jorge Conte Porras, telling the story the same way it had always been told: with Prestán portrayed as a violent fanatic who set fire to Colón with help from his henchmen.

The information we now have on Prestán is, in fact, based on the objects, letters, and documents his family passed on from generation to generation. He sent a letter to his wife at the time of his escape: “My dearest Mary: our poor América must be very big and beautiful… Make sure she never goes barefoot and take care of her now more than ever; give her a multitude of kisses and hugs and provide her with all the caresses I once gave her…”

To a friend he wrote: “Dear Bergman: There will be no redemption; I am about to be submerged in the furious storm. God has wished for this terrible end despite my absolute innocence.”

And condemned to death, he wrote to his wife one last time: “Mary: God has wished finally to confuse me with this disgrace. He has condemned me to an ignominious, infamous death, when, as you know, I am innocent… Never for anything in this world must you stop working to make the truth known… What is left of my heart is yours; see that it is removed and keep it with you and to your grave, when God decides to take you to his breast.”

Domingo Perdomo and Sonia Ehlers —Prestán’s grandchildren― claim that for many years María Félix Ayarza never spoke of her husband, except to their daughter América. Colón was a small city and Ayarza was “marked” as Prestán’s wife, although she later remarried. Later, América would tell the story to her children, and they, in turn, passed it on to the Liberal general’s great-grandchildren.

On August 18, 1885, Pedro Prestán dressed himself in pants, a jacket, a stiff-collared shirt, a tie, and a bowler hat. He was placed on a railroad wagon with a rope around his neck, the other end of which was tied to a gallows built for the occasion, and the wagon was moved. “His body twirled tragically in the void… He convulsed for more than a minute until, finally, he remained immobile and limp, like some kind of ripe, macabre fruit…” The hat never left his head.

On October 3, 1885, Ayarza received the following letter from the physician responsible for the autopsy:

“Mrs. María F. de Prestán, Colón.

Dear Madam:

I am writing in response to your kind letter dated last September 28.

Although I was prepared to send you the jar containing your deceased husband’s heart, preserved in carbolated alcohol, State President General Montoya ruled that this commission should not be carried out and that the organ was to be delivered to the authorities for burial.  It was, in fact, removed from my pharmacy by the Police Commander according to the aforementioned order on the 2nd of this month.

Not wishing to act contrary to the state’s proviso, I am sorry to say that it was impossible to comply with your very just wishes.

Dr. Quijano Wallis”.