Notes from the Past

Nicaragua's Stamps End Canal Dreams

In philatelic lore, Nicaragua is famous as the country of the stamp that, legend tells us, changed the course of history.

The story was told by Dr. Arthur Delaney in an article in the November 12, 1977, issue of Stamp Collector.  It concerns the stamp design that was released in 1900 showing a very active volcano.

Delaney tells us how this design is said to have influenced the location of the proposed canal between the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean.

During 1902, while the French were failing in their attempt to build a canal across Panama, businessmen in the US were trying to persuade the US government to construct one through Nicaragua.

The Spanish American War, during which the USS Oregon, had made its historic dash from the Pacific coast around Cape Horn to do battle with the Spanish navy off Cuba, had shown the necessity for a canal across the the narrow strip of land separating the Caribbean from the Pacific.

The French were anxious to cut their losses in Panama and sell their franchise and equipment to the US.  The agent of the French Panama Canal Company in Washington was Philippe Banua-Varilla, and his asking price was $40 million.

The US Congress was predisposed toward the Nicaraguan route, which, though longer, was supposedly easier.  Despite Banua-Varilla's efforts, a congressional committee voted in favor to the Nicaraguan route, and it seemed that the Senate would go along with this.

The Nicaraguan government was also willing and insisted that its few volcanos were dormant and earthquakes non-existent.

It is, however, a fact that there are volcanos in Nicaragua, and earthquakes are frequent.

The volcano Momotombo was right on the route of the proposed Nicaraguan canal and was erupting violently even as the US Senate debated!  Despite news stories, Senators are reported to have continued to believe Nicaraguan claims.

The story goes, reports Delaney, that just as Banua-Varilla was to leave Washington a defeated man, a friend gave him a Nicaraguan stamp of the 1900 issue [Scott 122?] showing Momotombo in action.  Inspired by this, he is said to have made the rounds of Washington stamp dealers and brought enough to send one to each Senator with a note pointing out that this was an official Nicaraguan admission that its volcanoes were indeed very active!

The Senate voted, and the Nicaraguan canal proposal was defeated.

- Kenneth A. Wood
This is Philately - Volume Two G - P
Van Dahl Publications 1982
 Posted April 26, 2000

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