Saturday, August 10, 2013


Well, the Legatus had never been to Panama before and wasn't entirely sure what to expect.  I knew it had a canal, and that was (almost) all.   In fact, I can't think of another country that is so completely defined by one man-made object.  China has a Great Wall, of course, but then it has a lot of other stuff; much of it uninteresting, admittedly. But Panama is the canal.  Or so I thought.

The canal from the Bridge of the Americas in Panama City

I imagined something rather like a larger Grand Union Canal (with bigger boats) but, disappointingly, at the Pacific end, where Panama City is, it looks rather more like a river estuary as, in fact, much of the canal is in fact made up of a (man-made) lake and other exploitation of natural features, rather than a Suez-style cut.

The progress on the new locks so far, after six years work

The first proper concept for a canal was developed by an engineer from the Isle of Man but it was the French, based on their experience on the Suez Canal, who first had a proper attempt.  Indeed the project was led by Ferdinand de Lesseps himself.  Building a canal through a rain forest is not quite the same as building one through a desert, however, as the French soon discovered.  After eight years, $287 million, numerous landslides and 22,000 dead workers, the French gave up and the Americans bought them out. The American involvement in this still rankles in Colombia as this part of the world was part of Colombia at the time and the Colombian parliament blocked the American proposal to have a renewable lease from Colombia for the canal.  So the Americans backed Panamanian rebels, supported their secession from Colombia and subsequently signed their deal with the new nation in 1903.  This, the Colombians maintain, was dodgy economic-interest diplomacy of the worst kind.  

The Legatus inspects the locks

Currently, they are building another set of locks from Lake Gatun to the Pacific enabling two way traffic from the sea to the lake and the Caribbean beyond.  While there, the Legatus was shown the construction work on this.  This is a lot of concrete indeed!

So, that is the Canal out the way.  There were two other things I knew about Panama.  The first concerned the conquistadors:

At school in the mid seventies I was being forced to read my first poems by John (eh, heh!) Keats.  Now, Keats was never known as "eh, heh!" nor, indeed, did he actually say this but Martin "Pikey" Payne my (otherwise excellent, if slightly eccentric) English teacher at the time did (he was most famous for having to take months off school after "falling" through  a plate glass window).  He had a nervous tick which involved him making a sinister half-face grimace, tensing his neck muscles and emitting the strangled phrase "eh, heh" at moments of excitement.  Many of these were emitted during his lessons on John Keats.  Not as many as in his classes on DH "eh, heh!" Lawrence but still quite a lot. The ultimate expulsion of these curious noises came from a rather overheated discussion of TV advertisements during a general studies class while discussing the Old Spice TV advert with a surfer and young lady.   Mr Payne certainly loved his phallic symbols (an exciting new phrase for most of us which we could immediately try out on the girls from the school next door) and this advert was full of them (according to him, anyway).

Payne, amazingly, is still teaching at my old school which is next door to the one my daughter has just left. Her school shares the coach with the boys (wouldn't have been allowed in my day - we had to keep 22 yards from the fence between the schools) and one day some of the boys were discussing Mr Payne.  My daughter, who is an excellent mimic, immediately issued an "eh, heh!" having heard me do it whenever Keats, Lawrence or, his favourite, George (eh, heh!") Orwell was mentioned.  This brought looks of astounded wonder and subsequent great kudos from the boys from my old school. 

Anyway, one of the Keats ("eh, heh!") poems we studied was On First Looking Into Chapman's Homer which contains the following lines:

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies 
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes 
He star'd at the Pacific — and all his men 
Look'd at each other with a wild surmise — 
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

This section of the poem, of course, refers to the discovery of the Pacific by the Spanish conquistadors after crossing the Isthmus of Panama in 1513.

"Now Keats, eh, heh, was wrong to give the credit to Cortez for discovering the Pacific," Pikey Payne declared, one tedious afternoon in the very same classroom where I had got into a fight with "Krish" (short for Krishna which was his middle name as he had an Indian mother) and "accidentally" broke his arm by pushing him over a desk onto the floor (I was over six foot tall at fourteen and he was not).  Krish was much taunted because he had a very large nose and also had an annoying vocal tick which meant that when he was excited he went "diggadiggadigga" by vibrating his tongue against his teeth, for some unknown reason. Krish seemed to think we teased him because he had an Indian (actually half Indian) mother, which we didn't. Singh, for example, was completely Indian and the only thing we teased him about was that we all fancied his mother.  In fact it wasn't really teasing, as his mother was jaw-droppingly gorgeous so we actually meant it. No we teased Krish because he was really annoying.  He went on to become a policeman.  I am sure the two are not connected.

"So who knows who actually discovered the Pacific, as it wasn't Cortez?" continued Pikey.

"Diego Pacific?" ventured Doris, the fattest boy in the year, employing fine if flawed logic.

"The other one.  Pistachio!" suggested "Eggy" Newman. 

"Vasco Núñez de Balboa" called out the Legatus, triumphantly.

Pikey looked shocked.  And stunned.  I think it was the first time I had ever volunteered anything in one of his lessons. There was an astonished silence from the class followed by a barrage of rubber bands.  I was not exactly an academic high flyer at this point and was on course for a set of very average 'O' levels.  This was because I was basically bone idle and preferred to build Airfix kits rather than spend too much time on my homework, which was generally tedious except, occasionally, History (although not the Italian Wars which was unspeakably tedious).  I was so average that when the prefects were chosen for the following year at the end of the fifth form I was not selected.  However, that summer and into the autumn of the sixth form I had my first, well, sexual experiences with a young lady (the archery one I have mentioned before) and this gave me, going into the sixth form, a confidence I had not previously possessed.  That and the fact I could drop all the subjects I was rubbish at, like French, Maths, Physics, Biology (actually I was OK at Biology as I was discovering), suddenly saw me sailing up the academic results in the sixth form.  Maybe I spent less time making Airfix kits too.  Girls always do that to you.  

Anyway, one of the few academic beacons in my first five years was a summer holiday project I did on the conquistadors (for which I won a prize - the only one in anything I ever won until I won third prize in the St Moritz British Classic Car Rally in 1994) and this led me to discover all about Cortez, Pizarro and, of course, Vasco Núñez de Balboa. 

One of the books I obtained (I still have it in the loft) was called The Discovery of South America and featured some very characterful paintings (then as now, much to the derision of my intellectual sister and friends, I preferred books with pictures in them).  I had a series of these excellent Hamlyn paperbacks: one called Rockets and Missiles and even one on Military Uniforms (more on which in another post).  One of the pictures was of good old Vasco Núñez de Balboa (did Keats actually know who really discovered the Pacific but just realised that "Cortez" scanned better?) plunging his flag into the Pacific and claiming it for Spain.

Now I soon discovered that Balboa is much revered in Panama today with many things named after him in the country. Indeed what should my particular friend S and I discover on arrival at the Waldorf Astoria in Panama than a very welcome supply of Balboa beer in the minibar.  In reality this was rather thin and metallic and didn't have the character of the Colombian beers but after another stressful flight it all disappeared very rapidly anyway.

So rapidly, in fact, that we then had to move on to the Atlas beer which was somewhat weaker and even more anodyne.  So the Balboa won that one.  There is a famous statue of Balboa planting his flag in the Pacific in Panama City but I never saw it as I was being whizzed around from meeting to meeting through the rather exciting traffic.  Panamanians are somewhat flamboyant drivers- accelerate, accelerate, accelerate -jam on brakes and try to avoid skid.  I was glad of my police escort therefore.  

These happy chaps would zoom ahead of my car, screech to a halt while the back policeman jumped off (always while the bike was still moving) and stop the traffic at any intersection.  Very useful!  Given the way they rode it's not surprising that they all had their blood groups on their helmets!

Anyway, I soon saw another image of Balboa and his flag (only the sixteenth century Spaniards could be so arrogant as to claim the entire Pacific for their country through one man sticking his flag in it) when having lunch with the President at the splendid Presidential Palace. 

This is in an attractive colonial part of the city which doesn't look like Miami; unlike the rest of the place. Much as I love Colombia, I have to say that moving on to Panama was like returning to civilisation.  It is just a much easier place for someone with rudimentary Spanish like mine to get on in.  Everyone in the hotel, for example, spoke excellent American accented English, which was certainly not the always the case in the hotels in Colombia.

 Scene of courtyard with herons

The Presidential Palace, the Palacio de las Garzas, was originally built in 1673 and served as the residence of the Spanish Governor. Garzas are herons in Spanish and they have some kept in the courtyard which have acted rather like the ravens in the Tower of London since 1922.  Bird lovers shouldn't worry about the small cages the herons are kept in, as they mostly wander around the courtyard and, indeed out onto the steps outside and have regular holidays, I was told, in the country.  They are thoroughly cosseted herons.

Waiting for the President in the Salón Amarillo

The picture of Balboa and his flag above is from one of the murals in the Salón Amarillo inside.  All around the top of the room were murals of Panamanian history from the time of the conquistadors.  The Panamanian government has given huge tracts of land to the indigenous population to protect it from development but what these people think when they come into the palace and see these very politically incorrect murals of conquistadors killing the aboriginals I don't know.

This one has the Spanish laying into the locals in a particularly nasty way.  The next one, which I didn't photograph, has some Spaniard carrying off a naked local girl across the bodies of her menfolk.  S would not have approved!  Despite all this, as I have a full set of the Foundry conquistadors, I have always wanted to do some Central and South American skirmishes - maybe to give the natives a chance to hit back a bit. Where I would find suitable figures for the locals I am not sure, although I could cheat and use the new Mayans from Gringo 40.

This wargaming aspect brings me on to the other thing I knew about Panama: that Henry Morgan sacked it. What is now the Presidential Palace was built in the new Panama City as a result of the destruction of the old city in 1671 by Morgan and his 1,200 men.  What I didn't expect was that on the road from the airport you can just glimpse the top of the ruined tower of the Cathedral of Nuestra Señora de la Asunción which is in what is left of the old Panama City (founded in 1519) before they built the new city in the 1670s.

I particularly recalled Angus McBride's painting of Morgan attacking Panama so was particularly excited to see the real cathedral tower (albeit from a speeding taxi) depicted in the painting.  It never occurred to me that any part of this original city would remain and if I go again, which now seems likely, I must get out to the ruins.  This is another battle I have always wanted to recreate and I think that some of North Star's 1672 figures would be perfect for the Spaniards with a motley selection of armed ECW civilians and troops as the pirates.

My stay in Panama was less stressful that that in Colombia for a number of reasons:  Firstly, the Waldorf Astoria Hotel was the nicest of any I stayed in on the trip.  It had only recently opened and it looked it.  I had bigger rooms in some other hotels on this visit but not such a smart one and it had a view of the Pacific.

Secondly, I knew I was on the way home with only two more flights to take.  Thirdly, I was there long enough to unpack and settle in a bit.  Fourthly, although the beer was disappointing the local rum was truly excellent and very cheap.  S and I easily polished off the half bottle in the minibar during our stay.

Finally, I had two very efficient assistants who made everything run smoothly during my visit.  Oh how we enjoyed dropping things on the floor so they had to bend down and pick them up!  Well, alright the first time was an accident but I enjoyed the effect so much I became very clumsy indeed.  Splendid!

We would have liked more time in Panama but S did buy an eponymous hat while there.  I did not, as I do not look good in hats whereas she does, especially when wearing little else.  So, all that was left was for S and I to head back to Houston and hang out in our favourite American airport diner, drink Sam Adams and eat healthy American food while waiting the endless hours for our connecting flights.

At least, from a wargaming point of view, I actually already have some of the figures I might need for these Central American adventures and might dig out a few more Foundry conquistadores to paint, especially as Gringo 40s, John Jenkins and The Assault Group have other figures (such as mounted ones) that might be used for this period.   As for Henry Morgan, well I would just need a few figures in the typical Spanish morions.  Maybe I could use the heads from some of the Foundry Elizabethan swashbucklers.  Hmm, another project or two.  Just what I need!


  1. You take some very interesting travels. Your ideas for wargaming from sound good. Good luck with the new project.

  2. Your globe trotting is most impressive, like the idea of ECW style battles with palm trees as a backdrop!

  3. Hamlyn Military Uniforms!!! looking forward to that post, I used mine to copy out pictures for my school project in the 1970's! Rene North I think wrote copy has fallen to bits over the years as that Hamlyn series tended too I have Architecture, and Microscopes and microscopic life from the same series.

  4. Golly you do get around! Fascinating stuff.

  5. I hadn't realized Morgan got as far as Panama. I shall have to buy a bottle of his Rum to commemorate.


  6. Police escorts, beautiful assistants, history.....are you James Bond?tauyma 404

  7. Fascinating stuff as always... must admit I did find the Henry Morgan bit a good read while I was into the pirate gaming a while back...

    It must be a wonderful life having such 'personal assistants'... I am amazed you are able to concentrate and get any work done at all.... ;-)

  8. Fascinating insight (as usual) into a world I imagine very few will get to experience. It's like having our own wargaming version of 'Confessions of a Foreign Office Mandarin'.


  9. Please tell us all you're going travelling again soon - you may find it tedious, but I assure you we don't.. :o))