Friday, January 23, 2015

W.W.1 in Colombia: The Battle for the Transmitter

The battle scene today: Cerro de la Popa outside of
Cartagena still has transmitters on it.
(Photo from El Sol newspaper.)
The First World War, which raged one hundred years ago across Europe, never reached Latin America. Unlike the bigger, bloodier Second World War, during the first war no sea battles were fought off of South America and almost all of the Latin nations remained neutral.

The Transocean newspaper supported neutrality and
opposed Colombia entering the war on the Allied side.
Here, an admiring photo of  German military leaders.
(Photo taken in an exhibition in the
Claustro de San Agustin museum.)

However, the epic struggle of the Allied Powers: England, France, Russia and later the United States against the Central Powers: Germany and the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires, did send shock waves across this continent, including Colombia.

At the war's start, Colombia found itself in a tug-of-war between the two sides' sympathizers. But many Colombians apparently favored the Germans, thanks to prominent German-Colombian businessmen, including Leo Kopp, founder of the Cerveceria Bavaria and strong trade ties. Also, in that era England was the world's great lending nation, and, naturally, there's always resentment against bankers. Thirdly, in 1915 Colombia was still smarting from its loss of Panama, engineered by U.S. Pres. Teddy Roosevelt. So, the natural association of the U.S. and Great Britain also pushed sympathies toward the Central Powers.

Normally, wars mean boom years for natural resource suppliers such as Colombia. However, at the start of the First World War (then known as The Great War), Britain used its fleet to blockade Germany, cutting South America off from one of its biggest customers. Also, with the war's start, credit and therefore trade dried up.

'Defending neutrality.' Colombian politicians opposed
entering the war on the Allied side.
Most likely, Germany's invasion of tiny, neutral Belgium and Geman massacres of civilians in Belgium and France, hardened feelings toward the Central Powers. Eventually, the United States' entry into the war on the side of England increased pressure to side with the allies. But Colombia stayed neutral.

But Colombia did experience at least one conflict between Allied and Central Powers forces, altho not a violent one. In 1909, Colombia had given a 50-year lease of 5,000 hectares in Urabá Department to a German colonization company, the Casa Albingia, which promised to build a huge banana growing and exporting operation there. The Germans set to work preparing land and laying down railroad tracks - as well as constructing a wireless telegraph transmitter on the Cerro de la Popa in Cartagena.

The German operations worried the Americans for economic reasons - they were a rival to the American-owned United Fruit Co., which would play its own notorious role in Colombian history - and they worried the English for strategic reasons: The German wireless station could transmit and pick-up messages from all over the world. Also, Germany had a steamship, the Oscar, nearby equipped with wireless gear capable of monitoring messages from the Panama Canal region.

English and U.S. pressure resulted in the Oscar being brought into port and its wireless gear dismantled. An international oversight team was installed in the Cerro de la Popa. And the Casa Albingia packed up its belongings, laid off its approximately 1,000 employees and departed Colombia. The battle of the transmitter was a clear Allied victory, but in Europe the war would drag on until 1918 and kill some 10 million people.

The First World War's economic devastation caused a huge shift in global political and economic influence from Great Britain to the United States, and its slaughter reduced Latin Americans' admiration for Europe, which many had admired as a land of art and culture.

The Allies, of course, won the war, and Colombia eventually patched up relations with the U.S. The German banana planting operation was never resumed.

Source: Duelo entre Alemanes y Gringos

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

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