I’m Dreaming of a Wide Isthmus

Whoops!  When I wrote Chapter 4 of my Latin American history project last year, I forgot to tell about what happened when the French tried to dig the Panama Canal in the 1880s.  Now I have corrected that oversight.  Here are the new paragraphs:

Because Panama was Colombian territory in the nineteenth century, we will finish this section by covering the first attempt to dig the Panama Canal. We noted earlier in this chapter that railroads were built across Nicaragua and Panama (see footnote #32), so that travelers between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans would not have to make the ten-thousand-mile trip around South America. Although this helped a lot, a canal would be even better, because it would let a ship sail in both oceans without the need to unload cargo and passengers before reaching its destination. Since the colonial era, people dreamed of digging a canal through the isthmus at some point, but the idea was always dismissed as too expensive–until 1869, when the French finished digging the Suez Canal through Egypt. In 1879 France decided to dig a canal like that through Panama, and put 74-year-old Ferdinand de Lesseps, the creator of the Suez Canal, in charge of the project. The Panama Canal Company was founded, de Lesseps went to the United States and Great Britain to raise funds for it, and he came to Panama in 1880, to see the sea-level pathway picked for the canal. He estimated that it would cost 658 million French francs and take eight years to do the job, conducted some surveys, and then work began in 1882.

Alas, the French realized too late that Panama is not like Egypt. The Suez Canal was dug through a flat desert, where the biggest challenge de Lesseps faced was replacing the native workers (fellahin) who died on the job. In Panama he was digging through the jungle, and because he had tried to make the whole canal run at sea level, so that he would not need to construct locks anywhere, there were frequent landslides into the excavations from the nearby water-soaked hills. The mosquitoes were even worse; at least twenty thousand people died from the malaria and yellow fever that the mosquitoes carried. It was said afterwards that the French company dug more graves than canal. Unable to do anything about the epidemics, de Lesseps had to abandon the project when the money ran out. He left behind hundreds of freight trains, derricks and dredges, to be engulfed by the jungle. The Panama Canal Company declared itself bankrupt in 1888 and was liquidated in 1889.

At the time it was estimated that French expenses had totaled $325 million, in US dollars. After the turn of the century, in 1904, the United States bought out the assets of the Panama Canal Company and resumed work under a revised plan. The Americans ended up spending $375 million, only $50 million more than the French spent, but this time the money would not be wasted, for they would complete the canal.

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