Theodore Roosevelt’s “Big Ditch” is celebrating its first century.
With Egypt announcing surprise expansion plans for the Suez Canal on top of Nicaragua’s plans for an interoceanic canal of their own to connect the Atlantic and Pacific, shipping canals have been big news this year.
But today is the day to specifically remember some of the history and historic impact of the Panama Canal.
One hundred years ago today, on August 15, 1914, the steamship SS Ancon made the first official transit of the Panama Canal. Since then perhaps as many as a million ships have made the same transit.
The hero of Suez becomes the goat of Panama
The building of the Panama Canal (1881-1914) was a 33-year ordeal that consumed inestimable amounts of money and many thousands of human lives.
The Canal enterprise was the cause célèbre of the late 19th Century world. It particularly convulsed the politics and life of two great nations and it made winners and losers of a handful of smaller developing nations.
It started as the national enterprise of France—It was a Frenchman, Ferdinand de Lesseps, who succeeded in building the sea-level canal at Suez in 1869, and in 1881 everyone in the world believed the “Great Engineer” would do the same at Panama!
He couldn’t and it ended in the bankruptcy of de Lesseps’s company in 1889. For the French at least, the Canal affair was an embarrassing failure and financial disaster—tens of thousands of ordinary French investors lost everything.
But if the Panama Canal showed the French were “past it”; the canal also marked the first act of Europe’s eclipse by the United States and the beginning of the “American Century”.
Changing the course of oceans and nations and history
In 1902, the United States bought the canal works from the French, lock, stock, and barrel for a mere US$40,000,000 and in so doing threw out decades of official policy saying the U.S. wanted an interoceanic canal in Nicaragua and nowhere else.
The French offer was just too good to pass up: the French had dug at least a third of what would be the finished canal—their failure in Panama was one of the most successful in history.
Before the Americans could so much as stick a shovel in the ground they had to deal with the pesky fact that Panama was a province of Colombia.
Fortunately, in every country, there are always people willing to stage a coup—for the right price. In 1903, Panama declared its independence from Colombia and gave the U.S. everything it wanted in the way of canal prerogatives.
The Americans made much of the supposed incompetence of the French—a prime example of dissolute Europe. The American people were pure and resolute by comparison—and a lot smarter. The United States in Panama would, U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt declared, “make the dirt fly”!
Debauchery aside, ignorance of how tropical diseases were transmitted had doomed the French effort as much as anything else. Over the eight years of the French effort it has been estimated that 22,000 workers died from malaria and yellow fever. Nine-tenths of the workers hired by the French were Afro-Caribbean workers from the West Indies.
Remembering how horrific the death toll of their citizens had been under the French effort, at least one Caribbean country refused to assist the American canal effort to recruit workers.
And the United States soon found itself in the exact same hole, literally, as the French had dug for themselves 20 years earlier.
Before you make the dirt fly the mosquito must die
Early in the 20th Century, understanding of the mosquito’s role in transmitting infectious diseases like yellow fever and malaria was just dawning on medical science but the new theory flew in the face of the age-old belief that diseases were transmitted by bad smells in the air. The word malaria comes from 18th century Italian: mala (“bad”) and aria (“air”).
The American canal effort faltered for two years but finally turned the corner in 1904 when a U.S. Army physician, William C. Gorgas, took over as chief medical officer. Gorgas has earlier eradicated yellow fever and malaria in Havana, Cuba, during the American occupation following the Spanish-American War in the late 1890s.
The death toll among workers finally drove his superiors to support Gorgas’s efforts to eradicate mosquitoes along the Panama canal zone and the effort was wholly successful in all but eradicating the threat of both malaria and yellow fever.
The big ditch that signaled shape of big things to come
The building of the Panama Canal was the kind of larger-than-life event that belittles all the superlatives you can throw at it. To say the least it was precedent setting.
- Largest lock canal in the world.
- First major use of U.S. gunboat diplomacy.
- Birth of the active “Executive” Presidency under Theodore Roosevelt.
- First case of U.S. staging/backing a fake coup (Colombian province of Panama).
- First foreign visit by a U.S. President (T. R. in Panama Canal zone).
- First irrefutable proof of mosquito transmission of infectious diseases.
- First large-scale industrial works powered by hydro-electricity.
- First big tech project run successfully by the U.S. military.
- First time the U.S. bought a pig in a poke from France (long before Vietnam).
In the largest sense, the Panama Canal was a crucible where national dreams were both crushed and forged. In every other sense, it was a social and technological proving ground.
Epidemiology, electrification, planned economies, the Manhattan Projects and faith in superior American know-how are just some of the things that the Panama Canal gave the world.
All over but the shooting
It was wholly fitting that the SS Ancon made the inaugural trip through the Panama canal.
The ship had originally been owned by the Panama Railroad—the little ribbon of steel that had preceded the canal by some 30 years.
In 1881 that little railway had beckoned to Ferdinand de Lesseps like a silver chalk line, telling him to “dig here”.
By August 15, 1914, that fact and all the rest were old history; the Panama Canal opened to remarkably little fanfare.
The engineering mega-project that had rivaled the waging of war for the cost in lives and wealth it extracted from nations had, ironically, been upstaged by the start of the biggest war in history, the First World War.
The Panama Canal and the First World War.
One hundred years ago today, the 20th Century—“the American Century”—officially opened for business.