The Suez Canal and Panama Canal: The Turbulent History of the Globe’s Two Most Important Canals

ePub format
In 1831, a 26-year old French foreign service official by the name of Ferdinand de Lesseps was sent to Alexandria to serve as vice-consul. While undergoing an obligatory period of quarantine, the French Consul-General, Monsieur Mimaut, sent his new understudy a number of books to help pass the time, and one of these books proved to be a lengthy memorandum composed by French engineer Jacques-Marie le Père, writing on instructions from Napoleon Bonaparte. The subject was the linking of the Red Sea with the Mediterranean by the construction of a canal. This study made a deep impression on the mind of the young diplomat, and for the remainder of his term of service in Egypt, he applied himself to studying the question. Eventually, he came to believe that it was not only a viable project, but a potentially profitable one too, and, of course, it would be nothing less than a stupendous gift to mankind.
As it turned out, the concept of linking the Red Sea with the Mediterranean was not by any means new. In fact, the idea was as old as trade across the isthmus itself. Work on the Canal of the Pharaohs, or Necho’s Canal, as it is more commonly known, began during Egypt’s Nineteenth Dynasty, under the reign either of Sethi I, or his son, the great Rameses II. The project sought to link the two oceans through an artificial canal of modest length linking a navigable stretch of the Nile to the Bitter Lakes, and then to the Red Sea.
Most people have heard of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, but while not as many have heard of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World, those who have are aware that the Panama Canal is considered one of them. In a world where few natural rivers carved out over eons of time have reached a length of more than 50 miles, the idea that a group of men could carve a canal of that length seemed impossible. In fact, many thought it could not be done.
On the other hand, there was a tremendous motivation to try, because if a canal could be successfully cut across Central America to connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, it would cut weeks off the time necessary to carry goods by sea from the well-established East Coast of the United States to the burgeoning West Coast. Moreover, traveling around the tip of South America was fraught with danger, and European explorers and settlers had proposed building a canal in Panama or Nicaragua several centuries before the Panama Canal was actually built. By the late 19th century, the French actually tried to build such a canal, only to fail after a great deal of resources were put into construction and after workers died of malaria and other illnesses.
At the turn of the 20th century, not only was the need for a canal still there, but the right man was in the White House. Indeed, President Theodore Roosevelt, a celebrated outdoorsman, might have been the only president who could have foreseen and accomplished such an audacious feat, and even he considered it one of his crowning achievements. Building the Panama Canal was a herculean task in every sense. Taking about 10 years to build, workers had to excavate millions of cubic yards of earth and fight off hordes of insects to make Roosevelt’s vision a reality. Roosevelt also had to tie up the U.S. Navy in a revolt in Colombia to ensure Panama could become independent and thus ensure America had control of the canal. By 1914, ships were finally traversing through the Panama Canal, just as World War I was about to start, and a century later, the Panama Canal remains one of the world’s most vital waterways.