“Never before has man dreamed of taking such liberties with nature.” Those were the weighty words of Arthur Bullard, a journalist writing in the midst of the immense construction project that ultimately created the Panama Canal. Bullard, for what it’s worth, was justified in deploying such lofty rhetoric: here was an endeavor on a scale that humankind had rarely — if ever — attempted before. While the completion of this pharaonic undertaking in 1914 was heralded as an historic achievement, it came at a tremendous cost: literally thousands of lives were lost; the natural environment in the region was forever altered and destroyed; and costs spiraled out of control. And the world, for better or worse, was never truly the same again.
An important waterway
At roughly 40 miles long, the Panama Canal is considered to be one of the two most important man-made waterways in the world. The other one, incidentally, is the Suez Canal. Both of these remarkable channels are vital to the global trade system, allowing cargo ships to reduce the distances they need to travel by literally thousands of miles.
Linking the Pacific Ocean with the Atlantic, the Panama Canal’s strategic importance can’t be overstated. It’s truly at the heart of the way in which our world functions today. But while it’s a decidedly modern feature, plans for such a canal date back far longer than you might have expected.
An old idea
People had been talking about creating a gigantic canal through Spanish-controlled Panama as far back as the 16th century! Around that time, it became clear to the Spanish king, Charles I, and his advisers that linking the Pacific and the Atlantic together would bring huge benefits to the empire.
But while such a passageway would clearly be incredibly useful, it also seemed pretty obvious that it would represent a tremendously difficult project. The scale of the challenge was seen, basically, as insurmountable.
Considering the options
But while the Spanish plan this time around went nowhere, the idea never really went away. The notion of constructing a giant canal in Central America to help establish an effective trade route was one that wasn’t very easy to forget.
Panama wasn’t the only place under consideration for such a passageway. There was also talk of building a canal through Nicaragua, but ultimately those arguing for Panama won out in the end.
The French get things moving
It wasn’t actually the Spanish who kickstarted the project, when push came to shove. In 1881 it was France who got things up and running, led by a man named Ferdinand de Lesseps. He’d previously been in charge of overseeing the construction of the Suez Canal, so he seemed like the perfect person for the job.
But in spite of his experience, not everyone trusted Lesseps. Adolphe Godin de Lépinay was an especially fierce critic of Lesseps’ plans, and he knew what he was talking about. He was an engineer who’d studied Panama specifically!