The concept of creating a sailing passage between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, traversing the Panamanian Isthmus, had been a dream ever since it was first proposed by Emperor Charles V in 1534. However, it was not until the mid-19th century that such a feat was considered to be technically feasible. By that time, the word’s great powers were well aware that whomever built and controlled such a passage would be conferred immense political power and commercial advantage.
In the 1870s, French interests were the first to sponsor what was the earliest serious attempt to build an interoceanic canal across Panama. This initiative was spearheaded by Ferdinand de Lesseps (1805-94), the French diplomat and business magnate who was by this time a global celebrity, having successfully built the Suez Canal (opened in 1869). Lesseps created a consortium of world-leading geographers, engineers and investors to facilitate the project. Between 1876 and 1879, a ‘Scientific Commission for the Exploration of the Isthmus’, led by Lucien Napoléon Bonaparte-Wyse, a military engineer and member of the former imperial family, conducted two expeditions to Panama to survey the canal route and make a feasibility study. The Commission’s engineering specifications for the canal proved to be way too optimistic and even unscientific – they were later revealed to be fraudulent (to attract, as opposed to spook potential investors!). Thus, the project proceeded while relying upon dangerously inaccurate assertions.
In 1879, Lesseps convened in Paris a conference of 136 experts from the world over, even as far away as China, to decide upon the specific nature and design of the canal. Lesseps originally envisaged an all-sea-level canal (like the Suez Canal) but was eventually convinced to construct locks, allowing the channel to rise through the mountains of central Panama.
In 1880, Lesseps incorporated the Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interocéanique, which obtained a concession from the Colombian government (Panama was then a province of that country) to assume control over the strip of land on either side of the canal route and a license to solely operate the canal once it was completed. The following year, it assumed a controlling stake in the existing Panama Canal Railway (in operation since 1855), which crossed the isthmus.
Lesseps promised investors that the canal would cost no more than 600 million Francs, and he and has associates successfully suppressed any doubts or bad news about the project. Indeed, the world-famous engineer, Gustav Eiffel personally reviewed the plans for the canal at Lesseps’s request, and while he concluded that the design was a disaster, his objections never saw the light of day. In fact, Lesseps and his acolyte Baron de Reinach presided over an unbelievably sophisticated and far-reaching bribery programme, whereby journalists were ‘incentivized’ to write pen utopian stories about the canal project, while politicians in both France and Colombia were ‘rewarded’ for giving it their unqualified support. It also helped that Lesseps was such a famous and revered figure that nobody ever dared to publicly challenge him.
Beginning in 1882, the Compagnie Universelle issued a series of seven bond issues, which were all eagerly snapped up, not only by France’s wealthiest and most esteemed businessmen, noblemen and politicians, but also many middle-class people eager to cash in on the next miracle by the man who built the Suez Canal. Over the next six years, as many as 800,000 people invested in the project, many committing their life savings.
Construction of the canal commenced in 1883, employing the most advanced and expensive equipment, including massive digging machines imported from Michigan. However, almost immediately the project was gripped by tragedy. The canal workers started dying, often dozens a day, from yellow fever and malaria, while the construction works suffered severe technical difficulties, especially in the mountainous middle of the isthmus. Despite their best efforts, the project’s engineers were not able to prevent landslides from filling in their excessively narrow channels. Lesseps and his people came to the stark realization that the methods used to traverse the flat, dry, sandy Suez Isthmus were in no way transferable to the mountainous, flood-prone and disease-ridden jungles of Panama, a fact obscured by Bonaparte-Wyse’s ‘whitewashed’ feasibility study.
By the time that the present map appeared, the canal project was in total crisis. Its labour force had been utterly decimated by tropical disease, while construction progress was nearly ground to a halt by technical difficulties. Lesseps had long run out of operating capital, and was essentially running giant fraud, or Ponzi Scheme, using the money from new investors to pay out dividends to the early stakeholders (Robbing Pierre to pay Jean-Paul!). There was now no chance of rescuing the project or refunding the investors’ capital. By late 1888, “les jeux sont faits”, as rumours swept through Paris, revealing that Lesseps’s scheme was a bust; an attempt to float a new bond issue in December of that year met with no takers!
In 1889, the Compagnie Universelle went bankrupt and all work on the canal was suspended. It was soon releveled that over 22,000 canal workers died, U.S. $287 million had been lost (then an astounding sum equivalent to billions today!) and many thousands of investors had lost a good percentage of their wealth, if not everything! It was a shocking scandal and the once lionized Lesseps, and his son, were charged by the French authorities with fraud.
While the octogenarian Lesseps managed to avoid prison (he died in 1894 at the age of 88), the scandal extinguished French, and more broadly, any serious European interest in building the canal, despite some half-hearted attempts by some investors to revive the plan. Moreover, in the mid-1890s, the rival on-and-off concept of building an interoceanic canal across Nicaragua was enjoying a (temporary and final) burst of support, so limiting the attractiveness of any Panamanian scheme – at least for the time being.
The Present Map in Focus
The map was made in 1904, during an intermediate stage the Panamanian Canal’s planning development. The previous year, Panama gained it is independence and, in 1904, the United States acquired the French interest in the canal for U.S.$40 million. While the Americans would settle upon an entirely different strategy for building the canal, in 1904, reviving the French scheme was still very much a possibility. Thus, the present map shows the ‘revived’ French canal plan before it was supplanted for the final time.
The map was published in Colón, Panama, a city located at the planned Atlantic terminus of the canal, by I.L. Maduro, Jr., a professional photographer. Maduro subsequently moved to Panama City and became one of the country’s leading commercial producers of maps, views and postcards; the present work is perhaps his earliest cartographic venture. He is otherwise known for such popular titles as Hand Sketches of the Panama-Canal (c. 1910); Bird’s Eye View of Panama Canal and Map of Panama (1912) and the Map of the Republic of Panama (1915).
The map is almost identical in design to another work, J.J. Millroy’s Official Map, History and Working’s of the Panama Canal (Washington, D.C.: 1904); we are not aware of whether it was Maduro or Millroy’s venture that appeared first.
This highly attractive work showcases the former Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interocéanique’s audacious plan to carve a canal across the Panamanian Isthmus. While, as discussed, the engineering specifications of the design were far too optimistic, the topographical and geological mapping executed for the project, as featured here, was impressively accurate.
The map, which dominates the work, depicts the topography cutting across the Panamanian Isthmus, from the port of Colón (on the Caribbean / Atlantic side) through to Panama City (on the Pacific), while the intended route of the canal is showcased in between. The canal proper is shown as a bold black line, snaking across the country, following the path of least resistance, from Colón up the Río Chagres and the Río Obispo valleys until making the difficult crossing of the Culebra Mountain and its foothills, before descending the Río Grande valley to the harbour of Panama City.
The canal’s intended locks which lay between Peña Blanca and Miraflores, would raise the route up to a maximum altitude of 50 metres above sea level at the ‘Culebra Cut’, where the canal workers managed to remove 14,256,000 cubic metres of soil and rock, lowering the summit of the hill from 64 to 59 meters above sea level, yet forming a channel with a width that proved too narrow to be viable. The tracks that run near the canal is the route of the Panama Canal Railway.
Above the map is the ‘Profile of the Panama Canal’, which follows the axis of the canal, noting different geological strata, with the canal, with its locks, shown to rise and descend over the mountains.
Wrapping around the composition on three sides is a beautifully composed, stylized view of the canal works.
The verso of the work features twelve photographic images, accompanied by ample descriptions, of various key sites along the canal and the canal works.
A Note on Rarity
The present map is very rare. Thew only reference we can trace is of a single example cited in WorldCat, but for which no institutional listing is given. Moreover, we are not aware of any other examples as having appeared on the market. This is not so surprising, as all of Maduro’s early Colón imprints are very uncommon, as they were produced in a ‘boutique’ fashion in only very small print runs.
Epilogue: The Americans Successfully Build the Panama Canal
The United States, as the great power in the Americas, was naturally interested in building and controlling any interoceanic canal in Central America. After seriously flirting with, but then definitively discarding the concept of backing a trans-Nicaragua canal, the Americans moved to aggressively to full the vacuum in Panama, buying out the French rights and seeking to gain the backing of the Colombian government. On January 22, 1903, the Hay–Herrán Treaty was signed which gave Bogota’s consent for the U.S. to build the canal and to control it for a period of 99 years.
However, when Colombia seemed to have second thoughts, U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt concocted and supported a fake ‘independence rebellion’ in Panama that allowed the region to separate form Colombia, so becoming an American puppet state. The new government of the Republic of Panama immediately approved any and all U.S. demands.
The Americans began constructing the canal in the spring of 1904, with the engineer John Finley Wallace appointed to lead the project. The endeavor was soon rocked, in 1905, by technical problems, disease and Wallace’s firing by President Roosevelt. However, it gained a strong footing when the famous railway engineer, John Frank Stevens, assumed leadership. Under his watch, a new scheme for the construction plan was developed that envisaged a raised canal with sets of locks carrying ships up to a height of 26 metres (85 feet) above sea level, before another set brought them back down to the sea on the other side. It is worth noting that Lesseps’s Panama project was not entirely in vain, as the some of the abandoned French diggings and works, such as the ‘Culebra Cut’, proved immensely beneficial to the American endeavours.
While immensely challenging, this plan was followed, and under Steven’s successor, George Washington Goethals, the project was brought to completion in the summer of 1914. At a cost of U.S. $375 million (equivalent to $ 9 billion today), it was by far the largest engineering project in the history of the Americas to date.
The first ship, the SS Ancon, passed though the canal, from sea to sea, on August 15, 1914. During the first year of the canal’s operation, 1,000 ships made this voyage, revolutionizing global shipping.
The United States retained control of the canal, formally run by the run by the Isthmian Canal Commission, and retained sovereign control of a strip of land running along either side of the channel called the Canal Zone. Control of the canal and the Zone was handed to the Panamanian government in 1979. Today, the canal has retained its vital role in global transport, and since completing renovations in 2016 is able to accommodate the passage of mega-ships (so-called ‘New PANAMAX’ class vessels).
References: OCLC: 1046462346 (but not citing specific institutional holding).