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 decided 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
This gargantuan plan showcases the 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.
This stellar map was primarily made to serve as a PR piece to be gifted to the Compagnie’s leading stakeholders and its awesome format and fine presentation, with its meticulous, scientific portrayal of the canal’s proposed route, would have served to reassure investors just as Lesseps and his associates were nearing the limitations of their Ponzi Scheme.
The main map, which takes up the upper horizontal half of the composition, showcases 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 double-red 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 total route is marked by distance readings per km, with the total route being 75 km, including the shipping channel in the seas on other side.
The canal’s 10 intended locks (‘Ecluses’) 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 single orange lines that often run near the route of the canal are ‘dérivations’, or spillway channels, that helped to mitigate flooding and control the water levels in the canal (the area suffered from severe seasonal inundations). The black line that runs near the canal is the route of the Panama Canal Railway.
To the right for the main map are two insets, the ‘Carte d’ensemble l’isthme de Panama indiquant l’orientation du canal’, which shows the canal’s location within a map of Central America; while the ‘Abréviation des principales distances à parcourir par les navigàteurs’, is a map of the world, showing the new shipping routes that the canal would facilitate, so revolutionizing global transportation.
Perhaps the highlight of the work, that distinguishes it from all the Panama Canals maps we have seen, is the ‘Profil géologique suivant l’axe du canal’, that takes up the lower horizontal half of the composition. This geological profile follows the axis of the canal and is a highly sophisticated mosaic of 10 different strata, distinguished by attractive colours, creating an extraordinarily visual effect, with the canal, with its locks, shown to rise and descend over the mountains. The cross-section shows that the canal project was divided onto ‘5 Divisions’, while the responsibilities for different sections of the work are delegated to various named construction contractors (ex. the ‘Enterprise Jacob et Américain contracting and Dredging company’ and the ‘Enterprise Andrige et Sondregger et Cie.’).
The map was brilliantly colour lithographed by the Paris firm of Erhard frères, France’s leading map house specializing in colonial / overseas productions.
A Note on Rarity
The present map is very rare. A highly expensive work, it would have been issued in only a small print run, almost exclusively to serve as gifts to leading Compagnie Universelle investors and political stakeholders. It does not seem that the map was ever offered for public sale or distribution; it was a private ‘in house’ production.
We can trace only 3 institutional examples of the map, held by the Bibliothèque nationale de France; Bibliothèque interuniversitaire de la Sorbonne; and the University of Cambridge Library. Moreover, we can only trace a single sales record for another example, being a listing in a 2016 dealer’s catalogue.
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: Bibliothèque nationale de France: GE C-3124 (1-2); Bibliothèque interuniversitaire de la Sorbonne: 39.G.4; University of Cambridge Library: Maps.c.680(7).88.1; OCLC: 84968195.
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