Vasco Nunez de Balboa had never known such excitement. Leader of Spain’s new colony of Santa Maria la Antigua, on the Atlantic Coast of the Isthmus of Panama, he’d heard thrilling tales from local Indians about a great ocean across the mountains — one which roiled towards a magnificent gold kingdom in the south.
He began a trek inland — into the sweltering jungle and the unknown. On September 25, 1513, Balboa reached the summit of a mountain, whence he set eyes on an ocean as boundless as he’d been promised. The Pacific Ocean had been discovered. Balboa walked knee-deep into the water and claimed possession of the new sea for the Spanish crown. He sent joyous tidings to King Ferdinand in Spain, including the suggestion that, even if a narrow strait of water between the two oceans were never found, “it might not be impossible to make one”.
Fast forward four centuries and the dream of Balboa — and scores of successors — would finally become a reality. On August 15, 1914 the first ship crossed the Panama Canal, a route that changed the world. It is hailed as one of the greatest engineering achievements in history, yet the path to its completion was tortuous and often brutal.
What’s more, it is no relic. Today, the canal is still a thriving commercial artery, ushering cargoes of bananas, coal, steel and other materials from the west coast of South America to the UK, and accounting for around five per cent of world trade. To keep it that way, the Panamanian government is currently overseeing a £3-billion canal expansion, which is proving every bit as fraught as the original construction. Intended to open for business in time for the centenary, delays have put the date back to 2016 at the earliest.
One only has to look at a map to understand why an isthmian canal was considered so important. For the Spanish conquistadors, uniting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans at the American continent’s narrowest point would enable the easy passage of silver and gold from Incan territory. During the gold rush, Americans saw the opportunity of swift transfer between West Coast and East. A canal would cut days — and 8,000 miles — off voyages around the southern tip of the Americas, at Cape Horn.
It wasn’t until the 19th century, though, that technology finally caught up with aspiration. This was the peak of the ‘canal age’.
Perhaps the key canal of all was the Suez in Egypt, which from 1869 allowed ships to travel between Europe and east Asia without navigating around South Africa. Its pioneer was Frenchman Ferdinand de Lesseps, who, riding a wave of confidence, soon set his sights on Panama. His aim? To build “a bridge across the Americas”.
But though the task — creating a waterway just 48 miles in length — looked relatively simple, it was anything but. De Lesseps had insisted on a sea-level canal, just like at Suez, rather than a lock-operated one — failing to appreciate the unique geography of Panama. The soil was like nothing geologists had ever seen. There seemed no solution either to yellow fever and malaria. Against such odds, the project was doomed to failure.
It’s testament to the sheer power of the canal as a concept that anyone would want to tackle the Herculean task again so quickly. Yet that is exactly what America did. Having gained independence from Spain in 1821, Panama was part of Colombia. President Theodore Roosevelt gave crucial support to Panamanian rebels fighting for independence. The Republic of Panama was born in 1903, and a slender Canal Zone handed over to America in perpetuity. Roosevelt asked William Taft to oversee the canal project. Learning from the French debacle, Taft backed a lock-canal system. There was no shortage of construction workers, many from Europe. Yet Roosevelt’s chief medical officer, Dr William Gorgas, knew that success could only be achieved if yellow fever was eliminated first.
Gorgas was adamant that mosquitoes were the disease carriers. His tactic of fumigating cities and persuading Panamanians to stop storing water in open containers proved a masterstroke. Within six months, yellow fever had been eradicated and malaria sent into steep decline and work on the canal resumed.
The engineering genius of the canal lies in its sheer simplicity — with no pumps, just a reliance on gravity and climate. At 110 ft wide and 41 deep, the canal’s three sets of locks were the largest in the world, their filling achieved through the abundant Panamanian rainfall and culverts which channel water from dammed lakes.
After nine years’ labour the canal finally opened, and man’s greatest victory over nature until the moon landings was complete. World trade was opened up and transformed forever. It also confirmed the rise of America as the world’s pre-eminent power in the very month that Europe descended into carnage. The opening-day celebrations were largely subdued, as it was less than a fortnight after the declaration of the First World War.
The isthmus would remain of major economic and geopolitical importance to America for the next 85 years — not to mention an imperial symbol through which American power and prosperity flowed. However, with the tailing off of the Cold War, America agreed to hand over control of the canal to Panama on December 31, 1999.
The transition was seamless.
But time waits for no man. At the turn of the 20th century the canal could easily accommodate any vessel yet built (the mighty Titanic, at 90ft wide, could fit with plenty of room to spare). Now, however, companies are building ships a quarter of a mile long. They are too big for the canal so the PCA is expanding the waterway to double its capacity.
Other challenges remain too. How long can Panama afford to keep widening its canal as ships get bigger and bigger? What’s more, climate change experts question whether the rainfall in Panama will persist at levels to keep the canal operational and also whether the melting of polar ice caps might enable a new, rival navigational route through the Arctic to open up.
If the First World War marked the end of an era, the Panama Canal represented its final, brilliant hurrah — an age of manned flight, submarines and the Kinetoscope, of confidence and can-do, when nothing seemed impossible. Not even a bridge across the world.