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Wednesday, 8 December, 1999, 15:41 GMT
Building the Canal: Old world failure

Survey For centuries explorers dreamed of a canal through the jungle

From drawing board to working reality the Panama Canal took more than 40 years to build.

Billions of dollars were poured into the project. Reputations were made and destroyed, and thousands of labourers succumbed to the rigours of digging a vast 50 mile-long trench through thick, disease-ridden jungle.

French cemetary Canal Zone cemeteries testify to the project's heavy human cost
When it was finally completed the Panama Canal was the Apollo XI landing of its time - a triumph of New World enterprise and engineering that established the US as a 20th century superpower.

The Canal as it is today was finally completed in 1914, but the dream of building a waterway between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans goes back more than 400 years, to when European explorers first discovered Panama's Pacific coast.

In 1534, Charles I of Spain ordered the first survey of a proposed canal route through the Isthmus of Panama.

New World riches

King Charles I Spain's Charles I ordered one of the first surveys in 1534
At the time, Spanish explorers were beginning to uncover the riches of Peru, Ecuador and Asia, and were keen for a quicker and safer route to bring their plundered gold back to Spain.

Decades earlier Christopher Columbus had searched in vain for a route through the new continent that he believed would lead him to the treasures of the Indies.

Over the centuries other leaders and adventurers also toyed with the idea and in 1835 a US Army Colonel, Charles Biddle, was sent on an exploratory mission to evaluate its feasibility.

Mosquitoes get so thick you get a mouthful with every breath
1880s Canal worker
After four days in the sweltering, mosquito-infested jungle Biddle had made up his mind that the impracticality of building a canal through such inhospitable terrain ought to be clear to anyone, "whether of common or uncommon sense."

Once again the idea was put on hold. It was to be another 40 years before construction finally began, led by the French entrepreneur Ferdinand de Lesseps.

Hero of Suez

Ferdinand de Lesseps: "Science will find a way"
Buoyed by the phenomenal success of the Suez Canal, a project he had personally managed, de Lesseps drew up plans for a similar venture in Panama, then a republic of Colombia.

Shareholders who had taken a risk with de Lesseps' Suez venture made huge fortunes when that canal opened to shipping in 1869 and were keen to back him again.

A second canal would split the two American continents and complete the shipping circle around the globe that had been begun at Suez.

Amid great pomp and French national pride, work on the Panama project began in 1879.

Canal fact
In total more than 27,000 died during the canal's construction
Following the Suez model, de Lesseps' plans called for a canal to be built at sea level across the Central American isthmus.

The distance was half that in Egypt and, although the Panamanian climate and terrain were more challenging, de Lesseps had total faith that his team of engineers and French know-how developed and proved at Suez would find a way through.

"As problems arise, men of genius will step forward to solve them," de Lesseps promised. "Science will find a way."

Fighting the forest

But de Lesseps - a trained diplomat - was an entrepreneur and a visionary, not a technician. The mountainous Panamanian jungle was very different from the flat, dry desert at Suez and the working conditions were horrendous.

De Lessep's canal company was declared bankrupt
Labourers battled against collapsing hillsides, the thundering Chagres River, a jungle full of lethal snakes, and mosquitoes carrying yellow fever and malaria.

In the rainy season the soil would turn into a quagmire that swallowed men and machinery, never to be seen again.

Costs spiralled and after six years of work less than a tenth of the excavations had been completed.

Eventually de Lesseps altered his plans, to incorporate a single temporary lock that would raise ships up and over the continental divide.

That, he hoped, would speed up the opening of the canal whilst dredgers would continue to slowly lower the channel to sea level.

But it was too late - in 1889 his Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interoceanique was declared bankrupt and shortly afterwards de Lesseps was tried and jailed for fraud.

The cost to his team of labourers was even heavier: more than 22,000 died - buried under landslides, blown up by careless dynamiting, or falling victim to the tropical diseases that thrived in the humid climate.

Click here for part two of the canal history

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08 Dec 99 |  Americas
In pictures: Canal in the jungle

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