The beginning of the project's first wet season had seen the initial serious outbreaks of disease. The first high-profile death among the thousand-odd employees occurred in the second week of June 1881, soon after the beginning of the rains. A distinguished and experienced engineer named Etienne died on July 25, supposedly of “ataxie cérébrale”—”a fit of the brain.” On the Isthmus at the time, on a two-week tour of inspection, was thirty-nine-year-old Henri Bionne, the Company's secretary. On July 9 he had dined in Henri Cermoise's mess hut at Gamboa for which the excellent Belgian cook had pulled out all the stops. “He drank to our success on the Isthmus,” remembered Cermoise. “We drank to his good luck.” Bionne boarded a boat home for France on the evening of Sunday, July 24, and at the captain's table that night he reported himself feeling poorly and without appetite. The following afternoon he was visited in his cabin by Georges Hopkins, the ship's doctor, who found him in the throes of a violent shaking fit, which was followed by a high fever. According to the doctor's report, reprinted in the Bulletin, Bionne was given quinine, and, the next day, a mustard bath. After this he felt better, and even had a little to eat. The doctor was much encouraged that his patient seemed to show no signs of the symptoms of yellow fever. But on the Thursday morning, he was “evidently in a state of delirium.” He was given more quinine and mustard treatment, but “his state worsened quickly; after a fit, he fell into a coma during which he died… the last symptoms indicate kidney failure.” His body was hastily disposed of, shunted overboard in the Gulf of Mexico.
The doctor's diagnosis was that Bionne had died of a breakdown of his nervous system. For the benefit of readers of the Bulletin, he was keen to stress that it had not been yellow fever. This illness held a particular fascination and horror for Europeans and North Americans. Emerging in the Caribbean in the 1640s, supposedly from the Mayans on the mainland, or, as recent theories suggest, from mosquito stowaways on the slave ships from Africa, the disease spread to Barbados and Cuba, where it killed one-third of the island's inhabitants. Outsiders in the region seemed particularly vulnerable. In 1665, it claimed the lives of all but 89 of an English squadron of 1,500 stationed in Saint Lucia. Spaniards on imperial duty carried it back to their home cities, where it wreaked havoc. For the next two hundred years, the disease also came and went along the southern and eastern coasts of the United States over a hundred times, on one occasion killing more than 5,000 in the Mississippi Valley. In 1793, the city of Philadelphia was decimated by yellow fever, or “yellow jack” as it became known. Famously, Napoléon's Polish legion of 25,000 men, sent to recapture Haiti from Toussaint L'Ouverture and to reestablish control of France's North American empire of Louisiana and New Orleans, was wiped out by yellow fever and retreated, vanquished, home.
Yellow fever is an almost uniquely distressing, disgusting, and terrifying disease. There is still no cure, apart from treating the results of the disease, such as kidney failure, and in the 1880s a strong adult would have only about an even chance of surviving an attack. At that time it was treated with whiskey, mustard seed, brandy, and cigars. If you do survive, you are then subsequently immune. Thus the disease, to flourish into an epidemic, needs an influx of nonimmune subjects. Caused by an arbovirus, a small virus transmitted by the bites of certain mosquitoes, the early symptoms include headaches, loss of appetite, and muscle pain. A high temperature follows, accompanied by severe back pain, which many described as like being on the rack. After that comes a burning, agonizing thirst, the telltale jaundice as the face and eyes yellow, and the dreaded “vomito negro”—vomiting up choking mouthfuls of dark blood, as the virus causes liver and kidney failure and multiorgan dysfunction and hemorrhage. The brain is often affected as well, producing delirium, seizures, and coma. The medical shock, caused by extreme fluid loss, can in itself be fatal.
Part of the terror of the disease was in its mystery, how it arrived from nowhere, created havoc, and then just as inexplicably disappeared. As well as there being no effective treatment, there was little idea of how the disease was transmitted. Some doctors suggested that it was due to a certain wind off the sea; others were sure it was some sort of fungus. One insisted that it came from eating apples. Most agreed, though, that it was airborne, and as it was so often found around ports, that it had to have something to do with mud, filth, or dead animals. Worst of all for causing infection, it was believed, was the patient himself, or anything that he had touched. Victims were shunned, given a hasty burial, and their clothes destroyed.
Fevers came under many names on the Isthmus. As well as yellow fever there is mention of calentura, miasma, the shakes, blackwater fever, the chills, paludisme, ague, pernicious fever, putrid fever, and, particularly nasty, “Chagres” or “Panama Fever.” Yellow fever was the most feared by whites, but these versions of malaria were actually the biggest killers.
Caused by a parasite that is transmitted to humans through the bites of an infected Anopheles mosquito, malaria remains a huge scourge at the beginning of the twenty-first century, killing around a million people a year in Africa alone. The parasites migrate to the liver and then infect red blood cells, where they multiply, rupturing the cells, then spread further. The weakening and disruption of the body's blood results in many symptoms that are similar to those of yellow fever: uncontrolled shivering, chattering teeth, high fever, sweating and a burning thirst, headaches, nausea and vomiting, muscle pain, and anemia. This can lead to jaundice, convulsions, coma, rupture of the spleen, and subsequent massive hemorrhage. If you live, you will be severely weakened mentally, as well as physically. Unlike yellow fever, malaria attacks confer no instant immunity and can recur to those who survive, often killing on the third or fourth attack. The only effective treatment at the time was the administration of quinine, a palliative made from the bark of the cinchona tree, a trick learned from the Incas of Peru. Quinine stops the disease's progress by interfering with the growth and reproduction of the parasites in red blood cells. But when malaria patients stop taking quinine they relapse. This was more common than might be thought: quinine not only tasted disgustingly bitter, it also had side effects including nausea, painful earache, deafness, and, most dangerous of all, hypoglycemia.
For centuries, people had believed that malaria was caused by “miasma”—toxic emanations from the rich corruption of tropical soil. That is why de Lépinay had argued during the Paris Congress that to dig up so much earth in Panama would be particularly dangerous. In the early 1880s, recent studies near Rome had led to the theory that it was a bacterium in the soil, made airborne when released, that caused the malaria symptoms. Although isolated individuals had suggested that neither yellow fever nor malaria were airborne but were transmitted by mosquitoes, and numerous experiments with this idea were being carried out in Cuba as early as 1881, the development and acceptance of the theory were some years away. Until that time, the “miasma” theory held sway, and the Isthmus was consequently a death trap.
Two days after Bionne had boarded his steamer to France, Blasert, Cermoise's “indestructible” Belgian friend from the Gamboa camp, put his wife and children on the boat back to France. The very next day he took sick, with yellow fever according to Cermoise, and died soon after. He, too, had been at the Bionne dinner.
As others of his companions starting sickening and dying, including the much-praised Belgian cook, even Cermoise's optimism and humor faltered. “There was a dismal period for the administration,” he wrote. “It seemed as if a wind of death was blowing on its employees.” Even at Emperador, high in the mountains and seemingly the healthiest spot on the line, there was a bad outbreak of yellow fever. “The situation looked bad,” said Cermoise. “These successive deaths… had shaken our courage, striking the imaginations of even the bravest men; everyone anxiously began thinking of steamers home; in a word, we were struck by one of those moral weaknesses from which a panic is born.”
Armand Reclus was away in Paris, having left Louis Verbrugghe in charge. On October 5, 1881, the lawyer wrote to France: “At the moment, the state of health conditions in Panama is distressing: an upsurge of disease is occurring… the morale of our personnel is a bit shaken by the sudden deaths … Natanson and Marinovitch are leaving Panama. All the pretty promises they made to Abel Couvreux have been broken.” This panic, the fear of disease, was almost as bad for the project as the actual fatalities.
Inevitably, rumors reached Europe, but de Lesseps, addressing a Geographical Congress at Vienna that month, insisted: “No epidemic of maladie had manifested itself at Panama. Only a few cases of yellow fever had appeared, and these had been imported from abroad.” But even worse was to come. In November, Gaston Blanchet, whose marriage the previous year had made him a popular figure in Panama, became shivery and feverish while on an expedition mapping the headwaters of the Chagres. He made it back to Panama City, but died two days later. “Mr. Blanchet's death is an irreparable loss to the Company,” the British consul reported back to London. “Operations will be almost entirely at a standstill until his successor arrives.”
The “casualty figures” from the French construction period were argued over at the time, and have been ever since. Contemporary American newspapers hostile to the project doubtlessly exaggerated their reports, claiming that among the couple of hundred white technicians alone nearly seventy had perished in the first twelve months. The Company retaliated by ridiculing the figures. The best estimate is that about fifty men died in the first year, from an average workforce of about a thousand for this period. Many more, though, were incapacitated by illness.
As part of his pitch to investors in the canal, de Lesseps had promised up-to-date hospitals would be built to serve the workers on the project. And he was as good as his word. A hundred-bed hospital was constructed in Colón, and work started on a huge five-hundred-bed establishment on Ancón Hill, a salubrious and breezy spot high above Panama City. Huge sums were spent—a million dollars on the Colón hospital and more than five and a half million dollars at Ancón, on a seventeen-building complex that included its own fresh water supply, a vast laundry, an abattoir, and a farm that provided the patients with an abundance of milk, eggs, and fresh vegetables. Outside the ward windows, patients could enjoy a well-laid-out garden, irrigated on a terrace system, bright with herbs and flowers. Inside, as a contemporary noted, “the hospital rooms are so vast and well-ventilated that, even in the ones occupied by Negroes stricken with marsh fever, visitors with the most acute sense of smell could not detect the slightest odour.” It was by some distance the best hospital anywhere in the tropics.
A further half a million dollars was spent on building an extensive sanatorium on the island of Taboga, about an hour and a half by steamer out into the Bay of Panama. In its lavish and beautiful surroundings, employees could convalesce after a time in one of the hospitals, or just take a break from the feverish climate of the mainland.
In charge of the medical operation was the former head of the sanitary division at Suez. He ran a team of six doctors and thirty nurses from the order of St. Vincent de Paul, led by Sister Marie Roulon. Their care, though medically primitive by later standards, was much praised. “She is one of those rare women whose personal zeal is contagious,” wrote the New York Herald's occasional Panama correspondent of Sister Roulon in October 1881. “Every one of her Sisters has caught the trick of her cheery kindness … When all healing is unavailing, they make even the scorched death of yellow fever easy if such a thing can be.”
But in November the rains ended, and as the pools of stagnant water on which the mosquitoes depended to hatch their young dried up, so rates of infection fell away. In addition, according to Henri Cermoise, the skillful and courageous leadership of Louis Verbrugghe did much to calm exaggerated fears. But now that the small window of dry weather had returned, it was imperative that work be pushed ahead with as much urgency as possible.
y November 1881, Henri Cermoise's task of mapping the precise axis of the canal was completed and it was time to set it out on the ground, with a line of stakes either side of the area to be excavated. Together with Montcenaux, he was given a ten-kilometer section to mark out in the area of Gorgona. Cermoise was happy to be back out in the field, and to be reunited with his friend, who, as Cermoise had predicted, had caught a fever while working near Gatún, and had very nearly died. At first, writes Cermoise, Montcenaux had presented the symptoms of the dreaded vomito negro—yellow fever—but as he had survived, Cermoise deduces, it must have been something else. “There's only one certain way to diagnose fever,” he wrote. “Did he die? Then it's Yellow Fever. Did he recover? Then it is only an attack of bilious fever.”
At Gorgona they camped out in an open shack in the middle of the village until, fifteen days later, a prefabricated house was sent up to them by the Company. In the meantime, they started the job of clearing vegetation from their ten kilometers. They were all too familiar with this arduous task from their surveying work at Gamboa, but this was now on a different level. Previously, their “tranches” had been fairly haphazard—they had been able to bypass obstacles or particularly enormous trees—but now they had to stick exactly to the route on their maps as well as create a much wider and more complete clearance.
Missing the Belgian cook, Cermoise now found the available provisions scarce and expensive. As elsewhere on the Isthmus, the local retailing (the single shop) was run by a Chinese gentleman, in this case married to a local. As more and more foreign workers arrived on the Isthmus, so prices climbed with demand.
Many of the people turning up, Cermoise complains, were still of dubious qualifications or even competence. At one point a carpenter working on the accommodation requested thirty nails from the workshop in Panama, carefully carving a piece of wood in the exact dimensions and size of what he required. A fortnight later the order duly arrived, to exactly the right dimensions, but each one made of wood and so utterly useless. In all, there was a feeling of muddling through.
Among the imported workers, reported the Star and Herald, there was also dissatisfaction. At the beginning of January 1882a general strike broke out in Colón, based on demands for $1.50 rather than $1.20 a day. The following day, January 6, the strike was “in full blast,” and had drawn in workers on the railway, the steamers, and the canal itself. Fearing wider trouble, the American consul summoned the U.S. Navy. The standoff continued for a week, with the works of the Isthmus at a standstill, while the Company tried in vain to import enough new men to cover the gaps. On January 13, the bosses offered $1.35, but the workers stuck to their guns, citing the huge rise in the prices of provisions over the previous twelve months. The Star and Herald sympathized with this, but urged the strikers to do the right thing and take the offer, as soon the Isthmus would be flooded with labor and their negotiating power would be gone. Finally, on January 14, the paper could report the end of the strike: “The railway wharf is again a scene of life and animation … The price paid for labor by the Railway Company is $1.50 per day.” When the U.S. warships arrived two weeks later, all was peaceful.
On January 20, 1882, the first spade load came out of the actual line of the canal at Emperador. This was fitting, as here was the highest position on the canal route, the point at which the depth of the trench to be dug to reach sea level was over 350 feet. The French called the area “la section de la grande tranchée.” A spectacular explosion in the presence of a number of invited guests launched the work, after which the great and the good retreated to Panama for a banquet followed by a gala dance.
It was a great boost for the project that actual excavation was under way, but for the next four months of the dry season the Company was unable to get mechanical diggers into place and operational. The work fell to some seven hundred men, mostly Jamaicans, toiling away with pick and shovel, so progress was slow. Much of the overall workforce was still employed with erecting buildings, laying track, and improving access to the site.
From Matachín to Gatún work was still needed pegging out the line, which was not entirely cleared of vegetation until May. In February, Henri Cermoise and Montcenaux had been sent to San Pablo, an isolated spot offering few diversions apart from watching the trains go past and hunting for iguanas and local wild turkeys. Two months later, just as their time there was coming to an end, Cermoise suddenly felt “invaded by a persistent tiredness.” He had a headache, could hardly eat, and was left indifferent by even the most succulent iguana eggs. For him, the attack seemed inevitable. Montcenaux had done his time while at Gatún, now it was his turn. Soon, he felt dizzy, then overcome with aches and was unable to stand up. After that he suffered a high fever for two days, during which, “unfortunately, my reason left me on several occasions.” He was convinced that he had been taken with yellow fever. Montcenaux, however, did not panic, dosing his friend with quinine and calling for help from a passing train, which took Cermoise to Panama City.
To his relief, at the hospital Cermoise was diagnosed with calentura, rather than yellow fever. But for fifteen days he suffered a high fever and delirium, never sure if he was awake or asleep. When he regained his senses, he felt lucky compared to the man he saw in the bed next to him who, weakened by fever and blood loss from vampire bat attacks, also had some type of larvae in the top of his nose, which in a few days burrowed into his head and killed him.
But the new hospitals were far from full, in spite of the fact that the labor force was increasing quickly on the Isthmus, mainly as a result of Charles Gadpaille's efforts in Jamaica. In May 1882, the British consul reported three thousand men at work along the line, and that “The sanitary condition is very favourable. There are about forty-two cases of various types of fever, none of which are of an alarming nature. The average is fourteen cases in 1,000, which I consider a very feeble percentage, owing to the nature of the work the men are engaged in. I am happy to say that the natives of the West Indies stand the climate very well, and supply the Company with a good nucleus.” By this time the entire line had at last been cleared to a width of 300 meters, a task that had taken much more time and effort than had been anticipated.
The following month, June 1882, de Lesseps told the third annual shareholders’ meeting of the details of the purchase of the PRR and asked for a bond issue to pay for this expenditure. He also announced that excavation work had now started at Gatún, Gamboa, Bas Obispo, Culebra, Gorgona, and Paraíso. In twelve months’ time, he breezily predicted, 5 million cubic meters would have been removed from Culebra. There was more good news. In February a contract had been signed with an American company, Huerne, Slaven & Company, to dig a channel to a depth of 2.5 meters between Colón and Gatún. The excavation was reckoned at 6 million cubic meters, which would take eighteen months from a start date of August 1882. This, de Lesseps explained, would bring American mechanical skill and might to the project, and bury forever the fear that the United States was opposed to the canal. Shareholders were delighted and readily approved a bond issue to be held that September.
There were increasing numbers of Americans on the Isthmus. The process of parceling out the work to contractors had continued through the year, with another American company taking on the dredging at the Pacific end. Machinery was purchased by the Company and then rented out to the contractors, who were to be paid per cubic meter excavated. But the arrangement was not to the liking of the Agent Supérieur, Armand Reclus, who complained about the over-favorable terms given by the Company and the bureaucratic chaos the approach was engendering. In fact, Reclus was losing heart. Since the return of the rains in May, frequent flooding of the works at Culebra had brought digging there to a standstill, and the hospitals were again filling up with fever patients and accident victims. Complaining of overwork, exhaustion, and confused leadership from Paris, Reclus resigned in June 1882. He was given a job in the Paris office, but his time of influence over the canal, going back to the first Wyse expedition five years before, was now at an end.
In September, there was a further setback, when the Isthmus suffered an earthquake. Although there was only one fatality, the railway bridge over the Chagres was thrown out of line and the tracks damaged in many places. A Canadian doctor, Wolfred Nelson, who had been living on the Isthmus for six months and who would become a fierce critic of the French effort in Panama, cabled a report to the New York Herald. The piece when printed “all but produced an earthquake among M. De Lesseps’ shareholders,” Nelson writes. “He at once informed the world that there would be no more earthquakes on the Isthmus. Strange to say, despite the utterances of this celebrated man, the earthquakes kept on, to the unstringing of our nerves …” Cermoise described the quake in less doom-ridden terms, despite tearing muscles in his legs jumping off a first-floor balcony to make his escape from a collapsing building. Cermoise would leave Panama a few months later, he says “for family reasons,” but in contrast to naysayers like Nelson he shrugged off the difficulties and frustrations of his time there. In fact, he was sad to be leaving the Isthmus, “where,” he said, “I have spent two of the best years of my youth.” Looking back while writing his account the following year, he missed the strangeness, novelty, and the unexpectedness, “and the friendship of good and loyal companions, with whom we have, together, played our part, however modest, in the most gigantic of all modern enterprises.”
The earthquake also failed to dampen the enthusiasm and optimism of de Lesseps and his Bulletin. In November, Le Grand Français announced that “After two years’ work … we are much farther advanced than we were at Suez after six years.” Of the 75 million cubic meters to be excavated, crowed the Bulletin, a quarter had been allocated to contractors. It was almost as if the work was already done.
In the U.S. press, the French Company was dismissed as “incompetent,” and in Panama the Star and Herald warned that “exaggerated statements” were causing “doubt and distrust.” In France, however, confidence remained rock solid. The bond issue in September was a great success and massively oversubscribed. Although there were warning signs—the interest on the money had crept up from the share issue and yet more sweeteners were handed over to the financial institutions—it was a distinct setback for those predicting the imminent demise of de Lesseps's project. With “applications for shares showering him from all quarters of France,” wrote the anti-canal New York Tribune soon after, “he can now reckon with confidence upon the resources required for so vast a scheme. He can get the money… Englishmen and Americans may as well reconcile themselves to the situation.”
Then, at the end of the year, there occurred another setback on the Isthmus: the contractor Couvreux unexpectedly used a loophole in their contract to pull out of the project. It turned out that the veterans of Suez had found all their expertise worthless. As de Lépinay had predicted, Panama had nothing in common with Egypt. If anything the experience of Suez had actually hampered the efforts of Couvreux. The loss of Blanchet had hurt, too, with no one of similar stature from the company willing to go out to Panama. The break was amicable, Couvreux arguing that since smaller contractors were now in place, having a middleman between them and the Compagnie Universelle was a waste of money. The real reason for their defection emerged later, when the ashes of the Panama project were raked over in Paris ten years later: “The truth is that during the trial period,” a government report reads, “Couvreux and Hersent had been able to form a shrewd idea of the difficulties of the enterprise but were unwilling to undermine the [canal] company's credit by frank admission of the motive behind their retirement.”
With the works now stuttering after just two years, perhaps Ferdinand de Lesseps should have taken personal charge on site, as he had at Suez. But that, he calculated, would have sent a disastrously alarmist signal to the markets. Appearance and confidence were all to a project living or dying on credit with the public investor. De Lesseps was needed in Paris. He was also distracted by the events at Suez, where the British had seized control, and by his ongoing eccentric scheme to flood the Sahara. Another explanation, put forward by de Lesseps's American detractors, was that age had finally caught up with the “Great Engineer.” The Paris correspondent of the New York Tribune reported that de Lesseps on his return from his latest trip to Africa had “aged a good deal… His handwriting, which was so clear and vigorous when he returned from Panama, is now a shaky scrawl.”
So instead of Ferdinand, his son, Charles de Lesseps, was sent to the Isthmus for a monthlong visit. Charles, who possessed none of his father's verve or showmanship, would increasingly shoulder the burden of leadership of the project. With him was the first Directeur Général of the works, Jules Dingler (pronounced Danglay), one of the most senior civil engineers in France. He had been appointed with a salary of the equivalent of $20,000, far more than anyone else in the French organization was being paid. He looked unprepossessing— short, bald, and round-shouldered—but his arrival at Panama, at the beginning of March 1883, would usher in the great heroic period of the French effort.