By the end of the following year, Dingler's leadership had transformed the canal project. Even Wolfred Nelson described 1884 as a time when Panama was “busy … and bright with hope.” “The work moves steadily on,” reported the Star and Herald in November of that year. “The progress which is being made is apparent to everyone who crosses the Isthmus.”
Dingler was passionately in love with the Great Idea of the canal, but he was experienced enough on large-scale engineering projects to see on his arrival that the effort on the Isthmus was drifting. His first move was to reorganize the company's chaotic office in Panama City. From the Company's paperwork, a clean break is apparent dating from the arrival of the new Directeur Général. Armed with total authority on the Isthmus, unlike Reclus or Blanchet, Dingler set about trying to tighten up payment procedures, demanding exact descriptions of articles requisitioned “especially so where machine parts are required,” and generally attacking the bugbears of waste and fraud. There was also a purge of the workforce, with many of the unsuitable adventurers and strays—whom Dingler referred to as “idlers and traitors”—being sacked or moved from their comfortable offices out into the jungle. In the process the new leader made plenty of enemies, but also earned the respect of the majority of the workforce.
Next, he toured the line and put together the first truly detailed plan for the canal. This included a policy of creating much more gradual slopes for the trench, which, together with the idea of riveting the sides of the canal with vegetation, was designed to deal with the growing problem of landslides. The result was a large jump in the estimate of spoil to be excavated—120 million cubic meters, 45 million more than judged necessary by the 1880 Technical Commission. In early autumn 1883, he returned to Paris to present his plan to de Lesseps and his board of advisers. Dingler got the go-ahead, although de Lesseps did not feel it necessary to revise either his costs or his scheduled completion date for the canal, which remained 1888.
When Dingler returned to the Isthmus, he brought with him his wife, son, daughter, and her fiancé, as well as his collection of thoroughbred horses. The message of long-term commitment to the project was unmistakable, as was his belief that there was nothing to fear from Panama's climate. Dingler went further, announcing, “I intend to show the world that only the drunk and the dissipated will die of Yellow Fever.” The family were an instant hit in Panama society. The Star and Herald reports a reception given by the Directeur Général in December 1883: “Their rooms were crowded with many ladies, and a number of our most distinguished native and foreign residents. The handsome rooms were still further beautified with floral decorations and other adornments; the music was good, and gave a zest to dancing, whilst the cultivated hosts spread a charm through the scene of enjoyment.” The young Dinglers set about exploring the Isthmus, enjoying picnic and riding excursions.
Back in France, investors were also impressed with the new leadership. In October 1883 there was a second bond issue, which was again massively oversubscribed. “This result has surprised all,” reported the Panama press, “except those who know the popularity which Count de Lesseps enjoys, and the confidence investors feel in his projects.” Eleven months later there was a further bond issue. This time it didn't quite sell out, in spite of even more favorable terms. Nonetheless, French support remained solid.
By now, nearly 700 million francs had been raised. Dingler was spending it fast, giving out huge orders aiming to double or even triple the number of steam shovels, locomotives, and other machinery in operation on the Isthmus. Along with the new machinery came a host of new contractors. In May 1883 alone, Dingler signed seventeen contracts for excavation. Once back from France with his family, the Directeur Général divided the line of the canal into three divisions, each under the control of a single French engineer. The first covered Limón Bay and lower reaches of the Chagres; the second, the Upper Chagres and the hills between Matachín and Culebra; the third from Culebra to the approaches to the Bay of Panama.
The key contractor in the First Division was the American outfit Huerne, Slaven & Company, which had been taken on back in February 1882. The driving force of the company was H. B. Slaven, a Canadian-born drugstore owner from San Francisco. He had known nothing about excavation but, “determined to have a finger in the canal pie,” had, as Tracy Robinson put it, “with an audacity akin to inspiration” put in, and had accepted, a bid to take on some of the work. Raising capital from a New York banker, he ordered the building of a series of huge, custom-made dredges 36 meters long and 9 meters wide. Although work on his section was supposed to have started in August 1882, it was not until April the following year that the first of these monsters had been completed in Philadelphia and, with great difficulty, towed to the Isthmus. The first to arrive was destroyed by fire in Colón Harbor, but the next—the Comte de Lesseps— arrived during the summer and was laboriously fitted out. A 20-meter wooden tower was assembled in the center with a huge wheel on the top. Attached to this was a chain with a series of large steel buckets on a boom that was lowered over the side. Each of the buckets scooped up a cubic meter of soil from the bottom of the channel and hoisted it to the top of the tower, where it was emptied by jets of water into large pipes that extended 55 meters on either side, dumping the spoil clear of the work site. The whole contraption moved on huge legs, or “spuds,” “by means of which,” says Robinson, “she walked step by step into the material to be excavated.” The Comte de Lesseps started inland from the mudflats of Limón Bay in October 1883. Able to extract 5,000 cubic meters a day, it made a huge impression. It seemed just the sort of fantastic machine that de Lesseps had promised would miraculously turn up.
In January 1884, an American naval officer, sent to estimate progress on the canal, reported back to Washington that “this powerful and excellent machine” had already “dug a passage 1075 meters long, 34 meters wide, and 4 meters deep; so that vessels of 13 feet draught may now, at this point, pass up the line of the canal for a distance of half a mile.” Another monster dredge arrived during the year, and in October, the Star and Herald reported that Colón and Gatún were soon to be in connection by water. “So the visitor to Gatún… can easily satisfy himself that there is something serious and practical in this canal enterprise.”
Further up the line, work was undertaken on diversionary channels for the Chagres and digging up the alluvial silt of the river valley. This was managed by a Franco-Dutch firm, Artigue et Sonderegger, which had twenty smaller Belgian-made ladder dredges at work.
On the Pacific side of the Isthmus, much deepening work was needed in the Bay of Panama. This was started out by self-propelled dredges built by Lobnitz and Company of Renfrew, Scotland, which were sailed to Panama under their own steam. The first arrived in May 1883, having covered the five-thousand-mile journey from the Clyde in only a month. Such was the quality of their design and manufacture that they were kept on by the canal builders right up to 1914. Meanwhile, lighter dredges pushed up the valley of the Río Grande. It was steady progress, if less spectacular than that at Colón.
Inland, in la grande tranchée, it was a different story, with much more labor-intensive work being required. By the end of 1883 pilot trenches had been run the ten-mile length of the Continental Divide and a contract had been signed with Cutbill, de Longo, Watson and Van Hattum—usually referred to as the Anglo-Dutch Company The excavation work commenced with hand pick and shovel, and the soil was removed in small iron cars, running on portable tramways. Once the trench was a few feet deep, a track was laid connecting with the main line of the Panama Railroad, and upon this steam excavators were brought up mounted on trucks. Most were U.S.-built by Osgood or Otis. These machines commenced digging down in a series of stepped terraces, each about 5 meters wide and 5 meters deep, which was how far the excavators could reach. The spoil was loaded onto flatcars, then taken away. “From morning till night,” reported an American visitor, “trains are moving about removing the excavations of the laborers and of the excavating machines, which latter do their work very well and very cheaply.”
Nonetheless, there remained a lot of hand excavation, and it was here that the majority of the canal laborers were concentrated. In mid-1883, the British consul reported some twelve hundred workers in this small space, mainly Jamaicans, Martinicans, and Italians. “The Anglo-Saxon element prevails a great deal here in the way of officials and clerks,” he went on. The steam shovel operators and mechanics were also British or American.
French ladder dredge
So as well as ordering masses of new machinery, Dingler also determined to increase the number of laborers available to the contractors. There were ten thousand by September 1883, fifteen thousand by January the following year, and by the end of 1884, there were over twenty thousand on the payroll, making a total wage bill of some $40,000 a day. The majority of the workers were from Jamaica.
here was good money to be made on the Isthmus. Most workers earned about $1.50 a day, and as the pay was calculated on a piecework basis, extra labor would bring even more. This was a big deal for the impoverished inhabitants of the West Indian islands, particularly Jamaica. Soon large steamships were making the run from Kingston to Colón as frequently as every four days. Nonetheless, there were near riots at the docks as people fought each other to get a place on a ship. “A stampede took place which is hardly possible to describe,” reported the Jamaican paper Gall's News Letter in early 1884 of the scene at Kingston docks. “Men with trunks on their backs, women with little children tugging through the crowd, all trying to gain admission to the ship. In a few minutes the deck was crowded.”
Money being sent home to relations and the return of men from the Isthmus with their fortunes visibly transformed and further fueled Panama Fever on the island. “Now and again,” complained a planter, “you see a great swell with a watch and gold chain, a revolver pistol, red sash, big boots up to his knees, who swaggers about.” Such returnees soon became known as “Colón Man,” an almost mythical figure on the island, the subject of many skits and verses, both admiring and gently ridiculing. “One two three four/Colón Man a come,” goes one. “With him watch chain a knock him belly bam bam bam/Ask him for the time/and he look upon the sun/With him watch chain a knock him belly bam bam bam.”
As the “Panama Craze” spread, even those few with stable and secure jobs joined the rush to Colón. “The infatuation to go seems to have taken hold on the whole of them who are able to go,” reported the Gleaner. During the French construction period, some eighty-four thousand made the journey to Colón from Kingston, at a time when the entire population of the island was under six hundred thousand. Whole areas of the island became depopulated, and the demographics of those left behind were radically altered, leading to a decline in marriage and other unions, and women and children taking up the work previously done by men. The birthrate fell, and women became heads of families as never before. Children were frequently left to fend for themselves, as families were split up, often forever.
At the same time, the money coming back from Panama was invested in land, livestock, and housing, leading to rising peasant proprietorship and ownership of goods, appliances, and tools, in all contributing to an economic revival on the island at the end of the century. “Colón Man” also brought home a new, less subservient attitude, his flash dress and accessories “a flag of liberation.”
Official reaction to these huge changes was mixed. “We are not of those who think it a calamity that so many of our people are going to the great Canal Work,” wrote one of the mouthpieces of the ruling plantocracy, the Jamaica Witness, in early 1884. “It is a great enterprise this, the joining of two great oceans… We wish it God speed; and we feel rather proud that we can supply so large a portion of those who are to perform that necessary toil… Let them go by all means. It will give many a lesson in labour which they never had before—a hard day's work for good wages. Many will gain money, and return to acquire property; and they will be more men than they ever were, men who have felt their manhood, and who will more than ever prize their position and privileges as citizens of a great Empire.” But as early as mid-1883, Jamaican plantation interests in London were lobbying the secretary of state for the colonies to restrict “the great outflow from the Colony of labourers, artisans, and respectable young men, who are properly described as the bone, sinew and hope of the country.”
The planters spread stories about the terrible risks of disease in Panama, and that the Company ran a brutal regime, but were unable to stem the tide. The Witness explains: “the dangers and drawbacks of life on the Isthmus are counterbalanced by material advantages of an appreciable character.” As one of the West Indian work songs has it:
Kill my partner
Kill my partner
Kill my partner
Somebody's dying every day.
I love you yes I do, you know it's true,
And when you come to Panama how happy you will be,
‘Cause money down in Panama like apples on a tree.
On the Isthmus, the West Indians found themselves doubly vulnerable as foreigners working for a foreign company. There was no labor law in Colombia except for the “freedom to work,” and the workers’ backgrounds mitigated against concerted labor action. Churches, community burial clubs, and mutual support organizations were established, but there was little organization in the workplace. Eight or nine strikes broke out on the Isthmus during the 1880s, yet these tended to be confined to the port or railway workers, whose stoppage could cause serious delays and backlogs for the steamer companies. The employers, however, found the Colombian authorities sympathetic to their side, and several strikes were broken up by soldiers. More than anything, though, the flood of new arrivals meant that there were always men to replace those who tried to improve their wages or conditions. Instead, to the frustration of the Company, the men would simply move to another area in order to get better pay, or to be with their friends. “They have a way of shifting for themselves,” the Star and Herald reported in early 1884, “and selecting their own masters and places of work… go[ing] about from section to section wherever they can best suit their own particular ideas as to wages and other circumstances.”
Panama had a sensitive racial and social mix ill-suited to such a huge influx of “aliens.” The arrivals from Jamaica, who came from a cultural background radically different from that of Panama or greater Colombia, were seen as a threat and deeply resented. Antagonism was exacerbated by the hardships of the construction camp setting. As the number of Jamaicans grew, so too did instances of disturbances and bloodshed along the line of the canal. In March 1883, five Jamaicans and three Colombians were killed in fighting at Culebra, Obispo, and Matachín, and the British consul requested armed protection for British subjects. But the attitude of the soldiery was just as antagonistic as that of the Colombian workers: “I perceive that these men are partial in their protection and disorderly and brutal in their conduct,” the consul wrote.
Tension now simmered all along the line. “Both sides are armed,” said the Star and Herald on April 3, 1883, “both prepared, and alike expectant … the works between Matachín and Gorgona… are practically deserted.” More by accident than design—Colombians started refusing to work with Jamaicans—the two warring parties now lived and worked in separate areas, but friction was still building through the following year, threatening to spill out into open armed conflict.
or the moment, however, these labor troubles were not the greatest of Dingler's worries. In spite of the progress since he had taken over, the project was now beset with very serious difficulties. For one thing, the harbor and warehouses at Colón could not cope with the huge volume of machinery and supplies being imported. Often, steamers would have to be unloaded by lighters, “a ruinously expensive method,” wrote a visiting reporter from the New York World. “The cost of coal is increased two thirds. It is worth £3 per ton in the harbour and £5 when landed.” Furthermore, the railway, in spite of a great expansion of rolling stock, did not have the capacity to move machinery inland as fast as it was arriving. So valuable equipment was left out on the waterfront at the mercy of the climate. “Damage amounting to thousands of dollars daily is known to be going on,” reported a visiting journalist. The machinery itself came from many quarters—France, the United States, Belgium, and elsewhere. It was constantly being modified and used in experimental, often ingenious, combinations, but much of it was found to be unequal to the task. A growing accumulation of discarded, inoperative equipment along the canal line testified to earlier mistakes. A later American engineer, piecing through the abandoned French plant, would describe it as “of a character and complexity to defy description …some parts could only be classed as freaks. Apparently every crank who possessed influence was allowed to exploit his notions in the furnishing of machines to the company.” The experimentation and increasing number of small contractors combined to produce a host of contradictory specifications for spare parts, railroad track, and truck gauge. At one time there were eleven different types of flatcar running on six different gauges. It was as far from a “joined-up system” as can be imagined.
For all Dingler's efforts at improving efficiency, the Company was hemorrhaging money through a combination of mismanagement, extravagance, and corruption. More than a hundred racehorses were imported from Europe and lavishly stabled at the Company's expense. There was also widespread pilfering. Inspectors sent to check on the contractors’ excavation quantities were often bribed. One estimate was that the Company lost some 10 percent of the work it paid for. The worst offenders were the Huerne, Slaven men, who were even accused of dredging soil from one side of their barges, for which they were paid, and then simply dumping it back into the water on the other side. The workers, also, became adept at exploiting the Company. “There was no system or organisation,” reported a Nicaragua-born canal workman. “A man can work on five different jobs a day, and when the week ended you collect for all five jobs. Their timekeeping system was poor.” The local Panamanians were also making a lot of money out of the Company, charging exorbitant rates for land the French needed, or bringing endless expensive legal cases against them. Like Reclus, Jules Dingler and his wife had to entertain a constant stream of visitors from Europe, Colombia, and the United States during the dry season, and, in urgent need of an adequate house in which to entertain them, found no one willing to build something for less than $100,000. There was similar mass collusion over food supplies. Traders would board incoming ships carrying provisions, buy the entire cargo, and then fix the price of the goods on the Panama market.
As well as administrative difficulties, engineering problems were now beginning to pile up. In la grande tranchée, the rainy season brought continual landslides, which buried rails and machinery under thousands of cubic meters of sticky mud. The contractors in this section had to keep cutting the slopes back to flatten them, creating seemingly endless amounts of extra work. By the end of 1884 it had been decided that the gradient would have to be as gentle as one in four. This would have made the trench, had it been dug to sea level as planned, as much as three-quarters of a mile across in several places.
The spoil was removed in small dump cars to a convenient nearby valley, where a track would be laid on the brow of the hill. The cars were then tipped or laboriously emptied by hand, with the dirt thrown over the side. When a terrace had been formed, new track was laid on it and the process repeated. But the dump areas also became unstable, with terraces slipping away, destroying track and trains and leading to the whole system breaking down and the excavators lying idle.
“The rainy season, at last set in, is making up for lost time by pouring down oceans of water all over the Isthmus,” the Star and Herald reported at the end of May 1883. “The effect on new embankments, fills &c, made by the Canal Company during the dry season, is not pleasant to contemplate. The work of months disappears in a day.” Almost exactly a year later, it was the same story: “The heavy downpours of late are making short work of earth cuttings … A few hours of tropical rain caused the mighty Chagres to rise three feet. When it subsided the cut was found to be filled to within three feet of the top. The work of many days costing a great deal of money has disappeared as if by magic… This Chagres question is a mighty one.”
As had been anticipated back at the 1879 Congress in Paris, the problem of the Chagres was indeed among the most formidable faced by the French engineers. Dingler, in his grand plan, had stuck with the suggestion that to stop the river flooding the canal, a huge earthen dam should be constructed at Gamboa, with another smaller dam twenty-five kilometers upriver. But this filled no one with confidence. There was no adequate rock formation at this site upon which to found such an enormous structure, and few believed that it would hold the pressure of the river at its most swollen. In addition, the basin behind the dam, in which it was hoped up to 6,000 cubic meters of water would be held, had still not been adequately surveyed.
It was planned that the remaining flow of the river would be drained by a series of diversions running parallel to the line of the canal. But as the canal ran along the lowest points of the river valleys, the surface water of these diversions would be about 70 feet above that of the canal proper, requiring very strong guard banks. In effect, as a critic of the French plan pointed out, “the water will have to be hung up on the sides of the mountains.” And just one of these channels would have to be thirteen miles long, with similar dimensions to the main canal. It was as if the canal had to be constructed two or three times. In all, every time the French engineers turned around, the task ahead seemed to have grown exponentially.
In all great construction projects the greatest cause of delay and financial loss—and the reason that considerable slack is worked into budgets—is generally termed “unforeseen ground conditions.” Panama had these in spades. “Fresh engineering difficulties present themselves,” wrote a British visitor in late 1883, “and the magnitude of the work to be accomplished seems to increase.” It became clearer and clearer that, right from the start, de Lesseps had totally underestimated the task he was setting for his engineers. And as the problems mounted, in order to maintain the confidence of investors and sell new bond issues, de Lesseps kept up a stream of promises and impossibly high targets. In June 1882 he had told the Company's annual general meeting that 5 million cubic meters would be excavated from Culebra in the next twelve months; the figure achieved in that period was only 660,000. The following year he reaffirmed his promise that the canal would open in 1888, and predicted a monthly excavation figure overall of 2 million cubic meters. But the workforce on the Isthmus was not exceeding a quarter of that. The more expectations were raised, the further de Lesseps had to fall. “A day of reckoning is coming,” wrote the Montreal Gazette in August 1884.
Although the press in France remained onside, elsewhere criticism of the project, and of the exaggerated reports of the Bulletin, was mounting. In August 1884, the American Engineer magazine printed the report of a correspondent who had spent two months on the Isthmus, who estimated that the Company would need another twenty-four years and hundreds of millions of dollars more to finish the canal at the current rate of excavation, an analysis with which several U.S. naval officers, sent to investigate progress, concurred. It was also now openly stated in Britain and the United States that the French press had been bribed to hide the truth from domestic investors.
In August 1884, the Montreal Gazette's correspondent, back in Panama after having visited the works six months earlier, reported that “little substantial progress has been made … valuable plant remains unhoused, including locomotives, boilers &c.” The fault, as far as he was concerned, was with misplaced priorities: “Time that might be used in building proper sheds is frittered away embellishing banks near houses, setting out tropical trees and plants to make the landscape attractive. C'est magnifique,” he concluded, “mais ce n'est pas le canal.” In November the New York Herald, usually a fair judge of the project, accurately predicted, “It is probable the present company will go into bankruptcy or liquidation within three years and the enterprise be taken up and completed by a new company or a government.”
On the Isthmus itself it was felt that real progress was being made, but the huge expenditure of capital had not gone unnoticed. Among many of the canal employees an air of heroic unreality had descended, as if infected by de Lesseps's fantastical pronouncements from Paris. One of the American “inspectors” remarked on the “tendency on the part of the canal officers to exaggerate everything that had been done by the company.” Others, though, testified that several of the Company's managers were privately saying that the project was catastrophically behind schedule. In July 1884, twenty-four-year-old acting consul Claude Mallet reported back to London, “It is generally believed here that the present Company can never finish the work, as the cost so far has greatly exceeded expectations.” For him, such a project could never be completed by private capital. Only a government could carry through such a task. The Star and Herald agreed, in the same month goading the U.S. government to take on the job: “It would be a pity,” it wrote, “that a work such as this should be left partially completed as a monument of the folly and gullibility of Capital.” A government had to step in, and “it would be well for Americans to remember that the government of France would have the most powerful motives to undertake it. There would be the natural desire to prevent the loss of French Capital, and the price of control and influence abroad is not a forgotten sentiment in France.”
A British observer, Admiral Bedford Pim, blamed the weaknesses of the original Wyse-Reclus surveys for the problems, and dismissed the sea-level plan as impossible. His only praise, after an extensive tour of the work, was for “the gallant employees who have struggled manfully to carry out the wishes of their chief.” The New York Herald, reporting the pessimistic analysis of the latest U.S. naval investigation, commented, “Under such circumstances, there is something amounting to heroism in the persistence of the French Company at Panama.”
he French engineers and their workers were now facing more than just financial or engineering difficulties. Their very lives were at stake. In 1882, 126 people had died in the hospitals, mainly from yellow fever or malaria. The following year, as the workforce tripled, so did the number of deaths, to over 400.
But the official tally did not tell the whole story. Many died before they reached the hospital. According to a lurid account by a New York Tribune correspondent, a number of workers ended up in unmarked graves. “Death becomes a grim joke, burial a travesty,” he reported. “An unconsidered laborer is buried under a hundred feet of earth— and very simply; rolled down an embankment, and twenty carloads of earth rolled after him.” Although the Company itself covered hospital expenses for its employees, the vast majority were on the payroll of contractors, who were charged a dollar a day for the care of their workers in the hospital. It was alleged that some simply dismissed their men at the first sign of sickness rather than foot the bill. In addition, the hospitals themselves were feared and shunned, and with good reason. If you did not have malaria or yellow fever when you went in, you were likely to have it soon afterward. In the absence of knowledge of the transmission of these diseases by mosquito there were no efforts to isolate known fever victims or to keep the insects from the wards. Furthermore, to protect the hospitals’ much-admired gardens from leaf-eating ants, waterways had been constructed around the flowerbeds. Inside the hospital itself, water pans were placed under bedposts to keep off ants and other crawling pests. Both insect-fighting methods provided excellent and convenient breeding sites for mosquitoes carrying yellow fever or malaria. Doctor William Gorgas, who led the medical effort on the Isthmus during the American construction period, later wrote, “Probably if the French had been trying to propagate Yellow Fever, they could not have provided conditions better adapted to the purpose.”
Gorgas reckoned that for every death in one of the hospitals, two occurred outside, which would put the 1883 toll at nearer 1,300 than 419. This is conjecture, of course, and should be treated with caution. Nevertheless, there is fairly overwhelming anecdotal evidence to back up this claim. Charles Wilson, a half-Scottish, half-French sailor, was twenty-one when he arrived on the Isthmus in 1882 and started work for the Panama Railroad. Wilson was what was known as a “tropical tramp.” He was born on board a ship and never belonged in any place except where there was money to be made. He found that working on the Isthmus earned him far more than the $20 a month he had been getting as a sailor. But there were, he said, “thousands dying with yellow fever, malaria, and all kinds of diseases …everywhere, in the streets and under houses.” “As for the men,” reported the Montreal Gazette, “they die on the line and are buried, and no attention is paid to the matter. Two American carpenters are in an unnamed grave near Emperador …” Wolfred Nelson, the Canadian doctor, remembered an endless procession of funeral trains, reckoning that during the wet seasons of 1882 and 1883 “burials averaged from thirty to forty per day, and that for weeks together.”
The correspondence of the British consulate also draws a picture of illness growing into unmanageable proportions. The staff themselves were forever sickening and pleading to be allowed to leave the Isthmus to recover in Jamaica or back in England. Consul Edward March was invalided home in April 1882 after just a month in Panama, and six weeks later his replacement, Courtenay Bennett, reported that he had malaria, or “miasmic affections” as his doctor described it. By June the following year his replacement was also ill and had to leave the Isthmus. The melancholy pattern, which was shared by all the other European consulships, was repeated for the rest of the 1880s, which meant that the young Claude Mallet was acting consul for much of the decade.
Mallet reports a huge increase in the consul's workload as a result of having to sort out and return the effects of dead Jamaican laborers. He was also called on to help those abandoned by their employers, sometimes collecting sick men from the streets and conveying them to the hospital. Often Mallet would have to pay for the care out of his own pocket and take his chances that a tightfisted Foreign Office would refund the expense.
At the beginning of 1884 it was hoped that the advent of the dry season would again reduce the cases of fever, but it was clear that Panama was now in the grip of a major epidemic. Carelessly discarded spoil from the works had blocked watercourses and created permanent stagnant pools—ideal mosquito breeding grounds—all over the Isthmus. On January 21 the Directeur Général Jules Dingler's daughter Louise, a pretty, dark-haired girl of about eighteen, died, in miserable agony, of yellow fever. The family was beyond grief. “My poor husband is in a despair that is painful to see.” Madame Dingler wrote to Charles de Lesseps in Paris. “My first desire was to flee as fast as possible and carry far from this murderous country those who are left to me. But my husband is a man of duty and tries to make me understand that his honour is to the trust you have placed in him and that he cannot fail in his task without failing himself. Our dear daughter was our pride and joy.” The day after her death Dingler was back at work at the usual time.
It did not stop there. A month later Dingler's young son, Jules, sickened with the same disease and died three days later. The Star and Herald reflected the horror and grief of the whole community: “Mr. Dingler was but 20 years of age, the picture of physical health and strength… Sympathy is weak, and words are powerless in such a cruel blow, to convey to the grief stricken parents the sense of loss and sorrow which these sad events have occasioned in the minds and hearts of all.” Soon after, Louise Dingler's young fiancé, who had come with the family from France, contracted the disease and also died.
The high-profile deaths in early 1884 caused a panic akin to that following the deaths of Etienne and Bionne back in 1881. Some three hundred French engineers applied to return home, and were refused. Nonetheless, men deserted from all parts of the line. For others, however, the specter of death served to raise their work to higher, sublime levels of heroism. They were sacrificing themselves, one young engineer wrote, “as surely as those who fought at Lodi or Marengo laid down their lives for France.” Although the teachers in the engineering schools in France were now quietly trying to deter their pupils from serving in Panama, idealistic young Frenchmen continued to journey to the Isthmus. One such was twenty-five-year-old Philippe Bunau-Varilla, who arrived that year and would become a key figure in the history of the canal. He had met Ferdinand de Lesseps in 1880 and ever since had been in the grip of the Great Idea of the canal. He was the apogee of graduates from the elite Ecole Polytechnique, France's top engineering college, where military uniforms were worn and the motto was La Patrie, les sciences, et la gloire. For Bunau-Varilla, the canal was “the greatest conception the world has ever seen of the French genius.” “The constant dangers” of yellow fever, he wrote in his autobiography, “exalted the energy of those who were filled with a sincere love for the great task undertaken. To its irradiating influence was joined the heroic joy of self-sacrifice for the greatness of France.”
s Dingler pushed ahead with the work during the rest of 1884, achieving, in the circumstances, great progress, the death toll kept rising. In July, an outbreak of dysentery struck in Panama and Colón, filling the hospitals, while in the flood plains of the valleys, ideal breeding ground for mosquitoes, six out of seven Europeans working there during mid-1884 had contracted malaria or yellow fever. By the late summer of that year work was almost impossible in these sectors. One engineer told an American doctor that he had come over with a party of seventeen young French engineers. In a month all but one had died of yellow fever. At any one time, more than a third of the laborers were sick, making a mockery of Dingler's strenuous efforts to increase the workforce.
In October 1884 a floating hospital was set up in Colón Harbor to deal with the overflow from the hospital, where the nurses, the sisters under Marie Roulon, were also dropping like flies. By the end of the year all but three of the original twenty-four nurses were dead, and the annual figure for mortalities in the hospitals alone had tripled from the year before to nearly twelve hundred. If Gorgas's estimate of the true level of fatalities is to be believed, this meant that more than ten people were dying every single day.
Many on the Isthmus put these deaths from yellow fever down to the “abominable neglect of all sanitary measures” in the terminal cities. Where the French had jurisdiction, such as in Cristóbal, the new town built on reclaimed land to the side of Manzanillo Island, or in the settlements along the line, it was another story, but in Panama City and Colón the French were powerless. According to Charles Wilson, in Colón, “There was green water, and all kinds of rubbish and rotting things in the center of the streets.” Certainly the lack of sewers and clean water would have contributed to the problems with dysentery, but, of course, they had nothing to do with yellow fever.
Others still subscribed to Dingler's original theory that “only the drunk and the dissipated die of Yellow Fever.” The Star and Herald put the yellow fever deaths in Colón down to the “host of idle loafers, who infect the town and load the air with their obscene and vulgar epithets at every hour of the day.” In April 1883 Wolfred Nelson was taken ill, but recovered, he said, “thanks to abstemious habits.” “Woe to the feeble person who doesn't know how to quench his thirst!” wrote a senior French engineer. “He falls into drunkenness, and soon, aged, faded, with haggard eyes, shrunken, face drawn, yellow-skinned, he drags his broken spirit along in a body lacking in all vigour. And certainly he deserves it. It is fair that this shameful vice should be severely punished by nature.”
There was certainly no shortage of “vice” in the terminal cities and along the canal line. In Panama, there were numerous bars, “designed for nothing but hasty drinking,” according to a French engineer, “…horrible dens that look and smell like the filthiest grog shops.” Colón, which retained its frontier town atmosphere, and where the bars would always stay open later than in Panama City, was the worst, “a veritable sink of iniquity,” according to an American visitor. The single main street, running along the waterfront, he reported, “was composed almost entirely of places for gambling, drinking and accompanying vices … and these diversions were in full progress day and night with such abandon as to make the town uninhabitable for decent persons.” Claude Mallet described the town as “the hardest drinking and the most immoral place I have ever known.”
According to Tracy Robinson it was the fault of the “spirit of venality and corruption [that] pervaded almost the entire French Company,” which “spread beyond the service itself, to debauch (there is no other word for it) the whole Isthmian community.” Wolfred Nelson blamed the myth that any human being in hot climates requires alcohol. “Another point in this connection,” he continued. “There is a general belief held by many intelligent people that a residence within hot countries has a marked tendency to increase the sexual instincts. Such is not the case. The real explanation is this. The majority are away from the refining influences of early culture and home life—generally they are single men,—in a warm climate where all the conditions are supposed to produce general relaxation. There is a little society open to such men. If they become ‘one of the boys,’—and the vast majority do, that is the end of it, and generally of them too, for this means late hours, gambling and other distractions, largely pour passer le temps. Such men readily become victims to disease.”
Doubtless, huge quantities of wine, champagne, and anisado were consumed during the French years. On one road in Colón where bars and prostitutes vied for trade, so many bottles were thrown out into the street that in time they formed a solid surface beneath the mud and when pavement-laying crews arrived years later there was no need for them to put down a gravel base. Supplies were imported from France and sold at wholesale prices to Company employees, who would then sell them on to their friends. Claude Mallet reported that he “could get claret for 6d a bottle …wines were so cheap that there was a habit of starting the day with a pint of champagne frappé ‘to kill the microbes.’” There was, of course, a sensible reason for this, as Mallet explains: “No one dared drink the water that was sold in small measures from barrels.” In addition, as Nelson says, there were few other ways pour passer le temps.
In mid-1883 de Lesseps announced that he had ordered the opening of “assembly rooms, provided with books, periodicals, and various indoor games” where employees could gather, but there is no evidence that this actually happened. Instead, in Panama City, employees had a choice between the “horrible” local establishments or the Grand Hotel. A young French engineer described the scene there: “A great enormous hall with a stone floor was the bar-room.” In the center were two huge billiard tables and beyond them a vast bar. “In front of these rows of bottles with many coloured labels, most of the commercial business of Panama is transacted;—standing and imbibing cocktails,—always the eternal cocktail!” Across the hall was a little room crowded with people, “where roulette was going on.” After each throw the croupier “announced the number in three languages: ‘Treinta y seis, colorado! Thirty-six red! Trente-six, rouge!’ Oh, this roulette, how much it has cost all grades of canal employees!”
“It was useless,” he went on, “to look for other pleasures. They were nowhere to be found. In this town there was neither theatre, concert nor cafe, nothing but the hall of the Grand Hotel, to which one must always return.”
Furthermore, as one French visitor explained, “passions run high owing to the constant proximity of death.” Another wrote that “the Sword of Damocles hangs over everyone.” The threat of fever, he said, explained the fever of gambling that gripped the Isthmus. “In this country,” wrote Henri Cermoise, “death and la fête are perpetually hand in hand. Yellow fever threatens always and one is so unsure of tomorrow that one throws oneself into pleasures.”
The fast, frontier-town lifestyle contributed to a general lawlessness on the Isthmus. In addition, the money being poured into the great ditch had attracted to Panama numerous “foreign men of dubious reputation,” in effect desperate and vicious characters from all over Central America. The Star and Herald from this time is full of accounts of robberies and murders. In May 1883, for example, a man was stabbed to death during an argument, “which as usual was occasioned by the vile rum which is sold so freely at all points on the line … Human life,” the paper concluded, “is held at too cheap a rate on the Isthmus.” The situation worsened as the West Indians started arming themselves with revolvers to defend against machete attacks from their Colombian enemies. As always, Colón fared the worst, where the people were “an agglomeration of all nations, and tribes and tongues, drawn from all lands and swayed by a thousand sentiments and impulses.” During the rainy season, when the work on the canal fell off, there were hundreds of unemployed in the town as the steamers continued to arrive from Kingston, and “Fighting, drunkenness and the like are of everyday occurrences.” Charles Wilson was living in Colón's Washington Hotel. “There were all kinds of people living in the town, and some of the worst kinds,” he wrote. “When you took a trip into it at night it was a question whether you would come out alive or dead.”
During 1884 there was widespread political instability in the province, exacerbated by high inflation, food shortages, and the general social unrest the canal project was causing. At one point, in October, there were two rival state presidents, each with men under arms in Panama City. The following year, this would lead to fullblown civil war on the Isthmus, with serious consequences. Under such circumstances, the authorities were utterly incapable of policing the volatile streets of either of the main cities. Europeans and Americans increasingly looked to the foreign warships, frequently anchored in the bays of the terminal cities, for their protection. The small police force was ineffective and partisan, preferring to extort money from West Indians on the pretext of fines for vagrancy than solve any crimes. Dingler offered to contribute money to the establishment of a new three-hundred-strong police force, but this foundered on local objections.
There was to be one more personal tragedy for the Directeur Général. Around Christmas 1884 Madame Dingler started showing the unmistakable symptoms of the dreaded yellow fever. She died on January 1,1885, completing the total destruction of his family. At last, Dingler's heroic steadfastness was beaten. His wife had frequently gone riding on one of two magnificent horses worth 25,000 francs, which had been a gift from Gadpaille in Jamaica. After her death, the director did not wish to encounter anyone else on the streets of Panama riding these horses, so he ordered the beasts to be killed. The staff refused to carry out the command. Finally they found a poor fellow who was given the role of executioner, but at the last moment his hand trembled and he could not finish the job. For hours the horses were heard, partially disemboweled, screaming in agony. In the end they were shot dead. This execution figures in the accounts of the Company, and is billed as a hole of 33 meters paid at fifty piastres per cubic meter. Dingler was a broken man, deeply pitied by the canal workforce. He stayed on the job for another six months, but his wife's death ended his dynamic leadership of the canal project. He returned to France in June 1885 and, exhausted and heartbroken, was himself dead before the end of the year.