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Whose Canal Is It, Anyway?

hatever the news agenda at the beginning of August 1914, the opening of the Panama Canal was an achievement, an epic battle won, which still thrills nearly a hundred years later. Regardless of the motivation or the means, the end result of cutting in two the eight-thousand-mile-long maritime barrier of the American continent fulfilled the dream of four hundred years. In 1914 scores of books and articles were published in the United States celebrating the great achievement of the American construction leadership. And rightly so. The completion of the canal was at the time history's greatest engineering marvel and a victory of man over nature that would not be matched until the moon landings.

When one considers that this world record–breaking construction was carried out in tropical conditions, in a previously disease-ridden area with endemic political unrest, with no local workforce and two thousand miles from home base, the achievement becomes even more impressive.

That six pairs of locks were constructed, from start to finish, in approximately four years is remarkable, and would be considered a perfectly reasonable time frame even today. The Gatún Dam, also, unlike the hastily and cheaply built Johnstown dam, was a solid, professional, and lasting piece of work. And by making the Chagres River an ally rather than an enemy of the canal, the Americans mastered a problem that had ruined the French effort.

So the United States engineers managed to complete in ten years a goal that had defeated the French for over twenty-two. Between 1881 and 1903, the two French companies removed 73 million cubic yards of spoil. Although the Americans took out only 14 million cubic yards during the difficult early years, from 1907 onward Goethals's “Army of Panama” moved an astonishing 219 million cubic yards. Much credit for this excavation must go to Stevens's Railroad-era workers. Stevens built the digging machine, having learned from the mistakes of Wallace; Goethals merely had to turn the handle and, now and then, tighten the screws.

Furthermore, the end product was vastly superior to anything conceived by the French. The fact that the canal is still, a hundred years later, a key artery of world commerce, is testimony to how the Americans “thought big.”

The French failed, of course, because of disease and because they ran out of money. They were also unlucky, suffering floods, fires, and revolution on the Isthmus, as well as the financial mugging by Trenor Park of the Panama Railroad Company. But they massively underestimated the size of the task they had taken on. De Lesseps's first calculation of the amount of excavation needed for the sea-level plan was only a quarter of that removed by the Americans for their lock-canal project. Furthermore, the sea-level plan, the culmination of centuries of wishful thinking about the Isthmus, was simply impossible—the slides in the Cut would have been even worse if the digging went down another 60 or 70 feet. As Goethals commented, there was simply not enough money in the world to pay for such a plan. For a private company looking for a return on its investment, it was hopeless.

The Americans, as has been seen, repeated many of the mistakes of the French, but they also had key advantages in addition to their much more reliable financial backing. Crucial to the morale of the white American workforce was the defeat of yellow fever and taming of malaria, made possible by discoveries that largely postdated the de Lesseps effort. The presence of the U.S. military and their firm grip on Panamanian politics meant that the Americans suffered none of the political instability, revolution, and violence that the French had to work around, in spite of the long-established local antipathy toward the “Yankees.” Advances in precision manufacturing, assembly-line production, and steel technology, driven in part by the naval armaments and motor industries, meant that the U.S. machinery was far superior to that of the French. The Bucyrus shovels were capable of excavating at a rate three or four times greater than that of the best French machines. The Americans also had better drills and explosives and superior expertise in railroad transportation. And in Stevens and Goethals they found determined and accomplished leadership.

For all Theodore Roosevelt's bellicosity, the war against the Panama jungle and mountains would be the only battle he would fight as president. On several occasions—the choice of the Panama route, the creation of the Republic of Panama, the backing of Gorgas, and the choice of the lock and lake plan—his intervention was decisive. Certainly, Roosevelt was in no doubt where the credit should go. In 1908, as he was preparing to leave office, he wrote of the canal project to a newspaper editor in London: “This I can say absolutely was my own work, and could not have been accomplished save by me or by some man of my temperament.” Out of office, he was even more boastful, saying to an audience at the University of California at Berkeley in 1911, “I am interested in the Panama Canal because I started it. If I had followed traditional, conservative methods I would have submitted a dignified State paper of probably 200 pages to Congress and the debates on it would have been going on yet; but I took the Isthmus, started the canal and then left Congress not to debate the canal, but to debate me and in portions of the public press the debate still goes on as to whether or not I acted properly in getting the canal but while the debate goes on the canal does too.” What was key, Roosevelt pronounced in his autobiography, was that “somebody [namely, himself] was prepared to act with decision.”

The speech in California, quoted and misquoted in newspapers across the United States, caused a sensation, and reignited the controversy of America's role in the “Panama Revolution.” The whole affair, argued a contributor to the North American Review in 1912, had been a “Chapter of National Dishonor.” A prominent U.S. historian described it as “an affront to international decency.” Alfred Mahan himself replied to these attacks, writing, “The summary ejectment of Colombia from property which she could not improve herself, and against the improvement of which by another she raised frivolous obstacles, is precisely in line with transactions going on all over the world… India, Egypt, Persia, Tripoli, Tunis, Algiers, Morocco, all stand on the same general basis as Panama.” Their occupation, he went on, was part of the “advance of the world.”

Many Americans agreed that the ends justified the means, but most were uneasy about this sort of high-flown imperialism, especially after difficulties from “insurgents” persisted in the Philippines and Cuba. In fact, Democratic Party policy was now that Colombia had a legitimate grievance for the loss of Panama, and after the 1910 midterm elections they had a majority in the House of Representatives. So when Roosevelt made his “I took the Isthmus” speech, a resolution was introduced and approved calling for a fresh congressional investigation into the whole affair. There were also renewed protests and demands for international arbitration from Colombia, and this time, with Roosevelt off the scene, they were heard sympathetically. In 1911 the Taft administration sent James du Bois to Bogotá to secure an agreement.

The envoy was shocked at the strength of feeling in Colombia. “Confidence and trust in the justice and fairness of the United States, so long manifested, has vanished completely,” he reported back to Washington the following year. He also found the country's leadership to be nothing like Roosevelt's famous description: “instead of ‘blackmailers’ and ‘bandits’ the public men of Colombia compare well with the public men of other countries in intelligence and respectability,” he wrote. “I deplore Colonel Roosevelt's bitter and misleading attack.”

In 1914 the Wilson government offered Colombia a “sincere apology” and an indemnity of $25 million, but such was the vehemence of Roosevelt's attack on this measure that Congress backed off ratifying the new treaty. Then, in January 1919, Roosevelt died, and a major impediment to the deal was removed. There was also a new and powerful incentive to repair relations with Bogotá—what was thought at the time to be the world's largest reserve of oil had been found under the soil of Colombia, and the Anglo-Dutch company Shell looked set to control the supply. So with Colombia's permission to remove the clause stating “sincere regret,” the treaty was ratified in early 1921 under Harding's Republican administration, and the $25 million, dubbed “canalimony” by one wit, was paid over.

Doubtless the agreement had as much to do with oil reserves and other business opportunities in Latin America as it did with righting a past wrong. U.S. investment in Colombia increased tenfold in the eight years after the deal. But for the New York World the paying of the indemnity was a vindication of the newspaper's investigation into “a most sordid and shameless conspiracy into which Theodore Roosevelt had dragged the United States Government in order to satisfy his personal ambition.” “The most flagrant act of Prussianism in the history of the United States,” the paper concluded, “is now definitely repudiated by the political party that ardently defended it for nearly eighteen years.”

n August 24, 1914, the Pleiades steamed into New York to be met by a cacophony of whistles from all the ships in the harbor. The vessel and its cargo, 5,000 tons of lumber and general merchandise, was unremarkable enough. What had caused the outbreak of celebrations was that the Pleiades was the first ship to trade between San Francisco and New York via the new canal. In her fourteen years plying the trade routes of the world, it was her most profitable trip yet. The canal had shaved nearly eight thousand miles off the journey between the two cities, almost halving the time at sea. Now two voyages could be made in the time of one. The benefits of the canal for U.S. trade and shipping were there for all to see.

The first years of the canal, however, saw continuing challenges. Two months after the transit of the Pleiades, a huge slide at east Culebra completely blocked the channel in half an hour. As before, Goethals, still in charge, ordered his dredges and shovels to dig it all out once more, but the following year saw more slides and the waterway blocked again for all but the smallest vessels, this time for seven months, and President Wilson was forced to return to a two-ocean navy, exactly what the canal had been built to avoid.

In fact, the problem of slides was never solved. All the canal maintenance teams could do was to remove the spoil and keep their fingers crossed. As recently as 1974, 250,000 cubic yards slid into the Cut, reducing it to one-way traffic and costing more than $2 million to remove.

The canal was also sporadically closed when, during the dry season, the level of Lake Gatún fell below that needed to operate the locks. So early 1935 saw the completion of a new structure at Alhajuela, the Madden Dam, which held a higher, secondary reserve of water to hold back extreme floods and to feed the larger, lower lake when necessary.

When it was found that the new aircraft carriers were too wide for the locks, the United States army engineers started work on two giant new lock basins at either end of the canal. But with America's entry into World War II, the project was shelved. By the end of the war, the United States fleet was so vast that the canal's original purpose— avoiding having to support a two-ocean navy—had been outgrown, although much use was made of the canal for ferrying men and materials for the Korean and Vietnam wars. Just as useful strategically were the army and air force bases in the Zone, from which U.S. power could be (and was) projected throughout Central America and northern South America.

The canal is now Panama's after two generations of struggle against the United States to regain control of their country. The bases are gone, and the canal has returned to the peaceful purpose always intended by idealists like Humboldt and de Lesseps. The checkpoints that prevented Panamanians from driving into the Zone are still there but abandoned and dilapidated, and the neat rows of identical houses for the U.S. administrators and military are now home to Panamanians, who, with their “dislike of uniformity,” have been busy personalizing them, adding scruffy lean-tos or extending verandas in a higgledy-piggledy fashion.

Opponents of the 1999 handover argued that the Panamanians would be unable to run the canal efficiently, but they have been proved wrong. Canal improvements have continued steadily and threats to the water supply, so vital for the huge locks, have been addressed. Now the ACP, the Autoridad del Canal de Panamá, has proposed an ambitious plan to build two giant new lock systems at either end of the canal to cope with the increasing number of post-Panamax container ships and the currently vast traffic from manufacturing centers in East Asia to the United States’ East Coast. Work began in 2007.

While wishing the project well, it is impossible to avoid hearing echoes of the canal's long history. There is a Technical Commission of international worthies (who even considered a sea-level scheme); the work will be done, it is planned, by machines rather than men; by 2025 the enlarged capacity will be contributing eight times the canal's current $500 million annual payment to the Panama treasury, or, as William Paterson said three hundred years ago, “trade will increase trade, and money will beget money.”

etween 1904 and 1914 the U.S. government paid out about $400 million for its canal. It was not until the 1950s, however, that the venture started showing a profit, far longer than private capital would have required. There were, of course, other costs as well. According to the official figures, just over six thousand employees died in ICC hospitals during the American construction period, of whom about three hundred were from the United States. As we have seen, this overall figure is likely to be an underestimate. Those who suffered most were the humble “silvermen.”

At the end of the construction period, some of the canal workers had made good, some had not. A number did return home, however, with a large enough nest egg to buy some land, or set up a small business, or just to impress their friends. “The returned Panama Canal labourer is an uncommonly vain fellow,” commented one observer in Barbados. “He struts along in all the glory of a gay tweed suit, a cylindrical collar and a flaring necktie.” Like “Colón Man” in Jamaica a generation before, returnees to Barbados brought with them a less subservient attitude and a new cosmopolitanism. They would be at the forefront of the social upheavals of the 1920s and 1930s that eventually led to political decolonization. Also, support for Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association would be strongest among those who had worked in Central America. Garvey had worked as a newspaper editor in Colón during the last years of the construction period, and his approach was characterized by internationalism, accentuating the identity of interests among blacks all over the world in place of narrow national loyalties. He was also a materialist—”Wealth is strength, wealth is power,” he wrote—and saw the Panama money earned by the blacks as a liberating force.

But not everyone returned home with their pockets rattling with coins. Jamaican Z. McKenzie remembered that “the completion of the waterway Brought great Desolation on the WI. [West Indian] employees … The wage during the Canal Construction was so small that we could not put by any Savings in the Bank. Hence the majority of us left empty handed, to live or die.” In fact many were like Albert Bannister, who wrote, “I would be glad to go home but I can't go home empty handed.” Some 45,000 Barbadians went to Panama, and of these only about half returned home at the end of the construction period. Barbados had a population of only 200,000, so the effect on the island was dramatic. For one thing, the planters no longer had the pool of cheap labor that had sustained their inefficient practices. And even more than in Jamaica a generation before, the demographics of the country were radically altered. As late as 1921 there were less than 400 males per 1,000 females on the island.

Of those who did not return, some enlisted in the British or French armies and were shipped to Europe. Others took jobs on the United Fruit or the sugar plantations in Guatemala, Cuba, and South America. A large number also stayed in Panama, of whom about 7,000 were kept on in the employ of the canal, often at lower wages than they had been paid during the construction period. Their treatment by the canal authorities was pretty much consistent with what had gone before, with the Gold/Silver Roll system as firm as ever and strikers or activists ruthlessly deported. If anything, some of them comment, it was worse, as the esprit de corps of the construction period did not last. They were also targeted by nationalist Panamanians, who from the 1930s and 1940s onward tried to purge their country of non-Hispanic elements.

Saddest of all, perhaps, was the treatment of the old-timers who had worked during the construction and then stayed with the canal for the rest of their working lives. Initially, there was no pension at all, then in the 1930s the canal authorities offered the men “disability relief” of one dollar a month per year worked, up to a maximum of $25. Inspectors would come to their houses and if they had possessions of any value, or if another family member worked, this sum was reduced.

One man who had worked for thirty-eight years for the canal, without a single week's holiday and having suffered numerous injuries in the course of his work, was told that he was to be retired and was given fifteen days’ notice to quit his Canal Zone quarters. He eventually found a small apartment in Colón for $25 a month, which was the sum total of his pension. His son described in 1946 how his father was “receiving not enough to live a comfortable life for his remaining days. Broken in body and spirit, he calmly smokes his faithful old pipe waiting for the call of his Maker.”

“Who dug the canal?” asks Jules LeCurrieux. “Who suffered most even until now? Who died most? Who but the West Indian negroes.” LeCurrieux worked from 1906 to 1938, in the course of which he was blinded in one eye while building the relocated railroad. When he was “retired,” he received $17.50 a month, “which was too small to live on.”

Many of the letters to the “Competition for the Best True Stories …” held in 1963, contain pathetic pleas for help with subsistence. A doctor who treated a lot of the old-timers in their last days told how the majority had chronic health problems not caused by the difficult conditions in which they had worked, but, shockingly, from malnutrition.

Most of the West Indians signed off their accounts for the competition with mixed feelings. Unlike the thousands who worked and died on the French canal, at least there was something to show for their efforts. As one digger put it, “I am glad to see that all my sweat, tears, and all those deaths were not in vain.” Having been part of the great achievement of the canal was a source of great pride. “It is a job well done,” wrote one Jamaican, “and a help to mankind.” “I got to be a man,” said another.

Harrigan Austin, who had arrived in 1905 hungry enough to attack bags of sugar on the wharf, wrote about the “untold benefits to the world at large” that the canal brought. “‘Tis reasonable in any big war or any such projects as this, something will happen,” he went on. “Some must suffer for the good and welfare of the others for where there is no Cross there may be no Crown … Thank God, the canal has been finished and has become a blessing to the world at large. A great accomplishment, the work of a Great Nation—May God Bless America.”

George Martin, who looked back fondly on the days when he could afford ham and ice-cream, concluded: “The work of the construction days was a hard and rough struggle, but it was done cheerfully, and faithfully; thus giving the American people their hearts’ desire.”

Other old-timers were less gracious about their treatment. Benjamin Jordan, who back in 1905 had lied about his age to get selected for a Karner contract, testified in 1984 that although he had not let the “discrimination take hold” of him, there were now, at the end of his life, feelings that he could no longer “put in a corner.” “For my years with the Panama Canal,” he said, “there is a feeling that I have not been treated as I should. I still enjoy life, like some of the others who survived. The fact still remains: much blood was spilt, and no one cared about it. But I'm still alive, under God's care and will always remember: the good that you do lives with you.”

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