Paris in the spring of 1879 was awash with frenetic financial speculation. Money was more plentiful and mobile than ever before. The expansion of the railway and telegraph networks had brought new branch banks to provincial France, and the reach of those seeking to raise capital had widened considerably. Penalties for debt and bankruptcy had been eased, and restrictions on issuing shares had been lifted. In the Paris bourse, young stockbrokers noisily wheeled and dealed, betting on pretty much anything and often making huge sums for themselves. One such was the artist Paul Gauguin, who would later work on the Panama Canal. In 1879, he made 30,000 francs, a fortune at the time.
In spite of endemic political instability, everywhere there was optimism and energy, a spirit of revanche. Humiliated by the Prussians in the war of 1870, France was determined that it would be great again, and would recover its prestige not through fighting, but through, as Victor Hugo put it “astonishing] the world by the great deeds that can be won without a war.” In the spring of 1878 Paris held a great exposition, which covered sixty-six acres of the city and attracted thirteen million visitors. It cost a fortune, but it demonstrated to the world France's recovery and new ambition.
The embodiment of this spirit of revanche was the builder of the Suez Canal, Ferdinand de Lesseps, called by Gambetta “Le Grand Français.” Untainted by the events of 1870, he represented a new patriotism based not on war but on achievement for all mankind.
De Lesseps had followed his father into the diplomatic service, and in 1832, aged twenty-seven, had been appointed vice-consul at Alexandria and served in various roles in Egypt for the next five years. During this time he befriended the son of Egypt's viceroy and also became interested in the idea of a canal linking the Mediterranean to the Red Sea.
After several positions in Europe, de Lesseps left the diplomatic service in 1849, but returned to Egypt six years later as the guest of the new viceroy, his friend Said Pasha, who had just succeeded his father. Although de Lesseps had neither expertise nor money, after just over two weeks’ stay he had persuaded Said Pasha to sign the concession that gave the Frenchman the right to build the Suez Canal.
A plan was drawn up by two French engineers and approved by an international commission of civil engineers, but there were plenty of critics of the scheme. In Britain, Robert Stephenson said he believed it to be a folly on a huge scale, and Lord Palmerston, now prime minister, called it “an undertaking which, I believe, in point of commercial character, may be deemed to rank among the many bubble schemes that from time to time have been palmed upon gullible capitalists.” In fact, the British feared the alterations in the status quo that the canal would bring. Other doubters at home and abroad predicted that the trench would fill with sand from the desert as quickly as it was dug.
But nothing could dishearten Ferdinand de Lesseps. Supported by Emperor Napoléon III and Empress Eugénie, who was a cousin of his, de Lesseps succeeded in rousing the patriotism of the French and obtaining by their subscriptions more than half of the required capital of 200 million francs. The other half of the shares were taken up by the Egyptian government, who also forced thousands of local laborers to work on the project in conditions of semi-slavery The excavation operations through the desert took nearly eleven years, during the course of which numerous technical, political, and financial problems had to be overcome. The final cost was more than double the original estimate, but the canal opened to traffic on November 17, 1869. De Lesseps, then sixty-four, was world famous.
Celebrated as the greatest living Frenchman, he was honored around the world. In 1870 he visited England, and The Times eulogized him as a “man eminent for originality enterprise courage and persistence … moral qualities of the highest order.” At a banquet in his honor at Stafford House he was toasted by both Gladstone and Disraeli, and six days later more than twenty thousand people filled London's Crystal Palace for a reception in his honor.
He was praised for having the unshakable confidence to believe in his project even when virtually no one else had done, but in France in particular he was also seen as a man of the people for having built the canal with the capital of twenty-five thousand small investors, rather than the big banks. Following Suez he was never out of the Paris papers, and the fact that he had a pretty, young wife and a brood of adorable children made him perfect fodder for the new illustrated magazines. When in the early 1880s he ascended to the pantheon of the French Academy, he was praised thus: “You exercise a charm. You have that supreme gift which works miracles … the true reason for your ascendancy is that people detect in you a heart full of sympathy for all that is human… people love you and like to see you and before you have opened your mouth you are cheered. Your adversaries call this your cleverness; we call it your magic.”
There was a special magic, too, about the nature of his achievement in Egypt. In a stroke, India had been brought nearly six thousand miles closer to Europe. Furthermore, in a Victorian age determined to take on and conquer the world with innovation, engineering, and entrepreneurship, the Suez Canal was the perfect marriage of commerce, transport, and industry, the forces that were changing the world. It was also seen as a great civilizing achievement, which “will help to wed the whole universe into one great unit, politically, industrially, and religiously,” as was written at the time.”The two sides of the world approach to greet one another …” wrote a British commentator in a similar vein.
But it was not just about high ideals. By the late 1870s, the benefits of the canal to European manufacturers were more than apparent, as the raw materials of the East, as well as its markets, had been brought so much nearer. More than anything, the canal gave Europe a critical advantage over the frighteningly fast-growing economy of the United States’ East Coast. For the canal's original backers, too, it was a bonanza. Initially the share price of de Lesseps's company had slumped. It soon turned out that his promises made during the construction for the traffic through the canal had been wild overestimates. But by 1879 a 500-franc ($100) share was trading for over 2,000 francs, and the company was paying dividends of 14 percent. Suez had made a lot of people rich.
Bathed in public adulation, de Lesseps, although by any reckoning now an old man, was not going to content himself with just the Suez Canal. “Is it not a glorious thing for us to be able to carry out… vast projects,” he wrote, “thus affirming the progress made by our race and age, in which all obstacles seem to have disappeared.” In 1873 he became interested in a project for uniting Europe and Asia by a railway to Bombay, with a branch to Peking. He subsequently got involved in a harebrained scheme to break through a low-lying ridge in Tunisia to create a huge inland sea in the Sahara.
It was an international geographical conference at the Louvre in Paris in 1875 that saw the launch of de Lesseps's Panama ambition. Four years before, a similar meeting in Antwerp had commended the work of a succession of French explorers, who had claimed that there was a low pass between the headwaters of the Tuyra and Atrato rivers in Darién. None of them, however, had actually reached it.
Ferdinand de Lesseps had become a leading light in the Paris Geographical Society, under whose auspices the conference was held. Undoubtedly the star of the show, he spoke about his experience with the Suez Canal, but then went on to lay out for the first time his ambitions for an American waterway. Even at this early stage, he said he hoped that it would be possible to construct in Central America a canal à niveau, at sea level, without locks. Swayed by the optimistic claims of the French explorers, he announced that his personal preference was for a route in southern Darién. An American delegation was present reporting on the results of the Grant surveys, but their careful measurements in Darién seem to have been discounted. Instead, de Lesseps suggested, there should be new surveys undertaken in Darién. There was another crucial advantage to this area for de Lesseps that had nothing to do with surveys or geography: it was outside—just—the limit of the Panama Railroad's transit monopoly as granted by their concession from Bogotá.
Following the conference, the Paris Geographical Society established a special committee, with de Lesseps as president, to study the canal question. There were two Colombian delegates included, and it was hoped that scientists from all over the world would be involved, with the idea of further exploration being jointly undertaken and financed. It was an idealistic beginning.
But at this point a private syndicate emerged and offered to fund the work itself. Led by General Istvan Türr, a Hungarian who had fought with Garibaldi during the unification of Italy, the group, which called itself the Société Civile Internationale du Canal Inter-océanique de Darién, included eminent figures from the worlds of letters, industry, and finance. There were some less salubrious characters, too, as would emerge later. In total their capital was 300,000 francs, represented by sixty shares of 5,000 francs each. De Lesseps was not a shareholder, but he was a friend of Türr and a number of the others.
By November 1866 a seventeen-man survey team had been assembled. In charge of the party was Lieutenant Lucien Napoléon Bonaparte Wyse, a twenty-nine-year-old naval officer, brother-in-law to Türr and fellow syndicate member. Wyse had experience of exploration on the Isthmus and was distantly related to his famous namesake. Second in charge was thirty-three-year-old Armand Reclus, a naval officer and friend of Wyse.
Surveying work started on the Pacific side of the proposed Atrato–Tuyra route. At first Reclus enjoyed himself, imagining, as Selfridge had done fifteen years earlier, what their work might bring about: “Our hope,” he wrote in his diary, “is to fill these waters with all the ships which will bring world commerce to the canal: clippers with their huge hulls, three-masters letting their white sails fill to the breeze, busy steamships ploughing through the water with all the force of their steel lungs, brigs, all sails set, vessels of every nation.”
But the jungle, exciting at first, soon became monotonous and frightening. Everyone seemed to be ill with something or other; mosquitoes made their nights a misery. It soon became clear that the claims of the earlier French explorers were “swarming with errors.” By the time the rains brought exploration to an end in March, two of the team had died of disease; a third succumbed during the voyage home.
Wyse and Reclus arrived back in Paris thoroughly disheartened. When they met de Lesseps and the rest of the Société's Committee of Initiative, they made it clear that a sea-level canal in Darién was out of the question without a huge tunnel, and even a lock canal would require a tunnel as well. This was not to de Lesseps's liking. He had made up his mind that only a canal à niveau would do, and he urged Wyse to return to the Isthmus and widen his investigations. De Lesseps later told American reporters that he ordered Wyse specifically to investigate a sea-level canal along the line of the Panama Railroad, suggesting that he had given up on Darién and decided to bite the bullet about the PRR's local transit monopoly.
The party, with many of the survivors from the first trip on board again, left for Panama at the end of 1877. This survey would be the first that would result in actual canal construction. Again, it was a small and inexpert group dispatched by the private syndicate, in contrast to the huge U.S. Navy teams that had been sent out from the United States. More striking still is that in spite of the supposed instructions from de Lesseps, the second Wyse expedition spent its first two months looking at the San Blas and southern Darién routes. Then, leaving Reclus in charge, Wyse headed for Panama. There, he traveled along the route of the railroad, before ordering Reclus to cut short his explorations in Darién and return to Panama. From what he had seen, Wyse had decided a preference for linking the Chagres and Río Grande valleys, effectively following the route of the railroad. The valleys were the lowest and longest in the region, had been comprehensively surveyed, and were served by the railway. “You should start preparations immediately to study the route of an inter-ocean canal at sea level, but with a tunnel,” Wyse wrote to Reclus. Waiting for Reclus in Panama would be a “succinct version” of the American engineer Lull's report (though not the unpublished accompanying maps and charts), the maps made by the Frenchman Napoléon Garella in the 1840s, and the American railroad survey from the 1850s. Wyse himself left for Bogotá on February 25, to negotiate a new concession that would allow a canal to be built right on top of the American-controlled railway route.
Reclus's work in the river valleys of the Chagres and the Río Grande, which largely determined the route of the French canal, remains highly controversial, and would be viciously attacked by the enemies of the canal, in particular the Americans. It was indeed unfortunate that the surveying of the route later adopted was granted such a small proportion of the two expeditions’ time—less than six weeks. In addition, the small party was hampered by disease, a fire in Panama City that destroyed much of their papers and tools, and an early start to the rainy season, which rendered further surveying impossible.
Meanwhile, Wyse had more clear-cut success. Meeting the Colombian president on March 14, he was given all encouragement and presented a draft contract the very next day. Five days later, after only minor amendments, the deal was signed. Under the terms of the “Wyse concession” the Türr syndicate was granted exclusive right to build an interoceanic canal through Panama. As a provision of the deal, the waterway would revert to the Colombian government after ninety-nine years without compensation. It was also stipulated that the exact route of the canal should be determined by an international commission of competent engineers, just as had been the case with Suez. The syndicate could sell the concession to a private company but not to a government. Colombia was to receive a percentage of the gross revenue rising from 5 percent over time, with a minimum amount of $250,000 per annum. It was left to the concession holders to negotiate “some amicable agreement” with the Panama Railroad concerning its rights and privileges.
Back in France, Wyse and Reclus worked on collating their information. The date of the “International Commission,” as demanded by the terms of the Wyse concession, was set for May the following year, and in the meantime Wyse, Türr, and Reclus, in concert with Ferdinand de Lesseps, prepared a series of plans to present.
Just before the conference Wyse put together a table of seven options, to be decided by the delegates. Four were in Darién or San Blas, all of which required extensive locks, tunnels, or both. The fifth and sixth options were the Panama Railroad Colón–Panama route. One was Lull's twenty-five-lock canal from the Grant surveys, the other was at sea level with (“or even without”) a 5- to 8-kilometer tunnel. Wyse estimated that this could be built in six years at a cost of 500 million francs. The last option was in Nicaragua, with twenty-one locks. The disadvantages of this route were stressed: the complete absence of suitable ports, political instability, and the fact that the land over which the canal would pass was disputed between Nicaragua and her southerly neighbor, Costa Rica. In his conclusion, Wyse was unambiguous about his preferred option: the sea-level Panama route, and in his part of the published report Reclus expanded this to include five variations, one of which, seen as uneconomical by its author, dispensed with the tunnel altogether. Although Wyse acknowledged the difficulties presented by the Chagres River, he stressed that they were outweighed by the advantages this route offered, which included, somewhat surprisingly, the political stability of the province of Panama.
In all, some one hundred pages of maps, notes, and data were collected together. To the great disappointment of Reclus and Wyse, the detailed tables and maps from the United States’ Grant surveys had, in the end, not been forthcoming from the Americans. All versions of the canal were designed to accommodate what was then the largest ship in the French Navy, which had a draught of 7.9 meters. The tunnel would be 24 meters wide and rise 34 meters above the water level to allow ships through without lowering their masts. For Wyse and Reclus, the construction of such a massive tunnel was not the impossibility it might seem now. Seven years earlier had seen the completion of the Mont Cenis Tunnel through the Alps. Thirteen kilometers long, it was built with the help of key new technologies— dynamite (electrically ignited) and pneumatic drills. An even longer Alpine tunnel, the Saint Gotthard, was currently under construction, and in England, work had started on a seven-kilometer tunnel under the River Severn. In 1875, bills had been passed in the French and British governments for the construction of a tunnel under the Channel, an astonishing distance of about thirty miles. Geological surveys for the project had started in France the following year.
As the Le Congrès International d'Etudes du Canal Inter-océanique assembled in Paris on May 15, 1879, many of the leaders of these projects were present. From Britain came Sir John Hawk-shaw, in charge of the Severn tunnel; Ribourt, one of the engineers of the St. Gotthard Tunnel, was there, although as an observer rather than a delegate. In all there were 136 delegates from twenty-two nations, including financiers and businessmen as well as civil and military engineers. The American contingent included Ammen, Menocal, and Selfridge. All had been personally invited by de Lesseps. The delegates included a large proportion of Frenchmen—over seventy—and among this group were a number of Le Grand Français ‘s Suez cronies. One was Abel Couvreux of Couvreux, Hersent, the giant contracting firm that had helped build the Egyptian canal.
By this stage de Lesseps seems to have insinuated himself into every aspect of the canal planning process. It was Wyse who did the deal with the Colombian government and had led the surveying expeditions, but all the talk was of the involvement of Ferdinand de Lesseps. Nevertheless, Wyse knew he needed the support of a man of de Lesseps's stature if his plan was not to join the host of schemes that had come to nothing.
De Lesseps had a proven track record from Suez. He never professed to be a trained engineer. But he was someone who could make things happen. More than anything, he was a communicator, one who could conjure up both the necessary capital and the dedication among the workforce that a project like the Panama Canal would demand. He had the reputation, energy, and charisma to turn fantastical schemes into reality. In many ways, after so many disappointments and false starts, he was just what was needed to deliver to Panama its destiny as a crossroads of the world. Inevitably, though, his strengths were also his weaknesses. His confidence was not only in himself, but also in his age. His lack of concern about the extraordinary challenges of the task ahead had its foundations in his faith in the serendipitous nature of emerging technology. He was sure that the right people with the right ideas and the right machines would somehow miraculously appear and take care of all the seemingly impossible challenges, just as had happened at Suez.
De Lesseps was not alone in riding a wave of confidence in engineering and technological progress. As well as those amazing Alpine tunnels, the previous decade had seen the creation of London's sewer system and the first electric streetlights; 1869 had witnessed the opening of the Union Pacific Railroad across the United States, as well as the Suez Canal. The Brooklyn Bridge was under construction in New York. Increased world trade had driven the development of new iron-screw ocean steamers. Alongside spectacular recent advances in chemical and electrical science, cheap steel, made by the Bessemer or Siemens-Martin hearth methods, together with new techniques in precision manufacturing, had made possible a huge range of new goods at affordable prices. Improvements gave birth to further progress and commerce, in a seemingly endless virtuous circle. All this was celebrated in international “expositions,” such as the American Centennial in Philadelphia in 1876, which in its machinery hall showcased cutting-edge new technologies. Most impressive was the gigantic 1,500-horsepower Corliss Steam Engine, taller than a house, which alone powered thirteen acres of machinery.
Dreams of ever more powerful machines, of cheaper and quicker transport and communication, of opening up the world to increased trade and “civilization,” gripped the public imagination as an endless stream of amazing new inventions and mind-bogglingly ambitious engineering projects were introduced to the world. De Lesseps's Panama Canal, which embodied so much of this forward-looking confidence, would surely, it was believed, take its rightful place amongst these great achievements.