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CHAPTER SEVEN

THE FATAL DECISION

The news from Paris, carried on the newly laid submarine cable from Jamaica, was keenly followed in Panama. At home, however, they had their own concerns. At the end of the previous year there had been an armed uprising against the state president; a district judge and two others were killed during violence in Panama City's sprawling and volatile suburbs. On April 17, a month before the conference opened in Paris, there was another attempted revolution led by soldiers of the Colombian garrison. “Tragic scenes,” wrote the New York Tribune's local correspondent, “fighting in the streets and many persons killed.” Although the conspirators surrendered, martial law came into force. “Business has been paralysed,” reported the British consul Hugh Mallet, “and trade diverted from the Isthmus by constant apprehensions of danger to life and property.” Disorder continued even as the delegates in Paris were debating the future of Panama. On May 24 there were violent scenes, including gunfire, in the provincial assembly building. Two weeks later, General Rafael Aizpuru, who had been state president on Wyse and Reclus's first visit to the Isthmus, led a revolt of his supporters among the racially mixed lower classes in Colón, while Benjamin Ruiz, another radical, tried unsuccessfully to seize power in Panama City.

None of this political turmoil seems to have registered with the delegates at the Paris conference who met in the afternoon of May 15 in the sumptuous surroundings of the headquarters of the Société de Géographie on Rue Saint Germain, in Paris's Latin Quarter. It was the best time of year to be in Paris: the sun was shining and the young chestnut trees that lined the street were in new leaf. Crowds had gathered to see the multinational delegates, clad in top hats and morning coats, alight from their carriages and make their entrance into the beautiful, lofty auditorium. Here, there was seating for nearly four hundred: de Lesseps, his officers, and the titular head of the Congress, a grand French admiral, de La Roncière-Le Noury, were on the small stage. The front rows were reserved for delegates, while all other seats were taken by spectators.

The opening session was purely ceremonial: the admiral made some remarks, then de Lesseps stood to great applause, welcoming the delegates “with all his heart.” Particular fuss was made of Rear Admiral Daniel Ammen, the head of the American delegation, who was made a vice president, and seated on the right of de Lesseps.

The real work of the Congress would be performed by five committees, investigating different aspects of the challenge ahead, from potential tolls to issues of navigation. As work got under way, an early conclusion of the financial or operational aspect of the undertaking was the overwhelming desirability of the canal being at sea level, a feeling shared by the majority of the delegates. A sea-level canal could be open twenty-four hours a day, without any restriction on the number of ships passing. Only one ship can pass through a lock at one time, with serious implications on operational revenue.

The most important of the five groups was the Technical Committee, which would decide the location, cost, and the type of canal that should be built. The day after the opening ceremony, Ammen was asked to start the debate for this committee, but as the trunk containing the American maps and charts had been delayed, Self-ridge was the first to take the floor, extolling the virtues of a sea-level route in Darién that he himself had visited. Immediately, the American delegation began to squabble among themselves. To Am-men, Selfridge was off message: there was no good route in Darién, as the Grant Commission had decided. So why did Selfridge push for this? It is a recurring theme of the canal story that time and again those in the grip of the “great idea” were also passionately committed to a certain type and location for the canal. For de Lesseps it had to be a sea-level canal, whatever the cost. For Meno-cal, Lull, and Ammen, it had to be in Nicaragua using the lake, which presupposed a lock canal. Selfridge had been the leader of the American surveying effort in Darién; if it was built there it would be, in a way, his canal, and he was just as blind to the huge disadvantages of the area as de Lesseps would prove to the monumental folly of attempting a sea-level canal in Panama.

The next day Ammen and Menocal laid out their arguments for a lock canal in Nicaragua. This was followed by Wyse, outlining his various plans for a sea-level canal from Panama City to Colón. By now, all other options, from Mexico through San Blas to Darién, had been pretty much discounted; the battle was between Panama and Nicaragua, which corresponded, to a large extent, to a battle between the French and the American points of view. On May 20 Menocal described the American plan for a Panama Canal involving the huge aqueduct over the Chagres and some twenty-four locks, but made it clear he thought this too expensive and impractical. He then went through his arguments against Wyse's scheme for Panama: a sea-level canal was impossible, he said, because of the volatile Chagres River, which would have to drop over forty feet into the canal, causing a dangerous cataract. Another objection was then raised by Ribourt, actually a Frenchman. He reckoned that the tunnel envisaged by Wyse and Reclus, if possible at all, would alone cost over 900 million francs and take nine years to build. Even if it was shorter than what he was attempting through the Alps at St. Gotthard, the diameter of the ship tunnel was many times what was required for a railway tunnel.

Following this, two subcommittees of the Technical group were formed: one to deal with the tunnel versus open cut question at Panama; the other to investigate the cost and engineering issues behind the Nicaragua lock plan. Very quickly the former, staffed by some of the most eminent engineers of the Congress, ruled out the construction of a sea-level tunnel and also concluded that a canal à niveau “involved so much uncertainty… that it would be impossible for any engineer to arrive at an approximate estimate of its probable cost.” The much-respected British Severn tunnel engineer, Sir John Hawkshaw, also added his opinion that a sea-level canal at Panama would have to “provide for the whole drainage of the district it traversed [which]… would require the canal to be 160 meters wide.”

According to Menocal, the report and the comments of Hawkshaw were “met by the friends of Lieutenant Wyse with the affirmation that M. de Lesseps would positively refuse to accept the presidency of any other canal company except that of Panama—a statement which had the desired effect of bringing back to their party some who had deserted to the sides of the best engineers, who seemed to be in favor of the Nicaragua Canal.”

For the de Lesseps party, things were clearly beginning to get out of hand. So on Friday, May 23, Le Grand Français “threw off the mantle of indifference,” as one delegate wrote, and convened a general session. Striding confidently in front of a large map, he addressed the Congress. He spoke spontaneously, without notes, in simple, direct language, and with great conviction, if not abundant knowledge, making everything sound right and reasonable. The map, which he referred to with easy familiarity, clearly showed that the one best route was through Panama, as it had been, he argued, for centuries. It was the route that had already been selected to develop the cross-Isthmus railroad. There was no question that a sea-level canal was the correct type of canal to build and no question at all that Panama was the best and only place to build it. Any problems would resolve themselves, as they had at Suez. His audience was enthralled.

Wyse and Reclus, however, had been stung by the criticisms of their Panama project, and, to their credit, refused to participate in the wishing away of the problems of the Chagres River and the massive excavation required by an open-cut, sea-level waterway. Later the same day, they presented a new plan that had been devised by Baron Godin de Lépinay, a senior French civil engineer and a delegate at the Congress. Although de Lépinay had never been to Panama, he had worked in South America on a railway project, where most of his workforce had been killed by yellow fever. De Lépinay's idea was to create an “artificial Lake Nicaragua” in Panama by damming the Chagres as near to the Atlantic as possible as well as the Río Grande near the Pacific. In between would be created a vast artificial lake some 80 feet above sea level, accessed by a small number of locks. In a stroke the amount of excavation would be limited to a short and relatively shallow cut through the Continental Divide, and the Chagres River would be tamed. Amazingly, the de Lépinay design contained all of the basic elements that ultimately, after years of mistakes and heartbreak, were designed into the current Panama Canal.

De Lépinay himself, although favoring Panama over Nicaragua, predicted that an attempt at a sea-level canal would be a catastrophe. For a start, he argued, the cost would be in billions of francs, a level of debt that could never be serviced by a private company. Secondly, working in a tropical climate such as Panama's was totally different from anything experienced by the vast majority of the delegates: iron rusted in no time, labor was scarce and unreliable, coal and provisions were expensive. And then there was disease. De Lépinay shared the current, though mistaken, belief that tropical fevers were caused by a poisonous emanation— “mal air” (hence “malaria”)—from rotted vegetation in the ground. The huge excavations, he warned, would release this to devastating effect. To persuade European or American technicians to work there would require tripling their normal salaries, and the death toll, which he estimated at fifty thousand, would require constant replenishment of the workforce. In perhaps the most telling attack on de Lesseps and the confidence that underwrote the whole Congress, he turned the comparison with Suez on its head: “They want this canal to be made after the model of the Suez Canal, that is to say, without locks—and yet its natural conditions are so very different. In Suez there is no water, the soil is soft, the country is almost on the level of the sea; in spite of the heat, the climate is perfectly healthy. In tropical America there is too much water, the rocks are exceedingly hard, the soil is very hilly, and the climate is deadly. The country is literally poisoned. Now to act thus after the same fashion under such different circumstances is to try to do violence to nature instead of aiding it, which is the principal purpose of the art of engineering.”

Wyse later admitted that this plan was put forward in large part to spike the guns of the official American Panama plan as earlier outlined unenthusiastically by Menocal, as it required far fewer locks. If there were to be a lock plan for Panama, at least it would be a French one. But by the time he came to write his account of the conference in late 1885, the plan had far higher visibility and he claimed that he had investigated its potential on all his visits to the Isthmus in the early 1880s, and was convinced of its merits.

Many of the delegates at the time were impressed by de Lépinay's vision, although this included neither de Lesseps, for whom locks were totally unacceptable, nor the American contingent. With some justification, Ammen complained that the plan seemed to have been conjured out of thin air—it hadn't even been mentioned ten days earlier—and Menocal pointed out that none of the necessary surveys, particularly in the placing of the all-important dams, had been carried out. He also argued that the new lake would be large enough neither to provide water for the locks in the dry season, nor to deal with the Chagres when the rains arrived. Although estimated by the Technical Committee as being cheaper than both the Menocal Nicaragua plan and the Panama sea-level scheme, de Lépinay's idea disappeared from the reckoning.

Meanwhile, de Lesseps worked feverishly behind the scenes, twisting arms and calling in favors to secure the votes he needed for his dream of an “Ocean Bosporus” at Panama, as the arguments between the two routes, and the two types of canal continued in the Technical Committee, becoming more heated and personal by the hour. “A great deal of interest and feeling [was] manifested,” Ammen wrote, “amounting, at times, to disorder.” On May 27 Selfridge spoke for the last time, again infuriating Ammen and Menocal by attacking the Nicaragua option. It would be impossibly expensive to improve Greytown harbor, he argued, and, what was more, Nicaragua was prone to earthquakes and volcanic activity, the first mention of what would later be a crucial factor in deciding the American Panama Canal. On Wednesday, May 28, the committee finally made its recommendation after a stormy session during which twenty of the delegates, nearly half the committee, staged a walkout. The next day, as heavy rain fell, the full Congress met to hear the committee's report and to vote on its recommendation. The hall was packed as it was announced that a decision had been made: “the committee, standing on a technical point of view, is of the opinion that the canal, such as would satisfy the requirements of commerce, is possible across the Isthmus of Panama, and recommend especially a canal at the level of the sea.” The cost of the work, including interest on the capital, was estimated at 1.2 billion francs, or about $240 million, with completion in twelve years.

Soon after, it was put to the vote. It was highly public and highly charged. In alphabetical order each delegate stood up and voted on what was essentially the de Lesseps plan. Henri Bionne, the secretary of the Congress, read out the names. Daniel Ammen abstained, saying that only professional engineers should be entitled to vote. By the time it was de Lépinay's turn, 76 of the delegates had voted, 43 for, with most of the others abstaining. De Lépinay, the French canal's own Cassandra, rose to his feet, declaring, “In order not to burden my conscience with unnecessary deaths and useless expenditure I say ‘no!’” He sat down to widespread boos and jeering. Next up was de Lesseps himself. “I vote ‘Yes!,’” he declared in a loud voice. “And I have accepted command of the enterprise!” The room erupted in cheering and applause.

In the end, the resolution passed with 74 in favor and 8 opposed. Afterward, de Lesseps told the conference, “It has been suggested by my friends that after Suez I ought to take a rest. But I ask you: when a general has just won one battle and is invited to win another, why should he refuse?”

His adoring public in the onlookers’ seats were ecstatic. At the end of the Congress, the chairman, the elderly Admiral de La Ron-cière, underlined that it was Le Grand Français himself who had carried the day: “May that illustrious man, who has been the heart and soul of our deliberations,” he declared, “who has captivated us by charm, and who is the personification of these great enterprises, may he live long enough to see the end of this work, which will bear his name forever. He has not been able to refuse to assume its command, and in so doing he continues to carry out the mission which has made him a citizen of the whole world.”

With the benefit of hindsight there were warning signs everywhere. Thirty-eight delegates had conveniently absented themselves from the vote and 16 had abstained. The predominantly French pro votes did not include any of the 5 delegates from the French Society of Engineers. Of the 74 voting in favor, only 19 were engineers, and of those, only one, a Colombian who had a vested interest in the Wyse concession, had ever been in Central America.

o the Americans the whole affair had been an appalling travesty. At the heart of their displeasure was outrage that anyone else, particularly the French, should dare to presume to build a canal in their backyard, in what was effectively a United States protectorate. On his return to the United States, Menocal wrote an article for the North American Review entitled “Intrigues at the Paris Canal Conference.” It was introduced by a short piece by the journal's editor, which gives some indication of the vitriol of the Americans. As far as the editor was concerned, it was all a conspiracy among hard up prominent Bonapartists, who had lost their means of subsistence with the fall of Napoléon III. “A careful examination of the names of the French delegates to the Canal Congress shows how entirely it was packed with subservient friends of the fallen dynasty; nor is it well to overlook the fact that the shares of the Türr company were largely held by them.” “These people once went to Mexico to seek their fortunes in a Franco-Mexican empire,” he went on. “It seems passing strange that the conspicuous defeat of those plans, which embraced the destruction of the American Union, should have failed to teach them some degree of caution before affecting to… tamper with American interests in America.”

This suspicion predated the conference. In February 1879 Wyse had traveled to Washington to ensure American attendance at the Congress. He had met President Hayes and Secretary of State William Evarts. The latter was openly hostile to any further French “adventures” in Central America—it can't have helped that Wyse had “Napoleon” in his name—and might well have been instrumental in blocking Wyse and Reclus's access prior to the Congress to the detailed American maps and surveys.

When Menocal and Ammen reported back to Evarts at the end of the conference, they confirmed his misgivings, saying the decision for Panama had been determined not by “relative consideration of natural advantages,” but from “personal interests arising from the concession.” If Nicaragua had been chosen, then the Wyse concession would have been worthless. It had been a foregone conclusion, a shoo-in, what another American delegate, William E. Johnston, called “a comedy of the most deplorable kind.”

Menocal, for his part, was sure that the whole Panama project was doomed to early failure. But this was just as much a worry as the scheme's completion. Johnston, among others, feared that if de Lesseps could get the stock into the hands of a mass of ordinary Frenchmen, as he had done with Suez, the canal's inevitable failure would lead to the intervention of the French government. In terms of the sacred Monroe Doctrine, this was worse even than a French-controlled private company meddling in American affairs.

Ammen and Menocal's reports were widely covered in the U.S. press, the New York Tribune being particularly concerned by the “shenanigans” in Paris. In government too, there was disquiet about the outcome of the conference, a New England senator moving a resolution to the effect that the United States “viewed with serious disquietude any attempt by the powers of Europe to establish under their protection and domination a ship-canal across the Isthmus.” The New York World, which would be another implacable opponent of the French canal, went further, declaring that the project “prefigures for us an era of complications and difficulties in regard to the foreign policy and the commercial relations of this country more serious than any we have had to deal with in the last twenty years of our history.”

In Panama itself, where civil and political disturbances continued through June, the news from Paris was warmly welcomed, though not without a certain amused detachment. On May 29, the Star and Herald reported: “The Wyse Panama route is the one likely to be adopted. Indeed, many said before the Congress met that the acceptance of this route was a foregone conclusion.” The following day, reporting the final vote of the Congress as soldiers enforced martial law in the streets outside their offices, the same paper added, “It may amuse some of our readers in Nicaragua to know that a recent publication cites another objection to their route, and that is the ‘political instability’ of the country. We presume the author was satirizing Colombia at the time.” Nonetheless, to those in Panama it seemed that at last prosperity was around the corner.

n France, de Lesseps swung into action. Raising 2 million francs from selling “founders shares” to a syndicate of 270 rich and influential friends, he started negotiations to buy out the Türr syndicate, including their concession and all their maps and surveys. The deal, for 10 million francs, was concluded on July 5, 1879, and for the Türr syndicate it was almost all profit. Next, de Lesseps embarked on a whirlwind tour of France. As with Suez, he aimed to raise the starting capital, set at 400 million francs, directly from the public.

However, times had changed in France, and the power of the financial institutions and the press had risen considerably since the 1860s. This time, the banks showed their displeasure at being cut out of the lucrative issue by organizing a campaign against the canal venture. Costs had been underestimated, the venture would never pay, suggested Marc Lévy-Crémieux, vice president of the powerful Franco-Egyptian Bank. Emile de Girardin, proprietor of the mass-circulation Petit Journal, was another opponent. Panama's climate was a death trap, it was argued; plus, the Americans would never allow work even to start. It was rumored, too, that the vibrant de Lesseps was now in his dotage and had lost his winning ways. “The financial organs were hostile,” de Lesseps later told American reporters, “because they had not been paid.”

Consequently, the issue, on August 6 and 7, was a severe disappointment. Only 30 million francs of the desired 400 million was raised. Almost anyone other than de Lesseps would have given up right then.

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