Panama Canal

Panama Canal

Author: Low, A. Maurice

Panama Canal By A. Maurice Low

No one can look at a map of the Western World without thinking of the

great and obvious advantage that would result to commerce if the isthmus could

be cut by a ship-canal. From the time when Balboa (not Cortes, as the poet

has it) stood on a peak in Darien and discovered the Pacific, the early

navigators saw that some day such a canal must be constructed; but probably

not one of them would have believed that four centuries would pass with the

isthmus still uncut. The first definite proposition on this subject was made

in 1600 by Samuel de Champlain, the famous explorer, for whom one of our

American lakes is named. In the nineteenth century numerous expeditions were

sent from the United States to Central America, and every possible route from

the Gulf of Mexico or the Caribbean Sea to the Pacific was carefully surveyed.

The grand result showed that there were but two practicable routes for a canal

- one to pass through Lake Nicaragua, and the other to pass from Colon to

Panama. Each of these routes had its advocates. The Nicaragua route was the

longer, but it would not have to be carried to so great a height, and Lake

Nicaragua would furnish a proper supply of water to the locks. It was also

urged that there was a very great advantage in the matter of healthfulness for

the workmen in this longer route. While the discussion was at its height in

recent years, James B. Eads, the eminent American engineer who constructed the

Mississippi jetties, matured a plan for taking ships out of the water on one

side of the isthmus, in immense cradles, carrying them on rail-tracks to the

other side and relaunching them. Whatever merit this plan may have had, it was

lost sight of when Mr. Eads died. Companies were chartered for both routes,

and Ferdinand de Lesseps, who had constructed the Suez Canal, was employed by

the Panama company, which fact gave that company great prestige in France and

enabled it to raise millions of francs for the enterprise. However, those who

subscribed did not realize that there was an essential difference between

digging a canal through a level, sandy plain and constructing one through a

rocky mountain ridge. Partly from the great difficulties of the task, and

partly from mismanagement, nearly all the money thus expended was wasted.

When the United States came into possession of Hawaii and the

Philippines, and it was evident that the commerce of the Pacific would soon

rival that of the Atlantic, the desire for comparatively easy

water-communication between the Eastern States and the Pacific slope became

more urgent than ever, and after another struggle between the advocates of the

two routes the Panama plan prevailed and was made a Government enterprise, the

story of which is told in this chapter. The second part of the chapter is

from a speech that Mr. Depew delivered in the United States Senate January 14, 1904.


In 1903 the United States wrote a chapter in the world's history. Again

it drove a peg into the Monroe Doctrine and reaffirmed its primacy on the

American continent. Hitherto the spread of American influence has been to the

west. The year 1903 saw the beginning of the sweep to the south.

In September the Colombian Congress refused to ratify the Hay-Herran

Treaty negotiated in Washington, by which the United States was to be

permitted to construct a canal through the Isthmus of Panama to link the

Atlantic with the Pacific, subject to the payment of ten million dollars for

concessionary rights and an annual rental of two hundred fifty thousand

dollars. The Bogota Government had been warned that failure to ratify the

treaty would be followed by a revolution in the State of Panama, which

expected to profit materially by the canal. The Washington Government was

also not unaware of the impending revolution. On November 3d Panama declared

its independence of Colombia, and its existence as a sovereign State under the

name of the Republic of Panama. A force of Colombian troops, about five

hundred in all, was at both ends of the isthmus, in the principal cities of

Colon and Panama. A small American gunboat, the Nashville, was in the harbor of Colon.

The commander of the Nashville landed a detachment of marines for the

ostensible purpose of protecting the property of the railway company and

keeping transit open across the isthmus - a duty devolving upon the United

States under the stipulations of the Treaty of 1846 with New Granada, the

predecessor of Colombia. The commander of the Nashville made it known that in

case the Colombian troops attacked the forces of the Provisional Government of

Panama he should come to the assistance of Panama; he also announced his

determination to maintain uninterrupted the railway communication across the

isthmus; and, to prevent any interference with the proper running of trains,

the railway could not be used for the conveyance of troops, nor would fighting

be permitted along its route, or in the terminal cities of Panama and Colon.

In other words, if Colombia wished to recover its lost territory, and found it

necessary to use force, it might fight, but it must not fight at the only

places where fighting would be of the least material advantage. These were

bold words of the Nashville's commander, as at that time he could not put more

than forty men on shore, the Panama Government had neither troops nor arms,

and the Colombian soldiery outnumbered him ten to one. For two days the

situation was critical, then heavy American reenforcements arrived on both the

Atlantic and Pacific sides of the isthmus. The revolution was over. The

Colombian troops sullenly permitted themselves to be deported without having

fired a shot. A provisional junta was constituted to manage the affairs of

the new Republic until the election of a president and the adoption of a

constitution; and three days after the Republic came into being the United

States gave it an international status by formally recognizing it, and

entering into diplomatic relations. Other Governments promptly followed suit,

but Great Britain held off until December 22d, or until Panama had agreed to

assume a part of the foreign debt of Colombia proportionate to her population.

The original cause of the revolution had been the failure of Colombia to

ratify the canal treaty and the desire of the people of Panama to see the

canal built. The new Republic without loss of time entered into negotiations

with the United States for a treaty, which was signed by Secretary Hay, for

the United States, and M. Phillipe Bunau Varilla, the Panama Minister

Plenipotentiary in Washington, on November 18th. By the terms of the treaty

the United States agrees to safeguard the independence of the new Republic.

The Republic of Panama on its part agrees to a perpetual grant of a strip of

land ten miles wide, extending from ocean to ocean, together with the usual

territorial sea limits of three nautical miles at both ends of the grant.

This, of course, includes any and all islands within these limits. Over this

territory the United States has practically unlimited control, including the

right to erect fortifications, maintain garrisons and exercise all the rights

of sovereignty. The money consideration for these privileges is ten million

dollars to be paid the Republic of Panama on the exchange of ratifications,

and an annual payment of two hundred fifty thousand dollars, beginning nine

years after such ratification.

Colombia protested against the action of the United States. It accused

the United States of having fomented and encouraged the revolution; of having

made possible the secession of Panama by becoming in effect the ally of Panama

and hampering the sovereign rights of Colombia; of virtually making war on

Colombia, although friendly relations were supposed to exist between it and

the United States; and declared that if it had not been for the assistance

given by the United States to Panama, and the announced policy of the United

States not to permit the landing of Colombian troops on Panama soil, Colombia

would have been able to exercise her sovereignty, put down the rebellion and

defeat secession. Colombia pledged herself to negotiate and secure the

ratification of a canal treaty acceptable to the United States.

No more attention was paid to the protest of Colombia than to the bribe

of a new canal treaty. So far as the independence of Panama was concerned,

that was a fait accompli and could not be changed. The United States denied

that it had encouraged or assisted the revolution. It claimed not only rights

under the Treaty of 1846, but that certain obligations were imposed upon it,

one of the highest being the duty to preserve free and uninterrupted transit

over the highway between the Atlantic and the Pacific. In performance of that

duty it had used its military forces to prevent interference with the railway

or dislocation of business in Panama and Colon. As for the offer of Colombia

to enter into negotiations for a new canal treaty, that was impossible,

because the territory affected was no longer Colombian, but had passed to


The Government of Colombia threatened to compel Panama to return to her

former allegiance, and began to mobilize troops, after appealing in vain to

some of the European Powers for assistance. The United States met these

threats by concentrating a powerful naval force in both oceans and preparing

plans for sending infantry and artillery to the isthmus in case of necessity.

The year closed with active military preparations proceeding on the part of

the United States and some doubt existing whether Colombia would be rash

enough to force a trial of strength with its powerful northern opponent.

President Roosevelt's action in so promptly recognizing the new Republic,

and entering into full diplomatic relations with it before the adoption of a

constitution or the election of a president, met with general approval,

although it aroused some opposition, principally among his political

opponents, who accused him of having connived at the revolution for the

purpose of obtaining the canal, an end which did not justify the means. But

public opinion as a whole supported the President. For more than half a

century the American people had cherished the hope of an isthmian canal; the

Spanish-American War had shown them that it was a military as well as a

political and commercial necessity; and when Colombia was finally induced to

negotiate a treaty, it seemed as if these hopes were at last to be realized

and the dream of visionaries translated into substantial achievement. But

there was another reason why the majority of the American people sanctioned

the course of the President without caring to split hairs too finely. The

building of the canal, the bringing of Panama under an American protectorate,

the tacit acquiescence of all the world in American action, the refusal of any

great Power to protest or to encourage Colombia to thwart American ambition

were all gratifying to American amour propre. Furthermore, it was another

recognition by the world of the Monroe Doctrine and the hegemony of the United

States in North America.

The action of the United States in making it possible for Panama to gain

and maintain her independence was a stern object-lesson to all South America.

The people noticed that the United States was tired of the continual unseemly

brawling which is the Latin-American idea of government. The Isthmus of

Panama is one of the world's great highways, and it was a highway made

dangerous and difficult to travellers because of never-ending revolution. The

material interests of the United States, the interests of all the world, made

it necessary that peace and security should prevail where before only disorder

and danger existed. In reality the United States, and not Panama, will now be

the sovereign Power on the Isthmus. Many thoughtful Americans have long

believed that the United States, for its own protection, must be the

"overlord" of all Central America. The treaty with Panama is the first step,

and a long step, toward that goal.

President Roosevelt in his annual message to Congress which met in

regular session December 7, 1903, discussing the canal, used this language:

"For four hundred years the canal across the isthmus has been planned. For

twoscore years it has been worked at. When made, it is to last for the ages.

... Last spring a treaty concluded between the representatives of the

Republic of Colombia and of our Government was ratified by the Senate. This

treaty was entered into at the urgent solicitation of the people of Colombia,

and after a body of experts, appointed by our Government especially to go into

the matter of the routes across the isthmus, had pronounced unanimously in

favor of the Panama route. In drawing up this treaty every concession was

made to the people and to the Government of Colombia. ... In our scrupulous

desire to pay all possible heed, not merely to the real but even to the

fancied rights of our weaker neighbor, who already owed so much to our

protection and forbearance, we yielded in all possible ways to her desires in

drawing up the treaty. Nevertheless, the Government of Colombia not merely

repudiated the treaty, but repudiated it in such a manner as to make it

evident by the time the Colombian Congress adjourned that not the scantiest

hope remained of ever getting a satisfactory treaty from them. The Government

of Colombia made the treaty, and yet when the Colombian Congress was called to

ratify it the vote against ratification was unanimous. It does not appear

that the Government made any real effort to secure ratification."

The President gave a list of the revolutions in Panama since 1850 -

fifty-three in fifty-three years - and added: "In short, the experience of

more than half a century has shown Colombia to be utterly incapable of keeping

order on the isthmus. Only the active interference of the United States has

enabled her to preserve so much as a semblance of sovereignty. ... The

control, in the interest of commerce and traffic of the whole civilized world,

of the means of undisturbed transit across the Isthmus of Panama, has become

of transcendent importance to the United States. We have repeatedly exercised

this control by intervening in the course of domestic dissension, and by

protecting the territory from foreign invasion. ... Under such circumstances

the Government of the United States would have been guilty of folly and

weakness, amounting in their sum to a crime against the nation, had it acted

otherwise than it did when the revolution of November 3d last too place in

Panama. This great enterprise of building the interoceanic canal cannot be

held up to gratify the whims, or out of respect to the governmental impotence

or to the even more sinister and evil political peculiarities of people, who,

though they dwell afar off, yet against the wish of the actual dwellers on the

isthmus assert an unreal supremacy over the territory. The possession of a

territory fraught with such peculiar capacities as the isthmus in question

carries with it obligations to mankind. The course of events has shown that

this canal cannot be built by private enterprise, or by any other nation than

our own; therefore it must be built by the United States."

The treaty was at once submitted to the Senate, and after some delay was

ratified in January, 1904.

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