KC Maritime Consultancy Ltd.

Transiting the Panama Canal has always been a great pleasure. Not least because the Canal Pilots make it look so easy. Effortless, even.

Connecting the Atlantic and the Pacific Ocean, voyages are shortened by thousands of nautical miles. An engineering marvel, built in 1914, to this day the Panama Canal leaves everybody in awe.

Amazingly, despite the gentle noise made by locomotives pulling ships in and out of the locks, the whole transit is accompanied by strange silence and a sense of profound sadness… as if it was left behind by those who suffered immensely for such a marvel to be created; as if they were still there, invisible, watching quietly …

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The earliest record regarding a canal cutting through the Isthmus of Panama was in 1534. Still, it remained a dream until 1881 when a French entrepreneur Ferdinand de Lesseps, having successfully constructed the Suez Canal, a flat-level passage through the Egyptian desert, planned another project of building a sea-level canal that would slice through the slender Isthmus of Panama. De Lesseps wanted to complete the circle begun at Suez. On a voyage from New York to Francisco, it would save 8,000 miles, compared to rounding the horn of South America. That plan was protested strongly by de Lépinay, an engineer who first proposed a lock system, but the idea was considered preposterous at the time.

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However, unlike cutting through a desert, Panama was the most difficult place in the world to build a canal. A jungle full of snakes, mosquitos that will give you malaria or yellow fever, deep swamps, heavy rain, flooding, landslides, climate, geology, the sheer magnitude of the work, were all too much. The task proved insurmountable.  For about eight and a half years, they were locked in a losing battle against the jungle.

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Accidents and disease claimed some 20,000 lives. Most of them were West Indians who had been imported to do the heavy labour.

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In 1889, the crash of the de Lesseps venture finally came. De Lesseps was bankrupted and only narrowly escaped prison. He was a broken man, essentially driven insane by the whole experience.

In 1904, the American effort in Panama officially got underway. The appointed Chief engineer John Stevens realized that building a sea-level canal would be total madness not least because of the flooding of the Chagres River and digging through the Culebra Cut, the mountain pass where the French had lost most men.

Instead, he proposed building a lock canal where ships would be raised from the Atlantic side by a series of locks, sail over an artificial lake and descend in steps down into the Pacific. Each lock would fill by a flow of water from the lake above by simple gravity. No pumps were required.

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To be able to do that, a dam on the Chagres River had to be built which would create a lake. This way, most of the digging would be concentrated at the Culebra Cut. A point where the canal cut through the highest ground. This was a good plan. It all started with clearing a path across the Isthmus, cutting the jungle by hand. A tremendous task in itself.

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Then, the digging began. Millions of tons of dirt and rock must not only be excavated but removed entirely.

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And, just like during the French effort, the story was the same all over again. Malaria, dysentery, pneumonia, yellow fever… Men were being swept by hundreds. One more time the project looked doomed. It looked as if the canal could not be finished for 50 years. Everywhere one looked was disillusionment and fear.

This all changed when Colonel William Gorgas, a US army physician, came up with what was called ‘a wild mosquito theory’. “Kill the mosquitos”, Gorges argued, “and yellow fever will disappear”. He was right and by the end of 1906, they had the last yellow fever victim they would ever see.

Even without mosquitos, death and injury were commonplace. Men would be cut beneath the wheels of trains or struck by flying rocks or blown to bits during explosions.

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And it seemed to rain constantly, causing the mountain to slide, plunging to the bottom of the cut.

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“It rained for almost 9 months out of the year. Constant landslides… the mountain did not want to be crushed the way they did it. And the mountain fought back.  Some men had to dig out those buried, while knowing they could be next. The slides came without warning, again and again. Wiping out months of work in an instant. Literally burying men alive. Nearly all the victims were West Indians. Every day men died. It was a regular situation, remedied by bringing in more and more men. Those who went on site, always left their belongings with their buddies, because they didn’t know if they were going to come back”.

An engineer’s wife once wrote: “With the darkness came noises so weird and uncanny as to make the flash creep with strangeness of it all. The very worst was the wailing for the dead that came from the labour camp below us. When one of them died, the friends and kindred of the deceased would drink rum and wail…

But, the works continued and by 1911 the Americans were making real progress. The locks were the mechanical marvel of the canal. In 1913, nine years after the Americans started work on the Panama Canal they began at last to finish it.

Soon, steam shovels dumped their last loads and met at the centre of the Culebra Cut. As the water poured out of the lake and into the Cut, hats went off… there was crying too…

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Despite all of the challenges, the canal was opened to traffic on August 15, 1914, more than three decades after the first attempt to build the canal had begun. Twelve days before, a ship called the Cristobal made the final practice run and became the first seagoing vessel ever to successfully cross from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific through the Panama Canal.

Out of tens of thousands of West Indians who had come to Panama to build the canal, most simply returned home again, quite often with not much more money in their pockets than they had when they left.

The earlier French attempt had led to the deaths of about 20,000 workers and America’s efforts fared little better, some 5,600 workers died due to disease or accidents.

“From 1904 to 1914 40,000 workers dug and blasted their way through some of the toughest terrains on planet Earth. They dug the deepest ditch, built the largest dam, poured the biggest concrete structures the world had ever seen. They gave their sweat, and they gave their blood. Thousands gave their lives”.

Remember them. And listen to the silence of the Panama Canal.

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