Monday, January 6, 2020
Tomorrow, my husband and I will board the Crystal Serenity to cruise the Panama Canal. To prepare for this trip, we watched the PBS American Experience episode: “Panama Canal, Gateway to the American Century.” This 1.5 hour video was very informative, but really only touched the surface of the history on the Canal, and primarily only the US involvement.
To dive deeper, I also read David McCullough‘s book: “The Path Between the Seas, The Creation of the Panama Canal 1870-1914.” McCullough’s study begins in the mid-1800s, when several countries were exploring options to shorten the distance between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Both Nicaragua and Panama (then a province of Colombia) were considered for a canal. The French spent a few decades and hundreds of millions of dollars trying to build a canal, only to have the venture collapse in scandals and bankruptcy. The US took over in the early 1900s after aiding and abetting a Panamanian independence movement, finally completing the job in 1914.
The PBS episode was broadcast in 2011, and is no longer on the website. However, you might find a copy on line or at your local library.
McCullough’s book is over 600 pages, so might be a little daunting. It’s not a fast read, but I did manage to finish it a few weeks ago. If you are interested in more detail than the video gives, I do recommend it.
The US spent over $350 million to construct the canal, after the French had already sunk $287 million. In today’s dollars the total would amount to more than $14 billion! The Canal takes in about $2 billion per year in revenue, netting Panama’s treasury about $800 million per year, not a bad return on the investment.
Control of the canal was transferred to Panama in 1979, with US involvement phasing out over the next 20 years. An expansion project proposed by Panama President Martin Torrijos in 2006, added a new lane of traffic allowing more and larger ships to pass through. The project added two new sets of locks, one on the Atlantic side and one of the Pacific, and widened and deepened existing channels. The expansion, which doubled the canal’s capacity, was completed in 2016, with operation beginning in June of that year. The expansion allowed for a 50% increase in ship length, from 106 feet to 168 feet. Cargo capacity doubled, from 52,000 to 120,000 tonnes.
The history of the Panama Canal dates back much farther than either the French or US involvement. The idea of a passageway between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans was first proposed at least as far back as the 1500s, when King Charles I of Spain had his regional governor survey a route along the Chagres River.
San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua was once considered in the 1800s for the western end of a Nicaraguan canal, before the current site was chosen. Cornelius Vanderbilt was a well known proponent of the Nicaragua option. The idea wasn’t completely abandoned, though. In 2013, Nicaragua’s National Assembly approved a bill to grant a 50 year concession to a Chinese Billionaire, Wang Jing. However, his fortunes took a hit during the Chinese Stock Market crash of 2015-2016, and the project is now considered defunct by all but Jing.
We look forward to learning more about Panama and the Canal as the days go by.