History of the Panama Canal

History Of The Panama Canal

Panama Canal

Before 1914, ships could only sail between the Atlantic and the Pacific by traveling around the southern tip of South America. This was a problem from the earliest days of European exploration. By the mid-sixteenth century, European merchants had established trade routes to Asia and realized that they could reduce their trips by thousands of miles if they established an alternative route from one coast of the Americas to the other. However, by the time the United States expanded to the Pacific Ocean in the middle of the nineteenth century, such a route remained non-existent. The journey from New York to California could still take over one year to complete. Once settlers reached the West Coast, they found it equally time-consuming to sail from California to New York when they wanted to visit relatives or conduct business on the eastern seaboard. The lack of an efficient overseas route between the two ends of the country also made it difficult for merchants to ship consumer goods and important supplies to opposite coasts. Meanwhile, Australasia, Hawaii, China, and a number of other Pacific islands and Asian countries remained difficult for traders to reach. This continued to slow the process of globalization that had begun centuries earlier. The idea of building a canal in Central America, specifically in Panama, traces its roots to the beginnings of the Spanish empire; however, it was not until 1904 that successful construction of the Panama Canal began. Once it was complete, the Panama Canal not only made traveling more convenient, but paved the way for the modern economy by consolidating formerly cumbersome trade routes.

Although the history of the Panama Canal actually dates back nearly 500 years, political issues, the forces of nature, and the mere magnitude of the project severely delayed the development of the waterway. In 1534, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (King Charles I of Spain) ordered officials in Central America to survey the Isthmus of Panama in hopes of constructing a canal through it and gaining easier access to Peru. The Spanish never began construction on such a canal; they became engaged in wars with other European nations, and they had also concluded that it would be too difficult to bring their idea to fruition in such a mosquito-ridden region. Some Americans became interested in building a canal through the Isthmus of Panama during the California Gold Rush; however, the United States decided to build a railroad in the area instead. The French were the first to actually attempt construction on a canal. They believed that they could achieve this goal because they had already completed the Suez Canal in Egypt. France hired men to work on a Panamanian canal between 1881 and 1889, but the project went bankrupt after thousands of these laborers died of yellow fever, malaria, and other illnesses.

Teddy Roosevelt

After France’s failure to complete the canal, the United States took an active role in its construction. In the Hay-Pauncefote Treaty of 1901, Britain gave the United States rights to build and maintain a canal in Central America. During the nineteenth century, Britain and the U.S. had considered joining forces to build a canal through Nicaragua. In 1903, Congress agreed that Panama should be the location for the new canal and gave President Theodore Roosevelt permission to take on the project once the proper international agreements had been secured. That same year, the Senate approved the Hay-Herran Treaty, which declared the United States’ rights to occupy land in Panama and build a canal across it. Panama was a state of Columbia at the time, and the Colombian government refused to sign the treaty. Toward the end of 1903, however, Panamanians rebelled against Colombian rule and secured independence with American assistance. The United States then entered the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty with Panama; this gave the U.S. the same rights that the previous treaty had. After buying equipment from the French, Americans began working on a “lock system” canal in 1904. In order to prevent themselves from meeting the same fate as previous workers, they drained swamps to reduce the number of mosquitoes and cut their own chances of contracting tropical diseases. The United States completed its construction of the Panama Canal one decade later. At last, an efficient means of connecting the Atlantic and the Pacific had become a reality. This did not mean that the history of the Panama Canal was over, however. In 1964, Panamanians waged a violent protest against American control of the canal. Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon tried to address the issue, but neither could come to an agreement with the Panamanian government. In 1977, President James Carter signed two new Panama Canal treaties. These agreements, which are also known as the Torrijos-Carter Treaties, reaffirmed the United States’ unending right to protect open trade along the canal; however, they also declared that the United States would give the canal to Panama on December 31, 1999.

President Carter’s Panama Canal treaties did not receive universal support in the United States; some politicians argued that the U.S. had the right to keep the canal permanently because it had both funded and completed the project. These statesmen also worried that Panama would not be able to run the canal smoothly. Nevertheless, the canal became the property of Panama on the date that the 1977 agreement specified. Today, it remains a well-functioning and important part of the international maritime trade system. In fact, Panama plans to expand the canal in 2014 in honor of its centennial anniversary. If the Panama Canal had not been completed, the American West might not have developed as much as it did and the nations of Asia and the Pacific might not have become as well-integrated into the global economy.

For more information on the history of the Panama Canal, refer to the following links.