Digging deeper into the canal

For a few days now, I started delving into this book, The Big Ditch: How America Took, Built, Ran, and Ultimately Gave Away the Panama Canal, by Maurer and Yu (2011) that sort of opened up my eyes to the history of the Panama Canal. Imperialism. Disease. Exploitation. Racism. That is the real story behind the canal. I thought I might share a summary of what I have learned so far about all of this.

Let’s start somewhere before the construction of the canal. Because of its location, Panama was already a hot spot for trading and crossing between the Americas. In 1519, the Spanish established Panama City, causing an economic boom and new trade across Panama. Ships of Peruvian silver passed through the Isthmus and other goods were traded back. Also, in the 1800s when California was contested by Americans, US diplomacy started a British and Columbian agreement to build a railroad across Panama. However, these economic growths came to an end after other commercial routes were established and won competition.

In 1877, French private companies behind the Suez Canal attempted at constructing a canal across the Isthmus of Panama. However, after spending 287 millions of dollars and years of misguided construction, the project became a disaster. Large swamps were formed from digging and caused serious outbreaks of malaria and yellow fever among the workers. In fact, over 82 percent of canal workers had suffered from malaria by 1906 when the construction was resumed by the United States. In 1888, the French companies went bankrupt and the project was abandoned.


Abandoned machinery after project fail in 1888 due to disease outbreaks, misconstruction, and financial corruption. Photo credit: dailymail.co.uk

Meanwhile, the United States had attempted at building a canal across Nicaragua but failed. After acquiring Hawaii and the Philippines, the US government started planing routes through Panama. At the time, Panama was under control of Columbia, which refused to cooperate with President Roosevelt on the canal. To get around this, Roosevelt supported Panama’s secession from Columbia and sent US military to occupy the country. This was a rather sneaky move, as the agreement allowed the US to have Panamanians pay for a big portion of the construction and operation of the canal through their taxes.

As expected, Roosevelt’s opinion of Columbia was not a very favorable one. He even expressed that if Panama had not collaborated in the revolt against Columbia, he would “take possession of the Isthmus by force of arms.” Still, Roosevelt’s military intervention in Panama does not compare to that of Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. The reason for that are threefold. First, the political result of the 1898-1902 Philippine war caused opposition and uncertainty home in the States. Second, including Puerto Rico in American tariff wall was already becoming an issue and pressured congressional districts. Lastly, direct annexation by the United States would have violated the country’s treaty agreements with Great Britain. Still, it is interesting to imagine a world where the annexation of Panama by the United States would have happened.

Although the construction of the Panama Canal started in 1904, it was not until 1914 that its first ship sailed through. The canal was not open to commercial traffic for another six years after that. It was shut down frequently due to landslides and strikes and was almost completely closed throughout World War I. On July 12, 192o, it fully opened. STRI appeared just a few years later (1923, Barro Colorado Island).

The first few functional years of the canal were a failure. Shipments often arrived late to docks with no one to unload them. Also, because of the failing control of power and chaos, the US government created an elected civil government in the Canal Zone to promote settlement, courts, and American “values and order.”


Construction of locks in 1914. Photo credit: dailymail.co.uk

The construction of the canal was devastating to the population of Panama. When building the Chagres River basin, which later became Lake Gatun, dozens of historic villages were flooded. These villages were home to 20,000 people, who were forced to move elsewhere. Also, from 1907 to 1914, over one hundred landslides caused the death of thousands of workers.

A mass hiring of workers from Barbados, Spain, and West Indies drove the construction. A hierarchical workforce was created in which two categories existed: the “Gold Roll” and “Silver Roll.” Workers under the Gold Roll were paid in gold dollars, while the Silver Roll received Columbian silver pesos. Initially, the Gold Roll included all skilled workers, regardless of color. However, President Roosevelt closed the Gold Roll for non-Americans in 1908. Also, most non-white workers were transferred to the Silver roll. Wages would rise steadily for the Gold Roll but barely change for the Silver Roll, resulting in multiple strikes and uproars. A Jim Crow society steadily grew from this system. Contractors of the higher roll received a good education and housing while lower roll workers had practically no benefits, extremely low pay, and experienced slavery-like living conditions.

A single barracks room for one “Gold Roll” while male worker (left) and a typical sleeping space with multiple cots for “Silver Roll” workers (right). Photo credit: Linda Hall Library

Almost a century later, the ownership of the canal was passed from the United States to Panama. However, the grim history behind the Canal still lingers and can be felt in Gamboa, on Lake Gatun, or when passing the locks.


“The land divided, the world united: Building the Panama Canal” (2014). Linda Hall Library Digital Collections. http://panama.lindahall.org.

Maurer, N. and Yu, C. (2011). The big ditch: how America took, built, ran, and ultimately gave away the Panama Canal. Princeton University Press.


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