Building the Panama Canal and the Suez Canalby Rit Nosotro
Compare the building of the Panama Canal with that of the Suez Canal.
As early as the 1830s railroads had begun to usurp the position of canals as
important transportation routes around the world. But two of the largest and
most important of the world’s canals had yet to be built: the Suez Canal
in Egypt between the Mediterranean and Red Seas and the Panama Canal in Panama
between the Atlantic and Pacific. Both canals divide continents and often save
ships thousands of miles of travel. The Panama Canal, though less than half
as long as the Suez Canal, was more difficult to build. Both, however, required
great amounts of manual labor, and both were to become immensely important waterways
and the control of them controversial political issues.
A canal across the desert from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea had been attempted more than once throughout history, but without lasting success. That is, until Ferdinand de Lesseps organized the Suez Canal Company in 1858, and with French and Ottoman support (the latter in reality coming from the Egyptian Pasha) began the digging in 1859. 20,000 Egytians would labor for roughly the next ten years, often working only with shovels, sometimes assisted by mechanized diggers on rafts and carts on railroad tracks to haul away dirt. At one point explosives had to be used to break through a rock ledge, but otherwise there were few natural obstacles, and engineers made use of five small lakes. The canal was completed in 1869.
de Lesseps, who had led the project, was not done building canals yet. He next set his sights on a canal through Panama, buying the rights for the project and beginning digging in 1882. However, the situation in Panama was far different from that of Egypt. Tropical diseases infested the difficult terrain the route would traverse. Geographic obstacles, particularly the high altitude of the continental divide made locks (sets of gates which raise and lower ships between canal sections of different heights) a necessity, but the French did not realize this until four years after beginning digging. Financial difficulties, including the stealing of large sums by corrupt French politicians, added to de Lesseps’ troubles and eventually forced him to give it up in 1889.
The partially-dug canal would lie abandoned until the United States found a sudden interest in it. The Spanish-American War caused the Americans to realize what a military advantage the canal would be – it would allow the Navy to be quicker and more flexible. But negotiations got hung up in the Columbian legislature, until the people of Panama took things into their own hands (albeit with help from the French and Americans) with a revolution. They quickly signed a deal with the U.S., and Americans began work in 1904.
The challenges that had stopped the French were one by one overcome. Colonel William Gorgas led a massive program to clear land and wipe out mosquitoes and rats, the principal carriers of disease. The next phase involved three parts: the building of locks near the two ends of the canal, the damming of the Chagres River to create the artificial Gatun Lake, and large amounts of digging to accomplish the Gaillard Cut. At its highest point, the Panama Canal had 43,000 laborers, primarily from the British West Indies – nearly twice as many as the Suez Canal. The canal was basically finished in 1914, but a landslide delayed its official opening until 1920.
Ships no longer had to take the long route around the two southern continents, Africa and South America. But the canals quickly became thorny political issues. The English bought a large share of the Suez Canal Company in 1875, and it was eventually seized by the Egyptians in 1956, sparking a short war and great controversy. The history of the Panama canal is more peaceful, but a long period of tension and debate between Panama and the United States culminated in two 1977 treaties that arranged for Panama to take over the canal in 1999, while still preserving some of the U.S.’s rights regarding the canal. With both canals now in the hands of local governments, further political strife is unlikely, except in the case of war.
The two canals have both many similarities and differences. The Panama Canal, as has been seen, was quite a bit more difficult than the Suez Canal, requiring medical and mechanical technology advances to effectively combat diseases and handle the large volume of digging necessary. More money and more workers were also required. In contrast to the simpler Suez Canal, the Panama engineers’ task was more difficult, as they built locks and a lake as well as dug a channel for the canal. Both canals were widely successful, though, and both were the subject of political wrangling, particularly between the original foreign owners and nationalist groups in local countries. But these disputes have since been settled – by force in the case of the Suez Canal, and peacefully in the case of the Panama Canal. Both of these canals look set to continue their profitable, productive service of linking the world and its sea routes a little closer together.
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