Panama Fever Presents the Panama Canal History since 1500s to the Controversial Handover from USA

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Matthew Parker’s book, Panama Fever, covers a wide range of the Panama Canal’s history that begins with the arrival of Spanish explorers in the 1500s and concludes with the United States handover of the canal to Panama in 1999. In three sections, Parker discussed the early exploration and conquest of Spanish explorers, the French Company’s failure, and the American triumph over the isthmus. Throughout the book, Parker stressed the theme of “fever,” which he believed Panama possessed. Although the term is valid in a literal sense, Parker used the term “fever” metaphorically to describe Panama as an addiction that drove many to the brink. In essence, the book dwells on political and social issues that arose before, during, and after the construction of the Panama Canal. Parker provides a detailed analysis of financial, political, and human costs that eventually led to the triumphant completion of the Panama Canal. By carefully researching areas of engineering, labor relations, disease, financial crisis, and politics; Parker is able to entwine financial and political, technological and geographical, personal and national subject matter into a narrative story line demonstrating how the benefits of a Panama Canal were offset by a variety of wide-ranging costs.

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When the first Spanish explorers set out to discover the wealth of East Asia, they landed upon a continent that provided unforeseeable costs and benefits for the next five hundred years. Spanish conquistador, Vasco Nuñez de Balboa, arrived in Central America during the early 1500s. In 1513, the native Indians mentioned a destination up the coast where you were able to witness oceans to the left and right. Not convinced by Indian claims, Balboa made the journey and could not believe his eyes after his arrival. “At the top, he turned one way and then the other; he could see both oceans quite clearly.” (Parker, pg. 5) This marked the beginning of the search for an inter-oceanic canal, and the area would thrive as an overland trade route for many European colonies. The metaphorical “fever” over Panama had begun, and everyone wanted a piece of it. During the late 1600s, the Scottish became one of Panama’s first victims. In efforts to reestablish national pride by taking on the “Great Idea” of an isthmus, the Scottish raised half of its country’s assets and set sail for Panama. Upon arrival, the twelve hundred Scotsmen established a trading station at their named anchorage of Caledonia Bay. Both the English and Spanish knew the underlying cause for the Scots venture, and immediately protested their arrival. Through violent protests directed by the Spanish and English merchants, the Scottish colony was prohibited to establish commerce and trade with any colony in the region. Now a trading station prohibited from operating with any other colony, the Scots only trading partners were Indians. Trade with the Indians was not sufficient enough for survival, and roughly four hundred of the twelve hundred Scotsmen would succumb to fever or starvation within six months of their arrival. Parker skillfully used this event to demonstrate the origin of Panama’s “fever,” and the fatal wrath it imposed on canal seekers. The Scots fled Panama in 1699, but at the cost of two thousand men, the savings of their nation, and were merged into Great Britain. “Like so many of the subsequent Panama schemes, it was doomed from the start. As de Lesseps and many others would discover, the Isthmus could be a graveyard of men, dreams, and reputation.” (Parker, pg. 9-10)

Just shy of two hundred years later, the “fever” would cripple yet another nation. In the early 1880s, a private French company took on the colossal project of constructing an isthmian canal across Panama. The project was headed by Ferdinand de Lesseps, the famed builder of the Suez Canal, who had no idea what he was in for. Parker sheds light on many of the financial and social issues that led to the failure of the French Company. Issues regarding disease, poor financing, and de Lesseps arrogance are a few key arguments amidst the hundreds that contributed to the collapse of the French Company. Parker frequently mentions de Lesseps’ obsession for a sea-level canal. Despite the amount of individuals who attempted to shift de Lesseps’ decision, he refused to budge. De Lesseps’ claim was that a sea-level canal was the primary reason for choosing Panama, as well as the substantial monetary gains that would result from this superior operation. The General Director and expert engineers insisted a sea-level canal “was simply unachievable with the money and time at his disposal …, and that only the rapid adoption of a lock-canal plan could save the project.” (Parker, pg. 175) Arrogant as ever, de Lesseps disregarded officials’ suggestions. There were only two experts that could have changed de Lesseps mind, but Panama’s literal fever inconveniently struck the two experts.

Disease, Panama’s literal fever, played a key role in the failure of the French Company. Parker notes the only two individuals that could convince de Lesseps to change his decision of a sea-way canal were struck down by yellow fever. The push for a lock-canal system was extremely important, because it was considered the last hope a successful completion. Due to poor financing and exceeding the time frame, the French Company was out of money and yellow fever was there to guide the projects failure across the finish line. Disease crippled the French Company and the death tolls reached unbelievable levels. Parker reveals that sixty of the handpicked engineers brought to Panama were “nearly all sick, demoralized, or dead.” (Parker, pg. 176) As for the workers in 1885, hospitals calculated an average one hundred deaths per month. (Parker, pg. 167) But these numbers were only consistent with people who died ‘in the hospital,’ and did not account for the thousands of workers who died outside the hospital. Regardless of numbers, disease was a major contributor in sickening the French Company to its death. With out doubt, Parker underlines the concept that the French Company’s sea-way canal would have failed regardless, but the wrath of disease and zero funding ultimately destroyed the venture. The collapse of the French Company led the crash of the Compagnie Universelle. Parker mentions “the crash of the Compagnie Universelle was the biggest of the nineteenth century, and the greatest since the markets began.” (Parker, pg. 187) Although it is stated that liquidations cleared the savings of eight hundred thousand individuals, Parker strays away from discussing any repercussions following the crash. But during the French venture, the literal and metaphorical theme of “fever” is ever so present. De Lesseps may have dodged the literal fever of Panama, but he metaphorically had the “fever” of completing a canal at the cost of sending his nation into financial crisis and thousands of workers.

With the collapse of the French Company, Parker moves on to the third section of his book and discusses the highly controversial completion of an American canal. Parker’s chapter on the debate over the location of an inter-oceanic canal is nothing less than superb. Prominent figures like William Nelson Cromwell, Philippe Bunau-Varilla, Mark Hanna, and Theodore Roosevelt are carefully discussed in their fight for the Panama route. After the failure of the French Company, the United States was eager to construct an inter-oceanic canal. Due to an existing treaty and public opinion, Nicaragua took the center stage as a potential location. Parker outlines the various methods Bunau-Varilla and Cromwell took to lobby for the Panama route. Bunau-Varilla and Cromwell’s actions may stray from ethical business morals, but their determination and devious ways allowed Parker to illustrate a concise synopsis of the battle between the routes. Cromwell and Bunau-Varilla were impeccable speakers, which seemingly worked to their advantage. For instance, during the debate over the canal location, Cromwell was discouraged by the Republican Party’s call for a ‘Nicaraguan’ route. Through swift networking, Cromwell secured a meeting with Republican Mark Hanna and slapped “down on Hanna’s desk a $60,000 donation to the party.” (Parker, pg. 207) In result, the party would now call for an ‘Isthmian route,’ rather than a ‘Nicaraguan’ one. Parker also points out Bunau-Varilla’s ability to ‘convert’ anyone’s decision to the Panama route, and somehow is fortuned with fluky opportunities. For instance, when the New Company’s board of directors were skeptical of selling to the United States, Bunau-Varilla caused an uproar at a shareholders meeting in France and “urged the shareholders to sell to the United States at whatever price they could get or see their investment become entirely lost.” (Parker, pg. 214) Bunau-Varilla demanded for the sale of the Company, and that is exactly what happened. Although Bunau-Varilla and Cromwell were not physically in Panama during this time, the ‘fever’ amongst the individuals was more present than ever. Holding substantial financial ties that relied on the choosing of the Panama location, Parker illustrated the infectious desire Panama had over any individual bound to the land.

The remainder of the Parker’s final section, “The American Triumph,” is a series of vast studies that range from the technical side of steam shovels, railroads, the locks and dams, and mosquitoes to a more social aspect; like working conditions, living conditions, racism and segregation, disease, and the Panamanian Revolution. Parker thoroughly constructs a narrative story from these areas, pointing out the good, the bad, and the ugly. Advancements in technology, like the steams shovel and lock system, are some of the technical advantages that Parker uses to support America’s triumph over the canal. Parker also credits William Gorgas as a major player in the United States success, because of his devout efforts to eliminate yellow fever and reduce outbreaks of malaria. But to balance the American success, the bad and the ugly are presented through disease, racism, and mechanical accidents. Panama was a disease ridden environment, infested with an abundance of mosquitoes. A brief example of this dilemma can be represented by Parker when he states it is “estimated that an astonishing 80 percent of the overall work-force was hospitalized at some point during that one year [1906] alone.” (Parker, pg. 362) Another issue pressed by Parker is the immense problem of racism and segregation. The treatment of any foreign individual was much poorer than of those who were white American citizens. If not a white American citizen, you were most likely treated as a second class citizen. As racism and segregation became a major roll in the Canal Zone, it was not uncommon for some people to truly believe that “accidents and disease were deemed to be the West Indians’ own fault, or as a result of their inherent weaknesses.” (Parker, pg. 381) Racism was more than just the mindset or verbal tonnage of whites in the Canal Zone. Racism subjected foreigner to poor living and working conditions, which resulted in disease and death. Lastly, the deadly tolls brought on by mechanical accidents were increasing exponentially daily. The amount of heavy machinery and dynamite present on the isthmus at any given time posed a potential threat. Although mechanical accidents were a part of everyday life on the canal, the accident that took place in December 1908 was not an abrasion you could simply bandage. By the use of dynamite, the plan was to bring down a large hill that was in the center of the waterway. Disaster struck, and “the accidental ignition of 22 tons of dynamite, in two separate explosions, was heard three miles away and left 60 injured and 23 men dead, 17 west Indians, 3 Spaniards, and 3 Americans.” (Parker, pg. 427) Parker gathers these issues and events, and carefully poses the question: do the benefits of a Panama Canal outweigh the incalculable social, political, and human cost?

Parker has no issue realizing the Panama Canal is one of America’s greatest imperial and technological accomplishments of its day. An unforeseeable task America conquered through pure engineering genius. Parker illustrates a sinister view of America’s Herculean effort to conquer the infamous Panama Canal, and strays from any embellishing claims. When considering the ten years it took to build the canal and the final sum of four hundred million dollars, some people may regard Panama as a “practical” and “feasible” investment. Many individuals could also agree the absence of monetary profits until the 1950s is reasonable as well. What people have a harder time agreeing with is the human toll that is conservatively estimated at two hundred and fifty thousand. Parker skillfully illustrates the cost of human life throughout his book and sympathizes with the canal’s laborers. But Parker makes it clear that the true heroes were the laborers, whether they were part of the French or American venture. Despite the poor treatment of many laborers in the Zone, the majority would share the mutual pride held by American engineers and Panama official. Is this a result of an existing ‘fever’ that hibernates deep within veteran laborers? Who really knows? All that is known is their answer exists ‘six feet under.’

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