Magazine article The Spectator

The Unkindest Cut

Magazine article The Spectator

The Unkindest Cut

Article excerpt

PANAMA FEVER : THE BATTLE TO BUILD THE CANAL by Matthew Parker Hutchinson, £20, pp. 444, ISBN 9780091797041 . £16 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

From the day in 1513 that Balboa stared at the Pacific from a peak in Darien men dreamed of cutting a path from the Atlantic to the Pacific through the 'Golden Isthmus' of Panama. Not until the 19th century did the dream become a realistic engineering possibility. We have become blasé about scientific breakthroughs and technological innovation, but men and women of that age marvelled at the broad prospect opened up to humanity by the application of science, which would increase trade and wealth and, in their wake, foster international co-operation and lead humanity to ever-higher levels of civilisation. Ironic it was that the Panama Canal, the crowning achievement of 19th-century technology, was open on 14 August, 1914, just when such optimism was falling to earth.

The canal was the most ambitious and most expensive building project the world had seen. It cost the American government about $400 million, four times the bill for the Suez Canal, and it did not begin to show a profit until the 1950s. Millions more had been spent in the previous hundred years by expedition after expedition to survey the region and, most profligately, by a French syndicate's botched attempt to construct a canal in the 1880s. That syndicate was headed by Ferdinand de Lesseps, a French national hero since the building by his company of the Suez Canal in the 1860s. Financial mismanagement bankrupted his Panama enterprise, which, at any rate, was doomed from the outset. Lesseps was not an especially knowledgeable engineer, but he possessed the brimming self-confidence and silvertongued charisma that wins devotion and brings in investors. He was also, as Matthew Parker demonstrates, vainglorious and blinkered. His ruling passion was to build a canal at sea level without locks, an 'Ocean Bosporus' as he called it. Geography would not allow it, but Lesseps bamboozled delegates to an international conference at Paris into backing his plan. Not, ominously, the engineers among them, one of whom was the renowned civil engineer, Baron Godin de Lépinay. 'In order not to burden my conscience with unnecessary deaths and useless expenditure, ' he declared above jeers and hisses, 'I say "no! …

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