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Why was the Panama Canal Built?

Debopriya Bose Mar 2, 2020
Building the Panama Canal took 35 years and cost around 30,000 lives. However, this was the greatest engineering project ever taken up by man, that made a huge difference to the way trade and commerce is carried out today. Read this Historyplex post to know more about its construction.
The Panama Canal is a 77-mile long international canal that is located in the Isthmus of Panama. It allows ships traveling between the Pacific Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean a much smaller route, than the one that they would have to take, had they traveled across the Cape of Horn.
From 1000 ships crossing the Canal during its early years, over 14,000 ships were reported to have passed the Canal in 2008. The construction of the Canal was completed during the tenure of President Theodore Roosevelt.
Responsibility of the project was given to Chief Engineer John Findlay Wallace. However, when the project seemed to be failing, John Stevens, who had built the Great Northern Railroad in the Pacific Northwest was brought in.
When Stevens resigned from his post abruptly, Thomas Goethals supervised the project till its construction in 1914. Need for building a canal had been felt in as early as the 16th century.
However, when actual efforts were made to build the Canal, it was overcome by problems mainly due to the geography and geology of the region. Almost 30,000 lives were lost till the Canal had been constructed. This might make you wonder 'Why was the Panama Canal built?' Let's find answers to this question in the following lines.

Reason for Building the Panama Canal

A canal through the Isthmus of Panama would save a lot of time for ships that needed to travel between the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean. With the building of the Canal, ships could avoid taking the treacherous route across Drake Passage and Cape Horn, to travel between the two great oceans.
For example, a ship traveling between San Francisco and New York would save more than half the distance, than it would take while taking the conventional route across the southern tip of South America.
Discovery of gold in California in 1848 saw interest of the Americans turning towards the canal. Later on, when Theodore Roosevelt became the President of US, construction of the Panama Canal saw a new fervor, as the President viewed the route as extremely important from military as well as political point of view for US.
Although, attempts for building it had already started in the 16th century, it was completed only on August 15, 1914 by the Americans.

Construction of the Canal

The need for building a canal across the Isthmus of Panama was felt as early as the 16th Century. During this time, the Spanish had realized that there was gold to be discovered in Peru, Ecuador, and Asia.
In 1523, the King of Spain and Charles V, ordered a survey to be carried out to see if it was feasible to cut a piece of land across the Isthmus of Panama. They realized that if such a route could be made, it would save them a lot of time in navigating to the South American countries and also give the Spanish a strategic military edge over the Portuguese.
This route would also provide a much safer way for the Spanish ships for returning to their countries with goods, specially gold from the South American countries. A survey was carried out and a plan for building a canal was also drawn up in 1529.
However, interest in conquering the countries in the Mediterranean region and the ongoing wars in Europe, diverted attention from this plan. Interest in the project was revived during the beginning of the 19th century, through the efforts of German scientist Alexander von Humboldt.
In 1819, the Spanish Government authorized the construction of the canal and also created an international company for the project. A number of surveys were carried on in between 1850 and 1875. The surveys showed that two routes were possible, one across Panama and the other across Nicaragua.
In 1878, permission was obtained from the Colombian government to dig a canal across Panama. But the project failed and the challenge of constructing the Panama Canal was taken over by a French Company in 1880. This company was organized by Ferdinand Marie de Lesseps, the developer of the Suez Canal.
Fresh from the success of the Suez Canal, Lesseps was confident that the Panama Canal could also be built without much trouble. However, disease, especially malaria and yellow fever and lack of sufficient knowledge of the geology of the region made the French dump the project. By the time the project was dropped, almost 20,000 lives were lost.
With the discovery of gold in California, the Americans also got interested in building a canal through the isthmus that joined the two continents. The Isthmian Canal Commission created by the US Congress in 1899 suggested a route through Nicaragua. However, the decision was later changed in favor of Panama.
Successive failures made Lesseps sell the company to the US for $40,000,000. For Roosevelt, the canal was very important from the point of view of having better control over its two coasts and also for becoming a global power. He wanted the canal to be made across Panama, which was a part of Colombia.
When the latter refused permission to the US to build the proposed canal, US supported a revolution through which Panama got independence from Colombia in 1903. The US and the new state signed the Hay-Bunau-Varilla treaty, which granted US a perpetual lease of the 10 mile strip for the canal. This area is known as the Canal Zone.
In exchange, Panama's independence was recognized and it was to be paid heavy monetary compensation. US started its work on the canal in 1904 and after 10 years of painstaking hard work and labor, construction of the Canal was finally completed and it was open to public from August 15, 1914.
If we consider the question 'Why was the Panama Canal built?' then we would realize that what started as a requirement to benefit trade and commerce, later on became important for the United States from strategic point of view.
Whatever has been the reason behind building the Panama Canal, the Canal gained importance due to its strategic location, that provided a safer and much shorter travel route between the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean.