Panama Canal (1880+)

In the summer of 1914, the first ship steamed between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans over a fifty mile stretch that had been terra firma a mere ten years earlier. The Panama Canal was a marvel of modern engineering that fulfilled a dream as old as the Age of Discovery, a convenient inter-oceanic waterway that avoided the dangerous and lengthy passage around Cape Horn. After years of futile voyages in search of the Northwest Passage, capitalists, engineers, and politicians from Europe and the United States, inspired by ideals of progress and modernity, decided to carve a marine path through Central America.

Although both Nicaragua with its large central lake and Mexico's Isthmus of Tehuantepec were also viable options, Panama became the focus of international efforts that would forever change navigation, commerce, and international political relations. As seen in the satirical cartoon in the sources, France attempted to dig a canal through Panama as early as 1880, but disease and lack of funding forced them to terminate their project with only a quarter of the work complete. By the end of the nineteenth century, however, the United States would become the power most dedicated to constructing a canal and, as a result, began to exert imperialistic influence throughout the entire region. This increasing involvement in Latin America and the Caribbean was facilitated by advanced techniques for dealing with tropical diseases. The experiments of Juan Finlay and Walter Reed in Cuba that determined the vector and inoculation techniques for yellow fever were especially important in this regard.

In 1903, the U.S. supported a Panamanian revolt against Colombia, which had hitherto controlled the isthmus, and in a 1904 treaty seized legal rights to the Canal Zone, a ten mile stretch of land surrounding the canal begun by the French on both sides. According to Walter LaFeber, an historian of U.S. foreign relations, Panama was from that moment on a de facto colony of the U.S., nominally independent but subject to paternalism and policies that favored U.S. interests (LaFeber 1989). Panama and its canal became, in effect, U.S. tools that served their goals of increased trade, naval power, and scientific progress.

The actual construction of the canal remains one of the most remarkable feats of engineering in world history, combining new technologies, massive amounts of manpower, and terraforming. Trains provided the workers with the necessities of life and moved the millions of tons of earth that was dug up each year. They also served to transport equipment, such as the steam shovel in this topic's sources, which made the U.S. canal project far more efficient than that of the French. The financial and human costs, however, remained staggering. Between the French and U.S. digs, the canal cost over six hundred million USD. More significantly, the U.S. reported 5,609 deaths among its workers, a large figure that is nonetheless dwarfed by the 20,000 or more who died while the dig was led by the French. Although the unification of the two oceans was the most significant change in Panama's landscape, the canal also altered regional ecosystems by damming rivers and digging canals to supply the canal's locks with the requisitely massive amounts of water.

After the completion of the waterway, the Canal Zone became an area of intense segregation, where the whites who worked for the canal or the U.S. military became a sort of colonial racial elite. As Stephen Frenkel noted, these elites justified their privileged status with the "scientific" tenets of environmental determinism, a concept in early twentieth century geography that claimed that the environment in which a people lived predetermined the population's capacity for intelligence, civilization, and labor. Thus although whites were naturally stronger, they were out of their element in the tropics and their superior intelligence designated them for managerial positions while blacks, imported from the West Indies to build the canal, were slow-witted and "naturally" designated to perform menial work. The photographs in the source of the white and non-white parts of the canal zone show the disparity in wealth between elite and local areas of the Zone, which were euphemistically categorized as "gold" (white) and "silver" (non-white), and the areas between them were often patrolled by police (Frenkel 1992).

By the 1960s, however, Panamanians resented U.S. domination. Discontent and rioting led to a series of negotiations that culminated in the Carter-Torrijo treaty of 1977, in which the U.S. agreed to remove its personnel and give the canal to Panama by the year 2000. On Dec 31, 1999, Panama gained control of its greatest asset. Nevertheless, Panama has been left with a political, cultural, and physical legacy of colonialism, without ever having been legitimately colonized. During its years in Panama, the U.S. tested massive amounts of chemical weapons, including mustard gas and Agent Orange, and then left the country without bothering to clean up its depleted uranium or an estimated 100,000 pieces of unexploded ordnance (Lindsay-Poland 2003).

In a situation perhaps unique to history, a technological endeavor simultaneously created a new country while relegating it to unofficial foreign rule. The Panama Canal exemplifies the interconnectedness of science and politics and is a stark reminder of the power that advanced nations can exert over weaker ones in the name of progress, profit, or "the greater good."

Questions for further exploration:

1. In the early twentieth century, the U.S. exerted tremendous influence throughout Latin America under the auspices of scientific progress. Compare the Panama Canal with other scientific pursuits, such as those of the Rockefeller Foundation. Taken on the whole, does U.S. science in Latin America constitute a form of imperialism?

2. The U.S. built canal continued the unfinished work of the French during the 1880s and, around the turn of the century, Latin American countries began looking to the U.S. as the paradigm of modernity in medicine and other disciplines, a role previously filled by France. How is the example of the Panama Canal an illustration of this trend?

3. Watch the video "Through the Canal Bottom" in the sources. The use of a motion picture and statistics-laden voiceover can be viewed as conveying undeniable truths, which, in a sense, they are. What else, though, can one "read" from this video through what it does (and does not) show and talk about? Consider such issues as landscape, imperialism, labor, race, and gender.

4. The sources "The European Plan" and "The Proposed Nicaragua Canal" both express explicit and implicit U.S. ideas about Latin America and the role that Europe, the U.S., and modern science can and should have there. What are some of the assumptions in these two sources?

5. How have ideas concerning the role of humans in shaping the landscape changed since the construction of the Panama Canal. Can any of these changes be traced to the Canal or Latin America in general?

Further Reading:

Clayton, Lawrence A. "The Nicaragua Canal in the Nineteenth Century: Prelude to American Empire in the Caribbean." Journal of Latin American Studies. 19: 2 (November 1987): 323-352.

Frenkel, Stephen. "Geography, Empire, and Environmental Determinism." Geographical Review. 82: 2 (April 1992): 143-153.

LaFeber, Walter. The Panama Canal: The Crisis in Historical Perspective. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Lindsay-Poland, John. Emperors in the Jungle: The Hidden History of the U.S. in Panama. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003.

Major, John. Prize Possession: The United States and the Panama Canal, 1903-1979. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

McCullough, David. The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1977.

Gatun Locks

Date: c. 1913
Owner: Library of Congress
Source Type: Buildings


This 1913 panoramic photograph shows the Gatun Locks in the final stages of construction. The Gatun Locks are located on the Caribbean side of Panama, just north of the Gatun Lake in the middle of the country. Although the initial plans were to build a sea level canal, a minority on the canal commission won approval for a three tier lock system which would use Gaton Lake as its high point, 85 feet above sea level. This lake could thus serve as the highest waterway while also providing water for the lower locks. Each of the three locks on either side of the lake were engineered to lift ships 27.4 feet, and each was 1000 feet long and 110 feet wide, made larger than initial French plans in order to accommodate U.S. battleships, which were the largest vessels of the time.

Despite remarkable technological achievements, the Panama Canal is fast becoming an inadequate means of passing between the oceans. At its current capacity, the canal can process about thirty-seven boats a day, but experts predict that the demand will be raised to fifty a day within the next half-century. In order to accommodate this increased traffic, plans are underway for either a second canal, which would be built at sea level, or more locks in the present waterway. Both promise to raise capacity by over 50%, but each would cost billions of dollars.

CITATION: Bird's eye view of Gatun Locks, Panama Canal. ca. 1913. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division: LC-USZ62-128562.



Non-White Area of Canal Zone

Date: 1908
Owner: Library of Congress
Source Type: Images


This photograph shows the living conditions of non white Panamanians in the U.S. owned Canal Zone (compare this photograph to that of "White part of the Canal Zone"). The subalterns of the Canal Zone, especially the West Indian blacks who had been brought in to build the canal, lived far less luxuriously. The canal managers had used environmental determinism to justify employing blacks because, although they lacked the intelligence and leadership skills of whites, they were considered more fit for work in tropical climes. Environmental determinism also legitimized the unequal treatment of blacks in the Zone throughout most of the twentieth century; since they were "made" for tropical environs, they did not need the extra luxuries provided for "gold" (North American) residents of the Zone, including 25% higher salaries, free housing and healthcare, and annual vacations. The "silver" population of blacks and Panamanians outnumbered whites almost 5 to 1 in the Canal Zone, but the thinly veiled Jim Crow laws of the region kept them subordinate to elite interests. The stark inequality finally began to improve in the 1970s, when the Torrijos-Carter Treaty agreed to return the Zone to Panama by 2000.


Conniff, Michael L. Black Labor on a White Canal: Panama, 1904-1981. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1985.

Frenkel, Stephen. "Geography, Empire, and Environmental Determinism." In Geographical Review, Vol. 82, no. 2 (Apr., 1992), p. 143-153.

CITATION: Native Houses at Cruces, Canal Zone. 1908. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division: LC-USZ62-75680.



Roosevelt at Canal Site

Date: c. 1908
Owner: Library of Congress
Source Type: Images


This photograph is from Theodore Roosevelt's visit to Panama in 1906. This was the first time a president had ever left the United States while in office and it reflects both how important the canal project was to him and his desire for U.S. imperial expansion. He was perhaps the key personality responsible for North American involvement in Panama by shifting U.S. canal interests from Nicaragua and providing military aid for the Panamanian Revolution of 1904. Roosevelt believed that the U.S. had a duty to bring "civilization" and modernity to the "backwards" parts of the Americas, and he considered the canal itself to be the embodiment of progress.

This photograph was taken on the second day of his two week trip to the Canal Zone, a voyage planned intentionally to coincide with Panama's rainy season because Roosevelt hoped to see tropical conditions at their worst. It depicts a famous episode in which Roosevelt climbed into a steam shovel train while inspecting the site of the Culebra Cut to learn how the shovel worked and to practice operating it. The shovel pictured here is a ninety-five ton Bucyrus, one of 102 steam shovels at work in the canal, and could move three to five times more dirt than the earthmovers employed by the French. This event characterized Roosevelt's energy and enthusiasm for the Canal as a feat of modern engineering as well as U.S. expansionism. His presidency, which was integrally connected with the canal project, marks the full-flowering of U.S. imperialism in Central America.


 McCullough, David. The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1977.

CITATION: Pres. Theodore Roosevelt on steam-powered digging machine during construction of the Panama Canal c. 1908. Medium: 1 photographic print. Photoprint copyrighted by H.C. White Co., N.Y. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, DC. Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-85403.


Source References

Web Sites

Panama Canal Authority (Panama Canal Authority)

Canal Museum (

Panama Canal Museum  (Panama Canal Museum)


Balf, Todd. The Darkest Jungle: The True Story of the Darien Expedition and America's Ill-Fated Race to Connect the Seas. New York: Crown, 2003.

Cadbury, Deborah. Dreams of Iron And Steel: Seven Wonders of the Nineteenth Century, from the Building of the London Sewers to the Panama Canal. Philadelphia: Diane Publishing Company, 2004.

Chaves-Carbalo, Enrique. "Samuel T. Darling: Studies on Malaria and the Panama Canal," Bulletin for the History of Medicine. 54 (1980): 95-100.

Conniff, Michael L. Black Labor on a White Canal: Panama, 1904-1981. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1985.

Keller, Ulrich. The Building of the Panama Canal in Historic Photographs. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1984.

LaFeber, Walter. The Panama Canal: The Crisis in Historical Perspective. New York: Oxford University Press USA, 1990.

Major, John. Prize Possession: The United States Government and the Panama Canal 1903-1979. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. 

Mann, Elizabeth. The Panama Canal: The Story of how a jungle was conquered and the world made smaller. New York: Mikaya Press, 2006.

McCullough, David. The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal 1870-1914. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004.

McMillan, Robert R. Global Passage: Transformation of Panama and the Panama Canal. Charleston, SC: BookSurge LLC, 2006.

Roosevelt, Theodore. Correspondence Concerning the Convention Between the United States and Colombia for the Construction of an Interoceanic Canal Across the Isthmus of Panama. Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1903.

Snapp, Jeremy S. and Gerald Fitzgerald Sherman. Destiny by Design : The Construction of the Panama Canal. Lopez Island, WA: Pacific Heritage Press, 2000.

The European Plan

Date: 1880
Owner: Library of Congress
Source Type: Images


CITATION: Nast, Thomas. The European Plan. 1880. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division: LC-USZ62-129683.



The Proposed Nicaragua Canal

Date: 1899
Owner: Library of Congress
Source Type: Images


This two page spread from an 1899 magazine shows the diverse elements that the U.S. considered when planning their canal through Nicaragua. The map at the top of the page shows the planned route of the water way, a project facilitated by the massive Lago de Nicaragua in the eastern part of the country. The photographs in this source show the rivers and lakes through which the canal would run yet, more significantly, the compilers considered it equally important to show photographs of Nicaraguan people. This interest in the native population reflects much about how the U.S. conceived of this project and its new role as quasi-imperial hegemons in Central America. Much like the Spanish in the sixteenth century, the U.S. now considered it necessary to "know" the locals in order to better exploit them and the resources in their homelands. By pairing ethnology with cartography and geographic photography, this magazine spread does much to encapsulate the totality of American expansion into Central America.

As early as the 1870s, U.S. surveyors were sent to Central America in order to find the best canal route, a project that took on new importance following California's gold boom in 1849. Just like Alexander von Humboldt almost seventy years earlier, the survey team suggested that Nicaragua was the best terrain through which to dig a waterway. The failure of France's Panama Canal seemed to confirm this choice and it prompted the U.S. to begin dredging Nicaragua's rivers in 1890. This year can also mark the beginning of a new era for Central America, one in which the interests of the U.S. were now the most important factor. Many thought that work would begin in earnest on the canal following the Spanish American War, an event that confirmed U.S. dominance in the Americas, yet the influence of powerful lobbyists like Theodore Roosevelt shifted the focus to Panama, where the 1904 concession of land from that newborn country allowed them to continue the canal begun by France over twenty years earlier (Clayton 1987).

CITATION: Walker, J.W.G. The Proposed Nicaragua Canal, the country through which it will pass, and the people along its route. 1899. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division: LC-USZ62-103136.



Through the Canal Bottom

Date: 1912
Owner: Prelinger Archive
Source Type: Videos


This motion picture from 1912 shows the Panama Canal's Culebra Cut in its final stages. The Cut, now known as the Gaillard Cut, was the most famous terraforming project during the canal's construction: it had to be widened to four times the original size (to deal with constant erosion) and was eventually flooded by the manmade Gaton Lake. The most formidable barrier between the two oceans was a line of mountains across central Panama but, at 275 feet above sea level, Culebra was the lowest point in this range and was thus the most feasible route. The massive amounts of digging, blasting, and earthmoving recounted in this video give some indication of the amount of earth that the Cut displaced. While lauding U.S. engineering feats, the narrator quickly glosses over (though does mention) the racial discrepancies within the labor force and, despite the many statistics listed, does not find the 5,609 deaths during U.S. supervision (1904-1914) to be worthy of note.

CITATION: Through the Canal Bottom. Duhem Motion Picture Company. 1912. Courtesy of the Prelinger Archive.



White Part of the Canal Zone

Date: 1910
Owner: Library of Congress
Source Type: Images


This is the white occupied area of the Canal Zone, a U.S. owned section of Panama that encompassed all land within ten miles of each bank of the canal. The U.S. received the land cession from Panama after assisting its war of independence from Colombia in 1904, buying out and resuming work upon the partially completed French canal. After the waterway was completed in 1914, the Canal Zone served as home to the North American managers of the canal as well as many Panamanians and West Indians who continued to perform most of the canal-related labor.

The early twentieth century theory of environmental determinism, the pseudoscientific and racist idea that some races are "naturally" suited for certain climates, led North American whites living in Panama to consider themselves unsuited for tropical life. They thus sought to remake U.S. conditions in the Canal Zone, effectively separating it from Panamanian nature. Only 3000 acres were considered fit for white communities while 450 square miles of the Zone were unoccupied by canal managers, U.S. military personnel, and their families. This small, elite area was serviced by many sanitary and health care services, including a YMCA meant to encourage physical and moral fitness in defiance of perceived tropical degeneration. The local population was excluded from this part of the Zone, which was intentionally bounded by forest and hills and patrolled by security forces.


Conniff, Michael L. Black Labor on a White Canal: Panama, 1904-1981. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1985.

Frenkel, Stephen. "Geography, Empire, and Environmental Determinism." In Geographical Review, Vol. 82, no. 2 (Apr., 1992), p. 143-153.

CITATION: View from Cristobal looking along the principal business street of Colon, Canal Zone. 1913. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division: LC-USZ62-117214. Page 2: Native Houses at Cruces, Canal Zone. 1908. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division: LC-USZ62-75680.