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.