As early as 1534, king Charles V of Spain suggested a canal in Panama across the Central American isthmus. Even with the primitive state of cartography of the day, it wasn’t hard to see how such a canal would facilitate trade and travel by eliminating the lengthy, dangerous shipping route rounding Cape Horn.

One of the last acts of the independent Kingdom of Scotland was the ill-fated Darien Scheme, an attempt at setting up a colony on the isthmus, that would live off the overland trade route between Panama’s Pacific and Atlantic shores. Thousands died and the scheme’s collapse in 1700 is thought to have contributed to the Act of Union (1707), establishing the United Kingdom.

The Panama Railway, opened in 1855, was a more successful reprise of the same idea, and eventually led to the creation of the Panama Canal. The initially French scheme, headed by Ferdinand de Lesseps (of later Suez Canal fame) was quite literally plagued by malaria and yellow fever, to such an extent that it was abandoned in 1893, after 13 arduous, lethal years. Some 22.000 workers died.

The US undertook a second, more successful attempt at canal-digging from 1904 to 1914, completing the canal two years ahead of schedule and at a greatly smaller cost in human lives (‘only’ 5.600 died). The US retained sovereignty and control of the Panama Canal Zone – incidentally, Guantanamo Bay was ‘leased in perpetuity’ from Cuba to protect the trade routes to and from the Canal. By a 1977 treaty with the US, Panama gained control over the Canal Zone on New Year’s Eve, 1999. Some facts about the Panama Canal:

• A ship sailing from New York to San Francisco would have had to travel 22.500 km (14.000 mi) before 1914. The Canal more than halved the journey, to 9.500 km (6.000 mi).

• The Canal is 77 km (48 mi) long.

• Each year, more than 14.000 ships pass through the Canal, carrying more than 200 million tonnes of cargo.

• An average passage through the Canal takes about 9 hours.

• Due to the curling of the isthmus, the Canal counterintuitively runs from the northwest (Atlantic) to the southeast (Pacific).

• The canal consists of 2 sets of locks, several artifical channels and 17 artifical lakes.

• The smallest vessels (up to 50 ft) pay a toll of US$500, while the most expensive toll ever was charged to the container ship Maersk Dellys, paying US$249.165. The least expensive toll was paid by Richard Halliburton, who paid 36 cents to swim the Canal in 1928.

• A 1934 estimate of the maximum capacity was 80 million tonnes per year, while traffic in 2005 consisted of 279 million tonnes.

• Close to 50% of the vessels in the Canal are using its full width (‘Panamax’). By 2011, 37% of the world’s container ships will be too large for the Canal. These ‘post-Panamax’ ships can only be accomodated by major expansion works. An expansion proposal was approved by referendum in Panama at the end of 2006. The project, estimated to cost over US$5 billion, started on Sept. 3, 2007 with an explosion blowing the side off a mountain at Paraíso.

This postcard map, apparently dating from around the time of the canal’s completion in 1914, was found here at