The Panama Canal, where Two Oceans Kiss
An amazing feat of engineering, but at the cost of much blood and treasure
From a young age, Frank was fascinated by maps and atlases, and the stories they contained. Finding his birthplace on the map in the endpapers of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings only increased his interest in the mystery and message of maps.
While pursuing a career in journalism, Frank started a blog called Strange Maps, as a repository for the weird and wonderful cartography he found hidden in books, posing as everyday objects and (of course) floating around the Internet.
"Each map tells a story, but the stories told by your standard atlas for school or reference are limited and literal: they show only the most practical side of the world, its geography and its political divisions. Strange Maps aims to collect and comment on maps that do everything but that - maps that show the world from a different angle".
A remit that wide allows for a steady, varied diet of maps: Frank has been writing about strange maps since 2006, published a book on the subject in 2009 and joined Big Think in 2010. Readers send in new material daily, and he keeps bumping in to cartography that is delightfully obscure, amazingly beautiful, shockingly partisan, and more.
These postcards of two oceans kissing were popular at the time of the opening of the Panama Canal, in 1914. The completion of that waterway was a huge achievement, and a costly undertaking in both lives lost and money spent. As an engineering feat, it still rates as one of the wonders of the modern world.
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 - see also #617) 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 had 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 interesting Panama Canal stats and facts:
Strange Maps #188
Got a strange map? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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