The Strange Affair Of The Taking Of The Panama Canal Zone


The concern had called him in for what was essentially a salvage job. The original French Panama Canal Company (or Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interocéanique) had been organized nearly twenty years earlier under the leadership of Ferdinand de Lesseps, who had won world acclaim by creating the Suez Canal. In seven years the company, sometimes using as many as 14,000 workers, had managed to gouge out some eleven miles of canal in Panama, less than half of the total length necessary. Heart-breaking difficulties had been encountered—swift floods on the isthmian rivers and landslides that wiped out months of work. In addition, yellow fever and malaria, which the medical technology of the eighties could not control, were claiming over a thousand lives a year by 1885. Valor was not enough to beat these odds. More capital was required, and there was a desperate struggle for fresh money, some of it through lotteries. But in 1894 it was revealed that in the fund-raising campaign certain politicians and journalists had been bribed. The grand design collapsed in scandal, investors shut their pocketbooks, and de Lesseps died brokenhearted.

The New Panama Canal Company was created to inherit and liquidate the machinery, buildings, contracts, and good will (such as it was) of the old. Its directors correctly despaired of reawakening French interest in another long, expensive struggle with the elements. But they knew that the United States was eager to have the oceans joined, and they conceived the idea of selling their properties to the Americans. To that end they had hired Cromwell.

The conversation between the lobbyist and the President went unrecorded, but there is little doubt about the prevailing sentiment of the day, which the President probably articulated. He would shortly be pointing out, in his State of the Union message, that stunning events had taken place in the preceding twelve months. As a result of the brief war with Spain the United States would shortly acquire a protectorate over Cuba and absolute control of Puerto Rico and the Philippine Islands. She had also, in that summer of empire, annexed the Hawaiian Islands. The United States was now a colonial power with holdings in two oceans, and undoubtedly desired, needed, and planned a canal to shorten the travel time between them.

Furthermore, the entire Western world would smile on such a canal. A great seaborne traffic was in motion, carrying to the factories of the United States and of Europe the crude ores, rubber, petroleum, lumber, fibers, and food-stuffs of a colonized Africa and Asia and a weak Latin America, and returning to them manufactured goods ranging from rails and locomotives to kerosene and calico. The whole fabric of civilization would benefit from speeding up this interchange.

But, the President might have gone on, the great inter-oceanic highway would not necessarily go through Panama. The American Congress had, in fact, long been considering a route through Nicaragua. Mr. Cromwell might learn more about that subject from one of the Nicaraguan canal’s most ardent supporters, Senator John T. Morgan of Alabama, ranking Democratic member of the Committee on Foreign Relations and that on Interoceanic Canals.

All of this was surely already known to Cromwell. His first task for his clients, therefore, in pursuit of which he had called on McKinley, was in some way to forestall a sudden, enthusiastic rush by Congress to embrace Nicaragua.

Scene II. Washington, March 3, 1899

As the Fifty-fifth Congress worked its way through final business in the closing hours of its life Senator Morgan was furious. It was more than thirty-three years since he had been Brigadier General Morgan, Cavalry, Confederate States of America, but he remembered enough to know that he had been outflanked.

During the winter months the aging but vigorous senator had steadily nursed along a bill for a Nicaraguan canal. Behind it he had put parliamentary and oratorical skills acquired in a classical education in Tennessee. Morgan’s measure would instruct the President to open negotiations with Nicaragua to secure the right of way for such a canal, and would have the effect of giving financial support to an American organization, the Maritime Canal Company. Like the Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interocéanique, the Maritime Company had begun its canal, dug a few miles, and then succumbed to the financial panic of 1893. Senator Morgan held stock in it.

Yet it was not merely for himself that Morgan was working. Though he had fought for the old South of cotton and slavery, he represented a new South of coal and iron and shipping and banking. He was eager to see New Orleans and Mobile and perhaps other southern ports become the centers of a lusty interhemispheric trade that would stimulate the struggling southern economy. To enhance that traffic a canal was an absolute necessity, and Nicaragua seemed, to Morgan, a logical location. It was two days closer in sailing time to American ports. It could be built so as to utilize natural watercourses, including the great expanse of Lake Nicaragua, and would therefore be cheaper and quicker to finish. Nicaragua’s government, unlike that of Colombia, indicated a strong interest in dealing with Washington for the canal; so did that of neighboring Costa Rica, which would be involved for part of the route. And Nicaragua’s high plateaus would be free of the pestilences that lurked in the sinister Panamanian jungles.