The Panama Canal, which crosses the country of the same name, connects the Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific Ocean and connects the two oceans without having to bypass South America. Although the first construction projects date back to Charles V, it was in 1880 that Ferdinand de Lesseps, building on the success of the Suez Canal, developed the first serious project for an interoceanic canal in the Isthmus of Panama. The company went bankrupt in 1889 and the US government completed the work. Inaugurated in 1914, the canal returned to Panamanian sovereignty in 1977, following a long negotiation with the United States.
The first Panama Canal projects
Interest in a short access road between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans developed with the arrival of explorers in Central America as early as the sixteenth century. Around 1520, the Spanish conqueror Hernán Cortés proposed the construction of a canal on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, in southern Mexico. However, the first project for a canal on the Isthmus of Panama was the idea of the King of Spain, Charles V, who commissioned a study of the Isthmus in 1523. A work plan was drawn up in 1529, but King no 'not read it. In 1534, a Spanish notable proposed a canal project similar to the one that exists today, then other projects are submitted, but nothing is undertaken.
At the beginning of the 19th century, however, the writings of German scientist Alexander de Humboldt rekindled interest in the project. In 1819, the Spanish government gave official authorization to build a canal and to create a trading company to carry out this construction. But these efforts were to no avail: with the revolt of the colonies, Spain soon lost control of the sites that could be used for the construction of the canal.
The California Gold Rush of 1848 prompted the United States to act and sign the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty with the United Kingdom, preventing either country from gaining exclusive control over the future canal. Several studies carried out between 1850 and 1875 indicate that only two access routes are possible, one through Panama, the other through Nicaragua. In 1876 an international company was created which obtained two years later the concession from the Colombian government (Panama was then part of Colombia) and the permission to dig a canal in the isthmus.
From the failure of Lesseps to the construction of the canal by the United States
However, the international company fails in its attempts. In 1880, Ferdinand de Lesseps, the father of the Suez Canal, created a company calling on private savings in France. Badly started, the work started in 1881 was stopped in 1888 and the company went bankrupt in 1889, which caused a huge scandal and the questioning of many parliamentarians. However, US interest in an Atlantic-Pacific canal persists. In 1902, the Lesseps company reformed and offered its assets to the United States. The same year, the route to Panama is preferred to that of Nicaragua. The US government is negotiating with the Colombian government for a 9.5 km wide strip of land on the Isthmus, but the Colombian Senate refuses to ratify this concession.
In 1903, Panama revolted against Colombia and obtained its independence. In the same year, the United States and the young state of Panama signed the Treaty of Hay-Bunau-Varilla, under which the United States guaranteed the independence of Panama and obtained a perpetual lease on a strip of territory of 16 km , for the construction of the canal.
In 1904, the United States opted for construction with locks rather than with a channel at sea level. The construction not only required digging almost 150 million cubic meters of earth, but also cleaning up the entire region. , infested with mosquitoes, terrible spreaders of yellow fever and malaria. The canal was operational in the summer of 1914, after ten years of work. Approximately 80 km long, not counting the dredged landing channels at each end, the Panama Canal has a minimum depth of 12 m, and a minimum width of 91 m. Three locks, at Gatún (in the northern part of the canal), lift ships 26 m to Lake Gatún. The transit time is seven to eight hours.
The Panama Canal today
In September 1977, Panama and the United States signed two new treaties (the Torrijos-Carter treaties, named after the two signatory presidents) replacing the 1903 agreement: entered into force in 1979, they grant Panama sovereignty over canal area and control over the canal itself from the year 2000; the United States for its part obtained permanent neutrality of the channel after this date. Thus, on December 31, 1999, the Panama Canal came under Panamanian control; it is now managed and directed by the Autoridad del Canal de Panamá.
Close to its maximum capacity in the early 2000s, which had become difficult to access for the larger ships (whose size was steadily increasing), the canal required significant renovation and expansion; the principle of doubling its capacity was accepted by referendum in October 2006 (80% of the votes in favor of a project worth more than 5 billion dollars), and the expansion works began in September 2007.
- The Panama Canal: A Century of Stories, by Marc de Banville. Glénat, 2014.
- Ferdinand de Lesseps, biography of de Ghislain de Diesbach. Perrin, 1998.
- The forgotten man of the Panama Canal: Adolphe Godin de Lépinay, by Bernard Meunier. CNRS Editions, 2018.