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Earlier this week, French engineers were forced to abandon their work in Panama after receiving news their privately owned company ran out of money. For the past eight years, France has been trying to construct a canal that would link the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean. Unfortunately, due planning errors made by the company’s president, workers are not financially capable to continue with the construction.
A total of 1,174 million francs ($214 million) have been spent towards the building of this canal. However, this money did not come from France’s government, but from French private investors who wanted a share in the profits. In 1879, a private company was formed not only to raise money needed for the canal, but also to construct it. The president of this company was a 74-year-old Frenchman by the name Ferdinand de Lesseps, who was a former diplomat and famous for his participation in the construction of the Suez Canal in 1869. His fame and experience made him seem perfect for the job, but his “stubborn, vain, opinionated” attitude contributed to disaster (Source 1).
From the very beginning of this project, Lesseps “believed he knew better than the engineers under his command” (Source 1). When engineers offered advice, he immediately rejected it. His plan was to run the canal south following the Changres River and then passing through the mountains. Engineers didn’t argue with him about this path, but told him it was necessary to use locks to lift the ships up and over the mountains, instead of carving a gigantic hole in the mountain. Although this was a good idea, stubborn Lesseps refused to use it and insisted on building a sea-level canal. When engineers heard they were to build a 72-foot-wide, 300-foot-tall gorge in Culebra Hill, they were appalled at the amount of earth Lesseps wanted to remove. They argued with him over and over to build locks, but the old man wouldn’t back down.
By 1881, the journey to failure had begun. Once the workers started digging, they realized the canal’s path was the least of their problems. After a short time, it was obvious the Changres River was an extremely dangerous place to work. With sudden, heavy rain the river got out of control, causing workers and their equipment to get washed away. After the rain stopped, it was impossible to continue working. The ground was covered in mud, preventing wagons and machinery to be transported.
As if this wasn’t bad enough, canal workers did not only have a difficult work environment, they had one that was deadly. Illnesses like malaria and yellow fever, commonly referred to as “black vomit”, attacked many workers in Panama (Source 2). Recent records show that more than 22,000 of the Indians, Jamaicans, Chinese, and whites who worked on the canal had died from either yellow fever or malaria. The amount of men killed was twice the number of men employed at any one time during the canal’s digging; making Panama “one of the world’s most deadly places” (Source 1).
They dug inch after inch for six years until two years ago, in 1887, when 82-year-old Lesseps realized his sea-level canal was impossible to build. He began planning to install locks, but his plans were left unfinished. The private company ran out of money and all that was left was a 25 million-cubic-yard hole in Culebra Hill. Over the past two years there has been no luck finding new investors to finance the canal’s construction. All previous French investors say, “[they refuse] to waste another penny on the project” (Source 1).
It was only a few months ago Lesseps and his workers returned home to France, leaving behind the 40% finished Panama Canal. After ruining his chances of commanding the construction of linking two of the greatest oceans, he destroyed his and his son’s reputations. Both were found guilty of fraud and bribery in financing the canal. Presently, his son is in jail, where he is allowed out only to visit his father. We are told Lesseps, now 84 years old, “[is] a broken man who [spends] his days staring at the fire, gazing at a three-year-old newspaper, and trying vainly to recognize his son.”
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