Panama: the canal that unlocked the world
Vasco Núñez de Balboa had never known such excitement. Leader of Spain’s new colony of Santa María la Antigua, on the Atlantic Coast of the Isthmus of Panama, he’d heard thrilling tales from local Indians about a great ocean across the mountains – one which roiled towards a magnificent gold kingdom in the south.
With an expedition of 190 fellow Spaniards, he began a trek inland – into the sweltering jungle and the unknown. Some three weeks later, at noon on September 25 1513, Balboa reached the summit of a mountain, whence he set eyes on an ocean as boundless as he’d been promised. Falling to his knees in wonder, he hailed “the great maine heretofore unknowns”. The Pacific Ocean had been discovered.
Upon descending to the shore itself, Balboa walked knee-deep into the water and claimed possession of the new sea for the Spanish crown. He sent joyous tidings to King Ferdinand in Spain, including the suggestion that, even if a narrow strait of water between the two oceans were never found, “it might not be impossible to make one”.
Fast forward four centuries and the dream of Balboa – and scores of successors – would finally become a reality. For, on August 15 1914, the first ship crossed the Panama Canal, a route that changed the world. It is hailed as one of the greatest engineering achievements in history, yet the path to its completion was tortuous, often brutal, and took various innovations in mechanisation and medicine – and the birth of a whole new nation – to happen.
What’s more, it is no relic. Today, the canal is still a thriving commercial artery, ushering cargoes of bananas, coal, steel and other materials from the west coast of South America to the UK, and accounting for around five per cent of world trade. To keep it that way, the Panamanian government is currently overseeing a £3 billion canal expansion, which is proving every bit as fraught as the original construction. Intended to open for business in time for the centenary this month, delays have put the date back to 2016 at the earliest.
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