On August 15, 1914, the Panama Canal officially opened when the ‘S. S. Ancon’ steamed through from the canal’s Atlantic to Pacific side. The canal, an engineering marvel at the time, was the result of thirty years of blood, tears – and psychological tricks.

The first attempt by the French to construct a navigable canal between the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean in Panama was stopped by landslides, an outbreak of malaria and yellow fever causing the death of almost 22,000 workers and a financial loss of almost 287 million dollars.

When the US Canal Commission took up the project they initially proposed an alternative, much longer route, that passed through Nicaragua. Philippe Bunau-Varilla, an engineer who’d also been involved in the French project, was convinced that the terrain of Nicaragua was even more hostile for the construction of a canal, and set out to lobby the US Congress in favor of the Panama route.

Bunau-Varilla had also a personal interest in the Panama route. As he already had worked there, he was hoping to offer his service to the Americans. Apart from practical arguments, he also used psychology to convince the politicians to support his proposal.

The various routes proposed for a possible link  between the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. The proposed Nicaragua Canal would have followed the red route. Image by Wikipedia/Kaidor, CC BY-SA 4.0 Kaidor

From a stamp dealer in Washington, he purchased 500 Nicaraguan stamps depicting the smoking Mount Momotombo, located near Lake Nicaragua where the proposed Nicaragua Canal would pass. He then sent a letter, prominently featuring the stamp and a note reading “An official witness to volcanic activity in Nicaragua,” to every US senator and member of the House of Representatives.

Bunau-Varilla message was simple: If active volcanoes (and their associated earthquakes) are so common in Nicaragua that they feature so prominently on stamps, this was not the right country to build a canal. When voting took place the next day, the majority of politicians voted for the Panama route, and in 1904 construction work on the canal resumed.

Just one year later, Nicaragua’s Mount Momotombo erupted.

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