Lesson #332: The French and the Panama Canal

I was out at trivia with a bunch of friends tonight and, apart from killing the round on Canadian postal abbreviations (in fairness, I don’t think the guy running the game anticipated a ringer), my team came within a Prince album of winning the whole thing. None of us is a Prince fan, so…

Anyway, the thing about playing trivia is that a lot of right answers can be deduced if you don’t know the answer straight away, but have a good team. Our question was “from which country did the United States take over construction of the Panama Canal after an aborted effort between 1881-94?” We answered France correctly based on our knowledge of history and our deductive reasoning skills, but it turns out that while we guessed right, we didn’t guess right for the right reasons. We had figured that whichever country it was had to have been “in the empire business”, had to have had holdings in the Caribbean that it may have had to surrender, and had to have found itself in over its head financially. That gave us France.

What we didn’t know is that the reason France withdrew from the project is that they weren’t awesome engineers, and their people kept dying. The project was under the supervision of Ferdinand de Lesseps, who had overseen the construction of the Suez canal and, because no one bothered to do much research in the way of basic geography and/or geology, it was intended to have been a sea-level canal. In fact, de Lesseps had rejected an earlier route that had included a locks system. Turns out, the mountains were a bit of an unanticipated problem. Now, combine this “maybe we should have thought this through a little better” engineering problem with a malaria/yellow fever problem and a shoddy-safety-measures-during-construction-resulting-in-death problem and you wind up with a financial problem. Adding in a corruption problem in France, you’ve got a recipe for a multi-million dollar ($287,000,000 at the time) failure.

In fairness to the French, who were at least trying, by the time they abandoned construction, there were parts of the canal that were nearly completed.

Read more here, here, and here.

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