Sunday, August 16, 2015

A review of “The Panama Canal” (American Experience)

It allowed ships of all kinds to go from the Atlantic to the Pacific (and vice versa) without having to go around the tip of South America - drastically reducing the time needed to transport goods. The effects of the project were largely economic; but it was completed mainly for military reasons, with the need to move naval ships between oceans without enormous delays from increased travel time. And it revolutionized the economy and international trade of the world, allowing much trade to be done for significantly lower costs.

Panama Canal in modern times

You wouldn't think that the building of a canal would make for good visual storytelling; but when PBS did a documentary about this some years ago, the visuals were one of the great highlights of the movie. There are several reasons for this, with the first and foremost being that there is actual footage of the events depicted - silent footage, it is true, but actual footage nonetheless (and they add sound to the project through visual re-enactments). Another reason is that the story takes place in a tropical climate, which makes for interesting background for the events described. And the final reason is that the story is visually exciting - with construction of great engineering feats that are amazing to look at (both during the construction and after the completion); and also with moving casualty photos from disease, dynamite, and other hazards, which make this story more dramatic and interesting than one might think.

Panama Canal while under construction, 1907

When you put all these things together, it makes for a great film that tells an interesting story, which is also one of great importance for American and world history. The number of wounded, dead, and sick from disease make the drama comparable to that of war; with the difference being that no one has to kill anyone else. The feat is a monumental accomplishment, which revolutionized the way the world did trade; and the Americans may have been the only people who could have done it. The French tried in the decades prior to this; but failed to do so, and soon abandoned the project. The American effort was mainly the brainchild of American president Theodore Roosevelt, who was the prime mover in getting the project started - and though he would not live to see it completed, "it's Theodore Roosevelt's canal - everyone knows that" (to quote David McCullough); and the success of the project is mainly due to his support.

Key canal technology called the "locks," 1908 (described below)

The obstacles faced were numerous, from the diseases of the tropics to the ruggedness of the terrain. The most practicable route still involved passage through some halting mountains, which eventually had to be traversed by a new technology called "locks" - a system of heavy machinery that literally pushed ships upward to get over the mountains, and lowered them gently downward to get them down on the other side. (Footage is shown of this in the film, to give you an idea of how advanced this is.) And cutting a way through a mountain with primitive hand tools (even sledgehammers) was far too slow, so the team went forward through this part by the more dangerous method of dynamite - a major killer at the construction sites. This was dangerous work, and there was more than one casualty - something that might make the project impossible today.

Heavy machinery at construction site, 1908

The dangerous work was done mainly by an ethnic group called the West Indians, who were basically Caribbean people of African descent. In fact, over 90% of the workers on the project were black people from the West Indies. Despite much racism against their color, many West Indians jumped at the chance to make a large amount of money on the American project - larger than virtually anything they could make at home - and the Americans got needed labor cheaper through hiring the Afro-Caribbeans, instead of hiring fellow Americans who would demand more pay. The documentary does not cut out the discrimination, and even interviews some descendants from the West Indians' homelands in the Caribbean - something which adds some interest to the story.

Theodore Roosevelt, the prime mover of the project

The documentary also interviews Latin Americans from the area of the canal, who are divided on the controversial (and related) events of the Panamanian Revolution. The nation of Panama actually did not exist until 1903, when there was an American-backed revolution against the country then controlling the area - namely, Colombia. Understandably, the Colombians interviewed here are not very fond of the revolution against their government; but the Panamanians interviewed here remember it with great love and patriotism, the way Americans remember the American Revolution. Some have questioned Theodore Roosevelt's decision to back the revolution, calling it an interference in the internal politics of Colombia; but there were some real reasons for the Panamanians to revolt at that time, and their revolution also happened to coincide with the American interest - since the Colombian government refused to sell the canal zone to the Americans, and the project could not be started until the land was bought. Thus, Theodore Roosevelt promised to back the soon-to-be Panamanian government, if they would let the United States have the canal zone; and the revolution was accomplished almost overnight through the threat of American military intervention if it was resisted. (It has often been noted that it took Roosevelt just a few hours to recognize the new country, as he was much eager to get his canal project started - a humorous story, which testifies to his dedication to the project.)

Theodore Roosevelt visits construction site, 1906

When the canal actually got started, the biggest enemies besides the dangers of the dynamite were the two great diseases that ravaged them - namely, malaria and yellow fever. Although it was not realized until later, the chief carriers of the diseases were the local mosquitoes; and this program shows some American doctors at the time finding out that the mosquitoes were involved in this. Once the team realized this, they carried out a plan of eradication which reduced the human death toll; making the project much less costly in human life. The discovery of the mosquitoes' role in the disease was a scientific breakthrough at that time, and enabled them to find an effective way of fighting this killer.

First ship passes through Panama Canal, 1914

Theodore Roosevelt did not live to see the project completed, but the project took the Americans a mere ten years - a small amount, when you consider that the canal was almost forty miles long, and passes through a great deal of rugged terrain (including the mountains). The first ship went through the canal in 1914, which was a major event for world history. The focus for the historians of this time tends to be on the world war in Europe - namely, World War One - but this was not the only thing happening at that time; and the Panama Canal had instant effects on the world economy. It revolutionized the ease of business for much of international trade, and it made it much easier to transport goods around the world. It has always been important for our global economy.

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Transcontinental Railroad movie

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