The Panama Canal – Earle Harrison

This ambitious engineering feat, linking the Pacific and Atlantic, finally opened in August 1914 just as the world’s attention was diverted by rather more pressing matters which rather stole the thunder of a project which provided a template for the exercise of US power over foreign countries that continues to this day.  The late nineteenth and early decades of the twentieth century saw the US move away from its introspective isolationism and adopt a more expansive stance towards the rest of the world. Yet, for a country who defined itself through concepts of anti-colonialism, liberty and freedom, it was a hard sell for a domestic audience that they should get involved in subduing foreign countries, although some tentative steps had already been made in the Philippines and Cuba.

A canal through the Isthmus of Panama had been a long held ambition for a large number of interest groups and prior to the present canal the French under de Lesseps, who had completed the Suez Canal in the 1869, attempted to carve out a channel on this site during the 1880s and set up a commercial company to build it. However, the toll of disease, high death rates, a rapid turnover in staff and the sheer enormity of the task for an army of labourers armed only with picks and shovels, constantly battling with landslides, made it impossible for a private company to make a profit out of the venture and it was abandoned in 1893. The project was then revived under American auspices as a both a prestige project to showcase US engineering and technological might as well as to conclusively demonstrate that they had arrived as a serious global power. Unlike the French, Roosevelt was keen to ensure that the completed canal remained under direct US government control and would serve their interests first and foremost (it finally entered Panamanian ownership in 1999.)

Roosevelt first helped to create the state of Panama by assisting it to secede from Colombia in 1903 and then negotiated a deal with the new state that would give the US a free hand to do whatever it wanted. A strip of land around the proposed canal route was designated a ‘Zone’ under direct US control, (military rule prevailed for most of the construction) to allow them to complete the work without having to worry about what the locals thought. The parallels with big business and corporations moving into Iraq and Afghanistan under the auspices of a local US controlled puppet government which ruled nothing more than a small area of blast proof concrete in the capital city in order to provide a fig-leaf of democratic legitimacy to exploitation on a huge scale, are readily apparent.  In effect, Panama set the ground rules for how the US would conduct its affairs after the Second World War; a weak local government charged with maintaining order and controlling the local population does all the dirty work while everything else is subject to American interests.

Much of the narrative about the Panama Canal presented for a domestic audience revolved around American superiority; in effect, so the story went, the French had failed because they were representatives of an old and backward nation that had neither the work-ethic nor the machinery to do the job properly. A newly confident nation would soon set that right.  Conditions on the Canal construction site were tough; the tropical climate, hard work, disease in the form of Yellow Fever and Malaria and ever present industrial accidents meant that death was never too far away. Roosevelt tried running the Canal with civilians but eventually he gave up and sent an army man to take command and run it on military lines to bring order to this vast and expensive project upon which his Presidential reputation rested.  In the early years of the construction a number of corruption scandals arose which rather tainted the idea that this was some sort of grandiose experiment in democracy or that the Canal was a gift to the world; it was no such thing. It was primarily designed to enhance US strategic interests, project naval power and enhance their ability to control both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. The Panamanians were mere pawns in this geopolitical game.

A strict hierarchy was maintained within the Canal; at the top of the tree were the white American administrators and engineers who ran the show, followed by white American machinists and operators who manned the equipment, then the unskilled European labourers and, finally, black labourers from the West Indies.  However in order to avoid charges of racism, segregation was maintained through payment methods; the white Americans were paid in gold, while the rest received silver. Like something out of Apartheid South Africa, there were two separate entrances or counters for every aspect of life in the Zone; one for gold employees and another for silver employees which insidiously enforced a racial segregation in every aspect except name.

This book was published in 1913, a year before the Canal was completed, to satisfy the demands of an American public who were intrigued to see what was happening in the Isthmus. As for the photographer, Earle Harrison, I haven’t had much luck in finding much out about him (there are a number of images credited to him on the National Geographic website) so if anybody has more information please let me know. A major distinguishing feature of this book is that he used the autochrome process to produce colour photographs of the Canal in contrast to the black and white images which account for much of the other construction photographs. The book makes much of the autochrome process, turning it into a novel selling feature obviously designed to increase interest in the images and provide a more ‘realistic’ vision of the Canal construction to a public hungry for news about this prestige project in the jungle. By 1913, the autochrome process was well developed and was in use by a number of photographers although its expense meant that black and white would remain the predominant visual mode of representation for decades to come.

The images themselves are tipped into the book made up of sepia toned pages, surrounded by a dark brown border, facing a page of text which serves as a form of extended caption for the image, explaining to the viewer what it is they are seeing.  Although Harrison dedicates the book to the workers on the Canal, they are not the focus of his work. They may make a fleeting appearance alongside a crane or on a lock gate, but the individual is overwhelmed by the scale of the project. There are no close-up images within the book – Harrison stood well back and made panoramic images of what he saw around him, emphasising the monumentality of the construction and the vastness of the challenges which American ingenuity had overcome. The resulting images produce a heroic narrative of triumph over adversity and the conquest of nature with the final images showing the artificial lakes constructed and the neat, whitewashed towns that had been reclaimed for civilisation and progress. Simply put in Rumsfeldian terms, ‘old’ Europe had failed once again; where the French had crashed and burned, American superiority had prevailed.

Regular tourist trips were being organised to visit the constructruction site by this time, indicating the level of public interest in a project which had demonstrated by now that it was likely to succeed. This book was clearly designed to feed into this interest by producing a narrative that combined (often contradictory) elements of imperial bombast, the superiority of democracy, industrial might, engineering cunning, racial exceptionalism and man’s ultimate triumph over a cruel nature, illustrated by colour images which purported to provide the distant viewer with a true sense of the scale of the endeavour they should be proud of.


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