Friday, June 30, 2017

Five Canals

 In 1699, the Company of Scotland stumbled through its first colony in a blind stroke of luck. It had seemed to be a doomed expedition as financiers in Europe continued to pull out of their stock, leaving Scotland alone to support the venture with some 25 to 50% of all capital in the country invested toward its success. Many were suspicious about the plague-infested swamplands the Spanish had avoided for centuries, but the patriotic hope of establishing a foothold in the New World for Scotland.

It may very well have died out if not for a sailor who had started his own business on the side: raising Malaysian jumping spiders for fights over which his comrades could gamble. He had learned the trade of keeping male spiders in matchboxes while in the East Indies, and the small space needed for battle was far more efficient at sea than gambling on chickens or dogs. With little entertainment to be found, the sailor's captain begrudgingly allowed him a box in which he kept nests of females in drawers to breed champions. Upon the arrival in Central America, however, the sailor's spiders escaped and quickly became an invasive species as they feasted on their natural prey, the mosquito. Soon the silky nests of spiders were everywhere as they demolished the local mosquito population.

Surprisingly free of many of the deadly tropical diseases, the Scottish settlement at New Edinburgh flourished over the eighteenth century. Plantations drew in wealth, repaying their lenders at home, and encouraging new projects for the industrious Scots, including a canal connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Thanks to the invention of the steam engine by fellow Scot James Watt, dreams of canal-building became a reality in the nineteenth century with huge earth-movers carving through the mountains and straightening the Rio Membrillo in 1874, just five years after the Suez Canal connected the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean.

It would be the first of a series of canals as other countries rushed to catch up with the lead established by the British. The governments of the United States and Nicaragua joined in 1884 to build across the southern end of the latter country, using the large Lake Nicaragua as a natural midpoint to minimize the amount of land to be dug. Canal-builders from France refused to rest on their laurels of the Suez and contracted with Mexico to dig through the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. Both were massive undertakings, but readily accomplished with the digging technology of the time.

Two more canals were added in the twentieth century. The huge ships of the modern navies dwarfed the narrow channels of the Darien Canal. An effort between the Allies created a new, larger canal across the middle of Panama, using a colossal system of locks to raise ships 85 feet upward to an artificial lake. As the Cold War grew and leftist movements overthrew several Latin American countries, a Soviet-led mission carved its own canal extending southward from the Gulf of Urbana.

With so much international attention as the crossroads of world travel, Central America remains to this day a key sector of global wealth and industry.


Source for image and canal information:  Dr. Jean-Paul Rodrigue, Dept. of Global Studies & Geography , Hofstra University, New York.

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