My impressions of the tangles and complexities of the French attempt to build the Panama Canal:
- Aedes aegypti and Haemogogus species: the mosquitoes carrying yellow fever.
- Anopheles, the mosquito carrying malaria.
- Ferdinand de Lesseps inability to accept any opinion which differed from his.
- Widespread adulation of de Lesseps resulting in the assumption that if he said so, it must be so.
- Insufficient understanding or exploration of the geography of Panama.
- What they didn’t know about the seasonal floods of the Chagres River. That link is exceptionally well written with humor and little-known details.
- Essentially gerrymandering the vote of the “Congres International” to ensure a majority of votes for de Lesseps’ plan. Of 74 members voting in favor (8 were opposed) only 19 were engineers and only one of those had ever been in Central America. Note that one of the 8 opposed was Alexandre Gustave Eiffel.
- The various cost figures tossed about were not based on project-specific and engineer-generated data, but on speculation!
- Ignoring–or blacklisting–the warnings of the few engineers who had actually studied and worked in South of Central America.
- On de Lesseps’ triumphal tour of Panama, with whole towns literally whitewashed for his reception, his entourage had to cross the Chagres on a makeshift pedestrian bridge where the river had risen 46 feet in 3 days and washed out the railroad. De Lesseps remained blind (intentionally?) to the fact that the Chagres did not behave like European rivers. The official account mentioned only an “unexplained” delay.
- Financial mismanagement, intrigue, bribery–certainly not all of de Lesseps’ making–leading to prosecution of company officials and indictment of both Ferdinand de Lesseps and his son Charles for fraud and mismanagement. Apparently the trials were managed no better than the canal business itself. The anger of those who had been misled and lost their savings had to be appeased. On account of age and ill health, Ferdinand knew little of what was going on and was not required to appear in court. Charles served much of his one-year sentence hospitalized for ill health but lived to see the canal completed and his own and his father’s reputations restored.
READ MORE: Interesting parallels between French politics and finance of the late 1800s and American politics and finance of the early 1900s and today. I expect you will see more parallels than I do if you understand finance better.