The Inside Story on the Canal That Split a Continent


EspañolOn November 3, 1903, conspirators gathered in Panama City’s Hotel Central to stage one of the swiftest, most bloodless revolutions in history. They signed a hasty declaration of independence, and waved a homemade flag from the balcony.

Within hours, marines disembarked from the USS Nashville, across the isthmus in Colón. After a tense standoff, Colombian troops withdrew. Independence, and with it the future of the Panama Canal, had been secured.

Juan Gabriel Vásquez's second major novel explores the grim history of the early days of the Panama canal, and the province's secession from Colombia. (Wikimedia)
Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s second major novel explores the grim history of the early days of the Panama canal, and the province’s secession from Colombia. (Wikimedia)
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“It was the moment when my crucified country (or maybe it was the new resurrected country?) chose me as evangelist. ‘You shall testify,’ I was told. And that’s what I’m doing.” So writes the protagonist of Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s novel The Secret History of Costaguana, a Colombian exile drawn to Panama in search of his father.

The José Altamirano character offers a verbose, meandering narration of 60 years of death, toil, and intrigue. Foreign laborers battle dense jungle, disease, and corrupt French management in a Sisyphean effort to cut a continent in two.

In the course of reflections on the contingency of history, Vásquez narrates the inside story on the birth of Panama and its Canal. In doing so, he explicitly challenges an earlier novel, which created the republic of Costaguana — a thinly disguised version of Colombia.

Rumble in the Jungle

In Joseph Conrad’s 1904 novel Nostromo, the Polish-British writer uses his fictitious Latin-American country as a backdrop to a gloomy psychological drama. But Vásquez’s narrator takes issue with the stereotyped portrayal of his native land.

In Altamirano’s version, a washed-up Conrad, his best work long behind him, plunders the Colombian’s life story for his novel. In reality, the work was based on little more than “short, few and fleeting” landfalls the former career sailor made in the Gulf of Mexico 30 years previously, according to Conrad’s 1917 introduction.

It’s in re-imagining the details of Conrad’s 1875/6 visit to Panama that The Secret History is perhaps at its strongest, and most luridly-detailed. Conrad’s is imagined as an illegal gun-runner, smuggling European rifles to conservative Colombian rebels.

Altamirano, in a seven-page monologue, follows a 1866 Chassepot rifle across the Atlantic and into the hands of conscripts at the bloody 1876 battle of Los Chancos. Conrad’s Costaguanans — reduced to passive Indians, brutish caudillos, or ineffectual aristocrats — largely serve as mute witnesses to a European-dominated tale. Vásquez, meanwhile, names the victims of each bullet and bayonet thrust, imagining their backgrounds and aborted futures.

This episode of Victorian arms-trafficking is likely a myth, as argued by Conrad biographer Zdzisław Najder. But what’s striking about the passage is Vásquez’s symbolic rescue of his country’s identity from outside manipulation.

A Flavor of Folly and Murder

Conrad undoubtedly appropriated and stereotyped Latin-American history to dig himself out of financial difficulties, in much the same way as his Italian protagonist gets rich from a stolen shipment of silver.

“I want to talk to you of the work I am engaged on now,” he wrote to Robert Cunninghame Graham at the time. “I hardly dare avow my audacity — but I am placing it in South America, in a Republic I call Costaguana.”

As Vásquez’s cheated narrator envisions it, “his memories and readings intermingle. Conrad no longer knows what he lived and what he has read … what’s it like, this Republic whose story I’m trying to tell? What is Costaguana? What the devil is Colombia?”

Polish-born Joseph Conrad mined his fleeting memories of Latin America to inspire his 1904 novel Nostromo. (Wikimedia)

Conrad had little real sympathy for “the passive prey of a democratic parody, the helpless victims of scoundrels and cut-throats, our institutions a mockery, our laws our farce,” in the words of one Nostromo character. Some today, however, might recognize his portrait of political failure, where words like “liberty, democracy, patriotism, government — all of them have a flavour of folly and murder.”

His description of how the silver mines of the “Occidental Province,” the country’s only capitalist venture, bring civil war upon the region might even be described as an early incarnation of the “resource curse” theory. His predictions of North American political and cultural dominance of the hemisphere are equally prescient.

But Vásquez fights back, placing his character, his country, and its struggles, however grim, at the center of events that changed the world.

“The republic does exist,” Altamirano beseeches Conrad, in the climactic scene of the novel. “The province does exist. But the silver mine is really a canal, a canal between two oceans. I know because I know it. I was born in that republic, I lived in that province. I am guilty of its misfortunes.”

Modern Echoes

The misfortunes are compelling, although Vásquez’s minimalist characterization lessens the book’s impact. Its chronological looping and heavy use of parentheses — reminiscent of Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, and equally slow to get moving — have also frustrated some readers.

Along the way, Altamirano recalls that Washington was initially close to backing an interoceanic passage through Nicaragua — “out of pure spite towards Colombia,” according to his father — until it took over the floundering French project. Furious lobbying by William Nelson Cromwell, who planted a fake story in the New York Sun about volcanic activity at Momotombo, was helped by a devastating 1902 eruption in Martinique. Senators stampeded to buy up the stalled French works in Panama instead.

The reminder is newly relevant as a nascent US$50 billion canal project begins to shift Nicaraguan soil, threatening to rival Panama’s overworked conduit and displace many in the process. But in a morbid irony Altamirano would appreciate, while Chinese laborers died in their thousands to lay the first railroad across Panama, today’s Nicaragua Canal is backed by a Hong Kong-based, Chinese-owned conglomerate.

Despite its flaws, and its literary merits aside, historians and analysts of contemporary politics alike can take plenty away from The Secret History. As the axiom goes, history tends to repeat former tragedies as farce.

Edited by Fergus Hodgson.

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