I attempted to finish this book before our trip through the Panama Canal back in February 2022. I was not successful. Even with my headphones on, this impressive audiobook takes a while to get through. At 31 1/2 hours, it’s very long. However, author David McCullough is a meticulous researcher, and although at times it felt like there was a lot of extraneous material, I came away with a new appreciation for what an undertaking this project really was.
Narrated by Nelson Runger, the book was easy to understand and listen to. McCullough goes back to the beginning, when men first came up with the idea of a canal to link the oceans together across the thin strip of land in Central America. Panama was not the only location in consideration. Many urged the canal to be built across Nicaragua, using Nicaragua lake as a way to cross the isthmus. It was initially thought this would be an easier route than the Panama route.
There’s no detail spared as McCullough details the politicking and negotiating that went on during this time. The French would be the first to attempt it, having successfully completed the Suez Canal between the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean. However, that Canal was a sea-level canal that was much easier to dig out than anything in Central America would be. The French were quite sure of their success, and ended up failing in this attempt.
I didn’t know much about this part of the Canal construction. All I remembered in school was that the United States completed the Canal after the French failed. The attempt to build the Canal nearly bankrupted the French as millions of citizens invested in the company attempting to build the Canal.
What were some of the problems? For one thing, their initial attempt was to build a Canal at sea level, just like in the Suez. However, Panama is more mountainous than the Middle East, and this was to become a huge problem. It’s also a lot wetter than the Middle East, with frequent downpours that tended to washout anything that was built. As they were digging, there were frequent slides that filled in everything that they’d just finished digging out. In addition, there were many problems with disease which decimated the workforce. Much of our understanding of tropical diseases such as malaria and yellow fever came to be during this construction project.
I appreciated McCullough’s attention to detail. I learned much about the area of the Canal and Central and South America while listening to this. I never knew that Panama had once been a part of Colombia. That was one of the issues when attempting the project, which is why Nicaragua also seemed to be a good solution. However, the railway that crossed Panama to ship good between the seas already helped the argument for this location in that there were some infrastructure needs already there. However, when Ferdinand de Lesseps came to Panama, he brought a lot of the old world with him. McCullough goes into details of what the homes of the wealthy looked like compared to that of the workers. This is where I think a little editing could have been done. I don’t need to know what was on the wall of de Lesseps’ home in France when he met with people, and what was brought to Central America with him. I did appreciate the details of the investigation as to what happened to the French effort and why it failed, although I think Gustave Eiffel (yes, that Eiffel) and others were scapegoated.
The machinations committed by the United States to take over the project once it was in bankruptcy will confirm a lot of what’s been said about our not-so-covert involvement in Central America over the years. The United States (and Teddy Roosevelt by extension) were the chief architects in Panama splitting away from Colombia and entering into a treaty with the United States. However, the way the Canal was built and how workers were treated advanced labor causes quite a bit. There were less problems with sickness and worker desertion because of this. The United States also went with a series of locks to raise and lower ships from the oceans. At the end of the French attempt, they had decided to switch to this method, but it was too late for them. The United States had the benefit of learning from the French mistakes.
For all its length, a lot of that is necessary to really grasp what an amazing undertaking building this Canal was. A Path Between the Seas tells of how many men worked on the project and how much it took out of them. So many men arrived in Panama thinking they were the one who would get the job done and ended up crushed by the enormity of the undertaking. I learned a lot about various historical figures who were just names on a page until I read the details of the book. A prime example is Major George Washington Goethals, who has a bridge named after him in New York. I never knew why that was until I listened to this book.
Before listening to this audiobook, I read a few reviews where people complained about the narrator and the pace he read the book as well as extraneous “mouth sounds.” I can’t say that distracted me when I listened to this. The pace is slow, but it’s a long book with a lot of detail, and I imagine it wasn’t easy to record this. I did find my mind drifting at times and had to start a few chapters over because I couldn’t remember what happened a few times. In this case, I think a lot of it is the fact that this is a non-fiction book with a lot of names and details. That’s one of the main reasons I chose to listen to it rather than try to read it.
I do highly recommend reading or listening to A Path Between the Seas. There’s a great deal of history here that is beyond what I ever learned in any history class. It’s not the easiest read or listen that you’ll ever do, but it’s well worth the investment of your time.
Categories: Book Reviews