The History of the Panama Canal

06 May 2015 | by Charlotte Bradley
For hundreds of years, Panama has been seen as a key strategic base by both imperialistic forces and trading powers, due to its unique geographical location. Indeed, this thin strip of land is often referred to as the Crossroads of the Americas, as it forms the connection between Central America and South America. As such, it has long been seen as something of a global pivot, and has attracted the attention of many nations around the world for centuries.

Indeed, many people are unaware that the history of the United Kingdom is largely intertwined with that of Panama, as it was only after a failed Scottish attempt to set up a trading colony on the Isthmus in the early 18th century that the country Scotland was forced to enter into the union with England, in order to cover the debts it had accrued as a result of the ill-fated project.

However, it wasn't until the early 20th century that Panama became the true centre of global trade, thanks to the building of the Panama Canal. Today, this incredible feet of engineering is one of the most impressive sites in the Americas, and passing along it on a cruise is a truly breathtaking experience. Here's a brief look at the history behind the what is one of the most audacious achievements in human history.


19th century

The idea of connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans first came from the US, and Panama - which at that time was part of Colombia - was chosen as the obvious location for such as scheme. As the thinnest stretch of land in the Americas, it was the obvious candidate to harbour a canal that would allow ships to cut straight through the middle of the continent, thereby saving an 8,000-mile journey around the southern tip of Cape Horn.

However, when the Colombian government refused to allow the US to build its canal, the American government threw all its support behind an uprising in the region, eventually resulting in a revolution that saw the region of Panama become an independent nation. Following this, the new Panamanian government signed a treaty with the US that allowed for the building of the waterway, with the so-called Canal Zone that surrounded it to be controlled by America.

20th century

The building of the Panama Canal began in 1904 and took ten years to complete. Although it proved to be a huge success in terms of achieving its aim of allowing ships to cut through from one ocean to the other, it soon began to generate social tension within Panama, as most of the money it generated went straight into the US economy, with the locals seeing very little benefit. After several decades of unease and a few uprisings, President Carter eventually signed a treaty in 1977 which saw the canal gradually turned over to the government of Panama. On December 31st 1999, the eve of the new millennium, Panama officially took 100 per cent control of the canal.

21st Century

A project to expand the Panama Canal was launched in 2007, with the aim of enabling larger ships to pass through it. This is due to be completed this year (2014), and will spell good news for cruise liners around the world, as it will mean that many of the top vessels in the industry will be able to offer new voyages, taking them through this incredible waterway.

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