The Nature of a Transoceanic Route: One Hundred Years of Panama and its Canal

AHA Session 174
History of Science Society 2
Saturday, January 4, 2014: 11:30 AM-1:30 PM
Columbia Hall 10 (Washington Hilton)
Pamela Henson, Smithsonian Institution Archives
The Audience

Session Abstract

This session examines the history of a transoceanic route in relation to diverse social and ecological landscapes on the Isthmus of Panama. The panelists collectively ask: what happened to the region’s human and non-human communities following the excavation of the canal and the subsequent transoceanic movement of water, ships, and organisms? In light of the Canal’s centennial anniversary in 2014, and the massive expansion project to be finished in 2015, this question will allow panelists and audience members to reflect on shifting relationships between a global trade route and social and ecological change. Each of our panelists seeks to examine patterns of interconnection historically emerging on the Isthmus between 1914 and 2014.

Our panel looks at four interrelated subjects linking cultural practices and ecological zones in Panama with the history of the United States: 1) naturalist exploration and social displacement in Panama in the context of U.S. ecological intervention; 2) the emerging field of tropical biology in the Americas; 3) U.S. leisure travel in the circum-Caribbean; and 4) nuclear and environmental debates in the age of Cold War geopolitics.

The Panama Canal is more than a “big ditch” carved out of the tropics. Local and global history has shaped Panama’s evolving position as a “crossroads of the world.” Existing literature published in the U.S., however, focuses on the construction period (1904-1914). Our panelists analyze important changes that occurred afterward. Our first panelist, Ashley Carse, introduces the new “waterworld” of the Panama Canal region. As the waters rose between 1910 and 1914, forming the Canal’s massive artificial Gatun Lake reservoir, a host of historical actors – including U.S. scientists and displaced farmers – traveled on “fluvial trails” cutting through once dense forest. Carse offers us a thick description of this changing world, where valleys became streams, and hills became islands. Megan Raby picks up on this theme – the changing ecology of a route – to explore how Barro Colorado Island, in Gatun Lake, became a wildlife sanctuary and destination for American biologists who wanted to study “untouched” rainforest. Barro Colorado became a hybrid ecosystem - part forest, part laboratory. Scientists remade the island’s landscape, even as their encounter with Panamanian nature altered their understandings of tropical ecology. Our third panelist, Blake Scott, builds on Carse’s and Raby’s work to show how changing social and ecological conditions on the Isthmus not only invited U.S. scientists and soldiers, but also leisure travelers. The route of U.S. imperialism through the Caribbean became a route of leisure for affluent tourists. All of these interconnected particularities – the new waterworld of the Canal, the emergence of tropical biology, and the boom in tourism – depended on the U.S.’s unchecked power in the region. Christine Keiner concludes our panel giving us a glimpse of the decolonization of U.S. influence abroad. In the 1960s, the U.S. government spent considerable capital investigating the possibility of replacing the Panama Canal with a non-lock waterway. Smithsonian scientists and Panamanian nationalists, however, turned the lessons of science-based studies against U.S. foreign policy.

See more of: AHA Sessions