La Compagnie universelle du Canal Interocéanique de Panama had been founded during the good days of 1880 before the crash of the Union Générale. Its founder was Ferdinand de Lesseps, with whose name was associated the construction of the highly successful Suez Canal, opened in 1869. In 1880 he was now seventy-five years of age; he had never been an engineer — his career had been that of a minor diplomat — but he was an accredited heroic figure. ‘The Great Frenchman’, as Gambetta had named him, felt inspired to organise a company to construct a canal through the isthmus of Panama from Colon to Balbao on the Pacific. Unfortunately, being in no sense a technician, he had vague views on the method of cutting through the isthmus, the cost and the time required. His intention was to build a canal without locks through a series of lakes, but, between the main Gatun lake and the exit to the Pacific, lay a massif of hill, La Culebra, some 350 feet high, which must be pierced by a trench of considerable depth. Into the Gatun lake also, there flowed a river, the Chagres, subject to violent flooding, while the tide at Panama was of some twenty feet, and that at Colon only two. The time for construction was variously estimated between eight and twelve years, and the cost between 1200 millions and 530 millions. De Lesseps had tried to found a company with a capital of 400 millions and had failed. He then realised that, for a flotation, there must be extensive preparation. This was carried out during 1880 and in December there were offered for public subscription 600,000 shares of 500 francs each, giving a capital of 300 millions. The further expenses, it was announced, would be covered by the issue of debentures.


Prime Minister Foreign Minister Republican Party Foreign Power Extensive Preparation 
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Copyright information

© Guy Chapman 1962

Authors and Affiliations

  • Guy Chapman
    • 1
  1. 1.University of LeedsUK

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