Why Was The Panama Canal Built?

A ship sits in the Panama Canal.
A ship sits in the Panama Canal.

What Is The Panama Canal?

The Panama Canal is a waterway located in Panama that links the Pacific Ocean with the Atlantic Ocean. The 77 km (48 mile) waterway cuts across the Isthmus of Panama. The Panama Canal was a great achievement for the United States who had longed for ages for a connection between America and the “outside” world. The construction of the canal not only made international trade easier but cheaper and more convenient too. The body responsible for maintaining and coordinating the canal’s operations is the Panama Canal Authority.

History Of The Panama Canal

Early proposals of the construction of a canal across the Isthmus of Panama began in 1534. Spain’s Emperor and King Charles V ordered a survey to determine the possibility of building a canal to allow for ship voyages from Peru to Spain through America. The canal would also give Spain a military advantage over the Portuguese. However, the first attempt to build the desired canal was in January 1881. The person behind this was Ferdinand de Lesseps who had engineered the construction of the Suez Canal in Egypt.

In spite of Ferdinand de Lesseps’ efforts, the construction team faced so many challenges such as the harsh climate, lack of an ancient route, the dense jungle, and diseases such as yellow fever and malaria. The jungle was full of venomous snakes, spiders, and insects. The conditions were so unfavorable that in 1884 they would record 200 deaths every month. The French lost 22,000 people and used a sum total of $287 million USD for construction. France suspended the project on May 15, 1889, because they went bankrupt. The United States took over the construction in 1904 and saw it to its completion. President Theodore Roosevelt authorized and supported the Panama Construction Project.

Aerial view of the Atlantic side of the Panama Canal. Image credit: dani3315/Shutterstock

The Panama Canal’s Commercial Importance

The initial purpose for building the canal was to shorten the distance ships had to travel between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. It enabled shippers to cheaply transport different types of goods in a shorter period of time. For instance, before the construction of the Panama Canal, a ship travelling between San Francisco and New York had to cover 12,000 miles. But after the canal was complete, the ship only traveled for 4,000 miles.

The Panama Canal’s Military Importance

Before the Spanish-American War in 1898, Theodore Roosevelt wanted to build a canal between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. The desire grew after the United States won the battle and acquired the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico. Roosevelt wanted a shorter passage for naval ships to travel through. Negotiations with Colombia, which at that time owned Panama, failed. This forced the US to finance Panama in order for it to liberate itself. After gaining independence, Panama sold the canal rights to the US. To date, the US still uses the Panama Canal for military purposes.

Besides its importance for military and trade sectors, the Panama Canal has also promoted international relations between the US and the entire world. The canal opened up the West and the East, thereby encouraging future foreign relations. Hence, in spite of the challenges experienced in building the canal, the effort was not in vain.


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