Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Path to Empire: Panama and the California Gold Rush book review

Path of Empire: Panama and the California Gold Rush
Aims McGuiness

When we think of “our” history—whether of “our” country or our personal history, WE—or “our” country—are the center of attention. We may mention other people and other nations as part of the story—how they affected us—but rarely and usually sketchily—do we consider how an event in our history affects the development of someone else or another country.

However, there seems to be a new trend with historians called transnational history—recognizing that no person or no country is an isolated identity, and that the actions of the central player(s) on the stage—us, the US, say—can strongly affect the destinies of others. This is the point of view taken by Path of Empire: Panama and the California Gold Rush.

I never really thought much about the California gold rush except that it happened and that it contributed significantly to the development of the West. I knew in a sort of vague way that there were some people from other nations who also arrived in California for the gold rush, but I had no idea how many—always thought it was pretty much Americans. Until I read Isabel Allende’s Daughter of Fortune, I had no idea how many people from Latin America made their way to California hoping to become rich—and I also had no idea just how brutally they were treated.

In the same fashion, I thought most Americans traveled by the Overland Trail in covered wagons. I had read that some came by ship, but since there was no canal at that time, I had no idea how important the transisthmus route across Panama was, not only in ferrying people from the Atlantic side to the Pacific on their way to California, but in transporting people and gold in the opposite direction.

And I had no idea whatsoever that this route, re-opened since the Colonial Era, was of critical importance to the development of Panama as a nation, even tthough at the time it was still part of Columbia, which was called Nuevo Granada then.

McGuiness documents and explains all these points and more in his book. He is excellent in depicting what the overland route from the Atlantic to the Pacific meant to the local people—the boatmen, the muleteers, the people who owned businesses in Panama City. Hotels did a thriving business, since many times there were waits of up to a month for steamers heading back to the US.

One of the fascinating parts of the book describes the construction of the first transcontinental railway, by the Panama Railroad Company, which took 5 years, completed in 1855. It was a struggle that foresaw all the difficulties in building the canal—importing workers from Jamaica, other parts of Latin America, Ireland—anywhere the company could cajole people into signing on. And the deaths were in proportion to those suffered on the canal construction. Once the railroad was constructed, though, people and goods were moved from coast to coast in a matter of a few hours, stepping off the boat on the Atlantic side at Colon and after disembarking from the train, stepping on to a steamer for the US at Panama City. The railroad, which Panamanains thought was going to bring boom times to Panama, basically destroyed the local economy. The traffic between panama and the US, whether going to California or back to the East coast increased enormously; mail, commerce, migration, news was speeded up by orders of magnitude and directly affected the settling of the western US. Far more people traveled to California via Panama than by the continental Overland Trail.

Although he continues his narration into the early 1860s and a little beyond, McGuinness really ends his book in 1856 with the Incident of the Slice of Watermelon (El Incidente de la Tajeda de Sandia) and its aftermath. On April 15, when two things happened: a drunken American named jack Oliver refused to pay ten cents for a slice of watermelon and pulled a gun on the fruit vendor, setting off a riot, and “Panamanians”—who had considerable autonomy under Nuevo Granada—stood up for themselves against what were now the hated gringos. These two events had important ramifications for both countries. Eventually, the erroneous reports that made their way back to the US of what happened--blaming the locals, inciting racial hatreds—led to the first US military intervention in Panama in September, 1856. the new consciousness resulted in the first (and unsuccessful attempts) to form a pan-Latin American alliance to stave off what Panamanians and others were certain would be US intervention and possibly annexation. At this time, there were plenty of Southerners in what would be the Confederacy promoting exactly that—and the reinstitution of slavery, which had been abolished in Panama since 1852. that first US intervention led to the US more or less dictating to the new nation of Panama, established in 1904 with US connivance and help, the imperialistic conditions under which the Panama Canal would be built.

For me, this was an absolutely fascinating book. While for the most part Panamanians now are extremely friendly towards Americans, anti-American hostility does exist and is increasing with the increasing migration of Americans to Panama. I was rather relieved to find out that it began long ago—not just with the invasion in 1989 to remove Noriega, a dictator whom the US supported until Bush, Sr. got bored; thousands of Panamanians died in that invasion, and the damage done in sections of Panama City has yet to be rebuilt. This book has placed my life here in Panama in context with the history of the country, and I am grateful for the insights.

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