This section is from "Scientific American Supplement Volumes 275, 286, 288, 299, 303, 312, 315, 324, 344 and 358". Also available from Amazon: Scientific American Reference Book.
Among them, by priority of right and by her energy, was Spain. The great emperor was urgent on the conqueror of Mexico, and on all in subordinate positions in New Spain, to solve the secret of the strait. All Spain was awakened to it. "How majestic and fair was she," says Chevalier, "in the sixteenth century; what daring, what heroism and perseverance! Never had the world seen such energy, activity, or good fortune. Hers was a will that regarded no obstacles. Neither rivers, deserts, nor mountains far higher than those in Europe, arrested her people. They built grand cities, they drew their fleets, as in a twinkling of the eye, from the very forests. A handful of men conquered empires. They seemed a race of giants or demi-gods. One would have supposed that all the work necessary to bind together climates and oceans would have been done at the word of the Spaniards as by enchantment, and since nature had not left a passage through the center of America, no matter, so much the better for the glory of the human race; they would make it up by artificial communication. What, indeed, was that for men like them? It were done at a word. Nothing else was left for them to conquer, and the world was becoming too small for them."
Certainly, had Spain remained what she then was, what had been in vain sought from nature would have been supplied by man. A canal or several canals would have been built to take the place of the long-desired strait. Her men of science urged it. In 1551, Gomara, the author of the "History of the Indies," proposed the union of the oceans by three of the very same lines toward which, to this hour, the eye turns with hope.
"It is true," said Gomara, "that mountains obstruct these passes, but if there are mountains there are also hands; let but the resolve be made, there will be no want of means; the Indies, to which the passage will be made, will supply them. To a king of Spain, with the wealth of the Indies at his command, when the object to be obtained is the spice trade, what is possible is easy.
But the sacred fire suddenly burned itself out in Spain. The peninsula had for its ruler a prince who sought his glory in smothering free thought among his own people, and in wasting his immense resources in vain efforts to repress it also outside of his own dominions through all Europe. From that hour, Spain became benumbed and estranged from all the advances of science and art, by means of which other nations, and especially England, developed their true greatness.
Even after France had shown, by her canal of the south, that boats could ascend and pass the mountain crests, it does not appear that the Spanish government seriously wished to avail itself of a like means of establishing any communication between her sea of the Antilles and the South Sea. The mystery enveloping the deliberations of the council of the Indies has not always remained so profound that we could not know what was going on in that body. The Spanish government afterward opened up to Humboldt free access to its archives, and in these he found several memoirs on the possibility of a union between the two oceans; but he says that in no one of them did he find the main point, the height of the elevations on the isthmus, sufficiently cleared up, and he could not fail to remark that the memoirs were exclusively French or English. Spain herself gave it no thought. Since the glorious age of Balbao among the people, indeed, the project of a canal was in every one's thoughts. In the very wayside talks, in the inns of Spain, when a traveler from the New World chanced to pass, after making him tell of the wonders of Lima and Mexico, of the death of the Inca, Atahualpa, and the bloody defeat of the Aztecs, and after asking his opinion of El Dorado, the question was always about the two oceans, and what great things would happen if they could succeed in joining them.
During the whole of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Spain had need of the best mode of conveyance for her treasures across the isthmus. Yet those from Peru came by the miserable route from Panama to the deadliest of climates. Porto Bello and her European wares for her colonies toiled up the Chagres river, while the roughest of communication farther north connected the Chimalapa and the Guasacoalcos in Mexico, and the trade there was limited sternly to but one port on each side. As late as Humboldt's visit, in 1802, when remarking upon the "unnatural modes of communication" by which, through painful delays, the immense treasures of the New World passed from Acapulco, Guayaquil, and Lima, to Spain, he says: "These will soon cease whenever an active government, willing to protect commerce, shall construct a good road from Panama to Porto Bello. The aristocratic nonchalance of Spain, and her fear to open to strangers the way to the countries explored for her own profit, only kept those countries closed." The court forbade, on pain of death, the use of plans at different times proposed. They wronged their own colonies by representing the coasts as dangerous and the rivers impassable. On the presentation of a memoir for improving the route through Tehuantepec, by citizens of Oaxaca, as late as 1775, an order was issued forbidding the subject to be mentioned. The memorialists were censured as intermeddlers, and the viceroy fell under the sovereign's displeasure for having seemed to favor the plans.
The great isthmus was, however, further explored by the Spanish government for its own purposes; the recesses were traversed, and the lines of communication which we know to-day were then noted.
In addition to the fact that comparatively little was explored north or south of that which early became the main highway, the Panama route, there is confirmation here of the truth that Spain concealed and even falsified much of her generally accurately made surveys. No stronger proof of this need be asked than that which Alcedo gives in connection with the proposal by Gogueneche, the Biscayan pilot, to open communication by the Atrato and the Napipi. "The Atrato," says the historian, "is navigable for many leagues, but the navigation of it is prohibited under pain of death, without the exception of any person whatever."