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.
The Isthmus of Nicaragua has always invited serious consideration for a ship canal route by its very marked physical characteristics, among which is chiefly its great depression between two nearly parallel ranges of hills, which depression is the basin of its large lake, a natural and all-sufficient feeder for such a canal.
In 1524 a squadron of discovery sent out by Cortez on the coast of the South Sea, announced the existence of a fresh water sea at only three leagues from the coast; a sea which, they said, rose and fell alternately, communicating, it was believed, with the Sea of the North. Various reconnoissances were therefore made, under the idea that here the easy transit would be established between Spain and the spice lands beyond.
It was even laid down on some of the old maps, that this open communication by water existed from sea to sea; while later maps represented a river, under the name of Rio Partido, as giving one of its branches to the Pacific Ocean and the other to Lake Nicaragua. An exploration by the engineer, Bautista Antonelli, under the orders of Philip II., corrected the false idea of an open strait.
In the eighteenth century a new cause arose for jealousy of her neighbors and for keeping her northern part of the isthmus from their view. In the years 1779 and 1780 the serious purposes of the English government for the occupancy of Nicaragua, awakened the solicitudes of the Spanish government for this section. The English colonels, Hodgson and Lee, had secretly surveyed the lake and portions of the country, forwarding their plans to London, as the basis of an armed incursion, to renew such as had already been made by the superintendent of the Mosquito coast, forty years before, when, crossing the isthmus, he took possession of Realejo, on the Pacific, seeking to change its name to Port Edward. In 1780, Captain, afterward Lord Nelson, under orders from Admiral Sir Peter Parker, convoyed a force of two thousand men to San Juan de Nicaragua, for the conquest of the country.
In his dispatches, Nelson said: "In order to give facility to the great object of government, I intend to possess the lake of Nicaragua, which, for the present, may be looked upon as the inland Gibraltar of Spanish America. As it commands the only water pass between the oceans, its situation must ever render it a principal post to insure passage to the Southern Ocean, and by our possession of it Spanish America is severed into two."
The passage of San Juan was found to be exceedingly difficult; for the seamen, although assisted by the Indians from Bluetown, scarcely forced their boats up the shoals. Nelson bitterly regretted that the expedition had not arrived in January, in place of the close of the dry season. It was a disastrous failure, costing the English the lives of one thousand five hundred men, and nearly losing to them their Nelson.
At this period, Charles III., of Spain, sent a commission to explore the country. These commissioners reported unfavorably as regarded the route; but fearing further intrusion from England, forbade all access to the coast; even falsifying and suppressing its charts and permanently injuring the navigation of the San Juan and the Colorado by obstructions in their beds.
It is, however, a relief here to learn that when Humboldt visited the New World, he could say: "The time is passed when Spain, through a jealous policy, refused to other nations a thoroughfare across the possessions of which they kept the whole world so long in ignorance. Accurate maps of the coasts, and even minute plans of military positions, are published." It is also true that the Spanish Cortes, in 1814, decreed the opening of a canal, a decree deferred and never executed.
It was reserved for our century to see this great project carried into execution, and it is but just that as a chronicler of events I should connect with the Canal of Panama the name of a family who have done much to bring the scheme, so to say, into practical execution.
As early as the year 1836, Mr. Joly de Sabla turned his views toward the cutting of a canal across the Isthmus of Panama. He resided at the time on the Island of Guadeloupe, one of the French West India Islands, where he possessed large estates. Of a high social position, the representative of one of France's ancient and noble families, with large means at his disposal and of an enterprising spirit much in advance of his time, he was well calculated to carry out such a grand scheme.
He soon set about procuring from the Government of New Granada (now Colombia) the necessary grants and concessions, but much time and many efforts were spent before these could be brought to a satisfactory condition, and it was not until the year 1841 that he could again visit the Isthmus, bringing with him this time, on a vessel chartered by him for the purpose, a corps of engineers and employes, medical staff, etc., etc. After two years spent in exploring and surveying a country at that time very imperfectly known, he returned to Guadeloupe to find his residence and most of his estates destroyed by the terrible earthquake that visited the island in February, 1843.
Undaunted by this unexpected and severe blow, Mr. De Sabla persisted in his efforts, and in the same year obtained from the French government the establishment of a Consulate at Panama to insure protection to the future canal company, and also the sending of two government engineers of high repute (Messrs. Garella and Courtines), to verify the surveys already made and complete them.
After receiving the respective reports of Garella and Courtines, Mr. De Sabla decided upon first constructing a railway across the Isthmus, postponing the cutting of the canal until this indispensable auxiliary should have rendered it practicable and profitable. He then presented the scheme in that shape to his friends in Paris and London, and formed a syndicate of thirteen members, among whom we may recall the names of the well known Bankers Caillard of Paris, and Baimbridge of London, of Sir John Campbell, then Vice President of the Oriental Steamship Company, of Viscount Chabrol de Chameane, and of Courtines, the exploring engineer.
A new contract was then entered upon with New Granada in June, 1847, and early in 1848, the Syndicate was about to forward to the Isthmus the expedition which was to execute the preliminary works, while the company was being finally organized in Paris, and its stock placed.
The success of the undertaking seemed to be assured beyond peradventure, when the unexpected breaking out of the French revolution in February, 1848, dashed all hopes to the ground. Several of the prominent financiers engaged in the affair, taken by surprise by the suddenness of the revolution, had to suspend their payments and of course to withdraw from the Panama Canal and railroad scheme. Others withdrew from contagious fear and timidity. Finally the term fixed for carrying out certain obligations of the contract expired without their fulfillment by the company, and the concession was forfeited. Another contract was almost immediately applied for and granted with unseemly haste by the President of New Granada to Messrs. Aspinwall, Stephens and Chauncey, which resulted in the construction of the actual Panama Railroad.
These gentlemen acted fairly in the matter, and in 1849, calling Mr. De Sabla to New York, offered him to join them in the new scheme. Unfortunately they had decided upon placing the Atlantic terminus of the railroad upon the low and swampy mud Island of Manzanillo, while Mr. De Sabla insisted on having it on the mainland on the dry and healthy northern shore of the Bay of Limon. They could not come to an understanding on this point, and Mr. De Sabla, whose experience and foresight taught him the dangers that would result to the shipping from the unprotected situation of the projected part (now Colon--Aspinwall), and who well knew the insalubrity of the malarial swamp constituting the Island of Manzanillo, withdrew forever from the undertaking, after having devoted to it without any benefit to himself, the best years of his life and a large portion of his private means.
One of his sons, Mr. Theodore J. de Sabla, after having actively co-operated with Lieutenant Commander Wyse, in the original scheme of the present canal company, is now one of Count de Lesseps's representatives in the City of New York, and a director of the Panama Railroad Company.