Humans have a long history of changing their landscape to suit their needs, and nowhere is this more evident than the building of canals. These manmade waterways have changed the face of the map as well as enabled civilization to flourish.
The oldest canals on record were used for irrigation in Mesopotamia around 4000 BC, helping to transform barren land into fertile fields and ushering in a great agricultural revolution in the Fertile Crescent. In some of the larger canals, small boats were able to sail to and fro. It soon became evident that these modes of transportation were quicker and more efficient than pack animals.
The first canal build strictly for transportation was built by the Persian Emperor, Darius I, in 510 BC. It linked the Nile and the Red Sea.
Rendering of Ancient Mesopotamia History.com
As technology advanced over the years, many countries built canals to connect waterways in their own regions to more easily and efficiently transport goods.
The Industrial Revolution ushered forth a revolution in canal building as well. Large quantities of goods needed to be transported quickly around the globe on newly designed steamships. Canal projects got bigger and more ambitious, albeit more treacherous. The Suez Canal and Panama Canals are examples of visionary projects completed in the face of nearly insurmountable odds.
The Suez Canal: Gateway to the East
Interest in a shortcut from the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea date back to ancient times. Trade routes over land from Asia to Europe were already established but took weeks and months to traverse under harsh conditions. Ships embarking from Europe had to sail all the way around the African continent to reach Asia. But a direct route was considered impossible because of different levels of altitude.
Enter Linant de Bellefonds in the 1830s, a French explorer who specialized in Egypt. After a survey of the Isthmus of Suez, he determined that the Mediterranean and Red seas were the same altitude. By the 1850s, the Ottoman Empire (which governed Egypt at the time) granted Ferdinand de Lesseps, a French diplomat, permission to form the Suez Canal Company and it began construction in 1859.
But political turmoil and diseases such as Cholera hampered the project for years. It’s estimated that 120,000 workers died in the harsh conditions of an 11-year construction.
Construction of the Suez Canal–Egypt Independent
The canal finally opened in 1869 to much celebration and had an immediate effect on global trade. Sailing around the world could be accomplished in record time, and with less fuel. The Suez Canal reduced the journey from the Arabian Sea to London by 5500 miles and played a major role in the colonization of Africa by Europeans. Today, more than 18,500 ships traverse the canal each year, which is now owned by the government of Egypt.
In 2021 strong winds blew a huge cargo ship, the Ever Given, off course and it ran aground, turned sideways and blocked the entire canal. Global shipping was affected around the world. Finally, after six days, the ship was freed and traffic in the canal was resumed. But not before the importance of this vital waterway was truly realized.
Ever Given stuck in Suez Canal–NPR
The Panama Canal: Gateway to the West
Like the Suez Canal, interest in a waterway that connected the Atlantic and Pacific oceans dated back hundreds of years. Ships during that time had to travel around the South American continent to reach the Pacific Ocean. In the 1500s, explorer Vasco Nunez de Balboa realized a narrow strip of land, the Isthmus of Panama, separated these two great bodies of water. Again, like the Suez Canal, surveying revealed a canal project virtually impossible due to the mountainous and tropical terrain.
It was the French, again, who attempted such an impossible feat. Bolstered by the success of his Suez Canal, Ferdinand de Lesseps broke ground on the Panama Canal project in 1880. He soon realized the gravity of his undertaking. Unlike in Egypt, torrential rains caused mudslides and voracious mosquitoes spread Yellow Fever and Malaria which killed thousands of workers. In 1888 the project was abandoned.
Construction of the Panama Canal–Armyengineer.com
America, who always had a direct interest in building a canal that connects the Atlantic and the Pacific, came to the rescue. In 1902 the United States, led by President Theodore Roosevelt, bought the canal company assets and the land for $40 million. But at that time, the land designated for the canal project was in Columbian territory. A treaty was written up negotiating the deal with the Columbian government, but they ultimately rejected it.
As it is with the US government, they had trouble taking no for an answer. Roosevelt sent warships to Panama City to support a coup of the Columbian government.
Panama declared independence in 1903 and the new government signed the treaty shortly thereafter. The canal was completed in 1914, stretching 50 miles over land and cutting transoceanic voyages by 8,000 miles. Today around 12,000 ships a year traverse its waters. In 1999, the United States gave control of the canal back to Panama.
Freight ships in the Panama Canal—Panama Blog
These “shortcuts” have enabled global trade to flourish over the years and have solidified their places among the greatest innovations of the 20th century. Without these canals, transits would be much longer, making goods and raw materials much more expensive due to extra fuel costs, estimated at around $300,000 more for each ship. Also, in the age of global warming, it is estimated that the Panama Canal alone has saved more than 13 million tons of CO2 emissions in 2020. That is the equivalent of 2.8 million cars driven for a year.
These man-made waterways, by splitting continents, have truly brought the world closer together.