Panama Canal and Culture
European businessmen and mariners dreamed of a western route to the Pacific Ocean for five hundred years prior to the construction of the Panama Canal. This dream is what brought Columbus and others west to the Americas.
The French began construction of a canal in Panama in 1879 under the management of diplomat and engineer Ferdinand de Lesseps who was famous for constructing the Suez Canal joining the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea. The Suez Canal created a short-cut from Europe to Asia avoiding the trip around the continent of Africa. De Lesseps believed he could similarly construct a canal through the fifty mile Isthmus of Panama short-cutting the route around the continent of South America to the Pacific Ocean. He found that it was a very different project connecting two seas across 100 miles of flat desert from one of cutting a waterway through fifty miles of dense jungle and mountains.
Recruiting heavily in the West Indies the French exploited West Indian workers, paying them far less than Europeans and giving them the most treacherous labor. During the period that the French worked on the canal more than 20,000 workers died, mostly West Indians. The greatest cause of death among workers was from malaria and yellow fever. After eight years of flooding, landslides and disease, the French went bankrupt abandoning their labor and leaving behind all their equipment which was soon swallowed up by the rapidly flourishing rainforest.
The story of the construction of the canal is epic on its own. In 1904, under President Theodore Roosevelt, the United States bought what was left of the French canal construction company. Roosevelt demanded that construction begin immediately and he pushed furiously to get it done. Another 12,000 lives were lost during the United States’ construction of the canal. Finally, in December of 1913 an uninterrupted flow of water finally existed between the Atlantic and Pacific. The Panama Canal officially opened in August of 1914.
As a result of all the migration of canal workers to Panama, it has a very rich mixture of ethnicities. The people of Panama are from a multiplicity of cultural origins and varied traditions. Their diversity has been kindled by the ease of acceptance and harmony that has always ruled the Panamanian people. There are seven indigenous groups of Panama living in their own territories and many more ethnic groups who arrived later.
The indigenous groups of the country add significantly to Panama’s richness of culture. Many of these groups enjoy a matriarchal society. The indigenous groups celebrate very old music and dance traditions. Visual arts, music and dance feature prominently in Panamanian culture. They are most well-known as highly skilled artists and craftsmen. The art created by some of these groups such as woodcarvings, ceremonial masks, and baskets utilize techniques dating back to pre-Columbian times.
There are many different religions in Panama, though the majority of the population is Roman Catholic. The indigenous provinces each practice their own folklore. Religious freedom and tolerance is the rule and has always been respected.
There are two subdivisions of Afro-Panamanians. “Afro-colonials” are descended from slaves imported from Africa in colonial times,speak Spanish and are Roman Catholic. “Afro-Antilleans” are descended from the Caribbean residents who came to work on the construction of the Panama Canal. They speak English, French or an English patois and are mostly Protestant.
The national language is Spanish, while English and various local dialects are spoken as well. There are communities of Hindus, Chinese, Sephardic Jews, Spanish and Italians which are largely of the wealthy class. Though the classes typically do not mix, there seems to be no resentment toward the “old elite.” The elite are respected as descendants of the illustrious founding fathers who gained freedom from Spain and later from Colombia.
Home of the largest duty-free zone in the western hemisphere, and of the engineering marvel, the Panama Canal, Panama is a major global thoroughfare. The people are warm, welcoming and are ingrained with a code of harmony and tolerance.
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