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A most remarkable judicial proceeding, certainly, and viewed at this distance of time it challenges credulity; yet we are obliged to admit that it is not out of relation with those strange times, nor incongruous with much that is of record amongst the old Spanish colonial archives at Seville and Madrid.
Even as late as 1874 this misty tradition of a natural pass between the two oceans had a curious revival in official circles at the Colombian capital. The national Congress of the Republic had appointed a special committee to investigate and report upon the feasibility of an inter-oceanic ship canal by the then much-talked-of Atrato route. The chairman of this committee, a civil engineer by profession, but more of a poet than a man of affairs, prepared and submitted an elaborate paper in which he undertook to prove by citations of old Spanish archives (which he claimed to have personally examined in Seville and Madrid) that there was a natural water-pass somewhere on the isthmus, from ocean to ocean, as late as the beginning of the seventeenth century.
Some months later there appeared at Bogotá a sort of cosmopolitan crank of the name of Gorgoza, who represented himself as the agent of a syndicate formed in Paris, " for the exploration of the isthmus of Panama with a view of opening a ship canal across it.” In an address delivered before a joint committee of both houses of Congress, Gorgoza stated positively that he had himself traversed this natural pass as late as 1868. When asked why he did not report this fact to the United States Naval Commission, then engaged in making a survey of the isthmus in that vicinity, he said he did report the fact to Captain Selfridge, but was “merely laughed at !” When asked who were his attendants at the time, he replied that he was accompanied by two
men, one of whom had since died, and that he had forgotten the name of the other !
Nevertheless, there were not wanting people who gave credence to this very absurd story; and Gorgoza was secretly encouraged, as I afterwards learned, by more than one of the European representatives at the Colombian capital. There was also, at that time, a feeling of uneasiness among Colombian statesmen about the survey then being made of the Nicaragua route by the United States Naval Commission; and it was probably thought that the consideration shown to Gorgoza might again direct the attention of the United States to the old Atrato route. At any rate, Gorgoza finally obtained his concession, which he carried to Paris in November, 1876. In the following February, the Paris and London newspapers began to publish a series of notices of an “International Geographical Congress," which was proposed to be held in Paris under the auspices of the Paris Geographical Society, of which count Ferdinand de Lesseps was then president. This was preliminary to the farcical “Canal Congress," held in Paris some months later, at which delegates from the United States consented to become mere spectators. The outcome of it all was the Bonaparte-Wyse Expedition of 1878, sent out ostensibly to survey the isthmus under the Gorgoza concession, but really for the purpose of obtaining what afterwards became known as “the SalgarWyse Contract” of that year, under which M. de Lesseps and his associates began operations.
Such was the curious origin of what a French lawyer has characterized as “one of the most daring and gigantic swindles of modern times," of which, however, more will be said in a succeeding chapter.
PANAMA CANAL PROJECTS
ERHAPS there was never a time in the history of Colombia when some project looking to the
opening of an inter-oceanic canal across the isthmus of Panama was not a subject of agitation and discussion. Even before the date of the first formal declaration of the independence of the country, in 1810, the matter had been frequently discussed; and it continued to be agitated at intervals during the whole period of the twelve years' war. But the first serious movement in that direction seems to have originated with General Símon Bolívar during the last years of that struggle, and precisely at the time when the cause of independence seemed least hopeful.
Soon after Bolívar became invested by the Colonial Congress with dictatorial powers, he sent out an agent authorized to propose an inter-oceanic canal scheme to the merchants and capitalists of London, the real object being to stimulate a formal recognition of the new Republic through the commercial powers of Europe. After many rebuffs and vexatious delays, this agent finally succeeded in interesting some British capitalists, who agreed to furnish the money necessary to the success of the enterprise, provided the absolute neutrality of the canal should be guaranteed by some maritime power able to maintain it. This could not then be obtained, and so the scheme failed.
The next effort was made in 1822. The United States had, at the instance of Mr. Clay and John Quincy Adams, formally recognized the new Republic, but all the great maritime powers of Europe held aloof through deference to the so-called “Holy Alliance." In order to stimulate them to formal recognition, President Bolivar asked and obtained from the federal Congress of Colombia authority to open negotiations with foreign capitalists, or with some foreign government, for opening a ship canal across the isthmus. The authority was readily granted, but no maritime power could be found willing to guarantee the neutrality of the transit, or Colombia's sovereignty over the isthmus itself, and so the scheme was again defeated.
It, however, continued to be discussed by the press and public men of Colombia, and was again revived in the proposed Panama Conference of American states in 1826. The Colombian delegates to that first PanAmerican Congress were instructed to "favor any reasonable project looking to a water transit of the isthmus; but, as the Congress itself was a failure, the canal scheme was again doomed to defeat, or at least to indefinite delay.
It was again revived in 1830, when President Bolívar took active measures to have the isthmus explored by a corps of competent engineers. But even before the commissioners had reached the scene of their labors, internal political dissensions arose, which finally resulted in the disruption of the Colombian Union.
In the partition of territory which followed, the isthmus of Panama fell to the lot of New Granada (now Colombia), and in 1836 a concession was granted to certain capitalists, or rather to certain individuals who claimed to represent foreign capitalists, who proposed to organize an international company for the purpose of opening the canal. The company was never organized, and the scheme again failed. But in the executive decree declaring the concession forfeited, an offer was made to treat with any company financially able to fulfil the agreement, and there soon followed in quick succession a multitude of concessions, none of which, however, ever amounted to anything.
Thus the matter stood in 1850, when an American company obtained the concession for the construction of the present Panama railway.
Still, the canal scheme would not“ down.” It continued to be talked about, both in Colombia and the United States, and finally, in 1868 Mr. Caleb Cushing was sent by our Government as special envoy to Bogotá instructed to obtain a concession for the survey of the isthmus with a view to the construction of a ship canal by what is known as “the Atrato route."
He succeeded in negotiating a favorable treaty; but the Colombian Congress, to which it had to be referred for ratification, so altered and amended it as to make it unacceptable.
Negotiations were renewed in 1870, but failed of any practical results.
Meantime, the completion of our first transcontinental railway had interested American capital in a different direction. The canal project, however, still continued to be talked about. The feasibility of the Panama route had come to be doubted, and the whole question was finally referred to a Naval Commission which was instructed to survey and report upon the proposed Nicaragua route.
This stimulated activity among the public men of Colombia, who now began to look again to European capital for the consummation of their long-cherished scheme. The result was the concession of 1878, gen