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“Dirty” Jungle: Colombia tried to send a force of 2,000 men through Darien — turned back

Panama City, Panama

Quick mind-dump

In 1903, Panama was in process of seceding from Colombia. The French canal already had failed so miserably that the failure shook the Eiffel tower. The fraud of the century for France.

And yes, the Eiffel. Gustave Eiffel. The tower guy.

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Eiffel designed part of the Statue of Liberty. And was involved in the French Panama Canal, eventually sentenced to prison relating to his involvement. Many twists and turns later, Eiffel did not serve time.

The French believed they could build a sea-level canal much as they had done at Suez. But Panama Canal proved to be ten or a hundred times more difficult. The Devil’s own mud, rains, and long menu of disease were just part of the problem set.

For centuries, people had crossed the Darien Isthmus (Panama Isthmus) carting away loot and plunder. And then, when gold was discovered in the Sierra Nevada of California in 1848, the Gold Rush began.

Starting from East, there were only three main routes to California. Overland across America — very difficult and filled with hostile natives. The Transcontinental Railway did not yet exist.

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Around Cape Horn. Very long, expensive, also dangerous.

Or, for the courageous, the foolhardy, or just people in a hurry — across the Isthmus of Panama. And the Panama railroad was not yet built. And so, for some, the ultra-trekking and tons of casualties.

The British Army calls the jungles of Central America “dirty jungle.” I learned this at their tracking school in Brunei, on the island of Borneo, when officers invited me to attend the school along with Gurkhas, other British troops, and Dutch Commandos.

British moved their school from dirty jungles of Belize to cleaner jungles Borneo because they took so many casualties from disease in Belize.

When you hear people talk about dangerous jungles — Panama jungle at Darien is what they have in mind. This lethal jungle is real jungle. Famous for its incredible mud and long menu of malady. Dirty with disease of so many sorts. Many likely have not yet been cataloged.

But all the likely suspects were there: Cholera — that gift from the Ganges, Chagres fever, Malaria of assorted flavor, Yellow Fever of assorted flavor — including the sort that kills up to 70% infected, Smallpox, Dengue. Just keep right on going. The Mosquito Luftwaffe was thick.

Keeping in mind that during most of these formative years in Panama, there was no idea at all that mosquitoes spread any disease. Pasteur and Koch and the whole Germ Theory was still considered something of witchcraft, or even idiotic. Diseases so diverse such as cholera (bacterial and waterborne), Yellow Fever (viral, mosquito vector), Malaria (parasite, mosquito vector), and more, were all wrongly blamed on Miasma — for centuries.

Miasma is just bad-smelling air. And so, the best minds for centuries were stuck on “swamp gas” and other putrid smells — totally missing the germ theory, mosquitoes, and tons more. Mal-aria means bad air. Bad air. Miasma. Was blamed for man’s busiest killer, the parasites of malaria that mosquitos so expertly deliver with sensors more advanced than on any F-35.

Speaking of such sensors — the French and some others often blamed bad morals for deaths caused by Yellow Fever, Malaria, and more.

And, interestingly, it crosses my mind that there may have been at some truth, even though many people who have the highest moral standing got wiped out along with their entire families they brought to Panama.

Some would say that these canal workers who drank so much got beaten down harder. The workers were said to pound alcohol so heavily they even made streets from inverted wine bottles.

Only in recent years, to my knowledge, has it been discovered that some mosquitoes are drawn to people who drink alcohol, and also the byproducts of hardwork seem to draw more mosquitos, not to mention carbon dioxide are bread crumbs.

I don’t know the truth of it. I just read a lot, and sometimes things you read here, start to resonate with something a Frenchman wrote maybe 130 years ago. Saying these heavy drinkers seemed to be falling fast. But, then, so were little children and parents who did not drink. (Calling Dr. Epidemiology!)

And also, we know other things about viruses now…such as going out to work when virus is replicating for a hostile takeover of your body, is just a bad idea. Do what grandma said and go lay down. We are getting pretty close the equator here. They had no air-conditioners. And they made water moats around hospital bed legs, plants, and huts, to keep ants and other bugs out. And you know what grows in stagnate water.

Worse, still, the French divided clinics by nationality, not by disease. And so, doctors would put people with yellow fever or malaria in with people who did not yet have it, and adios. It’s not their fault. They had no idea. And why not divide people by nationality so patients can at least speak same language.

The mud so sticky that French workers were forced to clean their shovels with every scoop. The mud so stuck to shovels that it would not release.

In 1870, an expedition of about 100 Americans brought 600 extra pairs of shoes. And before they finished, were leaving men behind at camp, shoeless. All 600 pairs, gone.

The French were defeated and this was a sort of “their Vietnam” insofar as national soul searching, incredible fraud, and stockholders left bankrupt. National heroes like Ferdinand de Lesseps and Eiffel were left tarnished to history.

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And what to make of the progress the French had made? They did not want to sell to Americans. We were on par with savage, and competition at that. Sell to Russians? British? But only Americans could do it. With President McKinley assassinated by an Anarchist in 1901, Theodore Roosevelt took office.

And by the way, McKinley was the third American president so far to be assassinated. Working as President of United States is as dangerous as war correspondent work.

Roosevelt was all for the Isthmus Canal. At first, as will most Americans paying attention, Roosevelt was set on Nicaragua route. The Rio Atrato of Colombia having been dismissed. But with many lobbying efforts, aided by volcanos, more people started looking at Panama with locks as the more viable choice.

The bomb attack and sinking of USS Maine in Havana Harbor, and the long dispatch of the Oregon from San Francisco around Cape Horn, added energy to Roosevelt’s idea of a Big Stick Navy. The Spanish-American war played heavily into the canal, and other major geopolitical shifts.

The Panama Canal was an American equivalent of CCPs present-day BRI. Belt and Road Initiative. Building railroads and seaways, and building military and commerce outposts at all possible strategic routes and funnels. Teaching locals to speak your language and buy into your way. Such as Confucius Institutes today.

Some of the major political and information war action against the Panama canal construction was actually from Americans who owned or benefited from the Transcontinental and other railways. A canal would spoil monopoly.

No different from pharmaceutical companies today who would peddle their expensive products over cheaper products in other hands, or tech companies attacking competition. Same behavior, different battlefields.

Any case, the canal would be an American equivalent of BRI with military and commerce benefits entwined. This all played into other geopolitical moves such as the United States in Puerto Rico, Cuba, Hawaii, and Philippines.

And today, migrants are battling their way and often dying in the same Darien jungles that claimed so many Spaniards, French, Americans, Dutch, and more. The same rivers, snakes, and malaria.

Time to roll. Thank you for all support. Because I need it.

And thank you for forgiving my mind-dump format. Helps me produce more.

Michael Yon

Michael Yon is America's most experienced combat correspondent. He has traveled or worked in 82 countries, including various wars and conflicts.

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