South America – The Geography Of The Isthmus

THE Republic of Panama is 425 miles long and averages 70 miles in width. Its most southern point is a little above seven degrees north of the equator, its northern point about 9° 50′. It is in the same latitude as Ceylon and Mindanao. It is almost due south of Buffalo.

It must be remembered that when Balboa discovered the Pacific, he christened it the Southern Sea, for the Isthmus runs east and west. Every new arrival gets the points of compass twisted, because of the habit of thinking of the Pacific as a western ocean. Panama City is south and east of Colon, the Atlantic entrance of the canal. In Panama the sun rises out of the Pacific.

The land frontiers of the republic are less than four hundred miles in the total, and are about equally divided between the Costa Rican and Colombian border. But the total coast line is over 1,200 miles, seven hundred of which is on the Pacific.

The most important physical feature of the Isthmus is that here the great chain of mountains, which form the backbone of the hemisphere from Alaska to Patagonia, breaks down into scattered hills and low divides. At Culebra—where we are making our deepest cut—the pass was only 290 feet above sea level. The highest peak in the republic is the Cerro del Picacho near the Costa Rican border. It is a little over 7,000 feet. There are four other mountains in the western provinces which are over 5,000 feet. They gradually decrease in height to the center of the isthmus and then begin to climb again towards the Colombian borders, where they again approach 5,000 feet.

The republic is divided into the following provinces: (1) Bocas del Toro, (2) Chiriqui, (3) Veraguas, (4) Los Santos, (5) Code, (6) Colon, and (7) Panama. The last is by far the largest, more than a third of the total, and Code is the smallest.

Bocas del Torro (the mouths of the bull) is the extreme northwest. It is notable for the wonderful Almirante Bay and Chiriqui Lagoon. They are really one body of water, as the long narrow peninsula which divides them is almost an island. It will be remembered by students of President Lincoln’s administration that this was one of the locations considered by our government for a naval station. In fact, it is al-most certain that if Lincoln had not been assassinated we would have acquired Lagoon. He had been deeply impressed by the difficulty of blockading the Gulf ports without some such base, and he kept Seward busy trying to acquire one of the West India islands or some post on the mainland.

The Chiriqui Lagoon is thirty-five miles long from east to west and about twelve miles wide. It is an unbroken sheet of water and almost everywhere navigable for the biggest warships.

Almirante Bay—really the northwestern extension of the Lagoon—is a maze of waterways between its numerous islands. It has, however, a number of fairly large harbors and deep water in most of its channels. In many places the banks are so abrupt that a deep draught steamer can tie up to the shore. The mainland is a tableland about six hundred feet high and within a few miles reaches an elevation of 2,000 feet. It is remarkably salubrious, and on account of its ideal facilities for bathing and small boating and its marvelous scenery, seems doomed to develop into a smart winter resort.

At present the province is practically a feudal domain of the United Fruit Company, and banana growing is its principal industry. The Chanquinolo River is one of the finest spots in the world for this fruit. There is said to be coal of good quality in the province, but it has never been mined.

Bocas del Toro, a town of about six thousand inhabitants, is the capital of the province. It is built on an island at the mouth of Almirante Bay and is a very busy port of export. About five steamers and as many sailing vessels clear from Bocas every day, loaded down to the scuppers with fruit.

The province of Chirique lies to the south and east of Bocas del Toro. It has considerable frontage on both oceans. David, the capital, has about eight thousand inhabitants and is rapidly growing. It is the largest inland city of the republic and far and away the most progressive.

There has long been a large grain and cattle trade in this province and new crops are being planted, new industries started with surprising frequency. It is the favorite location for foreign settlers. The re-ports one hears from those who have gone in for agriculture are universally favorable. The present government has passed a bill authorizing the building of a national railroad from Panama to David. It is not quite certain that the necessary financial arrangements can be made, but if the railroad is built it will of course give a new impetus to the prosperity of Chiriqui and the intervening provinces. The talk about the railroad—the survey has already been made—has induced a good deal of land speculation. But the values of land in this district have been steadily rising for gene-rations and even if the railroad project falls through, real estate is a good investment.

In the early colonial days the Spaniards worked some very rich gold mines in the mountains of Chiriqui, and one of the most popular industries today is that of trying to relocate lost mines. It is here, also, that the signs of the highest pre-Colombian civilization have been found. The high development of art and architecture with which Cortez met in Mexico, seems to have petered out to the southward. In the other states of Central America some imposing ruins have been found. The largest are in Guatemala. In Costa Rica there are few signs of architectural development and the pottery implements are very crude. In Chiriqui one finds only a few “painted stones” and graves. A popular form of vocation for the American employees on the canal is to go grave-robbing in the mountains back of David. A native walks in front of you and pounds the ground with an iron rod. If he gets a hollow sound, he digs. If he strikes a grave .you are almost sure to find weird pottery and sometimes gold ornaments. M. de Zeltner, a former French Consul at Panama, has written an interesting brochure on the prehistoric graves of this district; and the Smithsonian Institute has published an elaborate description of them.

Farther east is the province of Veraguas—wedgeshaped, with only a few miles on the Atlantic coast and a couple of hundred on the Pacific. It is remark-able for its beautiful islands and Montijo Bay, the second of the great harbors of. the isthmus.

Coiba Island is the largest in the Republic. It is more than twenty miles long, well wooded and fertile, but is very sparsely settled. Jicaran, further out to sea, is much smaller, but rises 1,400 feet above the sea. It is the most beautiful of all—a real distinction along a coast studded with beautiful islands.

Montijo Bay is fourteen miles long by nine broad. Cebaco, an island fifteen miles long, stretches across its entrance and makes it one of the most sheltered harbors ever contrived by nature.

Veraguas, and the small province of Los Santos, form together a peninsula which reaches to the southern extremity of the isthmus. The coast then turns back—an accurate angle—and runs northwest up to Parita Bay and the province of Cocle.

These three provinces are the least developed of the republic. They are sparsely settled. The blood of the population varies between the formula: one-tenth Spaniard, one-tenth Cholo Indian, eight-tenths negro, and one-tenth Spanish, one-tenth negro, eight-tenths Indian. Near the coast the negro strain predominates, in the hills that of the Indian.

The roads are the merest trails—impassable, even for Indians on foot, during much of the rainy season. There is very little circulation of commodities beyond navigable water. The population has the ingrown indolence which comes from life in such bountiful countries. It is only necessary to scratch the earth with a stick to make yams and plantains grow. The only tools needed for rice are a pair of hands. And one could not stop the plentiful harvest of cocoanuts if one tried.

Colon Province is the extreme north of the isthmus. What has just been said about the three provinces to the west applies to it, with the exception of Colon City. And this city is entirely the work of foreigners. It was founded, and at first called Aspinwall, by the Panama Railroad Company in 1850. The province, however, is rich in historical interest. Columbus himself visited the coast on his last voyage in 1502. He named Puerto Bello, and what is now called Colon Harbor, he christened Navy Bay. Not far from the present city of Colon he attempted to found a colony—it would have been the first on the continent. His brother Bartholomew landed a company of settlers, but the day before the great admiral sailed away they were attacked by the Indians and driven to the ships. It was along this shore that Don Diego de Nicuesa, seven years later, strove so desperately to gain a foothold for his sovereign. He had set out with a brilliant following to establish a Spanish colony and met with a series of almost incredible disasters. Beaten back by the savage natives, buffeted by storms, his ships eaten by worms, he and the pitiful remnant of his expedition came to a favorable looking harbor. “In the name of God,” he cried, “let us stop here.” Nombre de Dios, they called the place, and it is still on the map.

East along the coast from Colon is the Gulf of San Blas, named after the most unique tribe of Indians left- in America. The San Blas have never been conquered. And they have preserved their ethnic purity as intact as their territory. Their coast is famous for its cocoanuts—the finest on the market. A number of schooners trade with the villages along the shore and on the island, but there are no European settlements in their territory.

The province of Panama, with long coast lines on both oceans, is in the eastern extreme of the republic. Most of it is undeveloped, but there is considerable cattle raising. Several companies with foreign capital have been established in the Bayano Valley. They are interested in bananas, cocoanuts, vegetable ivory, rubber, cocoa, and other native products. A lumber company, an English affair, is planning to exploit the mahogany and cabinet woods. And down towards the Colombian border, near the head waters of the Tuyra River, are the properties of the Darien Gold Mining Company. The mines date from prehistoric times and there have been very few long interruptions in the taking out of bullion. At present the company is run under an English charter, but most of the stockholders and the technical managers are French.

The province of Panama contains the third of the great natural harbors of the isthmus. San Miguel Bay, with its inner Darien Harbor, from the immense outer bay, is almost closed by a large island, on either side of which are deep, safe channels, the Boca Chico and the Boca Grande. Beyond them, is an unbroken expanse of water, thirty miles long by half that width. All the navies of all the nations could anchor here in safety. Half a dozen submarine mines would make the place the surest refuge in the world.

The big tides form a great advantage over the Chiriqui Lagoon. They rise and fall fifteen feet and at “spring tide” twenty feet. The shores of the harbor are natural dry-docks. Any ships which visit these coasts can be run on the beach on the top of the tide and left high and dry when it falls. A further advantage is that the Tuyra River is navigable beyond salt water. A short anchorage in fresh water kills the barnacles, here the pest of navigation.

Off the mouth of San Miguel Bay are the Pearl Islands. The archipelago is over thirty miles long. There are sixteen high islands and innumerable small ones. The Isle del Rey is over ten miles long and as big as all the rest put together. Most of the islands which have fresh water are occupied. There is a considerable output of cocoanuts and pineapples, but of course the pearl fisheries are the big industry.

Taking the Isthmus as a whole its most noticeable feature is the maze of innnumerable rivers. As a rule the mountains are nearer the Atlantic than the Pacific; so most of the longer rivers are on the south-ern slope. However, the Rio Cocle del Norte has its source in the province of Cocle, and crosses that of Colon to empty into the Caribbean. The Chagres River, which is to furnish the water for the canal, is also a northern stream. It is about one hundred miles long and navigable half that distance by small boats.

The largest of all rivers is the Tuyra, or Rio del Santa Maria, as the old maps have it. From its mouth in Darien Harbor it is navigable for small steamers and schooners fifty miles inland. The cayukas, native dugouts, go up it and its tributary, the Chucunaque, for fifty miles more.

In the face of the unquestioned resources of the Isthmus, there is remarkably little development. There are three main obstacles in the way of foreign enter-prise :

1. The uncertainty of land titles. There are a dozen large estates which would be bought up and developed at once if titles were clear, which are tied up in litigation. Always some of the heirs are obstructing a settlement, in the hope that the next turn-over in politics will put some of their friends on the bench. There are almost no accurate surveys and the records of the land office are in a mess. In Honduras an American once found a deed which recorded the corner of the property as marked by “a dead mahogany tree, with two ravens on the branch.” Perhaps the Panama records do not offer so crude an absurdity; but nine out of ten of the myriad springs in the country are called Aguadulce, and many deeds give “a spring called Aguadulce” as the boundary mark. Frequently the original land grants read “from the sea back to the mountains.” When the hinterland had no value this was a satisfactory description, but it is now a fruitful source of dispute. Very few land-holders know definitely how much they own.

2. The next obstacle to progress is the dearth of good roads—the almost total lack of bridges. The country, for instance, is full of valuable cabinet woods. A dozen companies have come to grief after acquiring good title to enough standing mahogany to make a fortune. It is next to impossible to get the stuff out. And there are immense tracts of valuable banana land lying fallow for want of transportation. It works both ways, as it is just as difficult to get machinery and provisions in as it is to get your commodity out.

3. The third obstacle—and the most serious of all for a large undertaking—is the dearth of labor force.

If the enterprise requires steady labor, it must be imported. The native population is small and long tradition has habituated them to the simplest of simple lives. Nature is so bountiful that a man can easily raise a family according to accepted standards of living by two days’ work a week. It is easy almost anywhere on the Isthmus to get fifty men to work for you. But as soon as they have earned enough to buy a year’s supply of powder and shot, and half a dozen needles for the wife, it is all over. Five dollars a day would not keep them on the job. They will have to be educated up to a new and very much more complex system of “wants,” before they will become reliable workmen.

The banana fields of the United Fruit Company in Bocas del Toro are the biggest foreign enterprise in the republic. They have successfully overcome the last two obstacles. Their fruit grows near water and they have built a network of rails into the more remote fields. They control good harbors, so their transportation problem is solved. And they import their labor from the West India islands. But their land titles are in a bad tangle and it is costing many thousands of dollars to get them straightened out.

The Darien Gold Mining Company is the oldest and most firmly established in the country. Their titles are clear. They run a small steamer weekly from Panama to Marriganti on the Tuyra River, and they transport upriver in cayukas and, during the rainy season, in a flat-bottomed stern-wheeler to the head of navigation, from which they operate ,a miniature railroad to the mine site. They also have to import most of their labor.

Another industry in which there is invested considerable capital—mostly local— is pearl fishing. It does not seem to be well organized, but considering the slipshod methods it is very profitable. The “mother-of-pearl” from the shells pays a small interest on the capital and all the real pearls are clear profit. There are twenty or thirty ships equipped with diving apparatus, which operate at the islands and up and down the coast. But the majority of the diving is done by the natives of the Pearl Islands. They are enslaved to the companies by debt and are viciously exploited.

Any large enterprise by outsiders demands sufficient capital and patience to secure clear titles, efficient transportation and a steady labor force. This applies only to “big business.” The Isthmus offers opportunity to half a million settlers of the type of our forefathers who pushed across the Appalachians and won the West. One who wants to live close to nature will hunt long before he finds a location where the Old Mother is kindlier. The opportunities for small homes are limitless. Much fertile land is unoccupied and can be taken up under the homestead law. Dozens of profitable crops are practical—rice, onions, rubber, bananas and other fruits.