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Panama Canal
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a Central American republic, occupying the Isthmus of Panama, and lying approximately between 7° 15' and 9° 39' N. and between 77° 1 5' and 83° 30' W. It is bounded N. by the Caribbean Sea, E. by Colombia, of which it was formerly a part, S. by the Gulf (or Bay) of Panama, an arm of the Pacific, and W. by Costa Rica. Its area is estimated at from 31,500 to 33,800 sq. m.; its greatest width is 118 m. and its greatest length 430 m.; its land frontier is only about 350 m., but on the Caribbean it has a coast of 478 m. and on the Pacific a coast of 767 m.

Physical Features

The Isthmus of Panama, coextensive with the republic, is the whole neck of land between the American continents; in another use the term " Isthmus of Panama " is applied to the narrow crossing between the cities of Colon and Panama, the other narrow crossings, further east, being the Isthmus of San Blas (31 m.) and the Isthmus of Darien (46 m.). The use of the term " Isthmus of Panama " to include the whole country is becoming more common. The Caribbean coast-line is concave, the Pacific deeply convex. The Mesquite Gulf is to the N.W., the Gulf of Darien to the N.E., and on the N. coast are several bays. Almirante Bay, near the Costa Rican boundary, is 2-13 m. wide, with many islands and good anchorage, protected by Columbus Island, about 8 m. long; immediately east of it, and connected with it, is Chiriqui lagoon (area about 320 sq. m.), 32 m. long, 12 m. wide at the widest point, with a maximum depth of 120 ft., protected on the sea side by Chiriqui Archipelago; immediately east of Colon, at the narrowest part of the isthmus, is the Gulf of San Blas, 20 M. long and to m. wide, protected by a peninsula and by the Mulatas Archipelago - low, sandy islands stretching about 80 m. along the coast - and having the excellent harbour of Mandinga in the south-west; still farther east is Caledonia Bay with another good harbour. On the north coast there are about 630 islands with a total area of about 150 sq. m. The Pacific coast is deeply indented by the Gulf of Panama, which is too m. wide between Cape Garachine and Cape Malo, and has the Bay of Parita (20 m. wide at its mouth) on its west side, north of Cape Malo, and the Gulf of San Miguel (15 m. wide at its mouth) on its east side, north of Cape Garachine. Darien Harbour, formed by the Tuira and Savannah rivers, is a part of the Gulf of San Miguel and is 11 m. long, 2-4 M. wide, and nearly landlocked. In the Gulf of Panama there are 16 large and about too smaller islands (the Pearl Islands), with a total area of 450 sq. m., the largest being Rey or San Miguel (15 m. long and 7 m. wide), and San Jose (25 sq. m.); both are well wooded. West of the Gulf of Panama and separated from it by Azuero Peninsula is the Gulf of Montijo, 20 m. long and 14 m. wide at its mouth, across which stretches Cebaco Island, 13 a m. long and 3 m. wide; west of Cebaco is Coiba, the largest island of the republic, 21 M. long and 4 -12 m. wide.

The country has no lakes; the apparent exceptions are the artificial lakes, Bohio (or Gatun) and Sosa, of the Canal Zone. There are a few swamps, especially on the northern shore. But the drainage is good; about 150 streams empty into the Caribbean and some 325 into the Pacific. In the eastern part are three complicated drainage systems of rivers very largely tidal. The largest is that of the Tuira (formerly called Rio Darien), whose headwaters are near the Caribbean and which empties into the Pacific in the Gulf of San Miguel. The Chepo (or Bayano) also is a digitate system with a drainage area reaching from the Caribbean to the Pacific; it is navigable for about 120 m. by small boats. The Chagres flows from a source near the Pacific south-west and then north to the Caribbean; is a little more than 100 m. long and is navigable for about half that distance; it varies greatly in depth, sometimes rising 35 ft. in 24 hours (at Gamboa), and drains about loon sq. m. West of these three rivers are simpler and comparatively unimportant river systems, rising near the centre of the isthmus. Orographically the country is remarkable. The " exceedingly irregularly rounded, low-pointed mountains and hills covered by dense forests " (Hill) are Antillean, not Andean, and lie at right angles to the axes of the systems of North and South America. The only regular ranges in Panama are in the extreme western part where the Costa Rica divide continues into Panama, and, immediately south of this and parallel to it, the Cordillera of San Blas, or Sierra de Chiriqui, where the highest peaks are Chiriqui (11,265 ft.) and, on the Costa Rican boundary, Pico Blanco (11,740 ft.) and Rovalo (7020 ft.) there are two passes, 3600 and 4000 ft. high respectively. On the eastern boundary of the republic is the Serrania del Darien, an Andean range, partly in Colombia. The rough country between contains the following so-called " ` Sierras," which are not really ranges: in Veragua province, Sierra de Veragua, with Santiago (9275 ft.) near the Chiriqui range, and Santa Maria (4600 ft.), immediately north of the city of Santa Fe; in Los Santos province (Azuero Peninsula), bold hills rising 3000 ft., and in Panama province, the much-broken Sierra de Panama, which has a maximum height of 1700 ft. and a minimum, at the Culebra Pass, of 290 ft., the lowest point, except the interoceanic water-parting in Nicaragua, which is 153 ft., in the western continental system. There have been no active volcanoes since the Pliocene Tertiary time, but the country is still subject to dangerous earthquakes. There are a few plains, like that of David, in Chiriqui province, but irregular surface is normal; and this irregularity is the result of very heavy rains with a consequent extremely developed drainage system cutting river valleys down nearly to the sea-level, and of marine erosion, as may be seen by the bold and rugged islands, notably those in the Gulf of Panama. It is improbable that there has been any connexion by water between the two oceans here since Tertiary time.


The mean temperature varies little throughout the republic, being about 80° F.: at Colon, where 68° is a low and 95° a high temperature, the mean is 79.1'; at Panama the mean is 80.6°. But this difference is not the usual one: normally the Caribbean coast is a degree or two warmer than the Pacific coast. There is a wet and a dry season; in the former, from the middle of April to the middle of December, there falls (in heavy, short rains) about 85% of the total annual precipitation, and south-east winds prevail. The north-east wind prevails in the dry season, which is dusty and bracing. The rainfall at Colon on the north coast varies from 85 to 155 in., with 125 as the mean; at Gamboa in the interior it varies from 75 to 140 in., with 92 as the mean; and at Panama on the south coast it varies between 47 and 90 (rarely 104 in.), the mean being 67 in.

Natural Resources

Gold is mined to a small extent; the most productive mines are about Darien and in Cocle province. Copper has been found between the Plain of David and Bocas del Toro. There are valuable deposits of coal near Bocas del Toro and Golfo Dulce. There are important salt mines near Agua Dulce on Parita Bay. Iron is found in several parts of the Isthmus. Mineral springs are common, especially near former volcanoes.

There are valuable vegetable dye-stuffs, medicinal plants (especially sarsaparilla, copaiba and ipecacuanha), cabinet and building timber (mahogany, &c.), india-rubber, tropical fruits (especially bananas), and various palms; fish are economically important - the name Panama is said to have meant in an Indian dialect " rich in fish " - and on the Pacific coast, oysters and pearl " oysters " (Meleagrina californica) - the headquarters of the pearl fishery is the city of San Miguel on the largest of the Pearl Islands, and Coiba Island. There is little agriculture, though the soil is rich and fertile; bananas (occupying about one-half the area under cultivation and grown especially in the north-west), coffee (also grown especially on the Costa Rican border in Chiriqui province), cacao (growing wild in Bocas del Toro province), tobacco, and cereals are the largest crops. Stock-raising is favoured by the excellent grazing lands; blooded cattle are imported for breeding.

Soap and chocolate are manufactured in Panama City. Tobacco and salt manufactures are government monopolies. Sugar refineries are projected. In the canal zone there are great shops for the manufacture and repair of machinery.

Commerce and Communications

The principal ports are Colon, Panama 1 and Bocas del Toro, the last being a banana-shipping port. In 1908 the country's imports were valued at $7,806,811 (vegetable products, $1,879,297; agricultural products, $1,258,900; textiles, $1,187,802; mineral products, $788,069; and wines and liquors, $675,703; the textiles mainly from Great Britain, all other imports largely from the United States); and the exports were valued at $1,757,135 (including vegetable products, mostly bananas, $ 1 ,539,395, animal products, $135,207, and mineral products, $79,620), of which $1,587,217 was the value of goods shipped to the United States, $113,038 of goods to Great Britain, and $34,495 to Germany. Besides bananas the largest exports are hides, rubber, coco-nuts, limes, native curios and quaqua bark. Transportation along the rivers from point to point on either coast is easy. The Panama railway, the only one in the country, is 472 m. long, and runs between Colon and Panama; it was made possible by the rush of gold-miners across the isthmus in the years immediately after 1849; was financed by the New York house of Howland & Aspinwall - Aspinwall (later Colon) was named in honour of the junior member, William Henry Aspinwall, (1807-1875) - and was completed in February 1855 at an expense of $7,500,000. It was purchased by De Lesseps's Compagnie Universelle de Canal Interoceanique de Panama for $25,500,000; and, with the other holdings of the French company, 68,869 shares (more than 97% of the total) passed to the 1 Christobal, the port of Colon, and Balboa, the port of Panama, lie within the canal zone and are under the jurisdiction of the United States.

United States government. The line of railway is very nearly that of the canal, and the work of the railway engineers was of great value to the French engineers of the canal. There are several telegraphic and telephone systems; a wireless telegraph station at Colon; and telegraphic cables from Colon and Panama which, with a connecting cable across the isthmus, give an " all-cable " service to South America, to the United States and to Europe. There are two old wagon roads from Panama City, one, now little used, north to Porto Bello, and the other (called the royal road) 17 m. north-west to Cruces at the head of navigation on the Chagres River. Other roads are mere rough trails.

Inhabitants and Towns. - The population in 1909 was about 361,000. The inhabitants exhibit various degrees of admixture of Indian, negro and Spanish blood, with an increasing proportion of foreigners. The Indians are most numerous in the western part. The negroes, largely from Jamaica and the other West Indies, came in large numbers to work on the canal. The Spanish was the race that stood for civilization before North American influence became strong. Many Spanish peasants, Italians and Greeks came in to work on the canal, but this is not a permanent population. As elsewhere in Spanish America, there has been German colonization, notably in Cocle province, where a large tropical estate was established in 1894.

The principal cities' in Panama are: Colon (q.v.), at the Caribbean end of the canal; Panama (q.v.), at the Pacific end of the canal, and near it, in the Canal Zone, the cities of Balboa and Ancon; Bocas del Toro (pop. about 4000), capital of the province of the same. name, in the north-western corner of the country, with a large trade in bananas and good fishing in the bay; Porto Bello (pop. about 3000), formerly an important commercial city, in Colon province, on Porto Bello Bay, where Columbus established the colony of Nombre de Dios in 1502 - the present city was founded in 1584, was often captured by the English (notably by Admiral Edward Vernon in 1753), and by buccaneers, and is the terminus of an old paved road to Panama, whence gold was brought to Porto Bello for shipment; Chagres (pop. about 2500), also in Colon province, formerly an important port, and now a fishing place; Agua Dulce, formerly called Trinidad (pop. about 2000), in Cocle province, on Parita Bay, the centre of the salt industry; and San Miguel, on an island of the same name in the Gulf of Panama, the principal pearl fishery. The larger inland cities are: Ciudad de David (pop. about 8000), the capital of Chiriqui, 12 m. from the Pacific, 60 m. east of the Costa Rican boundary, with a trade in cattle; Los Santos (pop. about 7200), the capital of Los Santos province; Santiago de Veragua (pop. about 7000), 300 ft. above the sea, with various manufactories, gold, silver and copper mines, and mineral springs and baths near the city; Las Tablas (pop. about 6500) and Pese (pop. about 5600) in Los Santos province; Penomene (pop. about 3000), on the river of that name in Cocle province (of which it is the capital), with a trade in straw hats, tobacco, cacao, coffee, cotton, rubber, cedar and cattle; and in the Canal Zone Gorgona (3000) and Obispo (2500), each with an American colony.


By the constitution promulgated on the 13th of February 1904 the government is a highly centralized republic. All male citizens over 21 years of age have the right to vote, except those under judicial interdiction and those judicially inhabilitated by reason of crime. The president, who must be at least 35 years old, is elected by popular vote for four years, is ineligible to succeed himself and appoints cabinet members (secretaries of foreign affairs, government and justice, treasury, interior [" fomento "1 and public instruction); five supreme court judges (who decide on the constitutionality of a bill vetoed by the president on constitutional grounds - their action, if favourable to the constitutionality of such a bill, makes the president's signature mandatory); diplomatic representatives; and the governors (annually) of the provinces, who are responsible only to him. The president's salary is $18,00o a year. There is no vice-president, but the National Assembly elects every two years three designados, the first of whom would succeed the president if he should die. The National Assembly is a single chamber, whose deputies (each at least 25 years old) are elected for four years by popular vote on the basis of 1 to every 10,000 inhabitants (or fraction over 5000); it meets biennially; by a two-thirds vote it may pass any bill over the president's veto - the president has five or ten days, according to the length of the bill, in which to veto any act of the legislature. At the head of the judiciary is the Supreme Court already referred to; the superior court and the circuit courts are composed of judges appointed for four years by the members of the Supreme Court. The municipal court justices are appointed by the Supreme Court judges for one year.

The seven provinces, restoring an old administrative division, are: Panama, with most of the territory east of the canal and a little (on the Pacific side) west of the canal; Colon, on either side of the canal, along the Caribbean; Cocle, west and south; Los Santos, farther west and south, on the Azuero Peninsula, west of the Gulf; Veraguas, to the north-west, crossing to the Mosquito Gulf; and Chiriqui, farthest west, on the Pacific, and Bocas del Toro on the Caribbean. The provinces are divided into municipal districts (distritos municipales), each of which has a municipal legislature (consejo municipal), popularly elected for two years, and an alcalde, who is the agent of the governor of the province and is appointed annually. By the treaty of the 18th of November 1908 Panama ceded to the United States the " Canal Zone," a strip of land reaching 5 m. on either side of the canal and including certain islands in the Gulf of Panama; from this cession were excluded the cities of Colon and Panama, over which the United States received jurisdiction only as regards sanitation and water-supply.


The system of public education dates from the independence of Panama only and has not been developed. But primary instruction has been greatly improved; there is a school of arts and trades at the capital, in which there are endowed scholarships for pupils from different provinces; a normal school has been established to train teachers for the Indians; high schools and training schools have been opened; and the government pays the expenses of several students in Europe.

Coinage and Finance

In June 1904, under the terms of an agreement with the American Secretary of War, Panama adopted the gold standard with the balboa, equivalent to an American gold dollar, as the unit; and promised to keep in a bank in the United States a deposit of American money equal to 15% of its issue of fractional silver currency, which is limited to four and a half million balboas. This agreement put an end to the fluctuations of the paper currency previously used. Currency of Panama is legal tender in the Canal Zone, and that of the United States in the Republic of Panama.

The republic has no debt: it refused to accept responsibility for a part of the Colombian debt; and it has no standing army. On the 30th of June 1908 the total cash assets of the government were $7,860,697, of which $6,000,000 was invested in New York City real estate, and more than $1,500,000 was in deposits in New York. In the six months ending with that date the receipts were $1,259,574 (largely from import andexport duties, and taxes on liquors, tobacco, matches, coffee, opium, salt, steamship companies and money changers), and the cash balance for the six months was $105,307.


The Isthmus of Panama was probably visited by Alonso de Ojeda in 1499. In 1501 Rodrigo Bastidas coasted along from the Gulf of Venezuela to the present Porto Bello. Columbus in 1502 coasted along from Almirante Bay to Porto Bello Bay, where he planted a colony (Nombre de Dios) in November; the Indians destroyed it almost immediately; it was re-established in 1510, by Diego de Nicuessa, governor of the newly established province of Castilla del Oro, which included what is now Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama. In 1510 Martin Fernandez de Enciso, following Alonso de Ojeda to the New World, took the survivors of Ojeda's colony of Nueva Andalucia (near the present Cartagena and east of Panama) and founded on the Tuira river the colony of Santa Maria la Antigua del Darien (commonly called Darien). An insurrection against Enciso in December 1510 put in command Vasco Nunez de Balboa, who had accompanied Rodrigo de Bastidas in the voyage of 1501. In September 1513 Nunez crossed the isthmus and (on the 25th or 26th) discovered the Pacific. Immediately afterwards he was succeeded by Pedro Arias de Avila, by whom Nueva Andalucia and Castilla del Oro were united in 1514 under the name of Tierra Firma, and who founded in 1519 the city of Panama, now the oldest European settlement op the mainland in America. The portage between the two oceans was of great commercial importance, especially in the 16th century, when treasure from Peru (and treasure was the raison d'etre of the Spanish settlements in Panama) was carried across the isthmus from Panama City. A Scotch settlement under letters patent from the Scotch Parliament was made by William Paterson in 1698 on the site of the present Porto Escoces (in the northeastern part of the republic), but in 1700 the Spanish authorities expelled the few settlers still there. Panama was a part of the viceroyalty of New Granada created in 1718, and in 1819 became a part of the independent nation of Colombia and in 1831 of New Granada, from which in 1841 Panama and Veragua provinces seceded as the state (short-lived) of the Isthmus of Panama.

The constitution of the Granadine Confederation of 1853 gave the states the right to withdraw, and in 1857 Panama' again seceded, soon to return. When Nunez in 1885 disregarded the constitution of 1863, which made the component states severally sovereign, he was strongly opposed by the people of Panama, who had no actual representation in the convention which made the constitution of 1886, an instrument allowing Panama (which it made a department and not a state) no local government. The large expenditures of the French canal company made the department singularly alluring to corrupt officials of the central government, and Panama suffered severely before the liquidation of the company in 1889. There were risings in 1895 and in 1898-1902, the latter ceasing with American interposition. The treaty of the United States in 1846 with New Granada, granting transportation facilities on the Isthmus to the United States, then preparing for war with Mexico, and guaranteeing on the part of the United States the sovereignty of New Granada in the Isthmus, has been considered the first step toward the establishment of an American protectorate over the Isthmus. In 1901 by the negotiation of the Hay-Pauncefote Treaty it became possible for the United States alone to build and control an interoceanic canal. The Hay-Herran Treaty of January 1903, providing that the United States take over the Panama Canal was not ratified by the Colombian Congress, possibly because it was hoped that settlement might be delayed until the concession to the company expired, and that then the payment from the United States would come directly to the Colombian government; and the Congress, which had been specially called for the purpose - there was no regular legislative government in Bogota in1898-1903- adjourned on the 31st of October. Three days later, on the 3rd of November, the independence of Panama was declared. Commander John F. Hubbard of the United States gunboat " Nashville " at Colon forbade the transportation of Colombian troops across the Isthmus, and landed 42 marines to prevent the occupation of Colon by the Colombian force; the diplomatic excuse for his action was that by the treaty of 1846 the United States had promised to keep the Isthmus open, and that a civil war would have closed it. On the 7th of November Panama was virtually recognized by the United States, when her diplomatic representative was received; and on the 18th of November a treaty was signed between the United States and Panama, ceding to the United States the " Canal Zone," for which and for the canal concession the United States promised to pay $10,000,000 immediately and $250,000 annually as rental, the first payment to be made nine years after the ratification of the treaty. On the 4th of January 1904, two months after the declaration of independence, a constitutional assembly was elected, which met on the 15th of January, adopted the constitution described above, and chose as president Manuel Amador Guerrero (1834-1909). He was succeeded in October 1908 by Domingo de Obaldia. In 1905 a treaty was made with Costa Rica for the demarcation of the boundary line between the two countries.

See Henri Pensa, La Republique et le Canal de Panama (Paris, 1906), devoted mainly to the question of international law; Valdes, Geografia del istmo de Panama (New York, 1905); R. T. Hill, " The Geological History of the Isthmus of Panama and Portions of Porto Rico " (1898), vol. 28, pp. 151-285, of the Bulletin of the Museum of Comparative Zoology of Harvard College; E. J. Cattell (ed.), Panama (Philadelphia, 1905), being pt. i, § 27 of the Foreign Commercial Guide of the Philadelphia Commercial Museum; and the publications on Panama of the International Bureau of American Republics.

Bibliography Information
Chisholm, Hugh, General Editor. Entry for 'Panama'. 1911 Encyclopedia Britanica.​encyclopedias/​eng/​bri/​p/panama.html. 1910.