Panama: Peeps at Many Lands - Edith A. Browne

The Popular Idea of Panama

In the days when the Canal was being cut I asked a boy friend of mine whether he could tell me anything about Panama, and this was his reply:

"It's soon going to be a wonderful canal, like Suez, and then they won't be able to make any more hats there; but lots of people and things will have a fine chance of getting about the world faster, and without so much fag, when America is cut in halves to let ships through."

In trying to discover what the name "Panama" usually conveys to people, I had previously put a similar question, directly and indirectly, to many grown-ups of both sexes belonging to that large class which is commonly described as "the man in the street," and to numerous boys and girls of various ages. I was particularly pleased with my young friend's answer because it helped me out of a difficulty.

Isthmus of Panama


Regarding that general inquiry, please do not imagine I conducted it on behalf of the superior folk who make a hobby of trying to prove that the world is peopled mainly by dolts, dunces and dead-and-alives. The extent of some people's ignorance and indifference is a matter of small concern to me compared with the keenness of certain other people's desire for knowledge. I have been persuaded, by my own experience and observation, to believe that there is a vast, and constantly increasing multitude of all sorts and conditions of folk who naturally want to take an interest in many things, to each of which only a few people, comparatively speaking, can devote themselves as specialists. On the time and attention of every child and grown-up in that multitude a first claim is made by lessons, a particular business or a pet hobby, but not one of them wants his outlook to be bounded by his principal duty or pleasure. To such people I was to talk about Panama; therefore to such people I went to discover what they already knew about the subject. And the single-hearted, single-minded object of my prying was to get a clue as to how best to set a-going that talk so as to guard against taking too much, or too little, for granted.

The variety of information I collected in the course of sounding public opinion soon proved so wide as to be very puzzling. There was no doubt in my mind that the numerous combinations of facts, fancies and popular fallacies of which individual opinions were composed had "Canal" and "Hats" for common factors. I was equally convinced that there were other factors, such as imagination and experience, to be included in the greatest common measure at which I was endeavouring to arrive. But try as I would, I could not solve the problem to my satisfaction. I was still turning it over in my mind when I happened to meet the young friend to whom I have already made special reference. And, by the way, he is as good a sportsman for his age as he is a scholar. This was the first time we had run across each other since my return from Panama, and he immediately began to clamour for "adventures."

"You tell me first," I said, when I could get a word in edgeways, "what you think Panama is like."

Without a moment's hesitation came the reply I have quoted, and thus I stumbled on what I believe to be a fair sample of the popular idea of Panama. It indicates a common state of wakefulness that is of far greater importance than the common mistakes which I am about to discuss.

A map of the Western Hemisphere in a medium-sized atlas is usually responsible for our first impressions of Panama. Having learnt the definition of an isthmus and been referred to "Panama" as a good example thereof, we turn to a map of the New World. There we discover the name—printed in the sea, probably—at right angles to a slip of country which is situated between two big masses of land; it is in the neighbourhood of what seems to be the narrowest part of that slip, and refers, apparently, to a dot, which we know to be the sign for a town. We come to the conclusion that there must be a town called "Panama," and that the isthmus which also goes by the name is only a small tract of country beginning with this town on the Pacific coast and stretching a short distance northward, through the thinnest part of the continental junction, to the Atlantic coast.

Later on we learn to form some idea of the extent of a mile, to realize the necessity for maps to be drawn to scale, and to understand that when we consult a map we are expected to take an intelligent interest in the accompanying explanation of the measurements by which the part of the world represented has been reduced to fit the paper. We also become more or less familiar with a number of maps showing the New World in detail, and in those of Central America we see the name "Panama" not only in small letters alongside a dot, but in important-looking capitals, which are spread out to occupy the whole length of the link whereby that tapering country is connected with South America. Gradually we get the idea that the Isthmus of Panama covers quite a large area of ground; that, even with the best of level roads at our service, we could not cross the narrowest portion on Shank's Pony in less than six hours, or make a walking tour throughout its entire length in much less than a month. And we are inclined to doubt the existence of such roads, since we have gathered from geography books that the district is mountainous and has but few towns.

No wonder some of us upon hearing for the first time of the Panama Canal think, if only for a moment, that it occupies practically the whole isthmus. Childish memories of Panama, as first seen on a map of the Western Hemisphere, lead the imagination very much astray by such a suggestion, but at the same time they truthfully, though roughly, indicate the Canal's general line of direction.