Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Review of 'Panama: Past and Present'

Far From the Canal in Panama


Published: April 16, 1922 Copyright ©The New York Times

PANAMA: PAST AND PRESENT. By A. Hyatt Vcrrill. Illustrated with

Photographs by the Author. 262 pp. New York: Dodd, Mead Co.

NO popular book," says Mr. Verrill, "has ever been written which describes the country, its fauna and flora, its people and the thousand and one interesting features of this little republic. * * * Thousands of people of all nations yearly travel from ocean to ocean by huge steamships or by roaring trains, and yet today the world knows scarcely more of Panama than did Balboa and his companions. The marvelous feat that linked the oceans is known to all the world; the fame of the great ditch has spread to the uttermost ends of the earth; but, aside from the canal, few people know anything about the Isthmus. To the average man Panama is synonomous with the canal and the canal is Panama."

So this volume is written and issued to perform this popular service, rich with facts and flowing of phrase.

Since Balboa marched inland from one ocean and stood in wild surmise at discovering another greater than that he had left, "the Bridge of the World" as Bolivar called it, has been a passageway. This narrow neck of land that connects continent with continent has been traversed, however, not from North America, to South as a bridge, but crossed at its smallest width, because it is fortunate in being the smallest land barrier between Atlantic and Pacific. Spain built a "Gold Road" to facilitate the transport of treasure, and in 1534 actually dreamed of digging a canal. For years the Spaniards fought the Indians, and then the pirate Morgan, and finally a party of Scotch who settled for a while in Caledonia Bay. Then came the revolution of 1821, and Panama's decision to join Colombia. Then in 1849 the Argonauts stampeded across the Isthmus on the way to California, traveling by boat and by mule and struggling with mud and filth and disease. To accommodate this tremendous traffic the Panama Railway was built over swamp and hill and “the Bridge of the World became the world's highway." Then came the French, and left rusting records of failure. Then came the Americans, who conquered the tropical malaria and yellow fever, built the canal, and fathered the young republic "pro mundi beneficio," If we can borrow the phrase from the coat of arms of Panama.

Picturesque ruins and curious traditions abound on the Isthmus. Strange cosmopolites from all nations of the earth have come to settle and call themselves Panamanians —Hindus, Chinese, Japs, Jamaican negroes, Slavs, Spaniards, Greeks, Italians and Germans, French and English, Swedes and Dutch. The town of Colon itself is an instance of the variety of life. Here is a splendid Masonic Building, half surrounded by miserable, flimsy wooden tenements. Here are some half-rotting docks, still in use by native coasting schooners, there a line of modern piers of steel and concrete. Here is a pretty plaza, and. across the street dirty negro shops. Here are the counters of a dealer in beautiful Oriental goods and a modern department store beside it; a stone's throw away are “tiny malodorous holes-in-the-wall where repulsive-looking viands, cheap fruits, cane juice and charcoal are sold." Back of the electric - lighted, well - paved town stretches the jungle, and into the heart of the hills reaches the ribbon of water that carries the bottoms of seagoing ships over the mountain range.

The author thus introduces us to Panama, takes us to see the modern sights of Canal Zone workshop and military post and the ruins of old Fort San Lorenzo, whose dungeons are now clear of prisoners but not of shackles and chains, and Porto Bello, where one may gaze upon “the old castle that once guarded the famed Gold Road and defied the powers of the world but fell to the reckless buccaneers.” After describing the trip across the Isthmus by boat and by rail and telling of the notable features of modern Panama City, Mr. Verrill heads again for the picturesque and halts for a reminiscent moment at the ancient Treasury vaults in Old Panama.

It was within these dark stone cells that all that vast treasure of gold, silver and precious stones; of plate and ingot, of loot from Incas and Aztecs; of bullion, wrought literally by blood, from a thousand mines, was stored to await the treasure trains of mules, slaves and armed men which transported the wealth of the West across the Gold Road to the ships waiting in the harbors of Nombre de Dios and Porto Bello. One's imagination cannot conceive the fortunes which have filled these vaults; one cannot picture the awful sufferings, the untold horrors and incredible tortures which were undergone and inflicted in getting together the millions which have passed through the low, arched portals of these dismal chambers. If only the ancient stones could, speak, what a marvelous story they could tell! What wonderful scenes they have witnessed! What incalculable fortunes they have hoarded in the bloody days of yore! But today they are empty; their damp stone steps no longer ring to the tread of armored men; no longer do boxes and bales and bars of dull gold fill them from floor to arched roof; never again will the fitful glow of sputtering torches gleam in many-colored fires from piles of gems torn from the writhing, tortured bodies of Indian princesses and kings. Their floors are deep with dirt, filth and debris; loathsome crawling things hide among the crevices of the masonry; their once strong doors have disappeared and left them open to the elements, and bats by thousands make them their roosting place.

Thereupon, we leave the beaten track and learn of the remote and almost inaccessible interior provinces. Across the grassy pasture land dotted with giant ant hills we proceed into Cocle, then through the rugged country of Veraguas the Golden, noting the marvels of tropical vegetation, the salt industries, the cattle ranches, the sugar mills. Roads get bad, then worse, then disappear almost altogether, until in the midst of what was once the world's richest gold-producing district we find the land as a whole deserted. “The rich soil of the foothills and river sides is a waste of brush and trees; the wide, grassy prairies support only a few hundred miserable cattle, and the few natives one sees are ragged, dirty, forlorn-looking and poverty-stricken." There are, though, occasional little isolated villages like La Colorada, "where time has stood still and one seems to have stepped back 400 years." The customs, the gold coins, the horse equipment, the festivals, the sports, are those of old Spanish times.

Nations may rise and fall, great wars may be fought and peace made; the outside world may marvel at some wonderful invention; man may conquer the air or the deep sea; pestilences may sweep off thousands or some great cataclysm may destroy whole cities; but these happy people neither know nor care. Their world is their village, and no doubt a century hence they will, still be living as they are today—as they did three centuries and more ago.

Going next to the other end of the Isthmus, toward South America, one enters the region of Darien, vague and indefinite, little explored and practically ungoverned, harboring the San Bias Indians and the Chokois, who abhor gold but load themselves to the limit with silver earrings, arm bands, wristlets and necklaces of their own crude manufacture, and also—near where the Scots landed in 1699—a shrewd and canny lot of Kunas Indians, who resist invasion and strive to maintain the purity of their race. “While Panamanian villages are near, while the Chokois speak Spanish and are in constant touch with civilization, while we are only on the borders of the wilderness, yet, near at hand is the untrodden, unexplored, utterly unknown country of the Kunas, the forbidden district whose secrets no white man has ever solved, whose untold natural riches lie untouched, undreamed of, guarded by the fierce tribesmen and their poisoned arrows as they have been guarded and kept hidden since the first Spaniards set foot on the shores of the Isthmus."

Mr. Verrill wields a fascinating pen, ever willing to elaborate the charming and the fantastic. Thus he pictures a bit of the journey on the Panama Railway:

From Summit the way is all down hill with marvelous views of deep valleys, like seas of green, steep hillsides clothed with impenetrable forests and majestic mountains looming blue against the sky, while swinging about the hillsides, clinging to the steep slopes, spanning ravines and winding in and out of the jungle, is the white thread of concrete automobile road that extends from Gamboa to Panama.

Here is a panorama viewed from the forts in Panama Bay;

Like a steel-blue ribbon the canal stretches from beneath one's feet to Miraflores, with Balboa, like a toy town amid its lawns and Fort Amador connecting it in a narrow tongue of land with the causeway. To the north, the City of Panama basks in the sun—a sea of red roofs and church towers— backed by range after range of misty mountains stretching into the dim distance. To the south, Taboga rears its green hills above the turquoise sea with still greener Taboguilla just beyond, while to the east, phantasmal, elusive and wraithlike, the opalescent outlines of the Pearl Islands shimmer upon the far horizon.

He concludes his volume with sixty-three pages of useful data, and statistics in classified form, telling of the resources, the activities and the characteristics of the nation, the roads, the hotels, the flora and fauna, the products, the points of historic interest, the communications and the transportation facilities, which last in the provinces are almost non-existent.

One thing Mr. Verrill states inaccurately: "Her sovereignty has become little more "than a name" (p. 40). He leaves his reader with the impression that Panama is absolutely controlled and run by the United States, while as a matter of fact that independent little nation is as jealous of its sovereignty as ever Belgium was, and engages in many brisk diplomatic tilts with the too-eager and overbearing Americans. He is again in error when he states that "elections are guarded, supervised and judged by United States officials" (p. 9). They have been at times, but this is not the law, nor even the rule, and something of the sort happens only when Panama invites assistance. It is sad but true that Mr. Verrill may have to revise his statement (p. 87) that “quarters are free” to canal employes, for orders have gone forth to abolish that privilege. It is strange to find a man so well informed on Panama as Mr. Verrill, who indeed elsewhere says it is "the only spot in the world where one may see the sun rise from the Pacific and set in the Atlantic” (p. 57), remarking at the limitless Pacific like a sheet of burnished gold in the rays of the setting sun " (p. xi).

Let us not, though, be meticulous of praise. Mr. Verrill has produced a more interesting book than the usual account of a traveler. He has subordinated or eliminated the personal, in the interests of clear exposition, and even though he sometimes indulges in profuse rhetoric and unduly sentimental descriptions and florid adjectives, he has rendered distinct service.

“Accommodations for the traveler are conspicuous by their absence, although there are hotels of a sort in many of the larger towns. * * * But despite the discomforts of bad roads, worse steamers, and inadequate accommodations, a journey through the interior of Panama is well worth while for any one fond of beautiful scenery, picturesque people, quaint customs and out-of-door life or for those interested in obtaining a true idea of the little-known republics."

This is his thesis. This his book proves.

Recorder notes that both of the criticisms of Verrill’ book appear to be incorrect. The United States Government did not have a hands off policy wrt to Panama. The sun can be seen to set in the Pacific from Panama; maybe I missed his meaning. /drf

1 comment:

Chagres, Panama City, Panama said...

Only a purist would deny the claim that the sun rises in the Pacific at Panama City. Thanks to the Lazy S shape of the country, this phenomena can be viewed every morning from a great vantage point on the causeway at Amador with the city in the background. Thousands of "proof" pictures have been taken. Local lore doncha know. --

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As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.