Saturday, January 09, 2021

Lasso’s Erased, or why everything I thought I knew about the Panama Canal was wrong

Review of Marixa Lasso, Erased: The Untold Story of the Panama Canal (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2019).

Many years ago, I studied the construction of the Panama Canal as my main academic focus. In particular, I researched leisure time and tourism during the construction period and the fascinating contrast between life in the American-controlled Canal Zone and in the neighbouring Panamanian cities. In general, I relied on the Canal Record (the official newspaper of the Isthmian Canal Commission), travelogues, memoirs, and existing secondary literature. After several years, academic politics and research limitations forced me to shift my focus and I ended up back on North American topics.

However, my interest in the Canal has never really gone away. A few years ago, I had the opportunity to deliver a guest lecture summarizing the Canal construction and my conclusions about leisure and tourism in the Zone. While I was putting together lecture slides, I struggled to find images of Panamanian towns from the early 20th century. I could find many photographs of official Canal buildings and housing, but almost none of Panamanian communities. Marixa Lasso’s recent and groundbreaking study of the Canal explains why.

Although Erased: The Untold Story of the Panama Canal is a sensationalist choice for a title, it should not detract from what is an extremely valuable contribution to the historiography on the Canal. This is a rigorous piece of scholarship that uses a broad and rich array of sources to challenge many of the standard conclusions about the construction of the Panama Canal. Lasso’s central argument is that as construction of the Canal neared completion, the American authorities undertook a campaign of relocation to remove non-Canal personnel from the Canal Zone. Fuelled by growing racial prejudice and inaccurate understandings of the region, officials hoped to transform the Zone into a civilized tropical paradise. However, as Lasso skillfully demonstrates, this erased centuries of republican government, a sophisticated polity, and denied agency to a Panamanian/Columbian community that saw itself very much as part of the ‘civilized’ world.

Through extensive archival research and work on the ground in Panama, Lasso is able to begin the process of reconstructing the lost world of central Panama as it existed before the 1912 order to depopulate the region. The forced relocation literally erased centuries of thriving mercantile communities that were a global crossroads. In their place, new communities were promised far from the Canal, but they were left mostly incomplete and languished without the trade connections that had brought centuries of prosperity.

By focusing on the immediate consequences of Canal construction, Lasso counters most of the corpus on the Canal. David McCullough’s triumphalist account is the story of American technological and political superiority, but it fails to see the complex and sophisticated society that already existed on the Isthmus. Labour histories by Julie Greene and Michael Conniff focus on the workers but say little about the local population. Alexander Missal’s work on the cultural attraction of the canal (a personal favourite) does focus on the control of the Zone, yet says little about those who lived there before. Perhaps only Michael Donoghue’s borderlands history of the Zone comes close, but even it tends to focus on the post-construction period and the growing movement for Panamanian control of the Zone in the mid-20th century. By shifting the focus onto the local (and adopted immigrant) populations, Lasso calls into question the assumptions made by decades of scholarship.

If I have one criticism of the book, it is one that would be shared by any work trying to resurrect a world that has been eradicated from the record. While Lasso has done an excellent job of piecing together the Panamanian world prior to Zone depopulation, there remains a degree of speculation in the book which is somewhat unsettling. As someone working on Canadian Indigenous history, I appreciate the complexity of archival erasure and understand that speculation may be the best answer given the circumstances. I do not believe that this detracts from the book and it offers encouragement for further research.

It is no surprise that I struggled to find images of Panamanian life away from the Zone. As Lasso’s important contribution to the history of the Panama Canal shows, the American fixation on the Canal was rooted in a mindset that could not accept the existing Panamanian society. By shifting the focus away from Canal construction, Marixa Lasso’s book should be required reading for anyone studying the Canal, or infrastructure in a colonial context more broadly.

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