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Ploughing the sea: Latin America observed

Plans for the Panama Canal

Lithograph depicting a group of men seated along logs in a forest holding tin bowls and cups.'Surveying party at dinner.'Though a railway across the isthmus was built in 1855, largely to transport the cargo produced by the Californian 'gold rush', it was not until 1914 that the Panama Canal was completed - nearly 400 years after Europeans had first considered the project.

French attempts to build a canal began in 1881, led by Ferdinand de Lesseps, the head of construction at the Suez Canal, which had been completed in 1869. However, the nascent superpower to the north, the United States, was of course aware of how control of such a waterway would add to its growing power both on the world stage and in the region.

The 'General Instructions' at the beginning of this work, which is published with the authority of the United States House of Representatives, make clear the importance of this survey, undertaken by a team from the US Navy under Commander Thomas O Selfridge.

The Department has intrusted to you a duty concerned with the greatest enterprise of the present age; and upon your enterprise and zeal will depend whether your name is honourably identified with one of the facts of the future.

As a document concerned with determining the future direction of world trade, it is necessarily comprehensive and the report includes detailed navigational and meteorological data, and geological and environmental information, as well as many fold-out maps of sub-regions of the isthmus.

The lithographic plates, presumably produced from the work of two photographers attached to the expedition, capture a range of scenes. There are portraits of the personnel employed in the surveying party and the marines accompanying them, as well as more bucolic scenes of tribal habitats soon to be transformed by the might of the industrialised powers and their enterprise.

The plate on display shows the 'Surveying party at dinner'.

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