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In Lieu of Mutiny, or, Break on through to the Other Side: The Panama Canal — 3/5/14

Posted by Rochelle T. Pienn, filed under Wolfsonian Collection

The tale of mutiny on the H.M.S. Bounty in 1789 brings us the egocentric Captain William Bligh. An admiral in the British Navy, Bligh’s insistence that his complaining crew of malcontents round the precarious Cape Horn ended in his forced ejection from the ship. To this day, descendants of the mutineers live on the remote Pacific Pitcairn Island, where their ancestors hid to avoid the sure fate of hanging for treason to the Crown of England. 

Rounding the Horn was the popular though dreaded route, rife with coastal ridges, drowning currents, and powerful storms, which allowed a ship to circumnavigate the globe around the lush, unspoiled lands of the Caribbean and the Americas. The “super power” countries of the world, going forth with colonialism and trade, were ever in search of a quicker, less terrifying, and more convenient pathway to prosperity.

For hundreds of years, kings and explorers spied the Isthmus of Panama, a narrow remnant of land decidedly in the way of progress. Digging through the natural blockage and creating a manmade canal seemed an inspired plan. The monolithic engineering feat of the Panama Canal took several attempts by different countries, and many deaths of indigenous and imported laborers, to complete. In 1914 the United States built this eighth wonder of the world, allowing for peaceful and convenient passage of marine vessels between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Its complicated hydraulic system of gates, lakes, and locks makes the Panama Canal a unique technological solution to a rather enormous complaint.

This original albumen photographic print from the Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf Collection in The Wolfsonian’s Library shows the U.S.S. Arizona entering the Panama Canal in 1921. This image of the ship, which served mainly as transport during the First World War, was taken before several huge overhauls and renovations that prepared her for battleship status in the Second World War. Today, her wreckage rests at Pearl Harbor, as part of the memorial to fallen American military in the Japanese attack.

—Rochelle T. Pienn is the Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf Museum Library Coordinator for The Wolfsonian 

Caption: Photograph, USS Arizona. Entering Pedro Miguel Locks, from Panama and the Canal Zone: As I Saw it, February 9th to May 4th 1921, c. 1921.  The Wolfsonian–FIU, Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf Collection.