Found Historiography, Power At Play

The Fraught Freight of Transcontinentals

Or, You Make a Better Road Than A Destination, America

Burr Map 2

It’s been a busy week for the appreciation of the promise and perils of transcontinental, or if you prefer, inter-oceanic, travel.

Allow me to explain…


First is a new salvo in the effort to prevent the nation of Nicaragua from going forward with plans to construct its own water route linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Though plans to officially enter into competition with Panama’s raison d’etre passed into law last June, this week a pair of prominent scientists condemned the project in Nature, objecting to the deleterious effects it will have on human life as well as the natural environment.

As the authors note, the “new” plan for cutting a canal through Lake Nicaragua in fact follows a very old scheme. Indeed, it was one of the first plans for a trans-isthmus canal ever considered.[1] Since at least the mid-1820s, it’s been an intermittent focus of U.S. foreign policy, whether conducted by federal officials or … heavily-armed and well-funded private citizens. Among other moments of contention, the fight for control over canal construction was a key object during the vicious civil war that led to notorious filibusterer William Walker’s short-lived slaveholders’ dictatorship over the country in 1856/7; part of what helped undermine Walker’s regime was competition – that is to say, railroad tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt didn’t want any when it came to ownership of the route…

The aim, as with all transcontinental transportation schemes since the dawn of time or at least the 15th century (which is near enough), is to profit by linking Asian and Western markets together. The idea is to build a toll-taking and permanent hedge on the disjunctures and rebalances occasioned, first by the Great Divergence, and now its present unwinding. The twist here is that the plan is supported, and funded, by Chinese interests, not Western powers – specifically the newly incorporated for the occasion Hong Kong Nicaragua Canal Development Investment Company, aka the HKND Group.

Though China took the lead in outrageously ambitious canal projects (even inspiring New York’s early efforts), it’s a position that’s been lost in the last few centuries. The passage of time has wrought some important changes, though, so that now this whole affair much more closely resembles an old-fashioned 19th-century public/private imperial boondoggle than any kind of dynastic or totalitarian project.

Land rights granted by the government for 50 years, the canal and its accoutrements (oil pipelines, airports, strip malls) is to be built entirely from “private” funds raised by the HKND Group (they have a very nice, and nicely vague website about it all that even grounds the project in the long history of commerce! Just like Freeman Hunt would’ve done).

So while the Western press has at times been very skeptical of HKND’s ability and aims, and particularly focused on the unknown abilities and uncertain provenance of the company’s chairman, Wang Jing, it all reads to me as a the kind of reaction a Cornelius Vanderbilt or Paul S. Forbes might have inspired had there been a more active and critical press in the cities of the Qing empire.

Farther away but resonating even more closely on an American frequency, is Monte Reel’s lyrical #longread in the NYT Sunday Magazine about his road trip along the Interoceanic Highway, “Traveling from Ocean to Ocean Across South America.” It’s a beautiful written piece about a series of prosaically unpleasant bus rides,  and it’s accompanied by some lovely moving photographs (they really are more than mere gifs).

Reel finds that the highway, financed and built all the way to Lima, Peru by a Brazilian government “seduced by the promise of easier access to lucrative Asian markets,” has not lived up to its original promise. Instead, the road has proved more influential as a means to rapidly, and often illegally, exploit previously inaccessible forested land for timber and agricultural purposes, and has become a means for hard-pressed migrants from around the world to attempt to access new labor markets – and be exploited in new ways, too.

I’m not sure if Reel was scripting his article this way on purpose, but the progression he tours his readers along – the promise of Asian markets leading to a hastily built, unsustainably expensive road across a continent, and thence to a more sordid reality of accelerated, wildcat development over vast new fields, all enabled by new high-velocity streams of migrant laborers – well, if it seems familiar, it should. It’s the history of the transcontinental railroads in the United States, dished up with the journalistic flavoring of The Great Railway Bazaar[2]

Whether manifested through with rails, canals, or simple sticky asphalt, trancontinental roads across the Americas might go in new directions, and open new vistas – but it seems they carry the same fraught freight for whatever age they find themselves in.

I wonder who the Asa Whitney of Brazil’s highway was?


Image: David H. Burr, J. Haven, and W. L. Dearborn, The World, on Mercator’s Projection: By David H. Burr. Showing the different Routes to California, and distance by each; Routes of different Navigators, Route of the contemplated Pacific R.Road, Distances to China, Europe, &c. Published by J. Haven, 86 State St. Boston; 1850. Entered … 1850 by John Hansen … Massachusetts. (with) two inset maps: Map of the Nicaragaua Route and A Map of the Proposed Rail Road from St. Louis To The Bay Of St. Francisco, Compiled from the Maps and Reports of Col. Fremont, by W.L. Dearborn, Civil Engineer, Separate Map, 1850, David Rumsey.

[1] The various canal schemes are all well covered in the opening chapters of David G. McCullough, The Path Between the Seas (New York: Touchstone Books, 1977), among other places.

[2] Not to be entirely self-referential: for a some more on transcontinental railroads, and the building and effects thereof, see: Richard White, Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America, 1st ed. (New York: W.W. Norton, 2011), David Haward Bain, Empire Express: Building the First Transcontinental Railroad (New York: Viking, 1999).