Faces, Stamps, Ships And Canals

Today I came upon an interesting piece of information on one of the Yahoo bulletin boards. Credit goes to “Leo” for knowing about this and sharing the information.

I am sure that you know that Helen of Troy is recognized as a lady of such beauty, that her face launched a thousand ships and she is credited as being the reason for the Trojan Wars. But did you know that a Nicaraguan stamp, which depicted the smoking volcano Mount Momotomb, was used to convince the US congress to vote in favor of building the Panama Canal over a plan to build a canal through Nicaragua.

I have read a fair amount of history on the Canal, but this was new to me. The following snippet came from the Syracuse Stamp Club.

Stamp that launched the Panama Canal

Nicaragua, 1900
At the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, President William McKinley announced that America would build a canal joining the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The French firm de Lesseps had attempted such a canal across Panama twenty years earlier, but malaria and mudslides had forced them to abandon the project. McKinley and the Congress hoped to succeed where the French had failed by cutting their canal across Nicaragua instead.

Philippe Bunau-Varilla, formerly de Lesseps’ chief engineer, still hoped to convince the American government that the shorter Panama route was better. He personally lobbied the president and members of congress, but found them solidly behind the Nicaragua plan.

Remembering Napoleon’s dictum that “a small sketch is better than a large report,” Bunau-Varilla scoured stamp shops in Washington and New York for 100 copies of the then-current Nicaraguan definitive series, which depicted the volcano Mount Momotombo with an ash cloud issuing from the crater. He mounted the stamps on sheets of paper and circulated them among the senators as evidence that the volcano was a menace to the proposed Nicaraguan canal.

In his memoirs, Bunau-Varilla wrote “This was the last shot of the battle. It simply decided the fate of this long controversy. The day following, Senator [Jacob] Gallinger [of New Hampshire] asked the Senate if it was reasonable to undertake this colossal work in a country taking a smoking volcano as an emblem for its postage stamps.” The Senate decided the issue in favor of Panama.

Bunau-Varilla, Philippe. Panama: The Creation, Destruction, and Resurrection. (New York, 1914)

McCullough, David G. The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1977.)

Now I think that is really interesting. A Nicaraguan stamp licked the proponents of a Nicaraguan Canal and thereby enabled the Panama Canal to happen.

5 thoughts on “Faces, Stamps, Ships And Canals

  1. Very interesting Don Ray! Thanks for the information. However, plans for a canal through Nicaragua have recently been resurrected. We will see what happens and when, but it looks like there may be another canal in the works if Nicaragua can come up with the money. Although, in my opinion…if they dredge Lake Colcibolca for a canal, they are going to find several ancient villages imbedded in lava in the lake. I walked the shores daily and often found Pre-Columbian pottery shards that were washed ashore. Last March, I found a whole Pre-Columbian burial urn, called a Zapato (because it looks like a shoe), that had washed ashore. I’d really like to see an archeologist investigate the bottom of the lake before dredging for a canal.

  2. Yes, I have read about the resurrection of the Nicaraguan canal plan. I think it has a long way to go from where the plan stands to implementation though.

    You have seen a lot of interesting things in Nicaragua.

  3. Hello Don Ray!
    I was just reading about this theme in another site, and found out, that at the same time, where the americans were discussing the canal proyects, there was a volcano eruption in the Martinique (Mont Pellé) that killed lots of people. The Grandma of my Grandma was from there, and she had to leave that Island with all her family!!
    Bunau-Varilla’s tactic was than to use this actual happening to change the plans of the lobbysts, so they indeed decided to make the canal through Panama 🙂

    I really hope that the 3rd Locks are gonna be able to supply the worldwide demand, but isn’t it a bit “hungry” from all these developed countries to want to build another canal, and to destroy more nature for their commercial interests? I personally think that people have to change their way of consume: allways wanting to have more, bigger, better doesn’t make really happy…

    It would be very sad to see how they just use the small countries to get what they want and once it doesn’t work anymore the way they expect it to, than only go somewhere else and start from the beginning?

    If they make the Nicaragua Canal, in 100 years are they gonna be wanting to build a much bigger and better through Mexico, because the Nicaragua one is in year 2114 not gonna be able to support the big worldwide demmand anymore? c’m on! it’s like giving your child allways everything he wants!! can you get what I mean? I think is time to say NO! ;-p

    greets and sorry for my bad english!

  4. Hi Ory. Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment.

    With the economic depression currently in effect, many canal ships are sitting in ports with nothing to ship. In the meantime, the northern passage is melting and may be completely open before the canal is finished being enlarged.

  5. Oh, Oh, Mr. Cotter!!! I know this one!! haha
    When the army gave me orders to APO 34027 I had to ask my cousin at the post office where I was headed! Once I got to the Canal Zone I started learning all I could about it and that’s when I learned about the stamp and the lobby for Panama. There was still talk in the early 1970s of a sea level canal through Nicaragua using ATOMIC explosives!
    Talk about poking a sleeping volcano! Yikes! haha
    jim and nena
    fort worth

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