Crossing continents: Panama and the making of the Modern World

As a historian of the United States in Oxford, there is no escaping countless hours crammed into an economy airplane seat en route to conferences and research trips across the Atlantic. If there is glamour in long-haul travel, it quick wears off as soon as the person in front of you reclines. Several years ago it dawned on me that the route map of United Airlines (my transport company of choice) was exercising a hidden influence on decisions I made concerning the conferences I attended and the archives I visited. The-more direct the flight path to an American city, the more inclined I was to go there. What would Ranke have said!

Pacific Mail Steamship Company brochure, c.1926-7

Pacific Mail Steamship Company brochure, c.1926-7

This realization helped to catalyse an interest in the history of steam transport, the focus of my current. research. In what ways, I began to wonder, did the transport systems developed in the nineteenth century condition the developments ofvAmerican history that I researched and taught— the expansion of the United States, its national consolidation, and its integration with the wider world? These questions, of course, speak to today's historiographical agenda of uncovering the global aspects of histories previously confined to national units of analysis. The globalization of U.S. history has received significant institutional support in Oxford from the. Rothermere American Institute, which has championed the transnational turn, as well as forging connections with the Faculty's Centre for Global History and the Latin American Centre at St. Antony's College.

Many of the readers of The Oxford Historian already might lie wondering if I am one of those U,S. historians who are oblivious to Britain's centrality to the global history of the Victorian era. Rest assured that even if I wanted to erase Britain from the story, I could not, for the records left by nineteenth-century Americans would not allow it. Americans were obsessed by the British steam networks that defined the global transport of the era. Businessmen and politicians made the case for the creation of a U.S.-controlled transport network on the grounds that it was the pre-requisite to freeing themselves from the tentacles of the British Empire. Americans closely followed the widely reported competition for supremacy of the transatlantic steam route in the 1850s between the British-subsidized Cunard Line and the U.S.-subsidized Collins Line — a winner take all rivalry ultimately won by the British.

But as with so much else in the U.S. view of Britain in this period, on-going rivalry coexisted with admiration of British practices and institutions. The federal legislation that extended subsidies to upstart U.S. shipping companies in the 1840s drew inspiration from the assistance the British state extended to its steam-shippers. The business practices of the titans of British shipping, such as Cunard and P&O, were mimicked by U.S. companies. The translation of British imperial relationships between private companies, the state, and foreign allies did not always unfold smoothly in the United States, but there can be little doubt of the influence of British transport systems upon those of the United States.

The most successful U.S. steam companies were those that developed their own routes, rather than competing with more generously subsidized British and European rivals. The most important U.S. service of the nineteenth century was the Panama route, principally operated by the federally subsidized Pacific Mail Steamship Company. This service connected New York and San Francisco via an overland crossing in Panama. The Isthmian crossing was dramatically improved in 1855 with the opening — and here is a pub trivia nugget — of the world's first transcontinental railroad, the 47 mile Wall Street-owned Panama Railroad.

The initial U.S. steam subsidies called for the Pacific coast terminus of this route to be in the Oregon territory, rather than in San Francisco. After lengthy contractual negotiations, the U.S. state granted Pacific Mail's request to make San Francisco the hub of its operations, a decision that helped to establish the city as the chief U.S. Pacific port. Pacific Mail's decision to base a coaling depot, shipyard, and ironworks in nearby Benicia marked the beginnings of industrialization in California. Meanwhile, the decision to make New York the sole North Atlantic terminus furthered the gap between that city and its rivals such as Boston and Baltimore. The importation of gold from California in the 1850s contributed to the development of the city's burgeoning financial services industry, helping it lay the foundations required to one day compete with London.

It would not be an overstatement to label the development of the Panama route a 'transportation revolution'. New York and San Francisco were now well within a month of each other — previously, it had taken (depending upon winds) somewhere in the region of four months to sail around the Cape Horn route. Americans in the mid-nineteenth century worried that their distant Pacific coast possessions would opt for independence, just as the thirteen colonies had done from Britain in 1776. That this did not happen owed much to the success of the Isthmian steam transport routes. Today's popular culture celebrates the pioneers who crossed North America in covered wagons in search of gold in California. But the data suggests that more settlers reached California from the Eastern seaboard via Panama (or its rival route in Nicaragua) than did through the overland South Pass. The establishment of increasingly affordable steam transport to California preceded the gold rush and should be seen as a driver of, rather than a response to, migration patterns.

The Panama route also pointed the way toward a future mode of U.S. imperialism. Many of the hallmarks of U.S. policy in the Caribbean (and, indeed, beyond) in the twentieth century were first pioneered along the Isthmian route: the negotiation of treaties that granted special privileges to the United States; the landing of the marines to restore order; and, the political agency of U.S. business interests on the ground. Historians recently have attributed the formation of such imperialist relations to cultural factors, or to the nationalist ideology of manifest destiny. The centrality of the Panama route to the U.S. nation-building project, however, suggests that any interpretation of U.S. imperialism needs to take into account the politics and economics of its steam transport systems. The parallels with the British Empire — one thinks here of its network of coaling stations and military interventions to control strategic passageways — again come to mind.

Routes of the Pacific Mail Steamship Company

Routes of the Pacific Mail Steamship Company

The success of the Panama route emboldened Pacific Mail, which rapidly became one of the largest shipping companies in the world. In 1867 the company inaugurated the world's first regular transpacific steam service, connecting San Francisco to Yokohama, Shanghai, and Hong Kong. The following decade Pacific Mail opened a service from San Francisco to Australia and New Zealand — though, having fallen out of favour with the U.S. government, this service was only made possible by subsidies from the British colonies. As with the Panama route, these transpacific services were of long-term significance, not least because they necessitated the acquisition of a coaling station in Midway, which would become an important U.S. naval base in the following century. The new steamship connections pump-primed the connections between the United States and the Far East; in particular, they facilitated a rapid increase of Chinese migration. As a consequence, Pacific Mail became one of the chief targets of the growing sinophobic lobby in California.

he heyday of U.S. oceanic steam-shipping proved to be relatively brief. By the late nineteenth century, the United States' shipping industry lagged far behind its foreign rivals. The problem was in part political: the U.S. state rescinded the subsidies that foreign states lavished on to their shipping industries. This left old companies like Pacific Mail at a disadvantage when new British and Japanese rivals entered the transpacific market. The opening of the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1885, followed by the establishment of a transpacific shipping line from Vancouver to the Far East, created an all-British route to rival the old U.S. transport network established several decades earlier.

Diminishing political support at home was symptomatic of a deeper problem: the shipping industry in America was on the losing end of a competition with the mighty transcontinental railroads. The Panama route could undercut the rates of the overland transcontinental rail network. It was also surprisingly competitive when it came to time (because of various timetabling considerations, it usually took freight, as opposed to passengers, three weeks to journey from NY to SF via rail in this period — only a week or so faster than the Panama route). The robber barons of the rail industry thus did everything they could to neutralize their rival: they won the battle for political support and subsidies in Washington; they bought up shares of Pacific Mail and put their lackeys on the board of directors; and, finally, once their rival was weakened, they imposed non-compete clauses upon it in exchange for monthly subsidies that kept the shipping line afloat. The result of all this was that many of the steamers plying the Panama route in the late nineteenth century were half empty — and transcontinental passenger and freight rates were kept high.

Railroad domination of the U.S. shipping industry illustrates how unregulated competition inhibited the efficient integration of markets and, indeed, the international presence of the United States. But - speaking personally now— the success of the railroads brought with it a pay-off to this researcher. Pacific Mail ultimately was gobbled up into the railroad empire of Collis Huntington. As a result, the shipping company's records are today housed in the Huntington Library in Pasadena, California — not only one of the world's most beautiful archives, but also one near LAX airport, which United Airlines services direct from Heathrow.


Corpus Christi