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Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Monday, 25 November 2019

"The Golden Isthmus" by David Howarth

This brilliant book, written back in 1966, traces the history of the Panama isthmus from the first arrival of European (Spanish) explorers in 1502.  It is well-written and divides the story up into episodes which are exciting in very different ways. It starts with the Spaniards arriving and attacking the welcoming Indians. The second chapter tells the fascinating life of Vasco Balboa, the first European to cross the isthmus and see the Pacific (NOT 'stout Cortes', Keats got it wrong). Balboa started as a stowaway escaping his debts and ended up being strangled for treason in the centre of the city he founded (after being arrested by Pizarro). His is a remarkable story but I cannot find an English biography; if there is one someone please let me know so I can read it.

The Spanish established El Camino Real, the Royal Road, across the isthmus to transport the treasure they found in Bolivia and Chile back to Spain. It “was a mean, muddy track that joined the oceans, winding up and down among the hills, about 50 miles in length and 9 feet wide at its widest - Just enough for leading mules to pass each other, brushing the Virgin jungle on either side. ... it was the most important thoroughfare in the Spanish Empire” (C3 The Elizabethans 1572)The third chapter describes the attack of Sir Francis Drake on the Spanish settlements and the fourth describes the attacks of the buccaneers led by Sir Henry Morgan.

The Scots then decide to found a colony in Darien ... and bankrupt their home country by their incredible ... and often fatal ... ineptitude.

There are then a number of attempts to create a transport crossing of the isthmus. The first is a railroad ... which kills thousands of labourers as they carve their way through the jungle. De Lesseps of Suez fame attempts to build a French canal but fails, killing tens of thousands (“Two out of every three Frenchmen who went to the isthmus died there.” C8 The French Canal 1879 - 1888)  and almost bankrupting France in so doing. Finally the Americans manage to put a canal across, although the treaty which awards them quasi-sovereign rights (which they negotiated with a trickster purporting to represent the new government of Panama which had only just seceded from Colombia) has been a source of conflict with Panama.

Finally it ends with a discussion of a plan to blast a new canal through the isthmus using nuclear explosives ... which might have seemed a realistic idea in 1966.

There is brilliant writing:
  • The struggle for life is shown in every twist of the plants which grope and cling and thrust themselves up to the light. Everywhere are those which have failed or are clearly doomed to fail, to die and rot and feed the roots of those which have succeeded. The value you put on your own spark of life seems exaggerated. You know that if you have to lie down and die, the jungle would almost instantly convert you into humus. On the spot that you chose, it would grow just a fraction taller, and you would have fulfilled your natural function.” (C2 The Way Across 1513) It was worth reading the book for that paragraph alone!!

  • Meekness was a quality so long forgotten that they did not know it when they saw it, but called it cowardice.” (C1 The Spanish Explorers 1502)
  • Like any treasure-seeker or prospector who finds his hoard, Spain lost the will to seek, and became obsessed with the fear of rivals coming to rob her.” (C3 The Elizabethans 1572)
  • Their only laws were self-interest and plunder, their only pride was in raggedness and filth, and their only authentic custom was to wear breeches stiff with the blood of the animals they have killed. Like many men who history makes into heroes, they must have been intolerably smelly.”(C4 The Buccaneers 1670)
  • It was only optimists who succeeded; pessimists were never anything but idle spectators.” (C8 The French Canal 1879 - 1888) 
  • He might have been one of those men who like to be henpecked, because it is the only way they can show their love.” (C9 The Revolution 1903)
  • Never ... is often too long a word.” (C11 The American Canal 1904 - 1914)
  • A colonising power has no right to gratitude for the benefits it brings to a colony, any more than parents have a right to it for feeding and housing their children.” (C12 The Republic 1914 - 1966)

Other great moments:
  • Darien has not always been deserted. It is only within the last hundred years, since the interests of mankind were concentrated on the route of the present canal, that Darien has been left alone to return to its primitive kind of peace. Before that, centuries of turbulent history flowed across it. Here, on this coast and in this jungle, abominable crimes were committed in the name of Christianity, and dreadful cruelties in the greed for gold.” (C1 The Spanish Explorers 1502)
  • Of the ninety-eight hands [in the crew of Columbus on his fourth voyage], more than half were boys between twelve and eighteen years old, which was thought a good age for adventure.” (C1 The Spanish Explorers 1502)
  •  “Four months they had been in the jungle, and most of them, at one time or another, had been left behind sick or wounded and cared for by the Indians. Yet all of them returned alive to Santa Maria. It was an amazing achievement.” (C2 The Way Across 1513)
  • As the column struggled back across the mountains, it was carrying such a load of gold that it could not carry food enough to feed itself.” (C2 The Way Across 1513) 
  • Courtiers still in the finery they had worn in Spain fell down in the streets of the village and died of starvation.” (C2 The Way Across 1513)
  • No one has ever computed the enormous wealth that came over this muddy track. All the gold that was seized from the Incas crossed it, all the pearls of the Pacific, all the silver from the vast mines of Bolivia. For the silver, an estimate exists: between 1546 and 1600, twenty million kilograms. ...To the successive kings of Spain, the riches seemed to promise world-wide power and dominion. But on the contrary, all they did was disrupt the economy of Europe ... Three times in the second half of the sixteenth century, the king was bankrupt.”  (C3 The Elizabethans 1572)
  • The Spanish commander, seeing such an invincible pirate fleet, agreed to surrender, but asked Morgan to save his face by attacking him with blank ammunition. A noisy battle was fought, with powder but no shot on either side.”(C4 The Buccaneers 1670)
  • It was implicit in the Scottish Parliament Act [for the Darien company] but if the company was a success, the prophet would be Scotland’s, but if it got into trouble the English Navy would have to get it out.” (C5 The Scottish Colony 1698 - 1700)
  • Fifty labourers had been brought from Carthagena, and all of them died or deserted for the gold trail, where they could earn more money and live in comparative comfort. Fifty more were imported, and so it went on: there was only room for fifty on the brig, but each time the labour force died out it was replenished.” (C7 The Railroad 1848 - 1855)
  • They wore their veils simply to avoid the annoyance of mosquitoes. They noticed also that men who wore veils were less subject to fever than those who did not. But they concluded that the veils kept out some of the miasma, the pestilential vapour of the swamps.”(C7 The Railroad 1848 - 1855)
  • The company went into liquidation. Eight years of grinding labour, perhaps twenty thousand deaths, twelve hundred million francs - and it was over.” (C8 The French Canal 1879 - 1888) 
  • Feelings were running so high that the government was outvoted and forced to resign on the trivial question of whether the Baron’s body should be exhumed.” (C8 The French Canal 1879 - 1888) 
  • An even shadier person called Dr Cornelius Herz, who had fled the country and taken refuge, too ill to be extradited, in a hotel in Bournemouth.” (C8 The French Canal 1879 - 1888) 
  • The parasites of malaria was seen in the blood of patients, each inhabiting a red corpuscle, by a French doctor in 1880. Italians in the next few years connected the periodic fevers of malaria patients with the periodic reproductions of the parasites already in the blood. ... the parasites reproduce asexually in their human hosts, but in the walls of the stomachs of mosquitoes they developed a form of sexual reproduction.” (C11 The American Canal 1904 - 1914)

I adored this book. It was so interesting so many times. I don't know if Mr Howarth wrote anything else, please tell me if he has.

November 2019; 269 pages

My parents were members of the Readers Union Book Club. They must have had a great person to choose the books. This is one of the many I have enjoyed and reviewed in this blog. Here is a list:

  • Life with Ionides by Margaret Lane: about a man catching snakes in East Africa
  • The Golden Isthmus: the history of Panama from its discovery by Europeans
  • The Incredible Mile by Harold Elvin: the travelogue of a journey on the Trans Siberian express
  • A Pattern of Islands by Arthur Grimble: the memoir of a Colonial Officer on the Gilbert and Ellice Islands
  • Invasion 1940 by Peter Fleming: an account of Britain's unpreparedness and preparation for a Nazi invasion
  • Bus Stop Symi by William Travis: three years lived on the sometimes less than idyllic Greek island of Symi
  • A Memoir of the Bobotes by Joyce Cary: a memoir of time spent in the Balkan Wars (before the First World War)
  • The Great Trek by Oliver Ransford: a history of the formation of the Orange Free State and Transvaal by Boer farmers trekking from the Cape Colony
Books reviewed in this blog which have the word 'Golden' in their title include:

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