A utopian vision for a canal and colony on the Isthmus of Darien, with a spectacular suite of fantastical maps

8vo. [4]116[1]pp. plus 6 folding lithographic maps, plans and views (of which 5 very large), all in vibrant original hand color, their edges reinforced with paper at an early date, possibly at time of publication. Binding somewhat rubbed but tight. Text with minor foxing, toning and wear at edges and corners. The maps with very minor soiling and foxing but in spectacular condition for such large and fragile prints. Overall excellent.

A fantastic production pitching a mad utopian scheme for a canal and colony on the Isthmus of Darien, illustrated by an absolutely spectacular set of maps and plans.

The possibility of connecting the Atlantic and Pacific via the Isthmus of Darien had been batted around since the 16th century, going nowhere on account of myriad economic, geographic, political and technical obstacles. The complexion of the challenge began to shift in the 19th century, with the success of canals in America and Europe providing inspiration and the collapse of Spain’s American empire opening up new possibilities. Any number of schemes were put forth, and in 1843 Barings Bank and the Republic of New Grenada even entered into a contract to construct a canal across the Isthmus. This went nowhere, but the scheming continued.

Enter Frenchman Athanase Airiau, a member of the Paris “Society for a Canal Interocéanique”. Frankly, I’ve been able to learn almost nothing of his background or the course of his life, but he was clearly a great dreamer and a schemer, and dedicated decades to his dream of a French-sponsored canal across the Isthmus from the Atlantic to the Gulf of San Miguel. Indeed, he addressed a pamphlet on the subject to the National Assembly as late as 1894, more than three decades after the present work was published.[1] It all went nowhere, and the Panama Canal was completed not by France but by the United States, following an entirely different route. But I am deeply appreciative of Airiau’s efforts, as they left us this terrific pamphlet.

The work pitches Airiau’s distinctive approach to the challenge of building the canal, which he summarizes with the pithy phrase canalisation par la colonization (“canalization through colonization”). In short, he envisions constructing an “agricultural and industrial colony”, the proceeds of which would fund construction of the canal across the Isthmus.

“We will see how, with the help of relatively very minimal capital, we managed to found a colony, a maritime and commercial city, then the interoceanic canal accessible to the largest ships.


“Starting from this idea that the establishment of the planned canal should be closely linked to the creation of an agricultural and industrial colony, we established calculations which exceeded all our predictions. We were surprised at the results that would be obtained by running both businesses together.” (Preface, p. 2, rendered in English by Google Translate)

Airiau lays out his vision in five chapters: The first provides a general description of the population, landscape and economy of the Republic of New Grenada, with emphasis on Panama; the second “contains considerations on the advisability of establishing the canal in question”; the third advocates for his particular preferred route near the eastern end of the Isthmus; the fourth is a study calculating the extent of the required excavation (a nice round 50 million cubic meters, which could be accomplished by “only” 15,000 settlers in no more than four years!); and the fifth lays out the finances of the endeavor.

Airiau’s ambitious plan included founding 150 farms and a massive planned city to be populated by European settlers, who would engage in agricultural activities, contribute to the construction and maintenance of the proposed canal, and benefit from partial ownership of the venture.[2] The vision was thus far from merely an infrastructural endeavor but also a utopian plan for colonization, featuring a planned agricultural economy based on cultivation of vanilla, nopal, indigo, tobacco, cereals, cocoa, cotton, vineyards, sugar, sorghum, fruits, and vegetables, along with various types of livestock.

The maps
The pamphlet is illustrated by a stupendous suite of six vibrantly hand-colored maps, one “only” 12” x 17” but the others all roughly 27” x 32-38”. They are as follows:

  1. “Carte Géographique de la République de la Nouvelle Grenade (Amérique du Sud) pour servir à la création d’Écoles Industrielles d’Agriculture, d’Arts et Métiers dans les Huit États de la Confédération.” A map of the Republic of New Grenada, providing broad geographical context for Airiau’s plan.
  2. “Carte Planimétrique Indiquant l’abréviation des Parcours Maritimes par les coupures des Isthmes du Darien et de Suez”. A world map highlighting existing and potential maritime trade routes, many converging on Airiaus’s proposed canal across the Isthmus. Also shows the Suez Canal, then under construction by the Suez Canal Company, masterminded by Ferdinand Lesseps.
  3. “Carte Géographique pour servir à l’étude du canal interocéanique par l’isthme du Darién (Nouvelle-Grenade, Amérique du Sud.)” A map of the Isthmus showing the route of the proposed canal, the planned capital city, and the dozens of surrounding farms. Four profiles at the bottom are designed to demonstrate the superiority of Airiau’s proposed route.
  4. “Plan Geographique a vol d’oiseau de la ville, des fermes et du canal interoceanique par l’Isthme du Darien (Nouvelle Grenade Amérique du Sud)”. A bird’s eye view of the proposed canal and colony, showing its purported siting in a valley between two mountain ranges.
  5. “Plan de la ville projete sur la parcours du canal de jonction de l’Atlantique au Pacifique par l’Isthme du Darien (Nouvelle Grenade Amérique du Sud).” A stunning plan of the proposed capital city, laid out on an entirely symmetrical, octagonal plan bisected by the canal, with a large central basin. Includes among other things the locations of foreign embassies, churches, fortified gates, and outlying farms.
  6. “Plan-Projet. Ferme Coloniale et Stratégique de Canalisation Agricole, Industrielle, Commerciale et Maritime Propre à Recevoir 1,500 colons, sur le parcours du canal du Darien. (Nouvlle Grenade, Amérique du Sud.)” Another stunning plan, this time showing the layout of the dozens of farms that were to flank the canal.

Had they ever been completed Airiau’s capital city and surrounding farms would have been something to behold, grandiose artifacts of European urban planning carved out of Central American jungle. But a closer look at the two plans (maps 5 and 6) suggests that Airiau was much stronger on aesthetics than either urban planning or agronomy. The proposed capital city is stunning but wildly impractical—among other things, the streets meet at all sorts of awkward acute and oblique angles, a sure recipe for traffic jams and awkwardly-sized building parcels. Likewise for the standardized farm layout, where the zig-zag roads and field boundaries would have posed a challenge to the plow.

Airiau’s proposal, it went nowhere, as evidenced by the lack of discussion by his contemporaries or studies in the modern secondary literature. One reason for this was no doubt his vast and utopian ambitions. Another, apparently, was his misunderstanding (or misrepresentation) of the geography of the Isthmus:

“All these localities were visited by me in 1861, during the expedition, of which a narrative has been presented to the Society. I had previously discovered that rising ground 240 feet above the level of the sea, separated the valley of the Savannah from that of the Chucunaque. I also found an elevation of 144 feet above the level of the Rio de la Paz, some two miles from its mouth in the Chucunaque, and yet this is the elevation which, according to Mr. Airiau, was to be traversed by a canal without sluices, and on a level bed! Moreover, to the north-east and east arose before mee the chain of the Cordilleras, which give rise to the Rivers Morti, Sucubti, Asnati, and Napsarti, tributaries and sub-tributaries of the Chucunaque, on its left bank.” (M. Lucien de Puydt “Account of Scientific Explorations in the Isthmus of Darien in the Years 1861 and 1865”, The Journal of the Royal Geographical Society of London, vol. 38 (1868), p. 110)

Though a historical dead-end, Airiau’s proposal for “canalization through colonization” must stand as one of the most off-the-wall proposals for development of the Isthmus of Darien, preceding by more than half a century the successful completion of the Panama Canal.

OCLC 11602903 et al, giving numerous institutional holdings. Not in Sabin. Airiau’s work is discussed (rather briefly) in Julie Velásquez Runk, “Creating Wild Darién: Centuries of Darién’s Imaginative Geography and its Lasting Effects”, Journal of Latin American Geography, vol. 14 no. 3 (Oct. 2015), pp. 136-137 and in Matt K. Matsuda, Empire of Love: Histories of France and the Pacific (Oxford University Press, 2005), pp. 50-51.

[1] Athanase Airiau, LʼAchèvement de Canal de Panama: Lettre ouvert addressé á Messieurs les senateurs et deputés, Paris, 1894.

[2] A note at the top of the 6th map reads: “The passage of settlers and their families will be free; their commitment will be for twenty years, terminable every five years, a family council will be appointed by them to judge and maintain among themselves the rights of all, order and good harmony. The Colonists’ share will be 25% of the colony’s profits. Bonuses will be given to the most deserving, the destruction of dangerous animals, to valuable actions and good conduct. Agricultural shows will be established twice a year and bonuses will be distributed to the finest products from the farms among themselves, as well as to the finest breeds of cattle, pigs, sheep and horses. The settlers being doubly interested in seeing the farms and the products entrusted to them grow and increase, will have a powerful motive to see them increase, since from this source there should arise in each ten-year period a sum of retirement proportional to the services rendered. The pension will be two to five thousand franes after ten years of active work in the service of the colony. In the event of the retiree’s death, the pension will pass to his or her spouse for his or her lifetime; in the absence of a spouse, to minor children until they reach the age of majority. After five or ten years it will be given to the settlers, whose practical intelligence of work and good conduct will have been duly proven and noted by the family council and the colonial administration, from eight to one hundred hectares of land with the livestock and the agricultural tools necessary for farming.” (Google Translate)