Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Darien Gap

The American frontier is sharply distinguished from the European frontier- a fortified boundary line running through dense populations.  The most significant thing about the American frontier is that it lies at the hither edge of free land. 
- Frederick Jackson Turner, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.”  1893.

[the Pan American Highway running through the Peruvian desert]

The Pan American Highway is a sprawling infrastructural remnant of the independence revolutions, American hegemonic sentiment, and World War defense logistics.  It is a continuous road connecting the southern tip of Patagonia to the far northern reaches of Alaska save one exception- the Darién Gap

The Pan-American Highway began in earnest in 1923, spurred on by the construction of the Panama Canal in 1914.  The segment of the highway connecting the Canal to North America was a defensive strategy to protect North American commercial interests from German U-boats.  It aimed to connect the commercial shipping centers in the US with Mexico City, capital cities in Central America and the Panama Canal.  To the south, the Darién Gap stayed on the periphery and the Pan-American Highway remained incomplete.  Since that time significant efforts have been made to complete the road in support of commercial interests and increased the mobility of regional populations.
[the Inter American Highway connecting the Panama Canal, the capital cities of Central America, and Interstate 35 in Laredo, Texas]

[the construction of the locks of the Panama Canal; image source]

The Darién Gap exists between the Panamanian settlement of Aviza and the Colombian town of Cúcuta.  It is 87 kilometers of jungle highlands and swampy delta along the border of Panama and Colombia and is purportedly a haven to the biodiversity of the isthmus, the indigenous Kuna people, and FARC operatives.  Despite its strategic location at the crossroads of North and South America and the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, the geography of the Gap has defied attempts at European settlement owing to the difficulty of the terrain.

In recent years environmental interest groups have joined forces with indigenous peoples and the powerful Panamanian beef lobby to argue against the completion of the road.  Panamanian ranchers maintain that the Gap provides a biological buffer preventing the spread of hoof-and-mouth disease from Colombia in to Central and North America.  This confluence of immense potentiality, bigness of the terrain, contested commercial interests, and difficulty in establishing new settlements is a historical fact dating back at least to the beginning of European colonization.
[the Isthmus of Panama, the Darien Gap is at the very southern edge of Panama]

[an admittedly ambiguous close up of the Darien Gap; the Atrato River creates a massive swampy delta in the Darien lowlands before pouring in to the Caledonia Bay to the North; the swampy conditions made North European agricultural practices impossible and bred sickness that undid the Caledonia Colony]

In the late 17th century the major European powers had established important colonies, trade routes and treaties throughout the Americas.  During the frothy expansion of European colonialism Scotland was inspired by entrepreneur William Patterson to try and establish a commercial colony on the Isthmus of Panama from where they could control trade between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.  The area was a de facto Spanish domain but uncontested as its difficult geography, low indigenous populations, and lack of mineral wealth left it outside of the imperial regime, a situation the Scots hoped to take advantage of.

In 1698 they marshaled most of the capital in the country through public stock offerings and the Darién Company launched a settlement expedition with the intent to establish the Colony of Caledonia.  It was known that the region of Caledonia offered a natural harbor with the promise of shelter and a chance at success.  Their demise was immediate, at one point dying at a rate of 10 per day due to sickness and the unsuitability of the land to Northern European agricultural practices.  By 1700 the colony was done and the survivors were ushered out by a cluster of armed Spanish ships.  The loss of most of the Scotland’s capital was an important factor in Scotland’s union with England in 1707.  As part of the union England agreed to repay Scotland’s wealthy citizens the money they had lost on the venture plus 5% interest.  It proved enough to buy them off.  The modern day Darién Gap is still inhabited by the Kuna people, explored by intrepid adventurers and tourists, exploration expeditions are occasionally mounted, and the FARC slides in and out remaining out of reach of Colombian authorities. 
[the Darian Gap on the Panama Isthmus connecting North and South America, the object of Scotland's colonial desires]

Frederick Jackson Turner’s characterization of the frontier was important in recognizing its importance in shaping American societies.  We would extend this to all of the Americas, arguing that the frontier condition existed throughout the continent.  The frontier was also non-directional.  It was a heterogeneous and uneven agglomeration of difficult and contested territories where myriad indigenous and divergent colonial interests- Scotch, Spanish, English, French, Dutch, and Portuguese- were smashing into one another over and over.  That is, the land wasn’t totally open as Turner suggested, but rather the jurisdictional administration was ambiguous, and this generated the potentiality which the Scottish recognized in the Darien Gap, the United States recognized in the Southwest, and the French saw in the Mississippi Valley.  The frontier was endemic to the American landscape, marked by difficult terrain, a tantalizing mix of potential commercial success and imminent disaster, and overlapping and ambiguous jurisdictions.  The Darién Gap, in short.
 [the 1960 Trans Darien Expedition:  134 days to cross, 500 kms of trails, 180 river crossings, 125 log bridges built, 3 automobile rollovers, malaria, 544 kilos in cargo, 1 capstain winch per vehicle, 52 HP engine, 104 liters of gas; image source] 

1 comment:

  1. Here is a recent account of crossing the Darien Gap: Crossing the Darién Gap (2013).

    That documentary was filmed on March 2013.

    Happy travels!