Bits & Pieces

June 23, 2010

France in Panama in the 19th Century

French employees during the French Canal construction days.
They are in front of the Municipal Council Building, also called El Cabildo.
(Photo from La Prensa)
French influence in Panama began to be felt when, in the early 19th century, French explorers  came to Panama looking for an appropriate route for a canal across the isthmus.  We still can find books on the subject by Armand Reclus (I have a copy with photos and drawings of the period) and Lucien Napoleon Bonaparte Wise, famous for their accurate descriptions on the time and places.  Their explorations took them to several locations on the isthmus, including the area of the present canal and Darien.
The organization of the Universal Company of the Panama Canal, the visit to Panama by Ferdinand de Lesseps and the beginning of the actual digging of the interoceanic way accented this French influence.  The Star & Herald added, to its Spanish version, another one in French.  Many photos of the era show signs in Spanish, English (from the "Gold Fever" days) and French.
French technicians were found everywhere and the first Hermanas de la Caridad (nuns) appeared about this time to take care of the sick.  French style architecture appeared both in Colon as well as in Panama, many of which can still be seen in the city of Panama, such as the Museum of the Canal at Cathedral Plaza.  And such influence continued even after the French stopped the construction of the canal.  In the early 20th century, during the early days of the Republic, Paul Chatagnon, from Lyon and an old employee of the canal, designed the Variedades Theater, the Government Building in Colon and the residence of don Francisco Arias as well as several other buildings. During the administration of President Amador, from 20 February 1904 to 1 October 1908, public education was placed temporarily in the hands of the Catholic Church which brought in the Christian Brothers from France, among them my father. 
Since those days, the Panamanians have had an affection for France and demonstrated such by dedicating a park at Las Bovedas as French Plaza.

- Luis R. Celerier
Longview, Texas