IN 1878 a French company led by Ferdinand de Lesseps, who built the Suez Canal, undertook to build a waterway across the Isthmus of Panama to link the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
But de Lesseps could not repeat his Suez success at Panama. Beset by a variety of problems, he was forced to abandon the project halfway.
One of the men who stayed behind after de Lesseps had left, was a 26-year-old engineer named Bunao-Varilla. This young man had become obsessed with the canal and was determined to see it completed.
He went to Washington to try to get American help to restart the project, but found that the Americans were not interested in a waterway through Panama. They had decided to build a canal, but not through the isthmus. They favoured a site to the north of it, through the small country of Nicaragua as their experts had come to the conclusion that it would be easier to dig through Nicaragua than through Panama.
Bunao-Varilla tried to drum up support for his project in the USA. He toured the country, tirelessly giving lectures on the advantages of building the canal through Panama, and talked to senators and powerful politicians and anybody else who would listen to him, but the response he got was discouraging.
Then just when it looked as if he had lost his case, nature intervened on his behalf — a volcano erupted in the Caribbean, and others in the region began to rumble ominously.
The Nicaraguans, who badly needed the revenue the canal would bring, assured the Americans that there was no volcanic activity in their country. They emphasised that their largest volcano, Momotombo, which lay on the route of the proposed canal, was absolutely quiet, had been so for decades and was not ever likely to erupt.
But Bunao-Varilla remembered that the Nicaraguans had issued a postage stamp bearing a picture of Momotombo, a few years earlier. The picture showed the top of Momotombo wreathed in a cloud of smoke, suggesting that it had erupted.
The Frenchman got hold of ninety of these stamps.
A few days before the government was to take a final decision on the canal, each of the ninety senators who were to vote on it, found an envelope on their desk. It contained one of the Nicaraguan stamps and a message in Bunao-Varilla's handwriting: "Official witness to volcanic activity in Nicaragua."
It did the trick. The picture on the stamp made a strong impression on the senators. A few days later when the vote was taken, it was found that a majority of the senators were now in favour of the canal being built through Panama.
Work started on the canal in 1904. Thousands of men participated in the building of this massive waterway which was finally completed in 1914 at a cost of around 340 million dollars, an enormous sum in those days.
Today it is the world's busiest big ship canal and is a major source of revenue for Panama.