Paul Gauguin arrived in Panamá in June 1887. He was 37, practically destitute having gone from riches to rags as a broker, and in bad health. (Absinthe didn´t help.) His sister Marie was married to a Peruvian with business interests in Panamá city and Gauguin believed that, with his experience in banking, his brother in law would offer him a job and that he could then send for Mette and their five children. Years earlier a sailor had told him that the island of Taboga in Panama Bay was a true paradise, that land was as good as free and that fish and pineapples and coconuts could be had for nothing.
He wrote to Mette before his departure: "I´m taking my paints and brushes and will, living like a native, immerse myself far from mankind."
Unfortunately, the brother-in-law´s business was no more than a general store and the French canal-building project under the direction of Dr de Lesseps was already in big trouble. Malaria and yellow fever were killing thousands of the workforce every year. Landslides and explosions killed thousands more. (Most of the workers at that time were from the French-speaking islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe.)
Worse, the supposed paradise island of Taboga had been turned into a huge sanatorium run by the French Sisters of Charity and, to add insult to injury, was a day-trip destination for the French officials and their families escaping the oppressive heat of Panamá city. The price of land had soared and was already out of reach of Gauguin´s limited resources.
Charles Laval, the artist, who had travelled with Gauguin, started doing studio portraits of the wives and daughters of the French officials but Gauguin refused to do so. Instead he worked as a labourer on the canal, with the crews dynamiting through the Continental Divide at the Gaillard Cut. He wrote again to Mette: "I have to work from five-thirty in the morning to six in the evening under tropical sun and rain. At night I am devoured by mosquitoes."
A few weeks later, he was arrested (allegedly for urinating in a street, protesting that it was in any case an open sewer,) was imprisoned for a night or two, and fined. To compound his problems, he was then laid off before he had earned enough to get off the isthmus and return to France. On June 8th, with his dream of life in the tropics shattered, he left for Martinique where he promptly came down with amoebic dysentery and nearly died before being repatriated to France.
It would be several years before he could fulfil his dream of paradise when he moved to Tahiti and unleashed a totally new way of painting saturated with tropical colour.
(But what if, in fact, he did paint some as yet undiscovered masterpieces inspired by his stay on Taboga Island? That´s the seed that I´m working on at moment.)
De Lesseps´ dream of building the interoceanic canal also foundered around the same time. The French abandoned the canal amid financial and political scandals that shook and nearly bankrupted the entire country.
In 1904, the Americans stepped in (after engineering a "revolution" in which Panamá declared its independence from Colombia so that the USA could do a land grab and take control of the canal building). The work was mostly done by harshly treated, poorly paid and segregated Jamaicans and Barbadians.
The epic story of its building, the massive death tolls, the engineering and medical advances that the canal builders brought about, the struggle of the Panamanians to regain their autonomy : all these deserve to be remembered in this year of the canal´s centenary.
Happy 100th Birthday, Panamá Canal.
PS Will update with more photos...