Path of Empire: Panama and the California Gold Rush

Forty-niners eager to pan for gold in California had several routes to choose from in getting there: the arduous overland trek by covered wagon so often mythologized by Hollywood, the long sea voyage around Cape Horn, or the interoceanic Panamanian passageway, a path made more attractive by the remarkably quick construction by U.S. investors of the first transcontinental railroad. Writing in the now-trendy tradition of "cosmopolitan," or "world," history, McGuinness draws insightful comparisons and connections between the westward march in the United States, the dawn of U.S. imperialism in the Caribbean basin, and the emerging identity of "Latin America" as a construct in opposition to the theories driving northern expansionism. A superb storyteller, McGuinness artfully re-creates the famous (in Panama) 1856 "watermelon slice incident," and links the resistance of black Panamanians against U.S. encroachment to their fears of the antebellum pro-slavery filibusters who had seized Nicaragua a year earlier. Although ambivalent about the repercussions in Panama of global capitalism, McGuinness notes that it was Simón Bolívar who first proposed that someday Panama, which is today enjoying a major commercial trade and real estate boom, might become "the emporium of the world."

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