Caribbean Disease Environments and the French Canal Project in Panama

Lesson Plan from “Mapping the Americas” Syllabus

Kilian Harrer

Quick Description of the Class

The class is organized around an activity in which students will watch and engage with parts of a video that narrates the unsuccessful attempt of French engineers to build a canal across the Isthmus of Panama in the 1880s. I designed this 75-minute lesson as the second of two parts of a unit titled, “A Failure of Imperialism: The French Canal Project in Panama.” The course into which I incorporated this unit is mainly geared toward upper-level undergraduate students of history and geography and is called “Mapping the Americas: Geographies, Nations, and Empires between Alaska and Argentina (since ca. 1400).” The lesson outlined below might, however, also prove rewarding in courses focused on the history of Central/Latin America as a global crossroads or on the role of large-scale technological and infrastructural projects in modern world history.

Learning Objective

The primary learning objective of the lesson is for students to gain a firm understanding of the concept of “disease environment” as developed in J.R. McNeill’s book, Mosquito Empires: Ecology and War in the Greater Caribbean, 1620-1914 (Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010). McNeill uses the term “disease environment” to describe the set of ecological conditions that governed the repeated outbreaks and ravages of yellow fever and malaria between the Chesapeake and Northeastern Brazil in the 17th-19th centuries. This set of conditions includes massive slave labor, the importation of several mosquito species from Africa, monoculture plantation culture, imperial warfare, and the continual arrival in the region of people that were differentially immune to those two diseases.

Moreover, after the lesson, students should possess a reasonable basic knowledge about the French project to build a canal across the isthmus of Panama in the late 19th century, as well as the ability to apply the concept and broader implications (esp. regarding imperialism) of disease environments to cases such as the failed French canal-building enterprise. The main take-away from the lesson thus fits into a major theme of the course as a whole: the persistence—but also the occasional delusions—of imperial aspirations to redraw the borders and alter the geography of the western hemisphere.

Last but not least, students will hone their critical thinking skills by questioning the choices that have determined what the video used for the activity does and does not show its viewers.

Course Plan

In a semester consisting of 15 weeks, I place this lesson in Week 12. As already mentioned, it forms the second part of a two-part unit. Note that students need time to grapple with McNeill’s complex concept of disease environment. Therefore, this lesson builds on the previous one (the first half of the course unit) in which students will have familiarized themselves extensively with specific examples of the phenomena tied together by McNeill. They will have done so partly on the basis of the analyses presented in Mosquito Empires, partly using a primary source account by a traveler named Wolfred Nelson (see below, “Related Reading).

Related Reading

Click image for book review
Click image for book review

One reading assignment for the entire unit will be selections from McNeill (2010), namely Chapters 1 and 2 (pp. 1-62) as well as the section, “Immigration, Warfare, and Independence, 1830-1898: Mexico, the United States, and Cuba” from Chapter 7 (287-303). Although McNeill displays little interest in endeavors of mapping or geographical representations, he sets up the geopolitical importance of the Greater Caribbean in convincing ways and his discussion of disease environments is superb. The second reading assignment is Wolfred Nelson, Five Years at Panama. The Trans-Isthmian Canal (New York: Belford Company, 1889), 120-135 [Ch. XIV: “Vital Statistics – Cemeteries – Modes of burial and unburial – The isthmus considered as a disease producing and distributing centre”].

Student-Centered Activity

The student-centered activity at the core of the lesson is loosely inspired by the “video prediction” activity described in Therese Huston’s Teaching What You Don’t Know (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2009: 157-161). For this activity, I selected parts of a BBC production titled, “Seven Wonders of the World – Episode 5: the Panama Canal.” (Available online: It obviously does not meet any standards of scholarly rigor whatsoever, but the producers got at least most of the basic dates and facts right. Moreover, its dramatization and reenactment of neo-imperialist aspirations in and discourses about the Latin American tropics should not just be considered a weakness, but also an opportunity to elicit critical discussion (see below, section “Directions for Students”). Last but not least, it may also make for some good laughs, or at least I find myself constantly giggling at the French accent the producers thought necessary to insert.

Materials Needed

The only essential material needed for the activity is a video projector.


I start the lesson by introducing very briefly the main arguments made by McNeill in the assigned reading, so students understand the context framing the lesson (5 minutes). I then ask the students to come together in pairs and compile a list of factors they perceive to be relevant to the idea of disease environments (5-7 minutes). After asking some students to present their results and wrapping up the discussion (5-7 minutes), I transition to the case study of the French canal project, following up with a very rough contextualization of that engineering enterprise (10-12 minutes). This will involve touching on previous French presence in 19th-century Central America, most notably the intervention in Mexico under Napoleon III; briefly discussing patterns and increase of global trade during that period; and introducing the figure of Ferdinand de Lesseps.

Directions for Students

In this activity, we are going to watch—and think about—an introductory part of the documentary that shows the activities of Lesseps and his engineers from the presentation of the project to French publics and financiers until the first phase of canal-digging (in the Youtube video, this is the passage from 3:45 to 9:44). This is a chance for you to get familiar with the style and content of the production. More specifically, in order that you know what to look for in the video, I want you to pay attention to three aspects that will become important as we go on. Ask yourselves: How does the documentary portray Ferdinand de Lesseps? What roles do the French engineers on the one hand and the canal-diggers on the other hand get to play? And what do we learn about the natural environment in Panama?

(These questions will appear on a slide, and I ask students to write them down before we move from the PowerPoint presentation to the video. At 9:44, I stop the video.)

Now that you have a first impression, it is probably easy to guess that the French wound up failing to complete the canal and retreating from the isthmus. But we need to understand more precisely why this happened, and of course, you will also want to see how the rest of the story is told by that documentary. So I am going to give you a list of questions about the subsequent content of the video, and I would like you to gather in small groups of two or three and to predict the answers to those questions (8-10 minutes). These are the questions (on another PowerPoint slide):

  • What ultimately provoked the failure and withdrawal of the French?
  • How many years did the French spend in Panama trying to excavate a canal?
  • How high was the death toll of the entire enterprise?
  • What were the repercussions of the failure in France?
  • What happened in Panama after the French retreat?
  • What did the surviving workers do after losing their jobs as canal-diggers?

(After 8-10 minutes, the students should be done giving their educated guesses.)

Now we are ready to hopefully solve those mysteries by watching another six minutes of the movie. I will only show the parts from 9:44 to 11:20 (first discussion of the onslaught of fatal diseases) and from 18:00 to 22:13 (denouement of the affair), because the part in between deals with the crisis of the canal project in a way that would not help you to verify your predictions.

(Afterwards, we discuss to what extent and why the answers provided in the video match or do not match students’ expectations. Students will find that the video has told them nothing about the subsequent fate of workers, and likewise, that they have learned nothing about what happened in the entire isthmus region until the onset of the U.S. canal project at the beginning of the 20th century. Indeed, the documentary—including the part from 11:20 to 18:00—has nothing to say about where the “workforce” for the French project came from and how it had been recruited in the first place. I hope this will make students reflect critically upon the assumption of both 19th-century imperialists and present-day movie producers that the isthmus region was nothing but empty tropical space, waiting to be divided by unstoppable European engineers so the world might be more thoroughly united. This last part of the activity will take 10-15 minutes.)


To close the activity, I ask students to come up with any further questions they may have, before summarizing the main take-away point of the lesson: the power of disease environments to deflect, up until the very end of the 19th century, projects of conquest in the Greater Caribbean (after all, the protagonists of the video frame their undertaking as a “battle” against tropical nature!) and aspirations to radically modify the map as well as the geographical reality of that region.

Lesson Plan Slide DOWNLOAD

Lesson Plan DOWNLOAD

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