A brief history of non-US attempts to build a Nicaraguan Canal

Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, 19th century Wang Jing?

Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, 19th century Wang Jing?

Two weeks ago, Chinese company HKND finally announced the route of their $50 billion canal for which they were awarded a generous 50 year concession from the Nicaraguan government last summer.

Many, both here and abroad, are holding their breath. Given the government’s lack of transparency in its dealings as well as the sketchy background of Hong Kong entrepreneur Wang Jing, many observers have expressed their doubts as to whether or not the project will actually see the light of day. Moreover, history suggests that Nicaraguans should be cautious — as readers will likely remember, the United States came agonizingly close on several occasions to fulfilling their decades-long ambition to build a canal through Nicaragua before finally opting to build one in Panama instead.

Wang Jing, however, is certainly not our first canal dreamer that doesn’t hail from the United States. Here are some highlights from the colorful and little-known history of non-US actors that have seriously pursued digging an inter-oceanic route through Nicaragua.

Great Britain. 

Shortly after Spain lost control of its territorial possessions in Central America, Jeremy Bentham — prominent liberal philosopher and intellectual father of utilitarianism — devised a wacky plan for building a Nicaraguan canal. In 1822, he drafted a proposal in which a private company financed by British investors would purchase the necessary land from Mexico (at the time, Nicaragua formed part of a short-lived Mexican empire). Not only would this joint-stock company build a canal linking the Pacific Ocean to the Río San Juan, it would also create a new state — “Junctiana” — on the Mexican land grant. The proposed utilitarian utopia would request military backing from the US navy. Unfortunately for Bentham, the Junctiana plan became obsolete almost as quickly as it was written. In 1823, Central America seceded from Mexico and the proposal therefore became unworkable.

Official British interest in the Nicaraguan canal persisted until tensions with the United States over the issue boiled over in the 1840s and 50s, nearly producing a naval conflict between the two Atlantic powers.

Belgium and the Netherlands.

In 1825, after attending Simon Bolívar’s Panama Congress, a Belgian man named General Werweer became so enthused by the idea of a trans-isthmian route that he went back to his home country to establish a company which would bring the canal to fruition. In 1829, he returned to Nicaragua with the backing of King William of Holland and successfully sought a concession. The next year, however, the Belgian Revolution (in which the southern provinces of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands seceded and created the independent Belgian state) permanently interrupted these little-known plans.


After failing to take the French throne in a comical plot in 1840, Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte (nephew and heir of Napoleon Bonaparte) spent a number of years in prison in which he had ample time to dedicate to his intellectual pursuits. One of them was a little pamphlet entitled,  “the Canal of Nicaragua, or a Project for the Junction of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans by means of a Canal.” His plan was surprisingly detailed: like many other proposals, the canal would make use of the Río San Juan, but ships would then travel through Lake Nicaragua, up the Tipitapa River, across Lake Managua, and to the Pacific at El Realejo. The plans were advanced enough that a Nicaraguan diplomat even travelled to his prison fortress in France to sign a concession agreement.

Louis-Napoleon later escaped from prison and took advantage of the French Revolution of 1848 in order to maneuver himself into the French Presidency. While he presumably became too busy ushering in the Second French Republic to pursue his own canal plans, in the following decade a mysterious and forgotten frenchmen named Félix Belly appeared in the wake of the Central American wars of the 1850s.

Belly was received as an official diplomatic representative from France upon his arrival in Costa Rica in 1858, yet it’s unclear the extent to which he was actually backed by Louis Napoleon (now known as Emperor Napoleon III) and the French government. Belly, having secured financial backing from reputable French capitalists such as Credit Mobilier, was able to convince the Costa Rican and Nicaraguan presidents, until then at war, to sign a treaty which awarded a 99 year concession to Belly. He would build a canal along the Río San Juan which would form a jointly controlled border between Nicaragua and Costa Rica, and which would be protected militarily by the French.

This notion obviously angered the US government, which had already gone to great lengths to prevent the British from building a canal there. Belly’s half-baked efforts got as far as him leading a delegation of engineers to found a city and begin survey work for the canal. Eventually, he failed to secure adequate financial backing, the Nicaraguans refused to ratify the embarrassing concession their President had signed, and his plans were officially killed when President Juan Rafael Mora of Costa Rica, his main friend in Central America, was overthrown and executed in 1860.


 Famed German scientist and statesmen Alexandre von Humboldt, after traveling through Latin America at the beginning of the 19th century, wrote extensively of the potential benefits of an interoceanic route on the Central American isthmus. Of all the routes he identified, he saw the Nicaraguan one as ideal because it offered a sea-level route which wouldn’t require locks. Upon reading his report in 1827, the playwright Johann Wolfgang Goethe became enamored with the idea of a Nicaraguan canal, and prophesied that the United States would be the one to build it, albeit not in his lifetime. He got it half-right, of course.

Edging closer to the 20th century, German diplomats became worried that as French engineers bungled the project they started in Panama, the US would maneuver to win unilateral control over the Panama Canal. Meanwhile, liberal-nationalist President José Santos Zelaya, angered by the US decision to purchase the French canal concession at Panama rather than opting to build a new project in Nicaragua, decided to court the Germans and even the Japanese for a Nicaraguan canal. Not only did he meet with little success, but his negotiations with extra-hemispheric powers did not bode well for his longevity as President. Many historians cite these efforts as one of the principal reasons that relations with Washington deteriorated, ultimately resulting in US participation in the overthrow of the Zelaya regime as well as the long Marine occupation of the country. Having already begun work on the Panama canal and refusing to allow the possibility of another foreign power building a strategic waterway through Central America, the United States signed the Chamorro-Bryan Treaty in 1916 with Nicaraguan conservatives, offering them political and military support in exchange for the 99-year exclusive right to any canal built through the country. US President Richard Nixon abolished the treaty in 1970 as a goodwill gesture to the Somoza regime.


Given how little we really know about HKND’s project, it’s obviously too soon to draw any major comparisons with any of these episodes. However, a little historical perspective is useful for the context it provides.

First, it’s worth being aware of just how many times Nicaragua has seen foreign actors, not just the government and capital of the United States, come close to building a canal through Nicaragua. In the 19th century, famous thinkers and shadowy businessmen alike drew up routes for a canal, sought funding, and even won concessions from the national government. Those canals came, went, and perhaps most importantly — were forgotten.

Second, this brief history shows that many of the pretensions to build a Nicaraguan canal have only gotten as far as the United States allowed them. Today, the Obama administration has stayed conspicuously silent on the Chinese project, even as evidence mounts of potential Russian involvement. The United States have been the true owners of the Nicaraguan-canal-that-wasn’t; this history suggests that we should be anxious to see how Washington reacts as the drama unfolds.

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