A Brief History of Mexico’s Transoceanic Trade Route
Extractivismo: Oaxaca (2/9)

A Brief History of Mexico’s Transoceanic Trade Route

Since Columbus and Cortés, nearly every colonial expedition to the coasts of the Americas was driven by the desire to discover a passage linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and facilitate trade for the Spanish Crown. Five hundred years later, that dream will soon be realized.

“The mind is bewildered with the difficulty of embracing in one comprehensive view the astonishing consequences that would result from a communication between the two oceans, by means of which ships sailing from Europe will save two thousand leagues, and those from North America three thousand one hundred leagues [10,700 miles], in their voyage to the coasts on China. What an economy of time and money!”

–Survey of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, by José de Garay & Cayetano Moro, 1843   

Atlantic-Pacific Trade Routes. Published New York: J. Disturnell, 1851.
Atlantic-Pacific Trade Routes. A detailed survey of the Isthmus of Panama is located in the top right corner while Garay’s recently completed survey of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec is located in the bottom left. Published New York: J. Disturnell, 1851.

So enchanted by the possibility of bridging the Atlantic and Pacific oceans is José de Garay that he writes a letter to President Santa Anna proposing to self-finance an exhaustive survey of the route across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec and the construction of a railroad in exchange for 75 percent of profits for the next 30 years. He envisions a free trade zone spanning the isthmus, where goods from England, Brazil, and China can be transported across the continent in a single day, where industrial development will flourish and mining concessions will be open to foreign investors.

“A great revolution will take place in the commercial and even in the political affairs of all nations the instant America shall open the passage through any of her isthmuses,” writes Garay, noting the enormous economic advantages the project could yield for the newly independent Mexican Republic. But he is also careful to play to the vanity of his audience. “The epoch which shall see this effected will be more memorable than that of the discovery of this continent, and the name of him to whom the world shall owe this event will be at least as glorious as that of Columbus.”

Although Garay’s proposal is signed and ratified by agents of the Mexican and U.S. governments, tensions lingering from the annexation of Texas boil over and lead to the Mexican-American War, dooming the Garay route to failure. A series of subsequent attempts are undertaken over the next forty years, but they manage only to complete segments of the railway. Little more than a decade after the last railroad tie is driven into the ground, the Tehuantepec railway is rendered obsolete by the Panama Canal, which does, in fact, transform international shipping and global commerce for the next century.

rending of massive ship being pulled along a railway by trains
19th century rendering of the proposed 215-kilometer-long railroad that will span the Isthmus of Tehuantepec and connect commercial ports on the Pacific and Atlantic coasts.

On a calm evening ruptured by a symphony of cicadas, the candle-lit silhouette of Hernán Cortés hunched over his desk comes into view. The year is 1524 and the conquering marquis is drafting his fourth letter to 24-year-old Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain. Cortés writes in panegyrical prose, befitting his station as a subject of the Crown. But despite his deference, it is clear that he too considers himself a living god.

Several years have passed since he, six hundred Spaniards, and a legion of indigenous allies marched on Tenochtitlán and subjugated the mighty Aztec Empire. His obsession for glory, though, is unquenched, and Cortés’ letter to Charles V lays bare the conquistador’s fanatical desire to continue surveying the coasts of the American continent in search of a strait that will link the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and facilitate commerce between Spain and the East Indies.

“If the strait is found,” he writes, “I shall hold it to be the greatest service I have yet rendered. It would make the King of Spain master of so many lands that he might call himself the lord of the whole world.”

Like Garay more than three hundred years later, Cortés offers to personally finance the expedition in the name of Charles V. He informs the Emperor that he has already ordered the construction of four ships and instructed their captains to “continue their exploration of the [South American] coast as far as the land discovered by Magellan, whilst those to the North will pursue their route as far as the (phantom island of) Bacallaos.”

In the end, Cortés’ inexorable dream to discover the mythical Strait of Anián, believed by some to connect the Sea of Cortez with the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, evaporates when news arrives that Francisco de Ulloa’s ship has been lost, likely thrashed against the Pacific coast off Baja California.

17th century map of the North American coast with phantom islands and straits.
17th century map of North America depicting the continent’s unexplored interior and California as an island.

Not a century passes without renewed efforts to locate a transoceanic passage or an effective overland route. In the late 17th century, Willam Dampier, an English pirate and the only person to circumnavigate the globe three times, proposes a route from the Coatzacoalcos River on the Gulf of Mexico to the Tehuantepec River on the Pacific coast via a low-lying mountain pass on the border of Veracruz and Oaxaca. His proposal is noteworthy in that it is almost identical to the route of the 21st century Transistmico.

In 1774, military engineer and brigadier general Don Agustín Crame offers a revised plan in which he recommends damming the Almoloya and Citune rivers and joining the reservoirs via canal near a highland pass in the Sierra Madre. After crossing the mountains, he writes, the route will encounter “no further difficulties, because it is one perfect plain as far as Tehuantepec.”

By the mid-19th century, industrialization has produced advancements in technology and engineering that were previously unimaginable. José de Garay is a man of these times, and his interest in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec is shared by industrialists and empire-builders across Europe and the United States. Garay’s plan is ultimately undermined by a failure of diplomacy. Those who chase his dream succumb to staggering costs, limitations in engineering and the rugged terrain. When the railway is finally completed in 1894, the achievement is celebrated with a headline in The New York Times: “The Tehuantepec Railroad: An Important Mexican Enterprise Completed. A Line 130 Miles Long Connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans — Of Advantage to This Country.”

1906 New York Tribune article reporting on the construction of a modern harbor at Salina Cruz.

In September 2018, Mexican President López Obrador visited Juchitán, Oaxaca to announce a plan to modernize the crumbling Tehuantepec Railroad, pledging to allocate 1.1 billion pesos (US$58.5 million) from the 2019 budget to fund the project. The railway, which will link Coatzacoalcos on the Gulf of Mexico with Salina Cruz on the Pacific coast, is intended to be operational by 2021. Despite the commercial benefits that have been touted by López Obrador’s government, his announcement has been widely received with skepticism and condemnation.

Community resistance and violent reprisals have done little to convince the government of López Obrador that the Transistmico project should be reimagined or that local interests should be taken into account. Gustavo Esteva, the founder of Unitierra, and a collective of community organizers are responding by publishing a document entitled El Istmo Que Queremos (“The Isthmus We Want”) that they intend to send to the President’s office in the Spring of 2021. The result of years-long surveys, El Istmo Que Queremos will offer the most comprehensive account of the objections and alternatives expressed by communities that will be directly impacted by the various Transistmico development projects.

Repairs are already being made to the Tehuantepec Railroad and it seems likely that the dream shared by Cortés and de Garay will be realized in the years to come. What remains to be seen is how communities on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec will decide to negotiate their demands and what influence they will ultimately have in transforming the 21st century Transistmico into a project that they want.

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