I was reminded of this when I saw this tweet from Wayne Chen, who regularly posts Caribbean history on Twitter.
What I didn’t remember being taught in school when referring to the Panama Canal were the thousands of Caribbean workers whose toil and deaths made the canal project possible.
In 2020, this response to a comment by then-President Trump was posted New York Daily News Columnist Jared McCallister:
Knowing about the great contribution made by Caribbean workers in the construction of the monumental Panama Canal, I had to respond to a recent claim by President Trump, boasting that Americans “dug” the water-filled passage that connects the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Connects — revolutionary in international sea travel.[…]
Yes, the U.S. paid for the successful construction, but in his recent speech at his Tulsa, Okla., campaign rally, Trump seemed to say that Americans had “dug” the historic canal, when imported Caribbean workers used to and died carving and blasting. More than 50 miles of scorched, disease-riddled forest to create the vital Atlantic-Pacific-linking waterway—which made the time-consuming sea route around the southern tip of South America obsolete.
Reflecting the racial discrimination prevalent in America at the time, all black Caribbean and black American workers lived and worked under racially segregated positions – where whites were paid gold and blacks were paid silver. was appointed to
Olive Senior, Jamaica’s current poet laureate, also commented, citing her 2014 book. Dying to Better Yourself: West Indians and the Building of the Panama Canal.
Popular West Indian migration narratives often begin with “windrush generation” in England in the 1950s, but in Dying to better yourself Olive Sr. examines an older narrative: that of the neglected post-1850s generation who were lured to Panama by the promise of lucrative work and who began a pattern of circular migration that transformed the islands economically, socially and Will change politically for good. twentieth century
West Indians provided most of the labor for the construction of the Panama Railroad and the Panama Canal, and between 1850 and 1914 countless people sacrificed their lives, limbs, and mental powers for the Panama Project. Many West Indians remained settlers, their descendants now citizens of Panama; Many returned home with nest eggs to better themselves; And others launched themselves as signs of work elsewhere in America.
Multimedia producer Dash Harris Machado posted this comment about the canal’s ugly erased history:
McCallister’s daily news The story mentions Roman Foster 1986 documentary film, diggersAs a source of his knowledge of the fate of West Indian workers, Ken Forde from the Middle Passage Ceremonies and Port Markers Project describes here:
About a quarter of a century ago, Roman Gabriel Foster, a young filmmaker, considered making a documentary that would chronicle the contribution of young Caribbean men to the success of the construction of the Panama Canal, or the “Culebra Cut,” as it was then known. used to go Its construction
Foster, a Panamanian of Barbadian and Jamaican descent, was a history teacher in public schools in the United States. He noticed that many of the stories written about the Panama Canal and its history rarely, if ever, mentioned the fact that many young black West Indian men were the backbone of that enterprise.
Growing up in Panama, Foster learned about West Indians and the history of the canal by listening to stories told by his grandfather and his friends, who were then in their seventies and eighties. He noted that in The path between Sis David McCullough made little or no mention of the black men who worked and died there.
Foster later worked at a hotel frequented by Alex Haley who eventually told him, “Roman, I’m tired of hearing you talk about this dream. Stop talking and do something about it.”
The Barbados Government Information Service hosted a screening of the film in 2015.
A 15-minute clip of the film is currently available, thanks to YouTube. Some of the West Indian survivors interviewed are also featured in the PBS documentary I have posted below:
In 2011, PBS aired a documentary, panama canal, As part of its American Experience series covering the building of the canal and the politics behind it, using some interview clips from Foster’s work. Dr. one of the narrators. There was Carlos Russell, a longtime black Panamanian activist in New York and former ambassador to the United Nations from Panama. (Russell was one of my favorite professors at SUNY Old Westbury.)
If you’ve never seen it, I hope you’ll take the time to watch the entire program (it’s close to 90 minutes).
the panama canal An interesting cast of characters, from the amazing Theodore Roosevelt, who saw the canal as an embodiment of American strength and ingenuity, to Colonel William Gorgas, an army doctor who launched a revolutionary public health campaign that eradicated yellow fever. has presented Visionary engineers who solved the seemingly impossible problem of cutting a 50-mile long slice through mountains and forests. The film also depicts the lives of thousands of workers, strictly segregated by race, who left their homes to sign up for an unprecedented adventure. In the canal zone, skilled positions were reserved for white workers while a predominantly West Indian workforce performed manual labor, cutting brush, digging ditches, and loading and unloading equipment and supplies. Using an extraordinary archive of photographs and footage, rare interviews with canal workers, and first-hand accounts of life in the canal zone, the panama canal Uncovers the remarkable story of one of the world’s most daring and significant technological achievements.
The program did not shy away from discussing the racism involved in the canal project:
Narrator: Of all the challenges facing John Stevens, the need for labor was not the most pressing. According to his estimates, the canal project would create about 20,000 jobs in 1906 alone. Of these, 5,000 positions were for skilled workers – blacksmiths, carpenters, drill operators, plumbers – and were reserved for white American citizens.
But most of the jobs in the canal zone were unskilled. Thousands of men were needed to cut brush, dig ditches, load and unload equipment and supplies. The French depended on West Indians for manual labor. Stevens had other plans.
Matthew Parker, Author: Stevens, when he did all his railway building in the United States, used mainly Chinese labor. He considered it the best. When he arrived in Panama, he found that the workers were mainly West Indians, and he did not like or trust West Indians at all.
Julie Green, Historian: John Stevens was not happy to trust the West Indians because they, you know, shared the racial beliefs of the time, he saw them as very lazy, not intelligent.
Narrator: Stevens continued to campaign to recruit elsewhere. He experimented with workers in Spain and Greece and Italy. But in the end, he had to take men wherever he could find them, and nowhere more so than in the nearby islands of the West Indies.
Egbert c. Leslie, Canal Worker: I landed here on January 21, 1907. At the look of the place I felt like I would go back home straight away because everything looked so strange and no different from being raised at home, so I felt like I would. Back home, but it wasn’t so easy to do.
Narrator: Recruitment proved particularly successful on the small island of Barbados, where jobs were scarce, wages were low and young Americans were an easy target for advertising.
Marco A. Mason, Panamanian Council of New York: They created what was called the Panama Man, which was to get somebody who went to Panama and bring him back and he would be the advertiser. And what he came back – when he came back to Barbados from Panama, he came back with white trousers, white jacket, gold teeth, Panama hat, a big smile and money in his pocket. And all the other boys in the garden take one look and say, ‘Boys I’ll go to Panama and get mine too.’
John W. Bowen, canal worker: I had some friends and they were always ready to go and they wanted me to go, and I joined them and I left St. Lucie. Went to the Bridgetown Transportation office and signed up for the canal trip there.
I didn’t know what was going to happen. I could not conceive. I had not yet seen the canal. I had not yet seen any part of the operation until I got to the job so I began to realize what a wonderful affair it would be.
Carlos E. Russell, Author: Panama was seen as a way to get rich, but what they didn’t know was the price they had to pay to do so.
Narrator: The voyage from Barbados took an average of eight to 10 days. Then there was the shock of the canal zone. […]
Marco A. Mason, Panamanian Council of New York: They had huts and had bunk beds on all four walls. There were bunk beds on all four walls, three layers of bunk beds. Very strict facilities. It was part and parcel of the kind of society that was created.
Narrator: As Barbadians soon found out, in the Canal Zone everything came down to how you got paid. Skilled workers—always white—received their wages in gold; Unskilled workers — who were mostly black — in silver. So-called Gold Roll employees enjoyed privileges such as paid sick leave and laundry service and vacation leave. For Silver Roll employees, there was nothing of the sort. […]
William Daniel Donadio, Canal Worker Descendant: I remember my stepfather talking about it. It was a kind of polished-up separation. It doesn’t say black and white, but you understood that if you weren’t a gold roller and you were a silver roller, you were on the black side.
Marco A. Mason, Panamanian Council of New York: It worked exactly like it worked in the United States. In the states, they called the system “colored” for blacks. In Panama they call it silver. With isolation which was a completely dehumanizing strategy and which gave the moral justification to view them as labor animals.
Narrator: In the West Indies, Stevens found what he needed—an inexhaustible supply of men willing to endure harsh treatment and heavy physical labor for less than 10 cents an hour. […]
Narrator: By the end of 1906, Stevens had a workforce of about 24,000 men. And though he never wanted them, more than 70 percent were West Indians.
For some further reading I suggest, Silver and Gold: Untold Stories of Immigrant Life in the Panama Canal Zone with Guillermo Evers Airl, and This novel for young adults, Silver People: Voices from the Panama Canal with Margarita Engel.
Join me in the comments section below for more on the canal, and for the weekly Caribbean News Roundup.