Saturday, February 2, 2013

Bajan & Jamaican laborers, Silver for gold, the Panama Canal & Voodoo scares racist

With the month of February here, there is a day of love

 approaching of which I have a special treat for my blog 

readers.  Still as this is early in the month which celebrates 

Black history, I have to take the time to speak on interesting 

but untold Black history.  Black doesn’t always stand for 

African, Black doesn’t even necessarily stand for American

, Black is not a complexion of a race of people.  Black does 

stand for the standard of appreciation that they were set at in a

 system to prevent this race of people from achieving equal

 success with others who at one time prevented their own race

 from achieving equal success by various means of pitfalls,

 conquering and unfair advantages.  This story presented for 

you now is the history of the Panama Canal being built from a

 group of wonderfully focused, hardworking people from a tiny 

Island in the West Indies, whose flag bears the colors of the 

sea and sun, and has the fork of Neptune (God of the Sea), the

 tiny Island of Barbados.  In 1975, Barbados was the only 

Black country to make the list as the world’s most-free 

nations, so it should come as no surprise that out of this nation

 came the largest group of workers to construct the Panama

 Canal.  At this time Panama was simply a small subsection of 


The first attempt to build the Panama Canal was by the French

 in 1888, only to end in failure.  In 1878, the Geographical 

Society of Paris negotiated a treaty with the Colombian 

government, which granted exclusive rights to the French to

 build an inter-oceanic canal through Panama, joining the 

Atlantic and Pacific oceans at the narrowest point of the 

Isthmus that joins North and South America.

In 1879 a number of proposals were put forward for its exact 

route. One design envisaged an artificial lake in Panama that 

would be accessed at either end by locks, but this was rejected

 in favor of a one-level sea-canal. The sea-canal was the 

choice of Ferdinand de Lesseps - of Suez Canal fame - who 

used his fame and position to make sure his choice was 

adopted. The company chosen to run the project was the 

French Compagnie Universelle.  Without the locks to keep the

 mighty ocean’s water controlled, it is easy to perceive why

 the French attempt to construct the Canal was a failure.

 The Compagnie Universelle realized the importance that the 

Panama railroad would have for their project, and so bought 

control of it in August 1881. This purchase costing more than

 $25 million dollars, used about a third of the resources 

available, and despite its key importance, the railroad was 

never properly used by the French engineers to move waste 

out of the way.  By 1883, the French had 20,000 laborers at 

work, but they had trouble digging up even a 10th of the 

2,000,000 cubic meters of earth called for in the company's

 projections, and the work was plagued by disasters. The 

French canal builders' quick excavation method of chopping 

the tops off hills in their path and piling the dirt on either side 

led to disastrous landslides.

 By 1884, yellow fever was killing 200 laborers each month.

 By 1887, the French had picked up the pace, but they were 

running out of money. 

The project collapsed two years later 

after a stock lottery garnered only a fraction of the $100 

million needed to continue.

By 1887, it was clear to the French that the sea-canal route 

would never work, and de Lesseps reluctantly agreed. A public

 subscription to raise funds for a revised project that year 

failed, and the shareholders of the French Panama Canal 

Company decided to dissolve it in early 1889. Later, 

Ferdinand and Charles de Lesseps were both indicted for 


After years of negotiation, the US Congress bought the Canal

 project from the French for $40 million dollars.  It was time 

for the United States to attempt to make the Panama Canal a 

reality. This is how an age old lie and misconception that 

Americans have built the Panama Canal came to form.  This is 

in no way the truth. America simply was the front money to 

the real estate deal for their economic benefit.  There are 

documented accounts, pictures, and even paychecks to prove 

this.  There are also accounts of 25,000 dead workers, to prove

 otherwise.  President Roosevelt spoke Panama into plotting its 

independence from Colombia under the protection of the U.S.

 army.  He paid Panama the money to pay off Colombia for its 

independence.  Then Roosevelt signed a treaty which gave 

American sovereignty over the zone of the Panama Canal.  

Panama had been suckered into selling out by the dream of 

independence and protection by the U.S.

Many may ask, “What is the wrong in having Black workers to 

build the Canal and rid the South American jungles of 

Mosquitoes?” this is a great feet.  The jobs of skilled workers

 were reserved for American Anglo Saxon workers.  None of

 the workers from any other waters than from the West Indies 

could survive.   The problem was that, Engineer John Stevens 

viewed Black workers as lazy and decided to incite a system 

of segregation known as “Gold member and Silver member”.

  These workers

 were never told

 that they would 

not be paid in 

gold because of 

their color and background.  These workers 

were made inferior by being paid in Sterling Silver.  Sterling

Silver was only accepted in inferior stores and there had to be

 significantly more Silver earned to pay for goods.  This 

practice of inferior wages doubled the work for Black canal

 laborers.  Sending of this silver back to families into the West

 Indian economy that used British pounds became more of a 

burden than a blessing. It also increased the value of gold and

 lowered the value of silver although assuring that silver would 

be traded regularly.  Silver paid employees received not sick 

leave, medical pay, or vacation.  This was segregation to

 dehumanize them.  This was inflicted by John Stevens an

 Anglo American engineer chosen to head the project was bred

 in American racist stereotype against any Black person.  Can 

you imagine the pain and insult in the soul and conscious of 

these Black workers?

 Most of the Canal's workforce during the US construction 

period in the early 20th century arrived in Panama from the

 West Indies, on board the steamship Cristobal.  The City of

 Colon, from its early history since the 1820′s, had been 

populated mainly by West Indian families. Many were 

associated with the Panama Railroad or the Panama Canal 

Zone. The Silver Roll, the ranks of the real working people of 

the nearby Canal Zone, reflected some important figures in my

 imaginary census of the students found at any of the public 

elementary and secondary schools of that time.

It was evident even then

 that, in many ways, the

 West Indians were in 

the majority. Overall, the

 visible numbers of black 

West Indian people 

outnumbered the Latinos

 and the mixtures within both and also the black and other

 people such as the Chinese, and East Indians. With

 backgrounds within all of the races it still appeared that West

 Indians overshadowed all other races in Panama right up until

 those times.

Panama's population was relatively sparse, and the Americans

 discovered that there was no surplus labor anywhere in the 

republic for the Canal's construction. It became clear that the 

higher grades of skilled labor would have to come from the 

United States, whilst for the rest of the workforce the islands 

of the Caribbean were a logical source.

However, the Caribbean governments were reluctant to allow

 recruiting, because at the end of the French period of 

construction, many of the West Indian laborers had been

 stranded in Panama, and they had to be repatriated at their

 governments' expense.

The Barbados government finally agreed to large-scale 

recruitment, however, and eventually there were some 19,900

 Barbadian laborers working on the Canal project. This was

 reportedly some 10 per cent of the population of Barbados,

 and nearly 40 per cent of the island's adult men. Later, 

workers were also recruited from Martinique and Guadeloupe.

Jamaica refused to allow any recruiting, and placed a tax of 

one pound sterling on anyone wishing to work in Panama. This

 meant that the Jamaican workers in Panama were mostly 

skilled workers, as only they could afford the tax.

 West Indian Laborers left over from the French effort and

 new Anglo American laborers were to begin work.  In 1905 

Bajan, and a few Jamaican workers were hired to fumigate the 

huge infestation of mosquitoes of the Panamanian jungles. In 

1909, 1500 laborers arrived from the tiny Island Barbados of

 the West Indian sea, into the Cristobal, port in Colon, 

Panama.  The Gaillard Cut began construction from 1907 and 

proceeded until 1913.  The men worked 14 hour shifts and 

lived in make shift villages in the jungle. 

With the outbreak

 of yellow fever 

taking lives and 

many West

 Indian workers and local tribes feeling this brotherhood of 

companionship, poverty, family and everyday living together,

 the West Indian workers and the local Indian tribes began a 

show of black magic that scared the Anglo American workers

 so bad that they began to flee Panama in the hundreds.  Today

 these West Indian and local Indian tribes are celebrated in the 

Panama Carnivals.  This caused for visits by none other than

 President Roosevelt himself, after which engineer John 

Stevens decides to quit.  

George Washington Goethals of the

 American Army Engineer Corp took over.

 Gold wage workers decided that they were entitled to a 40%

 raise and decided to strike.  Goethals deported these workers 

and any others asking for wage increase.

 The Gaillard Cut was needed to link the artificial Gatun Lake

 with the Pedro Miguel and Miraflores locks that brought ships

 into the Canal from the Atlantic. The Cut represented the 

Canal builders' biggest challenge because although it is only 

13.7 kilometers or 8 miles long, it required the digging of a 

channel through Panama's highland region, the Continental 

Divide. This channel had to be dug into hard rock and shale, 

rather than into soft earth.  More than a hundred million cubic

 yards of disposable rock resulted from the Culebra Cut, and it

 all had to be dumped. Part of it was used to join a series of

 four small islands in Panama Bay, to create a breakwater. 

More was used to claim nearly 500 acres from the Pacific 

Ocean, on which the town of Balboa was built and the rest was

 taken to big waste dumps in the jungles of Panama. In January

 1913, a huge landslide at Cucaracha caused 2,000,000 cubic 

yards of earth to spill into the Cut. It was then decided to flood

 it, in order to finish constructing the channel by dredging. The

 last steam shovel lifted the last rock on 10 September 1913, 

and in that same week, six huge water pipes at Gamboa were 

opened, allowing the Cut to be partially flooded.

On 10 October, 1913, the US President Woodrow Wilson 

pressed a button in Washington - sending the signal to Panama

 to blow out the dyke that separated the Cut from Gatun Lake 

to the west, and allowed water to completely flood the Cut for 

the first time. Then on 10 December 1913, the old French 

dredger Marmot opened up the channel for shipping for the

 first time by clearing the remaining waste from the channel's


 West Indian Silver wage workers would be killed.  They 

would spend their Sundays removing parts of their friends and

 family from the ruble being cleared for the Canal Project.  

The collection of their friends, and family members, still bring

 tears to the eyes of the elders who tell the story.  Eventually, 

Goethals extended the railroad tracks out to Mt. Hope 

Cemetery, so that the bodies could be exposed of easier.  

When one of their workers died, the family and friends would

 drink rum, and wale out old English gospel hymnals to the 

deceased while the fire burned through the night hours.  This 

practice would curl the flesh of the Anglo families and 

workers.   The Anglo Americans swore that it was the dance of

 the witches, putting a curse on them for their wrongs.  Anglo

 Americans came and left frequently. 

To keep the Anglo 

Americans, the American 

government tried to keep

 them as comfortable as

 possible, investing in baseball games, town halls, restaurants,

 banquet halls.  Still there were no unions allowed or freedom

 of speech.

 Most West Indians that built the Canal went onto new homes

 in the West Indies and South American countries with not 

much more money than they left Barbados with when the first

 went into Panama.  This is why most Bajans share the same 

Grandparents or Abuelos as others from South American

 Countries, like Panama, Colombia, Honduras, Belize, etc.

For repatriation of West Indians who had labored on the 

Panama Canal, many of the points in the workers’ contracts

 had been violated, particularly with regard to their work 

hours, wages and overtime promised , medical benefits, and 

the fact that few workers ever saw their earnings report 

throughout their experience with the ICC. By the same token,

 not included in the statistics are the salient facts attached to

 the U.S. government’s dealings with this large group of people

 (as opposed to machinery).

A great many repatriates were being “shipped back” in 

pathetic physical condition with numerous infirmities after 

having been, literally, worked to death. Also, for too many,

 repatriation would mean the end of the flow of Panamanian 

Silver dollars back to their home towns, making them now an 

unwelcome burden instead of an asset for their island 


During the period between 1914 and 1921, a total of 13,319 

West Indians were repatriated, but during that same period 

9,070 (new workers) arrived on the Isthmus. Although the 

Canal authorities repatriated those laborers who were 

unemployed to the Islands of Barbados and Jamaica, it is said 

that many “arranged,” somehow, to return to the Isthmus since

 Panama did not have restrictive immigration laws at that time.

After apprising themselves of this trend, Canal Authorities 

“suggested” to the government of Panama and the local British

 authorities that they had to adopt pertinent measures to stop 

this immigration by West Indians. The growth of the West 

Indian population in the Canal Zone and the cities of Panama

 and Colon at both ends of the Canal exceeded the necessity 

for manual labor and with the reduction of labor in the Canal 

as well as in the business sectors in Panama, in general, 

unemployment worsened, as much for the West Indians as for

 the Panamanians.

In trying to lessen the problem in 1933 Panama appealed to 

the U.S. Department of State arguing that the government of 

the United States had a great interest in the repatriation of the

 “foreign elements” it had brought to Panama and which had

 invariably become elements of competition for Panamanian

 workers and a burden for the government of the Republic of

 Panama.  On February 24, 1933, Dr. Ricardo J. Alfaro

Minister of Panama in Washington, had an interview with the

 Secretary of State of the United States, Henry L. Stimson, in 

which he explained to him the difficult situation in which the 

Panamanian worker as much as the national government had 

been placed with the presence in Panama and Colon of a great

 number of foreign workers who had arrived on the Isthmus 

under contract who, in their majority, were West Indian. 

 Minister Alfaro asked the Department of State to favorably

 consider the recommendations of governors Harry Burgess 

and Julian L. Schley that the U.S. Senate move to allocate 

B/.150, 000 to repatriate these foreign workers.

The governors of the Canal insisted on the fact that the excess

 of West Indian “elements” in the terminal cities constituted a

 liability to Panamanian interests and to relations between 

Panama and the United States and that it was advisable, for the

 joint interests of both governments, to apply remedies that 

were advisable and practical to the situation.

The continued insistence on the part of the Panamanian 

government produced its expected results in 1934 when the

 Congress of the United States authorized an allocation of

 $150,000 to repatriate the unemployed West Indians and their

 families who had offered at least three years of service to the

 government of the United States or to the Panama Railroad 

Company. In addition to boat passage, a sum of B/.25.00 was 

paid to each unmarried man and B/.50.00 to those men with 


Immediately upon allocation of the said amount, 2,723 people

 were repatriated, amongst these l, 660 employees and 1,063 

members of their families. Once this sum was spent an 

additional B/.50, 000 was allocated in 1950 to continue with

 the program.  Between 1904 and 1953 the government of the 

United States repatriated 22,901 people from the Panama 

Canal Zone.

Today we have

 those families that have remained in Panama

 of West Indian descent calling themselves the "Silver 

Community".  They pursue equal rights.  They demand to be

 counted by Census, and be paid equal fair wages.  They take

 pride in their West Indian as well as Latino culture and 


I myself am always content in wearing Silver jewelry instead

 of Gold.  You can check out any of my links of research usage

 for this story, if you’re eager to check out the story for