Caribbean Matters: The Panama Canal is a modern wonder of the world—built on racism

Caribbean Matters: The Panama Canal is a modern wonder of the world—built on racism

August 15 marked an anniversary that slipped by here in the United States with little notice, commemorating the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914. One of the largest feats of engineering in modern history and the jewel of Teddy Roosevelt’s presidency, the building of the canal was started by the French in 1881. After a series of disasters and change of hands, the United States formally took control of the canal property on May 4, 1904, after aiding and abetting a revolution that created “Panama” from what had been Colombia. 

While the successful completion of the canal was lauded as one of the major wonders of the modern world, the deaths of over 20,000 Black Caribbean workers who made the canal possible are simply a footnote of that history, if they are mentioned at all.

Caribbean Matters is a weekly series from Daily Kos. If you are unfamiliar with the region, check out Caribbean Matters: Getting to know the countries of the Caribbean.

I was reminded of this when I saw this tweet from Wayne Chen, who regularly posts Caribbean history on Twitter.

108 years ago today on 15 Aug 1914, the Panama Canal opened. One of the largest engineering projects in history; fundamentally changed global maritime trade. 50,000 workers from Jamaica, Barbados, Martinique, Trinidad, and other Caribbean islands were involved. Thousands died. pic.twitter.com/nNnRZyEt14

— Wayne Chen (@wcchen) August 15, 2022

What I did not remember ever being taught in school, when the Panama Canal was mentioned, was the thousands upon thousands of Caribbean workers whose labor and deaths made the canal project possible.

In 2020, this response to a remark by then-President Trump was posted by New York Daily News columnist Jared McCallister:

Knowing about the major contributions made by Caribbean laborers in the construction of the monumental Panama Canal, I had to respond to a recent claim by President Trump, boasting that Americans “dug out” the water-filled passage that linked the Atlantic and Pacific oceans — revolutionizing international maritime 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 Americans “dug out” the historic canal, when imported Caribbean workers worked and died while carving and blasting through more than 50 miles of sweltering, disease-ridden jungle to create  the important Atlantic-Pacific-linking waterway  — which made the time-consuming sea route around the southern tip of South America obsolete.

Reflecting on the prevalent racial discrimination in the U.S. at the time, all the black Caribbean and black American workers lived and labored under racially segregated designations — where whites were on the gold payroll and blacks were assigned to the silver payroll.

Olive Senior, who is the current poet laureate of Jamaica, also commented, referencing her 2014 book Dying to Better Themselves: West Indians and the Building of the Panama Canal.

The popular West Indian migration narrative often starts with the “Windrush Generation” in 1950s England, but in Dying to Better Themselves Olive Senior examines an earlier narrative: that of the neglected post-emancipation generation of the 1850s who were lured to Panama by the promise of lucrative work and who initiated a pattern of circular migration that would transform the islands economically, socially and politically well into the twentieth century.

West Indians provided the bulk of the workforce for the construction of the Panama Railroad and the Panama Canal, and between 1850 and 1914 untold numbers sacrificed their lives, limbs and mental faculties to the Panama project. Many West Indians remained as settlers, their descendants now citizens of Panama; many returned home with enough of a nest egg to better themselves; and others launched themselves elsewhere in the Americas as work beckoned.

Multimedia producer Dash Harris Machado posted this comment regarding the ugly erased history  of the canal:

Black folks built the Panama Canal. Among them my greatgrandpa. The IMAX movie at the visitors center narrated by Morgan Freeman, they make NO mention of the over 20K mostly Black workers that were killed during its almost impossible construction. Panama is an antiblack cesspool https://t.co/JuwUa1lrvz pic.twitter.com/DEGeRPMBQr

— Dash (@InADash) March 10, 2021

McCallister’s Daily News story mentions Roman Foster’s 1986 documentary film, The Diggers, as the source of his knowledge about the fate of West Indian workers, which Ken Forde from the Middle Passage Ceremonies and Port Markers Project describes here:    

About a quarter century ago, Roman Gabriel Foster, a young film-maker, considered making a documentary that would chronicle the contributions of young Caribbean men to the success of the building of the Panama Canal or the “Culebra Cut” as it was known during its construction

Foster, a Panamanian of Barbadian and Jamaican descent, was a history teacher in the public schools of the United States. He noticed that many of the stories that were written about the Panama canal and its history rarely, or never, mentioned the fact that many young black West Indian men were the back bone of that undertaking.

Growing up in Panama, Foster learned of the history of the West Indians and the canal by listening to the stories that were told by his grandfather and his friends who, at that time, were in their seventies and eighties. He noted that in Path Between the Seas by David McCullough there was little or no mention of the black men who worked and died there.

Foster later worked at a hotel frequented by Alex Hailey who he said finally bluntly told him, “Roman, I am 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.

Thanks to YouTube, a 15-minute clip from the film is currently available. Some of the West Indian survivors interviewed are also featured in the PBS documentary I’ve 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 of the interview clips from Foster’s work. One of the narrators was Dr. Carlos Russell, a longtime Black Panamanian activist in New York and former ambassador to the U.N. from Panama. (Russell was also one of my favorite professors at SUNY Old Westbury.)

If you have never seen this, I hope you will set aside time to watch the whole program (it’s close to 90 minites). 

Panama Canal features a fascinating cast of characters ranging from the indomitable Theodore Roosevelt, who saw the Canal as the embodiment of American might and ingenuity, to Colonel William Gorgas, an army doctor who instituted a revolutionary public health campaign that all but eradicated Yellow Fever, to the visionary engineers who solved the seemingly impossible problem of cutting a 50-mile long slice through mountains and jungle. The film also delves into the lives of the thousands of workers, rigidly segregated by race, who left their homes to sign on for an unprecedented adventure. In the Canal zone, skilled positions were reserved for white workers while a predominantly West Indian workforce did the backbreaking 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 firsthand accounts of life in the Canal zone, Panama Canal unravels the remarkable story of one of the world’s most daring and significant technological achievements.

The program didn’t shy away from discussion of the racism embedded in the canal project:

Narrator: Of all the challenges confronting John Stevens, none was so urgent as the need for workers. By his estimate, the canal project would generate some 20,000 jobs in 1906 alone. Of those, 5,000 were positions for skilled workers — blacksmiths, carpenters, drill operators, plumbers — and they were reserved for white U.S. citizens.

But the vast majority 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 had relied on West Indians for manual labor. Stevens had other plans.

Matthew Parker, Author: Stevens, when he’d done all his railway building in the United States, had mainly used Chinese labor. He considered that to be the best. When he got to Panama, he saw that the workforce was mainly West Indian, and he didn’t like or trust the West Indians at all.

Julie Greene, Historian: John Stevens wasn’t happy about relying on West Indians because he, you know, sharing in the racial beliefs of the day, he saw them as too lazy, not intelligent.

Narrator: Stevens kept up a continuous campaign to recruit elsewhere. He experimented with workers from Spain and Greece and Italy. But in the end, he had to take men wherever he could find them, and nowhere did he find more than in the nearby islands of the West Indies.

Egbert C. Leslie, Canal Worker: I landed here on the 21st of January, 1907. On the appearance of the place I felt like I’ll go right back home because everything looked so strange and there no different to being brought up at home so I felt like I’d go back home, but it wasn’t so easy to do that.

Narrator: Recruitment proved especially successful on the tiny island of Barbados, where jobs were scarce, pay was low and young men were an easy target for American advertising.

Marco A. Mason, Panamanian Council of New York: They created what was called the Panama Man, which was to get someone that went to Panama and bring him back and he will 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 monies in their pocket. And all the other guys in the plantation take a look and say, ‘boy I better go down to Panama and get mine too.’

John W. Bowen, Canal Worker: I had some friends and they always getting ready to go and they wanted me to go, and I joined them and I left from St. Lucy. Went to Bridgetown to the transportation office and I signed up there for a trip to the Canal.

I had no recognition of what was going to happen. I couldn’t conceive. I hadn’t yet seen the canal. I hadn’t yet seen no part of the operation until after I reached employment then I begun to realize what a stupendous affair this would be.

Carlos E. Russell, Writer: Panama was perceived as the way of getting riches, but what they did not know was the price that they had to pay to do that.

Narrator: The journey from Barbados took an average of eight to 10 days. Then came the shock of the canal zone. […]

Marco A. Mason, Panamanian Council of New York: They had shacks and they had bunk beds on all four walls. All four walls had bunk beds, three layers of bunk beds. Very harsh facilities. That was part and parcel of that type of society that was created.

Narrator: As the Barbadians soon learned, everything in the canal zone came down to how you were paid. Skilled workers — invariably white — received their wages in gold; unskilled workers — who were largely black — in silver. So-called Gold Roll employees enjoyed privileges such as paid sick leave and laundry service and holidays off. For Silver Roll employees, there was nothing of the kind. […]

William Daniel Donadio, Canal Worker Descendant: I remember my stepfather talking about it. It was a kind of a polished-up segregation. It didn’t say black and white, but you understood that if you weren’t a gold roller and you were a silver roller that 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 for black “colored.” In Panama they call it silver. With the segregation that was a whole dehumanizing strategy and that gave the moral justification for viewing them as beasts of labor.

Narrator: In the West Indies, Stevens had found exactly what he needed — a seemingly inexhaustible supply of men willing to endure harsh treatment and heavy physical labor in exchange for as little as 10 cents an hour. […]

Narrator: By the close of 1906, Stevens had a labor force of some 24,000 men at his disposal. And though he’d 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 by Guillermo Evers Airall, and this novel for young adults, Silver People: Voices from the Panama Canal by Margarita Engle.

Join me in the comments section below for more on the canal, and for the weekly Caribbean news roundup.

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