The trinidad Guardian / The circumstances are vastly different today as a shipment of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) left T&T for the Panama Canal. One hundred and sixty-six years ago, West Indian labour, craftsmen, teachers, policemen ventured to the Central American Isthmus to blast open a canal to create a trade route to the Pacific Ocean communities of the northern hemisphere. 

In 1850, 16 years after Emancipation, West Indians languishing in the island communities to find work and higher paying jobs to “better themselves” after the trauma and displacement of slavery, contracted themselves out to build the canal. It was an adventure into the unknown.

Once in Colon, Panama’s second city, the West Indians found the conditions perilous; intractable forest with death-spreading mosquitoes; unimaginably horrid working and living conditions; racism (concentrated and institutionalised when the Americans took over canal construction by the turn into the 20th century) estrangement from families; but harbouring a desperate need to avoid the starvation and stagnation experienced in the islands. 

A recent news story stated very matter-of-factly, that a cargo of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) from T&T was to be taken through a widened and modernised Panama Canal for use on the Pacific coast of Mexico. The export of LNG from T&T through the modern canal marks a significant and understandable departure from the export of labour and skills which started in the 19th century. 

The story of West Indian involvement in the construction of the Panama Canal, not a well-known one, is detailed in Olive Senior’s Dying to Better Themselves. Going to Panama, other Central American countries and Cuba was part of the migration outwards which initiated the modern West Indian Diaspora. 

That early migration also included white and ethnically-mixed West Indian migrants. 

“The wave of migration to Panama and elsewhere starting in 1850 can be said to constitute a major component of our West Indian epic, the story of our forebears’ struggles to transcend their brutal inheritance of slavery, poverty and neglect to better themselves; the Panama Man the Colon Man remains the mythical embodiment of the traveler of those times,” states Senior.

The author calculates that over 31,000 West Indians went to Panama during the American construction of the Canal-1904-1913. Many thousand others had gone between 1850 and 1890, the period of the French venture, and after into the 1920s.

First the West Indian labourers drove back nature to construct the railroad to transport people and materials along the Isthmus to eventually facilitate construction of the canal.

Thousands died in the railroad effort and during the actual canal construction by American enterprise. Life was cheap and death was no hindrance to the blasting by dynamite to move rock out of the ground. But as life-threatening as the task proved to be, the West Indians went and those who returned home after a stint were known as the “Colon man a come with him watch chain a lick him belly…ask him for the time and he look upon the sun,” captured in the Jamaican folk song.

Senior also cites the case of several middle-class West Indians who emerged out of the Panama experience and built successful business and professional careers once back home.

The social and economic conditions of discrimination and unfair exploitation of West Indian labour brought West Indians face-to-face with what white America had practiced at home for a couple hundred years: lower wages for blacks, really desperate and disease-riddled living conditions, access to poor education facilities and teaching staff for West Indian children and all the rest that came out of white America.

In the post-construction period, black West Indians were legally discriminated against by American laws which governed the Canal Zone and also had to contend with native Panamanians seeking to assert themselves and lay claim to their territory.

“The reality of Zone life was such that remuneration was tied not to the quantity or quality of a man’s work but to the race and geographical origin of the man,” observes Senior. The author records the birth of the West Indian labour movement in Panama and up the Isthmus and the role it played in the mobilisation of workers in the West Indies in the early 20th Century.

The doctrine and vision of Marcus Mosiah Garvey, having himself been a worker in Costa Rica and having paid a visit to Panama in the early 1920s where he ignited crowds with his rhetoric of black pride, was part of the effort.

Today, the descendants of the West Indians who travelled to Panama have spread up and down Central America. On a trip to Costa Rica, I encountered these unorthodox Spanish-speaking black men, and when they switched to English to accommodate this non-Spanish-speaking West Indian, their accents were decidedly West Indian; undoubtedly descendants of the Colon Man who stayed behind.

In the San Andres Island off Colombia, Panama, originally being part of Colombia, the natives grew up on Kitchener, Sparrow and Bob Marley and the West Indianess of the culture cannot be missed. Again, it is not well-known that the great George “Atlas” Headley, who established and carried West Indian batsmanship on his shoulders before World War 11, was born in Panama from the loins of Jamaicans in the West Indian Diaspora. 

As we celebrate Emancipation, there is a West Indian Diaspora and history on the Central American Isthmus we need to be aware of. 

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