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West Indians and the Building of the Panama Canal

 

123SS Kroonland transits the Panama Canal on February 2, 1915.  Largest passenger ship to date to transit the canal.

 

May 14, the DC premiere of the film Panama Stories will be presented at IDB headquarters.  The film will feature five stories based on the lives of everyday people affected by the Canal over the course of 100 years.  Producers Pablo Schverdfinger and Pituka Ortega as well as Jamaican writer Olive Senior will be at the showing.

In 1833, the British Emancipation Act abolished slavery throughout the British Empire. With the onset of the construction of the Panama Railroad in 1850, thousands of Caribbean West Indians began to migrate en masse in search of a better life. Caribbean West Indians came to Panama in the 1850’s to help build the railroads and an even larger wave began to arrive in the 1880’s to begin construction on the canal.  It is recorded that under French control of the canal project 12,875 laborers were on the payrolls of which 10,844 were British West Indians:  9,005 Jamaicans, 1,344 Barbadians and 495 St. Lucians1.

Caribbean West Indians lured by the opportunity of lucrative work and the promise of wealth were confronted by a very different reality upon arrival in Panama. Workers held many different jobs in the canal zone and they were faced with appalling living conditions, disease, and rugged terrain. The foreign owned corporations building the Panama Canal established segregated communities which later caused conflicts in Spanish speaking Catholic Panama.  The Caribbean West Indians were English speaking Protestants who were of African descent yet class conscious British subjects.  In 1920, six years after the completion of the Canal, authorities estimated that there were 70,000 West Indians in Panama.

But the clash of cultures, a 1926 restrictive immigration law and the Great Depression caused many of these West Indians to be on the move again.

Do you know some of the descendants and where they are today?  Could you be one of them?

 

[1] Dying to Better Themselves: West Indians and the Building of the Panama Canal, Author, Olive Senior – September 30, 2014

 

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9 Comments

  • avatar image
    Anne Thornley-Brown
    March 17, 2016 Reply

    I am one of the descendants. I was born in Jamaica and I am based in Toronto. My great grandfather had 2 work terms from Feb. 16, 1905 - Dec. 1, 1906. I learned about it when I found his obituary on-line and later his employment record. He worked in Culebra in the Engineering Department.

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      Britne
      July 13, 2016 Reply

      hey i'm also Jcan & interested in finding out more about my great grandfather who worked on the Canal but i'm not surehow to. How did you find the obituary for your relative?

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    Diana Logan
    March 17, 2016 Reply

    My grandfathers were all migrants to Panama (2 from Barbados and 1 from Jamaica) and worked for the Panama Canal Company; but were not involved in the actual construction of the Panama Canal. One of them worked at the printing press in Mount Hope; one was a fireman on the railroad and the other worked on the locks. I also have other relatives who migrated from Barbados; who were employed at The administration building in Balboa Heights (one was a messenger, and his son was an accountant).

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    monica rene
    March 18, 2016 Reply

    My Jamaican grandfather went to Panama to work on this canal. As a child I remember him talking about it. I would like to know more about what happened there, as matter of ancestral history, etc.

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    Sandra Taitt-Eaddy
    March 18, 2016 Reply

    I am a descendant and a genealogist who help persons who are seeking to identify their Bajan ancestry. This includes Barbadians of Panamanian descent. I was in Panama for the 100th anniversary events last year.

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    Anita Hunte
    March 18, 2016 Reply

    I am the granddaughter of one such immigrant who traveled to Panama and was involved in helping to build the canal. Unfortunately,he was killed while working on the project. His wife's name was Rhoda Hunte and she was in her eighth month of pregnancy at the time of his death. She immediately returned to Barbados where my mother was born. (Not sure but seem to recall hearing his given name was Charles.) He originated from St. Phillip in Barbados and I would love to be able to trace his family. Have never been able to locate anyone that was related to this gentleman. My sister, brother and I remain the only grandchildren he would have had. We have always longed to get to know his family.

  • avatar image
    Anita Hunte
    March 18, 2016 Reply

    I am the granddaughter of one such immigrant who traveled to Panama and was involved in helping to build the canal. Unfortunately, he was killed while working on the project. His wife's name was Rhoda Hunte and she was in her eighth month of pregnancy at the time of his death. She immediately returned to Barbados where my mother was born. (Not sure but seem to recall hearing his given name was Charles.) He originated from St. Phillip in Barbados and I would love to be able to trace his family. Have never been able to locate anyone that was related to this gentleman. My sister, brother and I remain the only grandchildren he would have had. We have always longed to get to know his family.

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    Neil Beckles
    March 19, 2016 Reply

    My great grand father who was Barbadian worked on the Panama Canal(he arrived there in 1905). I am from Barbados and I plan to visit Panama in August 2016 to see the place and do some research.

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      Ralph Beckles
      April 7, 2016 Reply

      My great grantfather Hubert Beckles went to Panama in January 1907 to work on the canal.when he left,my greatgrandmother was pregnant with their last child.When the work on the canal finished,he did not return to Barbados,and attempts to trace him were in vain.Maybe we are related,Neil.

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