Historians have reported that the way of life in the country of Panama had not changed since those years of the decade of 1790, when groups of black foreigners speaking English first stepped off ships on to the docks of Panama in the late 1840’s. The native Spanish speaking blacks or “alquilones” were just as wage-earner minded as the newcomers were.
The difference between the two groups of blacks was, of course, the language, however, the native alquilones sought to hire themselves out as conscripts, taking the place of the rich white Spanish citizens. They were not only paid to replace them in the army but, at the same time, they would receive a change of surname to a European name, more specifically a Spanish surname.
The end of slavery would find blacks on the isthmus virtually free men, for very few Negroes were in fact slaves in Panama at the declared end of the slave system, since the census of 1810 reveals that to have slaves in those years was a very luxurious affair for most of the white Spaniards.By the time the foreign blacks arrived around the early part of the 1840’s to work on building the American railroad, the climate, economically speaking, was that money could fix anything.
In fact, we find the local blacks engaged in seeking to use any means to wipe the memory of slavery from their person as fast as money could purchase the document that would show them as having white Spanish background.
We would continue giving a small sketch of the barriers that the Jamaican foreigner would have to contend with during all of the XX century with the natives of Panama, who would continue seeing them through rose colored glasses as the slaves of the white gringos that they never were.
Our story, however, could not continue without including part of an interview I had with one of the real survivors of this period in our history. One who became a retired Black Westindian worker after following other young persons venturing to travel and seek employment in the period of time between 1881 and 1914 when the great waterway was inaugurated.
My father’s mother, like other young Jamaican women of her time, traveled alone under circumstances that were uncertain. Traveling on hear-say information many of the black women of that generation set out seeking to find relatives or loved ones among the men who had been absent from their lives for many years.
The following excerpts make up an interview I recorded of my grandmother who lived through all those years of trials and tribulations to raise me and the other siblings of my generation into adulthood. Her voice is seen and heard as it survives in what is part of our Panamanian Westindian literature.
You can read our interview in the following edition of this paper. Its intent is to give the reader a glimpse of the character of this individual who was, at the time, just emerging out of a system of government which exacted every volt of energy from their recently declared citizens freed from slavery.
This story continues.