Panama’s Black Westindian Worker

An early photo of West Indian workers chatting.

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.

11 responses to “Panama’s Black Westindian Worker

  1. I am thirty years old and I know little, nothing realy, about slavery in Panama. Both my mom and dad were born and raised in Panama and we do go to visit every now and then. But when we visit, I never know what books or videos to buy. My dad has tried looking with not much more luck. Would you know of any books or other items on the subject and where to find them. Also on sites like Ancestry.com it is difficult to find records in Panama. Both my grandfather and greatgrandfather worked on the Panama Canal, so we were able to pull a record of residence from the U.S.Census from these sites. Would you know of other reasorces we could use. Thank you for taking the time to read this.

  2. Tillie,

    First, let me thank you for your comment and your very relevant questions. “The Silver People Chronicle,” was born, in large part, from my great desire to connect with my roots from Panama and Colon.
    As to your question about resources, I invite you to join our subscribers by e-mail. Use the feedblitz “Subscribe Me!” box on our right hand sidebar and you will receive our articles by e-mail. You can then come to our site by clicking on the title and then the “read more” link to read the entire article.
    We also share with our readers many resources in our bookstore, “My Real Heritage Books,” which you can find at the upper left hand sidebar. We will be frequently posting book reviews for relevant books that we carry in our store.
    Please feel free also to email us and leave comments.

    RR

  3. I decided to start reading your blog from the very first post on.

    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.

    This is a very interesting piece of information. Assimilation – in this case the opressed group adopts to ways, customs and at times attitudes of the opressor. This is still happening today in our current “society”. The old stupid saying that goes “Hay que mejorar la raza.” I never understood how becoming “less black” translates to bettering the race.

  4. Hi Vic,

    I’m glad you’ve begun the journey through our chronicle. Yes, “Hay que mejorar la raza,” should seem an attitude of another by-gone age but it isn’t. And, I assure you, it is not limited to the Black race- I have witnessed it amongst the Asians also.

    Keep reading Vic and we welcome your comments!

    RR

  5. This is for Tillie,
    This is an update relating to books and other resources to purchase about the subject of the Silver People of Panama. At the West Indian Museum of Panama housed in the restored Christian Mission Church on 24 Street in Calidonia (in front of the Seguro Social Pediatric Hospital- Justo Arosemena Avenue) you will find an improved collection of books to purchase from.
    Hope this helps.
    Send us an email so we can keep in touch for new events.

    RR

  6. Rich Bradford

    I stumbled across your blog and couldn't resist commenting. My dad was American and mom was Panamanian. My mom grew up in Paraiso and graduated from Paraiso H.S. My grandfather passed away in 1968 and my grandmother moved to Rio Abajo (where she still lives today). I found your blog when I was looking for information concerning the history of Panamanians of African descent. I like the content, as well as the reference to Joel 2:23-25. Be blessed.

  7. Rick Bradford:
    We recieved your comment with much LOVE and thanks to GOD, for he had you reach us as another descendant of "the Silver People of Panama." Feel free to continue visiting us and so show support for our cause by contributing in getting the Silver Cemeteries declared "National Historic and Cultural Patrimonies." Our pride then would be great when we have those Heritage Sites become one of the Canal Zone first World recognized Monuments to Humanity.

    Our work relatively has just begun in this respect, but we are counting on descendants of Silver People of Panama to come forward and support our effort in whatever way they can.

    For us to be recognized as person's of African descent is worthy of psychological progress, and yet another think is to have the LABOR of our forefather recognized, as the one salient factor in making it possible to even start the construction of the historic Panama Canal.

    You have blessed us with your presence and understanding of the importance of this work, work which we are hoping will go down in the anals of history as something as perpetual as the Panama Canal itself.

    Then let us wish you a Happy Father's Day in memory of our historic Silver Forfathers.
    Much Blessings in all you do!

    RR

  8. Your article about how money was able to buy last Hispanic names for people with Jamaican and African ancestry is very interesting. Interesting is also the phrase “hay que mejorar la raza”. Being black is no less than being from other race. Blacks should be proud of their ancestry. Here in the United States I have been asked many times where do the black people from Panama got Spanish last names. For example, boxers, base-ball players, soccer players, etc.

  9. Mr. Marquez,

    I’m not sure where you got the words “hay que merjorar la raza” from our article but that is a notion inherited from the Spanish Siete Partidas of the 13th century and its repercussions into the New World domination by the Spaniards when we Blacks in Latin America were all assigned names from the “masters”, even in Jamaica where it was colonized by the Spanish first. So, the Spanish speaking blacks today feel that their surnames are more valid and accepted than the English surnames.

    This is where we get the attitude in Panama that English surnamed Black people are automatically and forever “extranjeros.”
    Please keep reading especially our latest articles regarding Armando Fortune and you must study your history.
    RR

  10. Good day! I could have sworn I’ve been to this blog before but after browsing through some of the articles I realized it’s new to me. Nonetheless, I’m certainly happy I came across it and I’ll be bookmarking it and checking back often!

  11. Hello love your article. Am a jamaican/ Canadian , trying to get some information on my grandmother that left Jamaica in the early 1900 went colon panama ,got married her name was Helen levy, got married I think the name was faucet ,or vassel, not sure which on,is there an archive I can find out this information, thank you for your help.

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