The French Preferred the West Indian Workingman

The French hoped to duplicate what they had built at Suez.

The French purchased the Panama Railroad from the Yankees in 1881 at the start of their operations on the Isthmus of Panama. The railway, was after all, key in accomplishing their engineering ambition, which was to duplicate the feat of building a canal like the Suez Canal in Egypt. To all the engineers concerned if the railroad was not purchased, then construction of the new canal would be unthinkable.

But history, however, would soon reveal the failed dreams of a defeated French government nine years later. For the economic disaster that followed the initiation of the construction of “The French Canal” would send the most hardened of men into emotional depression, as the unbelievable became true. Things had been going very well at first, as the people clearing the way into jungle forest again and the digging of the canal seemed to be going at break neck speed.

For many a dreamer both black and white, it would become one of the hardest fiasco that would hit the area of Panama.The time had come for many Jamaicans to return home, as many dispersed to other areas seeking something else to do. Many in great numbers appealed to their government for redress of their condition. Most who did so got word of their pitiful plight to the Jamaican ambassador in Panama, and the government moved to get them back home.

Back home in Jamaica the experience had left only sporadic memories of the native Blacks of Panama, a people that would continue in their own struggles way into the end of the century which was between the year 1850 and the late 1900’s. Still, after 1889 life on the Isthmus of Panama seemed to have returned to its normal state as the white men who remained, both Americans and Frenchmen survived and made some kind of lifestyle out of the brothels and bars in both Panama and the city of Aspinwall on the Caribbean Coast.

However, the black West Indians had dispersed to other areas of the Central American Isthmus and their presence would be made felt in places as far away as Guyana, Colombia, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, and Guatemala. In Panama the provinces of Bocas Del Toro, Chiriqui, Colon and Darien, would be places where the Westindian worker would soon make it known that they were alive and well.

However, it would take a full fifteen years before any large operation needing the services of the hard working West Indian, who could make dirt fly with just picks and shovels, would be undertaken. In fact, most of these remarkable men who had acquired a great reputation with the spade would not return, since many of them had settled on plots of land of their own remote, hard to reach areas. On their own they developed new skills or were able to use the skills they had acquired in making the impossible possible in the jungle forests of the Isthmus.

Very few black West Indians remained in the urban centers of the provinces of Panama and Colon where the only activities available for employment were in being associated with the brothels and bars which constituted the lifestyle of the continued tourism of the railroad once the Americans reclaimed their railway. Historians have not been able to record in too many instances where West Indian men had been associated with the trade of prostitution in Panama. In fact, the reverse is true.

There are records to attest to the fact that West Indian men preferred the home life with West Indian women; some men, in many cases, went to the expense of sending to the West Indies for their wives. Still, the ones who did become involved with the age old trade of prostitution worked as entertainers or musicians in the night clubs and brothels, serving also as bartenders and in overseeing services to the clients.

But, fifteen years in history would seem like no time at all to the West Indian family men who raised children into men and women, in out lander situations like the Provinces of Darien or Bocas del Toro from the 1890’s until after the beginning of the American construction of the Panama Canal.

This story continues.

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