Jamaican workers on the American Transisthmian Railroad in Panama

This photo is of a derailment at Bas Obispo in 1886- the French Railroad days. Note the Jamaican workers.

The years between 1850 and 1855 would find the male population of the island of Jamaica, as it did other islands and areas of the continent feeling encouraged. The prospects of being employed in a place by the name of Panama awoke visions of freedom they could never before experience. The enthusiasm among the young black men of the island soared to its peak when the local rumor spread about “Panama Gold.”

White men from the north representing a company by the name of The Pacific Mail Steamship Company began placing their handbill notices all over the city of Kingston. Those who could read translated the notice for those who couldn’t causing a raucous about their intention of hiring men for work on a railroad to be constructed in the country of Panama. Times were appropriate for these white men from the eastern parts of the United States it seemed to be in those faraway ports seeking especially black men; some of them were still not emancipated from their forced apprenticeships from which they would later, much later, be declared totally freed from that hated form of chattel slavery.

The Pacific Mail Steamship Company had recently negotiated a contract with the government of Colombia, to build a railway which wold secure safe passage along the historical and troublesome route known as the crossing or the Camino Real, between the Atlantic and the Pacific coasts.

Although the narrow passage was only 60 miles long through dense jungle, in recent years, especially with the influx of Americans and other fortune seekers pushing to get to the California gold fields, the “strip” had become an extremely dangerous place. Many a mule caravan and canoe party had been waylaid by the assorted brigands, and bandits lying in wait to attack. These obvious dangers were only added to the dangers inherent in the pestilence ridden tropical countryside and, of course, the risky crossing of rivers and streams, and jungle paths. The Colombian Government hoped that with such a contract the North Americans would exercise more control and keep better security over a territory protectorate, acquired in an 1821 treaty with the Panamanians.

Equally favorable were these times for the Americans to be recruiting labor from outside the United States since during these years the issue of slavery stirred up strong sentiment in their country. In addition, the region of the West Indies had also recently witnessed a period of slave uprisings, though emancipation attempts had been alive in the territory and the home country of England since 1787. Finally, for the struggling masses of slaves in the West Indies, the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 was passed by the English Parliament, and became the official act to put a halt to slavery in the British West Indies.

The Slavery Abolition law called for the liberating of all slaves in the British Empire by 1834, so that the anti-slavery movement in the West Indies was instrumental in the freeing of slaves in the Asian theatre of the British Empire also. Further the law called for children under six years of age to be freed immediately upon promulgation of the Act. On the other hand, for persons enslaved who were seven years of age or older a six year apprenticeship would be instituted under their former masters. Through this “gradual” emancipation plan by the year 1838 the unconditional emancipation of all chattel slaves would be accomplished. The Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 brought a new vision of freedom to people subjected to slavery in the American West Indies and the Asian countries of the British Empire.

Quite understandable, however, was the attitude of the young black men of the West Indies around which our story revolves, to flee from an area where they were still considered slaves. The appearance on the scene of the recruiters from the Pacific Mail Steamship Company provided an opportunity of seeing themselves distanced far away from what they knew as a brutal plantation system with masters as cruel still as the years in which slavery had begun. The year of 1850 would be a welcome year for the slaves and the American Bosses, who found a pool of willing and very able labor, many of whom had been serving their former masters in some form or the other for more than sixteen long years.

The young black men of African descent who were originally contracted on the docks of Kingston and other areas of the West Indies, such as the Guyanas, Honduras, and Nicaragua in Central and South America immediately displayed a feeling of being really emancipated and being privileged. The Slavery Emancipation Act of 1833 had an immediate and adverse effect, however, on the whole region where slavery and sugar cane were the motor and meter of the world economic system. The resulting economic decline caused drastic changes in the economies of the island countries. The new free trade market system to replace slavery assisted in eliminating the need for slaves who had been used to buttress the system for more than 200 years. There was no apparent place nor supporting network for these former slaves now.

For the Pacific Mail Steamship Company of New York the recruiting of a labor force of semi-slaves was another way of keeping the American Government out of their affairs while their offices in New York played the new economic market.

William Henry Aspinwall, a merchant and founder of the steamship line was the chief speculator on the Stock Exchange, while Henry Chauncey, a banker, joined the organization to provide the much needed loans and to assist in the speculative moves of the changing market on Wall Street. Thus slavery again would bring a bonanza to this organization of American white men as John Lloyd Stephens was appointed president of all operations on the railway in Panama.

As time went by the new organization and its crew of bosses could not be more pleased with the new enterprise, as the Jamaican and the rest of the West Indian laborers seemed to strive under the most adverse of conditions. The virgin jungle forest was the speller of death for most white laborers who ventured to be bosses over black crews. Disease and pestilence broke out often among the workers and the constant rain helped decimate thousands of men both black and white.

It has been reported by historians that after five arduous years of labor the jungle forest exacted an enormous human toll. It is estimated that between six and twelve thousand, largely black, men gave their lives in the building of what would become the first railroad to give passengers and merchants access to both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts.

This venture was the first enterprise in the Isthmus of Panama and one which brought profits the first year after completion in 1855 of more than $7,000,000, a bonanza for sure considering the economy of the times. It was reported that that Panama Railroad Stock on the New York Stock Exchange was selling for $295, the highest price recorded on the stock exchange in the year of 1856.

Slave labor, as history has borne out, continued in some form, especially for the blacks and the Indians of the world who had been left totally defenseless by their respective governments in the hands of the speculators of any time in history.

This story continues.

4 responses to “Jamaican workers on the American Transisthmian Railroad in Panama

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