Our previous issues have been concerned with giving the reader a brief sketch of what it was like for my ancestors at the time in history to have arrived in the country of Panama. Those black men were all young, strong, healthy persons who showed great resistance to the adverse climate, and in large groups they came and kept coming way into the latter half of the twentieth century. These men did not only come from the island of Jamaica but from every island in the region of the West Indies to land in the mysterious Panama.
The topography of the whole country was mostly dense jungle forest and although the country was Spanish speaking, it was virtually governed by American white men from the northern part of the vast continent of America. At this time we would find these foreigners engaged in one of the biggest projects of the moment which was to build a modern railroad that would join passage from the Atlantic Ocean and over a short distance to the other end to the Pacific Ocean.
The period of time that encompasses the late 1840’s to the 1960’s of the XX century would, from the beginning, promise to be a time of great risks for my ancestors who were unprotected as they had been as former slaves, although they were now called “freed blacks.” For the American gringo engineers who sought to hire them, who were also living in a period of their history where they too struggled with the issue of wanting to keep slavery alive, would soon find themselves immersed in a horrible civil conflict over the issue. This period in the history of the United States was also a time when having servants meant being considered part of the “upper crust” and to be wealthy.
The “Jamaicans,” who would come to mean “blacks,” would be welcomed and would prove more than adequate for the subservient attitude they presented. By the years 1911 and 1912, mentioned by my grandmother in her interview, she had initiated her experience as the family settled in an area of what had been a black worker work camp during the times of construction of the Panama Canal. We may then share the history of a Westindian family and the essence and character of the area and what was the thinking of a man, my grandfather, who had been employed by the Americans from the cold north, who had not changed since the 1750’s.
Nothing, in fact, in the demeanor of those white people towards their loyal and hard working servants would in their actual or future relationships prove that they, as Americans, had changed in their attitudes or ideas about their employees since the two groups of people met in the early 1850’s. Although the blacks would have an opportunity in the early 1881 to be employed by the French at a time when the vestiges of slavery were still evident in the treatment towards black human beings in general, the fact that there were black men willing to readily sell themselves into indentured servitude should not surprise or alarm us. Indentured servitude was a common phenomenon for white Europeans from various countries in Europe, and also millions of Chinamen.
So that our interview with Mrs. Fanny Elizabeth McKenly Reid will continue to offer us a firsthand account of what it was like to live in an area controlled by the Americans. Although the time of my grandmother was long after the Westindians’ experience with the French in all of their projects connected with starting to build a canal in the same area, very little differed from when the first large group of West Indian men came to occupy the isthmus in the 1840’s.
For a young black woman in the year of 1911, who had never before even seen the sea or had reason to leave the place of her birth, the odyssey on which she was to embark was more than impressionable. The name of her place of birth, Yallahs Bay, should give us a hint of how compelled she must have felt to leave her known St. Thomas Parish. She would soon become one more young person caught up in the rumored “Panama gold” scramble, part of the youthful haste at the end of a century in which slavery had been declared abolished. We can further conclude with certainty that since a form of chattel slavery still dogged the black youth in Jamaica, the possibility of going to a far away place, a Promised Land, that was rumored to offer a much better life than as an indentured servant on any plantation or in any workshop of local people, was irresistible.
So that, when women like Mrs. Reid landed on the isthmus of Panama and felt the power that her savings had gathered, money she had diligently put up for five years, she did in deed feel privileged. She felt as privileged as the wives of the white American bosses who had come to join their husbands.
Other parts of the interview will also provide us with an introduction to this period in history that saw the beginnings of a people whom I had always known as the “Black Zonians” and their settlements. It was the arrival of those black women from the West Indies, however, that I, as a historian, have identified as the real emergence of the permanent settlement better known as the “Panama Canal Zone.” The “Zone” was an area of the country of Panama which we, the barrio dwellers, recognized as a part of our world as the area of the gringo Zonians, the area in which white American families lived. As the twentieth century marched along they had become what the Spanish speaking criollo Panamanians knew as the “Zonians.”
Although the blacks of the West Indies had been in the country in larger numbers and for a longer period of time than most white Americans of the north, the native Spanish speakers of the elite class, the same people who had control of the broadcast media, never identified the Westindian workers or their descendants as part of the real Canal Zone; thus, for them they, the West Indians, were never the “Zonians.”
In upcoming issues, as we continue our story, we will feature some more excerpts of our interview with Mrs. Fanny Reid. We hope with these interviews to give the reader the West Indian working woman’s point of view to this most interesting story.
This story continues.