During this historic entrance of large groups of Westindians to the Isthmus of Panama, the region of the great Caribbean Ponto had become the setting for what was described as “legal slavery.” It was an awesome and cruel setting where the product, human lives, was plentiful, and yet the “trade” made no special concessions for human or social interaction. This was a crude system that had permitted the world’s most powerful people to declare human beings to be mere animals.
Returning to the Panamanian scene at a point in the history of those two groups of men in which they had their first cursory meeting, the West Indians as well as the Spanish speaking black men were eager to be employed, but more eager still were the Anglo speakers. The West Indians, in fact, where coming from a situation that predisposed them to work just about anywhere. This attitude came from their experience with past ventures in which some of them had served as scouts traveling from island to island in and around the Caribbean seeking employment. Often, after months of drifting from island to island, upon reaching their destination they’d only find that they’d have to work for room and board sometimes mostly for viands like virtual slaves as in the old sugar plantation days.
It was by the mid 1840’s that the rumors began circulating about the possibilities of work on a project that did not involve “sugar cane.” The Westindians were overjoyed at the prospect of soon becoming employed with the Yankees and, later, with the Frenchmen in a place called Panama. What had started for them as mere rumors soon traveled speedily to the Island of Jamaica touching off a frenzy of movement amongst men on the docks of Kingston.
By 1848 Kingston harbor was teeming with men, murmuring amongst themselves about the heartening news that, indeed, there was a grand project afoot and that it would be the construction of a railroad. The American scouts who set up recruitment desks on the docks were saying things that every young Westindian man wanted to hear. The fact alone that this project involved a railway, The Panama Railroad, that would unite the two oceans was enough to give every man present encouragement, and the great lure was that they had only to get to Panama and they’d have jobs.
The rush was on, and as the days wore on more men saw it as more promising than going to the mountains of California to dig for gold. We can today, as young men with experiences of seeking employment only imagine the joy that those young boys and men gathered on the docks felt, at the prospect of actually getting paid for the work they would do, and that there was no speculating in the offering.
The odyssey for these men, then, would begin from the docks of places like Kingston, in Jamaica, carrying them to a city called Aspinwall in Panama, a virtual jungle outpost. This railroad project, they were told, would only be the first in a series of several large projects to come that would last for many many years to come.
Many young men were ready to leave their homes on the island of Jamaica????? with the prospect of never returning, but for most the idea was to return home prosperous, as “men of means.” So they left that first time with talks of going to get the “Panama Money,” eager to work on ventures which old mariners could only fantasize about. They quickly became one of the largest labor forces in modern history to assemble in Panama.
The Panama Railroad was actually begun in 1850 and completed in 1855 at a cost of $8,000,000.00. But the human cost, as could be expected, was far greater. In 1853, for example, of the 1590 men on the payroll, 1200 were black, mostly West Indian blacks. Despite the outrageously low body count reported by the Pacific Mail Steamship Company, 1,000 souls all told, a more reasonable estimate by knowledgeable observers of the time placed it between 6,000 and 12,000 deaths in the building of the railroad.
We must remember that these times had not changed the mentality of men since the years between 1750 and 1850 where, especially in the United States, white Irish, Italian and other Europeans were crowding the streets of the east coast cities seeking work. They, in fact, had begun taking away jobs from blacks who were still slaves and who had been filling these jobs before the European immigrants arrived to gain preferential treatment.
In the Panama and Central American theater where the West Indian had already labored for a century, the Irish appeared and were given the same treatment as they had received in the Unites States. However, this area of the world was, in those times, a “white man killer,” and the deaths among those white men sent them running back to the States seeking refuge, leaving the Jamaicans in charge of all jobs which a white man would have been given.
Although in the Unites states what awaited many of the white immigrants was indentured servitude, many white women stayed and survived in the area of Panama; some married and raised children for white men, some obtained employment with the railroad and yet others opened businesses like saloons.
This story continues.