The Second Wave of West Indian Laborers

Image of Wharf at Aspinwall 1855, thanks to

The story of the West Indian laborer in other parts of the country of Panama and the Central American region continues with its course of battles with the banana plantations. For the western end of the country of Panama the West Indian laborer would enter the twentieth century experiencing upheavals. At this time in history the Panamanian elite, as intellectuals, will start to show nationalistic cohesion.

It is also the period during which, as we noted earlier, the native Spanish speaking black population became invisible and went underground. The people who made up the colonial “Arrabal,” as an urban class of people had emerged late in the 19th and 20th century scarred by the pugnacity of the climate in Spanish colonial life. Life before the construction of that “great ditch”, the Canal, was restarted was one of discontent with the alliance they had made with the “Gran Colombia.” The country was undergoing a deep economic depression with great instability in the banking sector with problems of the circulation of money between 1881 and 1894. By 1896 formal closing of the National Bank of Colombia, and the scandal over false emissions of paper money, sent the elite in Panama seeking ways in which they could end the association with the Colombians.

Even as late as in the XIX century historians would find a Panamanian populace with a social and historical background negatively scarred; a populace that lived outside the Spanish colonial walls, still resentful remembering racial and social segregation. Later economic and political incidences suffered throughout centuries of colonial existence would have that same colored population resentful and cheering that first attempt at separation from Colombia by General Jose Domingo Espinar. (Castillero Calvo, 1999)

The mental and emotional scars would remain from everyday bouts in their clamor for their Panamanian nationality, which seemed far from cohesive. The tenacity of those historical and cultural contextual factors such as moral, physical and ethical circumstances would be manifested in the literature that would prevail; what, today, we call our native nationality.

(Chong) Those issues would be linked to our past as West Indian Panamanians, as we emerged into a future of political agitation against us as a people with human rights as citizens. It became a course most Panamanians would take, an issue made cause to celebrate our enviable geographic position. Such that the consciousness of the mercantilist urban groups and a landed class, with extensive neglected expanses of land, would take up and add to an idealism of transit. There too there were those that still echoed the same scholastic colonial ideals as they were being influenced Anglo Saxon colonialist ideals as late as 1876. Later these ideals were included as ideals of nationality, ideals that would arise as coherent ideas, which on November 28, 1821 declared Panama Independent. (Chong )

But, in fact, those ideals of independence had existed long before, as immutable ideas in the minds of the people of the “pueblo” since colonial times, since they had been the ones who populated areas on the outside of city walls; those who lived in the forgotten “Arrabal,” since the period when the city of Panama was founded and moved to its present site. (Chong)

Those were the sentiments mingling amongst the people when those first waves of Westindians first landed in the cities that met the Caribbean Sea. Those were the ideals of the few native blacks that the strangers later known as Westindians would have met, as they scurried around the piers following the orders of Yankee bosses in early 1849. The native Spanish speaking Blacks looked on in awe since they really did not understand the English language. However, one thing they knew was that they supported those efforts by those black men, just as they had in the past helped the pirates and buccaneers to pillage the white colonials.

Nevertheless, the times were coming when those blacks, quietly hidden in their motherland, would remain fully aware as they came and went as invisible individuals that their station in Panamanian society was questionable. Sure of their status as unwanted citizens they remained aware that for their race as a people no real changes would come. So that those of the African Diaspora who were labeled the “Cimarron” class remained quietly resentful, mostly hidden in the surrounding mountainous areas, out of sight, but not unmindful of the happenings in the cities, as governments came and went. The beauty of the green gardens of their tropical Eden comforted them.

The islands in both oceans and seas in those far flung provinces we still consider part of the interior of the country were also home to these independent souls. Those who braved the conflicting cities to come in and make money from the city wharfs traveling in small crafts no bigger than canoes, which they called “Cayucos,” gave them the surety of a free life. It, indeed, was a life of pure joy to come and go, returning home as soon as possible, back into hiding in their peaceful bush homes. They, whom we would one day envy, remained alert, educating themselves. Those would be our proud Afro-Hispanic ancestors, those who would be ready and willing to aide declared enemies of the white elite. Those would be the people of the future the ones with a history of bravery against the white colonial settlers.

Thus they would emerge into our period of study, the late XIX and not until the later 20th century would those people of African descent, a class of mostly illiterate people, would have a Licenciado Materno Vasquez, who would join a General Omar Torrijos Herrera, to place the literacy of the people into the real struggle for Panamanians’ ultimate freedom. It would be then that the black Spanish speaking people, who, in their majority, had remained patient, and who had remained out of sight in the peace of the motherland, would witness, without trepidation, the arrival of the “new blacks” as they arrived in the middle 19th century.

Those of us blacks who we would come to know as Westindians (pronounced Wesindian by the Latinos), and ancestors, would owe our new democratic freedoms, for they remained under fire, sacrificing themselves, under de immolating fires of degrading racism. To them also we owe great tribute for they were really the heroic figures who gave up their lives so that one day our country would be free from the economy of the European race.

Our Hispanic blacks, in my opinion, will always remain the ones who truly colonized the greater part of our garden forest, the tropical forest of a country called Panama. They, along with the native Indian tribes were able to survive colonialism, to be the emerging lost tribes of what are Hispanic India and Hispanic Africa. To be the people who, even after five centuries, still live mostly off the land, people who continue to maintain valuable landed islands and other areas that most of the white elite feared to venture into and today are choice areas they would purchase for pennies.

This story continues.

2 responses to “The Second Wave of West Indian Laborers

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  2. A very remarkable read. I wish that one day I’ll have the privilege of knowing about my ancestors. My great-grandfather is of Spanish-descent. The Philippines being colonized by Spain some decades ago is as far as I can know regarding my ancestors. Being a ‘small’ citizen, will I get to the point of knowing all about my roots? I believe I can if I do what your ancestors did — educate myself…way too far to go.
    I salute you, Mr Reid, for being where you are now, doing the things you want and love to do. I haven’t read all your blogs yet but I will and I will keep coming back to them. Thank you for leading me to your blogspot. I hope to hear from you again.
    I’ll be forwarding my articles to you.
    God bless.