Labor Shipments and Contracts

Image: Shows some early drill operators (for inserting explosives)
Thanks to the Afro-Panamanian journalist George W. Westerman


Although the Black Barbadians ruled in numbers in those first few years after arriving in Panama between 1904 and 1908, great numbers of men from the Caribbean Islands of Guadalupe and Martinique also came by the boatloads, all contracted and guaranteed free repatriation after they had worked one year and eight months, and that, if they so desired. Other privileges included such things as free housing and meals at any of the mess halls designed for the “colored worker.”

Below is an example of some of the provisions in the contracts offered to the West Indian workers:

1. Period of labor shall be 500 days.
2. The salary shall be established at 75¢ per day, the U.S equivalent in Panamanian currency.
3. Medical attention as well as unfurnished living quarters shall be provided.
4. The work day shall consist of 10 work hours, and the work week 6 days.
5. Time and a half will be paid for overtime and labor on Sundays.
6. Transportation from the island of Barbados shall be paid by the
ICC (Isthmian Canal Commission), the total cost of which shall be deducted from the worker’s wages at the rate of $1 per month.
7. An earnings report shall be provided to the worker at the end of every pay period.*

Some interesting anecdotes regarding the recruitment of workers and labor shipments from the non-British islands include the difficulties recruiters encountered in their task on the island of Martinique, a French colony. Although eager to work they, the laborers, summarily refused to leave their island home unless “accompanied by their women….”

Then there were the problems encountered by S.W. Setton, a recruiter for the ICC, on the Danish colony of Saint Croix, where the governor of the island refused to allow his island to be used for the concentration and shipment of laborers from nearby islands. After several confrontations with Setton the governor accused him of threatening him to completely deplete all of the islands of the area of every young and able bodied man, not leaving a single young boy to even work as a messenger. Needless to say, the problem ended when Setton removed himself and his high handed ways from the area.

Another interesting situation arose in 1907 when the Versailles docked in Cristobal with 664 passengers aboard from the island of Martinique and 236 passengers from Cartagena, Colombia, all to work on the Canal project. The following morning some 400 souls passed the medical inspection before disembarking and were immediately vaccinated. The rest resoundingly refused to be vaccinated.

After it was explained to them that the entire vaccination process was simply to prevent illness, the workers insisted in their refusal saying that they had been warned by the local people that it was not a vaccination but, in reality, a mark so that they could not return to their island home. To resolve the matter the governor of Colon had to intervene drawing upon the Canal Zone police force, the captain of the Versailles, the quarantine official of Colon, and the Shipping Agent of the steamship company in question. Finally, after extensive talks trying to figure out what to do, as the men were still confined to the ship, the “rebels” as well as the entire situation were brought under control.

Figures may vary for the numbers but the more common figures were 7500 men from Martinique and Guadalupe, but for Barbados they were 21,000 men.

Many of our facts for this crucial period have been gleaned from Mr. George Westerman’s extensive study, The First Antillean Negros on the Isthmus of Panama, published in Spanish.

This story will continue.

8 responses to “Labor Shipments and Contracts

  1. Kyle & Svet Keeton

    Did they really get overtime?? Did they work Sundays?


  2. Hi Kyle,

    In the beginning they even lived in the areas in the “big ditch” which meant that they lived, breathed, ate and slept work. I would qualify that as overtime- they did a great deal of overtime and they worked any day their bosses asked them to work.

  3. Kyle & Svet Keeton

    Thanks I wondered if the companies would actually pay over time? So when they were asked to work overtime they got the extra pay?

    I guess that is what I mean to ask. There is a difference in working overtime and actually getting paid for it. I just have a rough time thinking that they got extra money.

    So they got payed for each and every hour they worked including overtime?

    I guess that I have issues in my past that would explain my persistence on this. Over time has always been a tremendous issue with me. I worked most my life 80 to 100 hours a week and never got paid more than 40 hour weeks.(ever)

    Maybe that is why I am asking!



  4. Kyle and Svet,

    Well, actually the issues of overtime and their time and ½ work on Sundays, holidays etc., became one of the very big issues later in the labor union struggles. You are absolutely right, though, in many, many cases they did not get paid overtime. Many men were illiterate or just about and, despite the provisions in the contracts, they did not receive an earnings statement at the end of pay period. Also, the ones who were literate and protested were often intimidated, threatened with firing or just fired.
    As ever, thanks for your comments.

  5. Kyle & Svet Keeton

    Thanks for the answer. Now it makes more sense to me.

    I always seem to be too impatient to wait for the future articles. You always answer my questions at on point or another. 🙂

    Can’t wait for the next article.

    Kyle & Svet

  6. Wow what a great snapshot of history. I love the pictures and the stories.

  7. I’m looking for my uncle, Lewis/Louis Gibbs who migrated from Barbados to work on the Canal. I don’t know if he survived working on the Canal & perhaps remained in Panama. Does information exist which would answer my question.

  8. Ella,

    Some records do exist but you need to set parameters for your search like time, for instance. About what period of time do you think he may have arrived in Panama? These kinds of questions you have to list in order to make a useful search.

    Our Foundation is working hard to obtain better access to these labor and vital records of our Silver ancestors (who numbered in the thousands) by first obtaining passage of our proposed law #151 in Panama’s National Assembly. Check back with us and keep up with our efforts.


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