The Pressure is On- West Indian Labor Recruitment

Images: Top: Boatload of Barbadian workers arriving in Cristobal (Colon side) 1909
Bottom: Digging scene in Gaillard “Cut” (Culebra “Cut) 1907

Once the isthmus of Panama ceased being a “white man’s graveyard” with the yellow fever epidemic brought under control and the vectors for malaria also effectively eliminated- although malaria, as stated previously, will always loom a threat should sanitary conditions be relaxed- the working environment became somewhat safer from contagion. The effort of the ICC was now refocused on the enormous construction task at hand.

The death tolls have been a polemic and, quite frankly, a questionable issue since the Americans took over the construction but officially they stand at 5,609 workers died between 1904 and 1914 bringing the total death toll to around 27,500 for the construction of the canal.* Within these deaths we have many unaccounted for- particularly West Indian deaths. Needless to say that the majority of the deaths were within the ranks of the West Indians and anyway one looks at it they died at a greatly disproportionate rate compared to there white counterparts. In later posts we will explore the other mortal dangers, aside from disease, that filled these tolls.

Although by as late as 1906 the top engineers including John Stevens were still unsure about the ultimate nature of the project at hand, whether the canal would be a “sea-level canal” or a locks canal, it did not detract from the fact that there was still a monumental digging job to be done, and the labor force to accomplish it was needed and quickly and in huge numbers.

This is where the efficient recruitment of the West Indian laborers would take on extreme importance. These workers would not only be needed for the crucial and, ultimately, rough and dangerous work in the “cuts” but they would also be employed to man the unfolding infrastructure of housing, commissaries, clubhouses, hospitals and dispensaries, etc, that the administration was anxious to provide for its gold roll workers- the comfort, convenience and safety of the silver roll was always a secondary consideration.

The recruiters, many times insistent and often times somewhat ruthless in their recruiting strategies, even intimidating public officials, were dispatched to the Caribbean islands, since in most Europeans countries they were barred or greatly hampered from their activities. The islands of Barbados and Martinique would be where recruitment would be heaviest. According to a 1907 report by W.J. Karner, chief labor distribution agent for the ICC, the numbers of West Indian laborers that were sent to the Isthmus were as follows:

1905 2,969
1906 7,017
1907 3,410 (January of 1907)
13,396 (February of 1907) **

By now, we must remember that recruitment on the island of Jamaica had been abandoned due to, as we’ve noted, the Jamaican government’s disapproval of any recruitment on their island for the “isthmian project.” Past negative experience with first, the railroad project and secondly, the French Canal project had left them reeling with displaced, unemployed and abandoned Jamaican laborers with no contractual rights to repatriation and no visible means of returning home to their island. They were nervous about another “bail” out episode where they would have to target precious public funds to rescue their citizens.

The Jamaicans, however, the “perennial” Jamaicans, still kept coming to the isthmus. Their government had left that option totally up to these adventurous individuals who wanted to try their luck in Panama. So long as they paid an exit tax of sorts (primarily a sum of money to guarantee the amount needed for their repatriation) they could go ahead and leave Jamaica bound for Panama paying their own passage- without benefit of a contract. We will see later on that many of these laborers would have considered this a mistake once their lives would take root in Panama.

This story will continue.

4 responses to “The Pressure is On- West Indian Labor Recruitment

  1. Kyle & Svet Keeton

    27,500 deaths what do you think that the true death toll was. How far off are these numbers??

    What percent died that stuck it out and did not run away from the harsh life??

    Jamaican, West Indians, Chinese, Americans (White and Black), Barbadian, Martinique! Who else came to the area to work?

    That was becoming a Hodgpodge!


    I like this train of articles.:)

  2. Our studies have uncovered salient facts such as:
    English speaking Westindian Blacks from Central america and all over the West Indies came from Belice, a country known as British Honduras, West Indians from the Costa Rican black community and Nicaraguan blacks from the Atlantic coast and also some whites from those countries.

    Added to the blacks from the British West Indian Virgin Islands, Bermuda, St. Kitts, Nevis, Grenada, Martinique, Monserrat, St. Lucia, Aruba, Curacao and even Guyana’s English speaking blacks came.

    The respected researchers and historians, ane even withnesses of the times all report that the whites who came could hardly contend with the heath and the extreme conditions of the rainy seasons in Panama.

  3. Ralph Beckles

    Yes, poor whites from Barbados (know as Red Legs) went to Panama as well. I know of whites with the names Fenty and Finn who went to Panama.