The Evolution of the Silver Townships 1909- 1920

Images: Top: Postcard Photo of an early (1910) “Tourist Train” Middle: A West Indian Washerwoman washing clothes at a stream while some carefree white men converse nearby. Bottom: An aerial view of a Gatun Silver Town.  The Silver Townships.

By 1909 an invisible protective net had been set up over the area of Central America during which time the ongoing ideological struggles carried over from the 1850’s between those who advocated for maintaining some form of slavery in modern society and those who advocated succumbing to the new ideals of “Communism,” continued to unfold. The protective scheme of the U.S. operatives in their new colony was calculated not to permit those “outside forces” to impact the Panama Canal Zone.

The period before and after the First World War for the Europeans would reflect an impoverished economy with a massive movement of population of immigrants virtually beating down the doors of the whole American continent seeking refuge from hunger, unemployment and warfare. Meanwhile, on the Canal Zone and practically the entire Isthmus of Panama, the United States had set up a quasi protectorate. Such was the political strategy left by the war at this time that hardly any of the preferred hoards of European immigrants were permitted to land on the shores of Panama of Central America.

By 1920 Silver townships had cropped up around the Canal Zone so that it appeared to historians that the Blacks were gaining employment which warranted free housing in such numbers, and that it was an incentive for the Blacks to pay their way to come seek employment on the American Canal Zone. In fact, the canal operating period had begun with such flair that tourist-like operations had been set in motion to show off American ingenuity and the Silver townships were also in place to provide the needed pool of laborers to cater to the waves of newly arriving white American workers.

All told, from 1909 to 1930 more than 50,000 Blacks were living in the Black Canal Zone Silver townships strategically spread out over both ends of the waterway. The whole canal operation and promotion depended on the Black West Indian workers so much that the new racist administration set up a separate Silver Employee Personnel Office right outside one of the most used entrances to the Canal Zone. It was all designed to give the administration and their captive pool of ready and eager West Indian workers easy access to each other.

During this period, as we have seen, Black women were being added to the work force in ever increasing numbers so that there would be available men and women for the various and newly constructed and outfitted luxury hotels, free dining facilities, free laundry facilities, commissary shopping centers, fishing clubs, hospitals and the private Gold role homes (white). For Blacks seeking employment there seemed to be ample opportunities as maids, nannies, attendants and clerks at all facilities on the Panama Canal Zone.

Views of no future, however, lurked close to the homes of many West Indian workers within the Silver Townships on the Canal Zone, as they immediately saw a step up in discriminatory rules and regulations to bar them and their children from gaining further employment on the Panama Canal Zone. The years between 1918-1919 would also witness rumors of uprisings in the banana provinces of Bocas del Toro and Puerto Armuelles. As usual, the field workers were again demanding better wages and proper working conditions from the Chiriqui Land Company.

Some justified resentments would still arise amongst the West Indian workers in other parts of the country as they felt the increasing economic hardships of the times. Despite all the years of hard labor and the industrial advancements made by their employer, The United Fruit Company, the workers’ lot in those poverty stricken parts of the provinces, the lot of the plantation workers, was still close to that of their 19th century ancestors who first came to Central America.

The racist ideals of the American Canal, it seemed, had, in coordination with the Banana Empire, sunk its proverbial talons into the impoverished area of Central America.

This story will continue.

One response to “The Evolution of the Silver Townships 1909- 1920

  1. Kyle & Svet Keeton

    Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

    Kyle & Svet