The first ten years of the canal construction work had black labor under constant applied negative forces by the canal administrative system, as we have noted earlier. However, the black labor force, rather than become so deformed as to attack the system, became even more efficient in their conduct so as to withstand the stress upon the group.
Initially their “comparative inefficiency and technical ignorance,” as some American historians have observed, became the pet peeve of many an American engineer. They were even accused of being lazy and “dull,” not quick at picking up the use of new tools and technology. In fact, John Stevens himself calculated that the efficiency of the average West Indian was only one third that of any American laborer, white or black. If we are to be fair about these comparisons and assumptions at all we must look at the realities and the circumstances of the recruitment of these people.
The attitude of superiority and outright bigotry of the Yankee engineers and foremen was often negative and hateful towards these black men with their characteristic patois British accent. Then, there were the poor physical conditions these men arrived in to be considered. In the initial shipments of West Indian laborers allowances had to be made, particularly at John Steven’s insistence, that the medical screening “overlook” certain physical problems inherent in the West Indian recruits- if the canal commission was to retain a viable workforce. Problems related to malnutrition, childhood neglect, dental problems, and the vestiges of years of untreated illness– many of these factors were reexamined to be able to retain a useable work force. Even observers of the time had to re-evaluate these cruel and unjust assumptions when they really stopped to examine the tasks at hand.
“Until you have tried to do a good fifteen minutes’ work with a pick and shovel during the rainy season…you can have no idea of the exhaustion that tropical heat brings even to the laborer who is used to it.”
Added to these working conditions the fact that many men were half starved and worked under these extreme conditions for eight to ten hours with few breaks even to have lunch and you must admit that few human beings could have held up.
The Jamaicans who continued to arrive during those first crucial years when artisans were in demand were probably amongst the most efficient and the most adaptable. Arriving without a contract and no legal rights to back them up they were usually hired on the spot. The old slaveholding instinct of the US Bosses, however, seemed to emerge out of some kind of genetic memory to spot valuable skilled men and place them exactly where they were needed. However, the majority of the Jamaicans and other West Indian artisans proved to be “very satisfactory” workers at every task they were asked to do.
It was soon discovered that the West Indian was generally quiet spoken, honest, and respectful. As a general rule they also showed a readiness for learning the rudiments of the varying branches of the work they were contracted for, acquiring a certain “regular and automatic” attitude towards their work. In other words, they possessed the “work ethic” that the Yankee bosses immediately recognized.
Mr. George W. Westerman* very aptly analyzed the strength and adaptability of the West Indian workers.
“Especially during the period of construction between 1904 and 1914, countless West Indians died a violent death, and suffered great and permanent physical as well as mental injury due to ill timed or delayed dynamite explosions, by suffocation, accidental falls, derailment of train cars, land and mud slides, rock slides in the cuts, and many other perils encountered in their work.”*
Not allowing fear to detain them they met the challenges of the work at hand despite the dangers of epidemics and the scores of dead companions who fell before their eyes. They proved to themselves as well as to the world that they, the West Indians, were indeed the strongest, most adaptable and best suited to carry out the enormous task at hand. It has been noted that, were it not for them, the “tragedy of the eventual failure of American ingenuity,” might not have been impeded. * “The First Antillean Negroes on the Isthmus of Panama,” by George W. Westerman.
This story continues.