A Tribute to My Grandfather, Joshua Austin Reid

Image was taken from a colorized postcard of an early ambulance from Ancon Hospital. The white man was a policeman and the body that is being transported in the ambulance was probably a recently deceased Silver worker. My grandfather, Joshua Austin Reid, as Dispensary Director, often sent the ambulances he supervised on mortuary calls.sent the ambulances he supervised on mortuary calls.

Joshua Austin Reid's "Badge" photo from his work file with the Panama Canal.  It is dated 1919.

Joshua Austin Reid’s “Badge” photo from his work file with the Panama Canal. It is dated 1919.

Probably no one will remember Mr. Joshua Austin Reid and his exploits as I would; no, not even his beloved wife. My grandmother, Fanny, was able to arrive in Panama and enjoy life without fear of dying in her sleep for herself and, later on, her children in large part thanks to the monumental clean up and construction exploits of men like grandfather Joshua.

Before and up to the moment in which my grandfather arrived (around 1906) to join the ranks of the West Indian working men, such sicknesses as Yellow Fever, Malaria, dysentery, etc., had decimated their work force and the white Gold Roll employees alike, until the fumigation, cleanup and initial construction crews dramatically transformed this targeted area into a safe and livable locality.

According to my grandmother’s recollections, for almost two years after his arrival he labored tirelessly ever under averse conditions without complaining, directing men and supplies, as wave upon wave of Westindian men came in to replace the different shifts as newly hired contract workers. His first job was one of the most dangerous jobs held by many Jamaican Supervisors or “Jamaican Bosses” as they were well known. He found himself down in the gigantic and extremely dangerous pit being dug to accommodate the oceans of waters that would eventually fill the void. With constant explosions, and dirt and dynamite trains running every which way at all times, men lost life and limb before his very eyes.

Later he worked and labored as a Dispensary Director with his people, as both workers and their families in the town of Paraiso sought help for their many ailments. He would also be available for emergencies to those Westindian families who built shacks areas with discarded materials such as the wooden crates the dynamite was packed into in the nearby jungle. The man was on call all the time and the emergencies were frequent and at all hours of the day or night.

Mr. Reid trotted around Paraiso and other worker’s camps dressed as a white man would dress, becoming popular amongst the Westindian workers, and becoming a very important part of their social life. He was a “dresser,” to say the least, and often dressed better than the white supervisors who came to distrust him for the good he did for his people. They frequently sought to demoralize him as his good looks and command of the English language made him symbolize a threat to more and more men, both black and white. At the same time, of course, he was revered by the men under him who were always helped by him. “Out there” in the camps he could be seen with his pit helmet and his beautifully kept attire, including his faultlessly polished leather leggings he had fashioned for himself. He was the envy of his fellow countrymen which is something he could not avoid since he was one of the most trusted supervisors around.

Even the white men he worked for and would invariably save from death in the great pit admired and hated him at the same time. What his widow still did not know all the years she waited at home for him was that Mr. Reid was needed in those crucial times when the rains came down copiously day after day. Flooding would stop the very works he needed to do in the ever important and ominous trench, as the mud made it impossible for man or machine to work.

He and his crew of medics would often have to rush into the areas after some explosion or gigantic mountain slide in a rescue operation to save the lives of mostly black working men. The Director of the Dispensary became a crucial visitor to the Silver Roll workmen caught way down in the jaws of the “pit.”

My grandmother could not always understand why her husband was not coming home and the intricacies and demands of his work schedule. She had remained a housewife and mother almost since the very day she arrived on the Isthmus of Panama and often misunderstood how Joshua’s job demanded more hours than he would have to spend with his family. She, of course, would never suffer the risks that a man such as Joshua Reid had to suffer, including the period when he joined his compatriots in their battles with management in work stoppages over their rights to better working conditions, housing and schooling for their children.

This story continues.

3 responses to “A Tribute to My Grandfather, Joshua Austin Reid

  1. The American government has never fully acknowledged the grand contributions of the West Indians in the construction of the Panama Canal; and their undying loyalty in its(Panama Canal) maintenance and function and the human stability they created and fostered in the former Panama Canal Zone was monumental.We Panamaninas of West Indian descent are living historical museums. My paternal grandfather built many of the houses in Silver City and Rainbow City.I remember as a child walking with my mom, and she would pint to the many houses that he built.

    What a legacy!!Que legado!


  2. Its a pity we don’t have any media links to Jamaica(I am Jamaican) but my interest in where my people’s blood runs is deep. I see Cuba, Panama, C. Rica, along the Caribbean coast as my people and blood.Good work keep the info flowing.

  3. Kyle,
    Brother we are hoping and praying that more of our people, not only in Jamaica and Barbados, but all over our beloved Caribbean and Latin America would, not only media link but would just remember us and get to realize that we could publish more and better stories if you all would just honor us with small donations.
    This year of 2014 will mark 166 years since the first large group of Jamaicans, young and strong men, reached these shores. We are not only memorializing them but all the West Indian blood from all over the archipelago that made a home for us in these parts. Keep spreading the good news!

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