The Panama Canal Zone Police- Part II

Penitentiary at Culebra 1908. Image thanks to the National Archives.

There have been several theories suggested for the relative peace and order that existed in the Canal Zone. The “effectiveness of the police forces and the low level of serious crime”, according to Michael Conniff,* could have been linked to “the British claim to have taught their subjects respect for law and order. Secondly, the work regime of 60 hours a week kept the men under close watch during their waking hours and left little time or energy for getting into trouble afterwards. Third, the summary,” and, many times, arbitrary,” justice meted out by U.S. and Panamanian courts was so harsh as to be a ‘positive’ restraint.”*

The Canal Zone police also spent a great deal of time involving itself in labor issues. An early planning document (1904) proposed that “the enforcement of contracts with these ignorant people will be very difficult matter, unless the power exists somewhere of arbitrarily controlling imported contract labor.” The Canal Zone police carried out this purpose through the use of spies, deportation, strikebreaking, intimidation, and diplomatic intervention. One of their popular techniques was to encourage the Panamanian police to arrest unemployed men and threaten them with incarceration or deportation if they did not sign up for work on the canal.

Since in 1904 the Panamanian government disbanded its army all together, the police force was effectively weakened especially during these construction years when there was a sudden explosion in population in both Panama City and Colon. It is said that the police relied greatly on the predictable and “good behavior of the West Indians,” and, when that was not possible, on the “intervention rights of the United States.” It seems that in 1905 an incident in which the Panamanian police attacked protesting Jamaican laborers in Panama City brought out their close relationship to the Canal Zone police. It is said that this episode embarrassed U.S. officials and further curtailed, if not prevented, the recruitment of Jamaicans.

The Panamanian police also had a rather predatory attitude toward the West Indians under their jurisdiction. They viewed them, as many Panamanians viewed them, as foreigners and a “temporary inconvenience” caused by the canal construction. They often extorted money from them, harassed and intimidated these “outsiders” to flex their own power as intermediaries in the existing pecking order. The British minister, with whom many West Indians filed complaints and lawsuits, finally induced Panama to hire West Indians to police their own neighborhoods, which eventually proved somewhat successful.

Physical and verbal abuses of blacks by the Canal Zone whites were frequent and often went unpunished or even unsanctioned. In 1906 the Police Chief had listed 9 cases in which white Americans were fined for “accosting” blacks. Since the U.S. government had decided not to use juries in the Zone courts because of their, according to officials, “ineffectiveness” in handling racial violence in the South, this opened up another avenue for the perpetration of injustice in matters relating to racial issues. Whites still managed to intimidate witnesses, white or black. An observer of the times noted in a letter written in 1907, “Race feeling…is at a fever heat and is liable to develop seriously at any moment. Every man who resorts to the courts, or is a witness in any case, is immediately discharged.” In 1908, jury trials were finally introduced, and in several notable cases whites were acquitted for having murdered blacks.

The everyday and frequent verbal (and often physical) abuses by whites, however, never really made the headlines. Most of the Silvermen of that era recall the intimidating treatment they received as “niggers.” One Westindian remembered these days in seven painful words; “Life was some sort of semi slavery.” The Canal Zone police had a grand part in enforcing and often creating this atmosphere of fear, intimidation and injustice in the American Canal Zone for the West Indian blacks. The Canal Zone police was finally disbanded on December 31, 1999, the year the Panama Canal was reverted to the Republic of Panama.

Black Labor on a White Canal- Panama, 1904-1914, by Michael L. Conniff, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1985.

This story continues.


4 responses to “The Panama Canal Zone Police- Part II

  1. Kyle & Svet Keeton

    What a way to get employees. Sounds like how they use to get guys to sign up in the Army. You can go to jail or…. join the Army!

    You answered my questions, like you always do. 🙂

    The fact that the West Indians were naturally such a calm peaceful group, did this natural behavior have a positive or negative effect with the white men? Other words would the relationship have been worse if the West Indians had been a more aggressive violent race?

    Hope you understand what I am trying to say.


  2. Hi Kyle,

    This is a relevant question and it was a factor in specifically choosing the West Indians over say, the Panamanian nationals who were prone to avoid stoop labor and gruelling field work (pick and shovel) and were very conflictive and not as obedient as the West Indians. Also the West Indians spoke English and many of them had a good primary school (and often beyond) education. This was the case with the Jamaican bosses. Also the West Indians were possessed of the “work ethic,” something the Americans noted right away before importing them as laborers. They knew that with these characteristics they had a good chance to finish the canal.


  3. Kyle & Svet Keeton

    Hey Roberto,

    Thanks that makes sense. Seems that the West Indians are a race blessed with strong family background that teaches the important aspects of life.



  4. I think so too, Kyle!!!