The English Language Press in Panama

The Panama Tribune’s masthead.

The West Indian English Language Press in Panama From the moment the great bulk of West Indians arrived on the Isthmus to participate in the construction of the Great Waterway they, as well as a few American entrepreneurs, began a veritable tradition in putting their feelings, experiences, needs and wants into press- in English. The English Language Press has an interesting if not always consistent history on the Panamanian isthmus and, thanks, for the most part, to Mr. Anthony MacLean’s chronology, a unique publication outlining the West Indian participation in this history, we’ve been able to encapsulate it for our readers. Where ever and whenever possible we’ve cited circulation figures.

Beginning in 1904 Mr. Clifford Bynoe, a native of Barbados, founded in the City of Colon the first printing press and went on to publish The Independent. By 1905 another Colon paper, The Colon Starlett (La Estrellita de Colón), with a bilingual format, was already reporting on the high percentage of employment applications (7,000 to 8,000) sent in by Americans to the Department of Employment of the new Canal Company.

In 1912 The Workman, a weekly newspaper founded by H.N. Waldron, an immigrant from St. Lucia, began circulating and continued to do so, providing sorely needed news and information to the English speaking community (which was the bulk of the work force) until 1930, when it was basically replaced by The Panama Tribune.

In 1928 Sidney Adolphus Young (1898-1959) founded the weekly newspaper The Panama Tribune which, as we previously noted, replaced The Workman. Young, a Kingston-born reporter and publisher, began his career in journalism as assistant manager for The Central American News in 1924. He had previously been a proprietor of a mercantile company and a bakery in Panama. He was cable and West Indian editor for the Panama Star and Herald from 1925 to 1928, and from 1928 until his death he served as editor and publisher of The Panama Tribune.

Young was described as taking a “leading part in nearly all welfare organizations and active movements for the advancement of West Indians in Panama.” A fiercely independent and brilliant man it was largely due to a racist incident in The Panama American that led Sydney Young to found The Panama Tribune. In 1926, as wire service editor of the former, he up and quit when the publisher told him, “No matter how much work you do, I could never think of paying you the same salary as I pay a white man.”

Two years later he started The Panama Tribune with some borrowed cash and a group of volunteer writers. Having reached circulation figures of about 6,500 with an extended readership in Central America and, to a more limited extent, in Jamaica and the Caribbean, it would eventually enjoy the longest run of all Westindian newspapers, forty-four years (1928-1972).  It folded in 1972.

Sidney Adolphus Young died in 1959. During his lifetime he received what is probably Panama’s highest award to personages of outstanding merit “La Orden de Vasco Nuñez de Balboa.”

George Westerman, the Tribune’s sports writer for many years, would dedicate his life to journalism, advocacy, and research and writing on the trials and triumphs of black people in the Americas. His papers, in fact, form the George Westerman Collection of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture of the New York Public Library.

Arcelio Hudson, owner of Hudson Printing Press in the City of Colon published another weekly called El Nativo which was also presented in bilingual format. Born in Bocas del Toro Province, his father, Juan Hudson Burke, had participated in the border dispute with Costa Rica, La Guerra de Coto. El Nativo was probably the last newspaper printed in the City of Colon. Arcelio Hudson died at the age of 86 in 1997.

The English Language Press under the Americans:

As early as February 24, 1849, the Americans J. B. Bidleman, S. Heranie y J. Bachman, founded The Panama Star, which appeared as a weekly. The newspaper flopped and in November of that same year the publication passed into the hands of one P. Middleton, who assumed its operation more as a personal distraction from his usual business and he teamed up with Francis W. Rice, the American Consul at the time. Between 1852 and 1853 it came out three times a week in English, while on February 1, 1852, its first Spanish language edition debuted as La Estrella de Panama which began a consistent daily circulation then.

On April 15, 1851 The Panama Herald, is founded by James H. Middleton and Colonel Edmond Green. The two newspapers merge into one newspaper on May 2, 1854 under the name The Star & Herald which would, shortly thereafter, change ownership to Boyd and John Poer. The newspaper could care less about the news on the isthmus and its front page was basically dedicated to advertising until, in 1912, actual news items began appearing on the front page, at which time this aspect was given major importance within the newspaper. The articles as well as its contributors gained in quality after the change of ownership in 1918; so much so that in 1948 thanks to the work of Albert V. Mac Geachy the paper received a silver medal.

It began as a traditional 16 page tabloid and The Star & Herald was always linked for many years to the American AP news service from which it derived most of its news articles. By 1955 it had reached a weekly circulation of 26,000 and a Sunday distribution of 31,000.

In 1925 Nelson Rounsevell founded The Panama American Publishing Company, Inc., which published The Panama American an English language daily aimed primarily at serving the informational needs of the English community of the American Canal Zone. This well circulated newspaper reached circulation figures of 12,800 units.

Suffice it to say that distribution of the various newspapers on the Isthmus became a more sophisticated and organized operation by the 1950’s. The newspapers, now published in Panama City were sent via air cargo to Colon, situated on the other extreme or the Atlantic Zone of the Canal, and to the major cities of the country.

The Spanish language newspapers deal primarily with local-national information dedicating very little space to international news. On the other hand, the problems and issues of the international scene have always been focused upon in the English language newspapers. For a great while the most widely read newspaper on the Canal Zone (former Canal Zone), was The Star (The Star and Herald) English edition.

Today The Panama News founded and edited by Mr. Eric Jackson is the only English language bi-weekly paper that was once also widely read by the Canal Zone population covering a broad variety of local-national as well as international news topics. It is an excellent and highly respected on-line read.

This story continues.

9 responses to “The English Language Press in Panama

  1. Being able to read your blog is so beneficial to me. We’ve spoken briefly on facebook, but I’ve been researching my Panamanian history for years (and I’m only 22), so much so that I’m making it my duty to learn as much as possible and educate as much as possible through academia (PhD program at Michigan State University) and in my social life (freelance writing, regular conversations, etc). Thanks for your entries. I wish my dad was tech-savvy enough to be able to read the things that you’re writing. My grandfather worked on the Panama Canal and he just died a few years ago, so I didn’t get to get my history lesson from him by the time I was old enough and not scared to ask. So again, thanks so much! I plan to email you soon…

    All best,

  2. Violeta,

    Sorry about your grandfather. It’s a shame how many young people are old enough but too “scared” to ask the elders about their experiences. They’re missing out.

  3. Dear Roberto,

    Thank you for your useful article on the English language press in Panama. Do you know if any copies of “El Nativo” exist? I’m working on a journal article about a newspaper from the US South that made its way to Bocas del Toro Panama in 1926. I’m wondering if it would have been referenced in “El Nativo.” It would be great to see some issues of the paper if they’re available. Thank you.

  4. Hello,
    This is Jill in Phoenix, Arizona. I have a very tattered and yellowed book dated 1933 and signed “Nelson Rounsevell” across the title page. The cover is torn off but has a cartoon-style drawing of a balding man counting a stack of coins, along with several phrases: “Rumbling, Grumbling, and Four-Flushing by N.R.” and “He’s always calling somebody something” and “El hombre que se mete en todo.”missing). Edition I have is in Spanish; its title is La historia de la vida de “N. R., with subtitle “40 años de vagancia, juego y periodismo,” and the cover page indicates that it was published [impreso] in both Spanish and English. I would like to know more about this book and wish I had a way to obtain a copy of it in better condition, as it looks to be fascinating. The edition I have is semi perfect-bound, with both the binding and the pages appearing to be newsprint bound into a volume. Very weak condition. Any information much appreciated. Thank you

    • Jill,
      Sounds like you have a genuine rare book on your hands and, yes, it sounds fascinating all right. Google around for “rare Books” and try to find a forum where you can post your questions. Also, I found an interesting article a while back about rare books. Check it out here. Thanks for stopping by.

      • Dear Cobra Lady,

        I did not know of your reply until just now. Thank you for taking time to respond. I’ll follow your suggestion

        Best regards,

        Jill G.

  5. Sandra Taitt-Eaddy

    I am looking for any information on the life of H. N. Walrond, the editor of the newspaper “The Workman” published in Panama from 1912-1930s. We have no idea about his life post 1930 and are hoping that someone recognizes his name and can help up.