Image thanks to Afro-Panavisions
If not to anyone else, it has been proven to me that, without a doubt, the Silver Men absorbed most of the psychological damage of working in an oppressive segregated system and in a generally difficult work environment. The legendary Silver Men who comprised the vast majority of the Panama Canal Zone labor force earned the honor of being unique workmen- tough, versatile, resilient and loyal.
They were, however, just human beings whose role, as it turned out, was to provide the greatest sacrifice. They were then summarily ignored as the world witnessed the creation of such wonders that transformed into reality whatever came off the drawing boards of mere dreamers.
History, in fact, would, for centuries, extol the exploits of men of the European race who, tired of exploring, dreamed of realizing a shorter sea route to the commercial bounties that the Asian shores offered. The once congenial, soft spoken, intelligent and eager Westindian workmen, however, would hardly receive a mention. The feats of these black dynamos and what their arms, shoulders, hands, legs, intellects and imaginations accomplished would remain largely ignored by historians and the lofty chairs of the Black Studies departments of respected universities.
This collective amnesia points to the hidden side of the story of how the heads of great multi-national corporations came to be financial geniuses on the stock markets around the known world. There have even emerged Nobel Prize scholars, acclaimed intellects in economics, who have received more international applause for their Keynesian theories while the psychological downside of the story behind the real laborers remains untold even into our present 21st century.
If the story be told then it must come from the surviving generations. The story must be told of how men saw their fathers work and die as young men from the rigorous pace of work that would eventually revolutionize the world; men who had known nothing but work from as young as fourteen or fifteen years of age, sacrificing their lives to assist their parents with some income. Their jobs may have ranged from just carrying water and supplies to laboring down in the dirt pits, but, more often than not, they worked at hard, exhausting work for sixteen to eighteen hours at a time with little or no relief in sight for their bodies or their psyche.
A good example of how Westindian workers had to draw upon their own versatility and strength is embodied in the story of Edward Howell who worked for the Canal for 47 years and went from ditch digger on the dynamite fields to water boy to many more occupations until he wound up in the Cristobal Treasurer’s Office where he, eventually, became a clerk and money counter. His testimony points to the kinds of perilous working conditions men had to put up with and still remain ever trustworthy and vigorous for the work at hand. It is an interesting narrative, to say the least, and quite descriptive of the times.
There was no form of psychological or emotional consideration for men who after having worked, slept and ate alongside their fellow co-workers would one day wake up to discover that their companion had breathed his last during the night and that the surviving workers had little else to do but bury him oftentimes without knowing how to contact family members in their distant island homes. Their all-male world braced itself to deal with untreated disease, dementia and alcoholism, issues that these groups of men had little preparation or time to confront. Periods of labor unrest were not uncommon but all too often the workers internalized their well founded and unresolved maladies bringing home their baggage of frustrations.
As I’ve related before in the lives of my grandfathers, for men who had started families or were thinking of starting one their economic expectations would remain virtually unchanged throughout their lives, the only change being that they would have a female as dependent with the ability to shop regularly at the company store called the Silver Commissary. In fact, a wage earning Silver Man with a Commissary Book to offer in those times in Panama that lacked shopping facilities was quite a catch, even if his wages were inadequate to maintain a family. I do believe, though, although I have no statistics to back me up, that this is the reason why many Westindian men remained single and never did make many lasting commitments with women. This was one way they could continue to survive and cope.
This story continues.