Repatriation and Broken Promises

The governors of the Panama Canal Zone,
top : Julan L. Schley, middle: Harry Burgess
images thanks to:

In continuing our discussion of the repatriation of Westindians who had labored on the Panama Canal we must bear in mind the fact that many of the points in the workers’ contracts had been violated, particularly with regard to their work hours, wages and overtime promised, medical benefits, and the fact that few workers ever saw their earnings report throughout their experience with the ICC. By the same token, not included in the statistics are the salient facts attached to the U.S. government’s dealings with this large group of people (as opposed to machinery).

A great many repatriates were being “shipped back” in pathetic physical condition with numerous infirmities after having been, literally, worked to death. Also, for too many, repatriation would mean the end of the flow of Panamanian Silver dollars back to their home towns, making them now an unwelcome burden instead of an asset for their island economies.

During the period between 1914 and 1921, a total of 13,319 Westindians were repatriated, but during that same period 9,070 (new workers) arrived on the Isthmus. Although the Canal authorities repatriated those laborers who were unemployed to the Islands of Barbados and Jamaica, it is said that many “arranged,” somehow, to return to the Isthmus since Panama did not have restrictive immigration laws at that time.

After apprising themselves of this trend, Canal Authorities “suggested” to the government of Panama and the local British authorities that they had to adopt pertinent measures to stop this immigration by Westindians. The growth of the Westindian population in the Canal Zone and the cities of Panama and Colon at both ends of the Canal exceeded the necessity for manual labor and with the reduction of labor in the Canal as well as in the business sectors in Panama, in general, unemployment worsened, as much for the Westindians as for the Panamanians.

In trying to lessen the problem in 1933 Panama appealed to the U.S. Department of State arguing that the government of the United States had a great interest in the repatriation of the “foreign elements” it had brought to Panama and which had invariably become elements of competition for Panamanian workers and a burden for the government of the Republic of Panama.

On February 24, 1933, Dr. Ricardo J. Alfaro, Minister of Panama in Washington, had an interview with the Secretary of State of the United States, Henry L. Stimson, in which he explained to him the difficult situation in which the Panamanian worker as much as the national government had been placed with the presence in Panama and Colon of a great number of foreign workers who had arrived on the Isthmus under contract who, in their majority, were Westindian. Minister Alfaro asked the Department of State to favorably consider the recommendations of governors Harry Burgess and Julian L. Schley that the U.S. Senate move to allocate B/.150, 000 to repatriate these foreign workers.

The governors of the Canal insisted on the fact that the excess of Westindian “elements” in the terminal cities constituted a liability to Panamanian interests and to relations between Panama and the United States and that it was advisable, for the joint interests of both governments, to apply remedies that were advisable and practical to the situation.

The continued insistence on the part of the Panamanian government produced its expected results in 1934 when the Congress of the United States authorized an allocation of $150,000 to repatriate the unemployed Westindians and their families who had offered at least three years of service to the government of the United States or to the Panama Railroad Company. In addition to boat passage, a sum of B/.25.00 was paid to each unmarried man and B/.50.00 to those men with families.

Immediately upon allocation of the said amount, 2,723 people were repatriated, amongst these l, 660 employees and 1,063 members of their families. Once this sum was spent an additional B/.50, 000 was allocated in 1950 to continue with the program.

Between 1904 and 1953 the government of the United States repatriated 22,901 people from the Panama Canal Zone. For a detailed breakdown of these repatriations please open this link.

This story continues.

2 responses to “Repatriation and Broken Promises

  1. Kyle and Svet Keeton

    Strange how a necessity at one point can cause issues later on.

    What was a blessing in a way for the Westindians with a constant supply of money going home became a burden when the building of the canal ended.

    The amount paid at the end seemed minor in comparison to the toll that was input on to the Westindians while building the canal.

    Just some thoughts.


  2. The people who worked on the canal were used. SAD.