Repatriation Without Compensation

Above we get a glimpse of a
Silver Roll Disability Relief Check Line
circa 1947.
Image thanks to George W. Westerman.

In a 1912 report prepared by the Isthmian Canal Commission revealed that immigration to the Isthmus of Panama continued in reduction since there were more immigrants than emigrants even though the difference in favor of the former was only of 3,510. In order to meet the demand for unskilled labor at the beginning of this fiscal year, the Agency was forced to bring 941 workers of the small nearby islands recruited by its representative in Barbados. This represented the arrival of the last unskilled labor group to Canal Zone.

Altogether 44,394 workers had been brought to the Isthmus by the Commission from which 11,697 came from Europe and more than 19,000 from Barbados. The rest had been recruited from the other islands of the Antilles and Colombia. Not included in these figures, however, are the thousands of workers who had not arrived under contract but had used their own resources to get to Panama like my Jamaican grandfathers.

The report added that there existed a balance between the supply and demand of labor up to and including its (the report’s) date of publication. As an excess of labor occurred, it was hoped, it said, that the neighboring countries could “absorb the excess,” since it was assumed that the reduction of the labor force would take place in a gradual manner. During a period of three months 1,339 workers were used by the United Fruit Company to work in Guatemala.

With the closing of some units, the excess of available labor was so great that it was necessary to make some arrangement to repatriate all those workers to whom the Commission was not able to assure employment. Preference was given, in the first place, to those workers who had been left without work and to their relatives; secondly, to those workers and their families who were in extremely impoverished circumstances and to those too old and incapacitated to physically “offer efficient service.” In most cases these repatriates were shipped out without pensions or compensation to sustain them in their home countries.

The first group of 140 people, received passage on the Magdalena of the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company weighing anchor out of Colon on Thursday 6 of October of 1914 bound for Barbados, Trinidad, Grenada, San Vicente, Santa Lucia, Montserrat, Antigua, Nevis and Saint Kitts. The second group left on the Metapan of the United Fruit Company on October 8 of the same year with 82 passengers on board to Kingston, Jamaica. On October 20, the Orotava of the Royal Mail carried 323 workers to Barbados. Many other boats did the same until a total of number of 3.355 repatriates reached their destinations all during the months of October, November and December of 1914 and all to the tune of a total cost of B/.52, 468.75. 49. (Balboas are equivalent to U.S. dollars).

This supposedly alleviated the labor situation somewhat (the unemployment) although the number that took advantage of this presumed opportunity of repatriation or to be returned home was disproportional to the numbers that were unemployed; the men apparently did not wish to return to their islands after becoming accustomed to the so-called high wages that predominated in the Canal Zone.

More importantly, however, the men and their families had heard of the fate awaiting them as repatriates without a pension, compensation or, generally, some kind of economic buffer to relocate them to the land from which they had been uprooted by dire economic conditions in the first place. It would have been no wonder that they would have been reluctant to return under these circumstances.

The body of this report was taken from George W. Westerman’s book, The Antillean Immigrants in Panama.

This story continues.

One response to “Repatriation Without Compensation

  1. Kyle and Svet Keeton

    Talk about being between a “rock and a hard place!”

    It seems that the existence just went from one hardship to another. But they always seem to come out stronger for the wear…


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