The Insular Westindian Societies

The photo is a 1930 view of the Jamaican Society in a
procession from the Edith Cavell Hall to the Society’s
headquarters in Calidonia.

In the early days of the Republic of Panama, the days in which the Westindian presence was much more predominant and important to the growing nation, fraternal and benevolent societies, lodges and clubs were springing up like weeds.

This, however, wasn’t always seen favorably by everyone in the Westindian society. In an interesting editorial in 1930 we are given a glimpse into some of the important issues facing the Westindians and the country they, wittingly or unwittingly, were shaping with their very presence.In a “General Error” the Editor writes:

“A comparatively short while ago when the societies which welcome only the members of the islands they are named for were organized, the idea was opposed by many persons of our community, not excluding ourselves. The societies then styled ‘insular’ later became known as colonial societies, and since then have all grown great in membership and funds, and some have justified their existence by the splendid work they are doing.”

The Editor then goes on to enumerate the chief objections to the formation of these societies, the main objection being that “they would tend to separate a people who were entirely too far apart as it was, and who need(ed) means to weld them together, rather than to emphasize the gulf between them.”

It was further felt that had these associations been established 20 years previous when the bulk of the Westindian labor force was arriving on the Isthmus, they would have served to a much greater advantage in helping their newly arriving brethren. They began forming, the Editor felt, when there was no apparent need for them. Despite opposition to these “colonial” societies they did organize themselves and got to work taking care of their sick, burying their dead (an increasingly important role at the time), and developing other badly needed social programs, and they did it with surprising success.

A commentary from the Jamaica Mutual and Protective Society of Colon, however, stirred controversy and the Editor of the Tribune saw it necessary to respond especially since it was coming from their juvenile branch- something Sidney Young found self-contradictory since “if the JMPSC was For Jamaicans ONLY, where did they get the young Jamaicans to compose the roll of their Juvenile section?” Evidently they admitted the children of Jamaicans born in Panama.

In a letter addressed to the Editor, a Mrs. Linda Smart Chubb the opposition to this insular way of approaching their society by blaming the widespread neglect of Panamanian children of West Indian parentage is the fact that they fail to emphasize to their children that since they have been born in Panama they are “entitled to the rights and privileges and opportunities that this country can afford.”

She further stated that these children were citizens of this country and that when they were grown they would be eligible to “play a part in the scheme of things.” This ignorance that the children were growing up with she blamed on their elders. She blamed the parents and grandparents for not even giving a thought to enrolling their children in the newly emerging government schools in the “face of a minimum of educational advantages in the schools teaching English in the Republic.”

In these schools, she felt, they would have “an opportunity of gaining an education in Spanish, the language of their native land.” She attributed the children’s suffering to the stunted outlook of their parents in tying them down to the customs and training of countries they knew nothing about and would never see.

And, of course, the government of Panama is also at fault for shirking their responsibility in making these educational facilities available to this new group of citizens. Why should they force opportunities on those who do not seek them of their own volition? She urged that the sooner they realized, “like the other foreigners,” that children born in this country are full fledged Panamanian citizens, and entitled to all they can get, the greater will be the field for the rising generation.” The Editor also went on to label “Juvenile West Indian Societies” as “ridiculous,” and while extending temporary aid will only impede the children ultimately.

Mrs. Chubb and Sidney Young make very good points for the early societies to break out of their insularity and adapt to the times and changes inherent in them. But, I will admit that the old immigrants who formed these societies created them with a great deal of wisdom and experience under their belts in what it was like for Black foreigners to be assimilated into a hostile society. After all , they were not “like all the rest of foreigners” in Panama; they were considered by many politicians and oligarchs, and other nationals as “invaders” who would soon make the expected exit out of the country once the precious Canal was built and on its destined path to Glory.

Even the early immigrants could not foresee that the cultural and linguistic contributions could possibly be an advantage to the coming generations and not a hindrance. This we would see in the decades to come.

We shall take a closer look at the multitude of societies organized by these original Silvermen and how they helped the coming generations.

This story continues.

One response to “The Insular Westindian Societies


    really interesting!
    & a very nice picture! ~peace nyvette