They Would Laugh Me to Scorn!

This is a shot from an early “Silver Disability Relief Roll” line on the Canal Zone.

As I pointed out in the last post, even pensioners who succeeded in surviving to old age in condition enough to receive a pension from the Panama Canal and who repatriated back to the islands often found themselves in dire financial straits.  Only a minority of them who were lucky enough to have family and perhaps friends back home who were of a more sympathetic nature tended to survive a few more years on the paltry amount as a Silver Roll Disability and Relief recipient; but, these were few. 

It has been reported to us that very few of the repatriates, whether they received a pension or not,  survived well once they returned home.  Most of them met up with the reality of crushing poverty and the hostility and friendlessness that accompanies having been separated from childhood friends, family and homeland for twenty, thirty and even forty years.

The following is a poignant letter sent to the editors of the Panama Tribune (January 1952) expressing their greatest hope that the U. S. Congress address the plight of the old Panama Canal Silver Roll “pensioners.”  You can  judge for yourself. 


Barbados Gov’t Give Better Pension than PC

St. James, Barbados

British West Indies

Dear Mr. Editor,

I am glad to have received from a relative in the Canal Zone clippings of the Panama Tribune about the West Indian Stamp Issue.  They have solaced my heart and made me feel joyful, especially when I read the remarks of the good Gov. F.K. Newcomer about his being optimistic concerning the retirement bill and the likely increase in of our disability allowance.  I am looking with hope and expectation to the time when I will receive a pension that I wouldn’t be ashamed to tell my friends here about.

I cannot now tell anyone how much I am getting from the Canal Zone Government after thirty-six years of service.  It is such a small pittance that they would laugh me to scorn.

Retired workers here get a much better pension than the Panama Canal workers do.  A relative of mine worked for the Barbados government as a fireman and retired with twenty one years service on account of high blood pressure.  He was awarded FIFTEEN HUNDRED DOLLARS and FORTY-FIVE DOLLARS a month pension.  If he had put in thirty years this amount would have been doubled.  School masters of elementary school retire here at EIGHTY EIGHT DOLLARS a month and some receive more.

I wish to congratulate Mr. Geo. Westerman for his untiring efforts in bringing about a better understanding between the underprivileged so-called local rate worker and the Canal Zone Government.  This realization is a credit to him and I am hoping to hear lots more about his activities.

The stamps tributing the West Indians who assisted in building the Panama Canal I will keep as a souvenir. This tribute should have been made long ago but it’s better late than never.

Your very truly,


This story continues.

2 responses to “They Would Laugh Me to Scorn!

  1. There were always rumors that some of the pensioners living in Panama were slowly and quietly murdered by American doctors in Gorgas and Coco Solo Hospitals.

    This is why many folks began to monitor their old relatives very well. The Americanas never anticipated that God himself protected many of the old West Indian builders of the Panama canal, because a good many of them were blessed with the very God given longevity, despite all odds.
    I always wondered how long the American ones(those special people) lived.


  2. Anita,
    Your point about our ancestors’ longevity is a good one and it was a feature in their character, their culture as well as their genetic makeup that amazed many people. My grandmother, Fanny Reid, for example, lived to be 94 years old and she brought with her a vast wealth of knowledge from Jamaica that has stayed with me even today only because I was willing to learn from her. These things that she taught me would serve me well in life to restore health and extend my life.