Bits & Pieces

October 20, 2010

Panama Forest And Sea, and Panama Canal Construction Laborers

Panama Forest And Sea
My classmate from Balboa High School, Espi Holford, forwarded this site to me.  It is a great collection of the forest and sea creatures found in Panama. 
The Forest area seen here is in the Gamboa area, half way across the canal.  The sea creatures are from the Pacific side of the Isthmus.  I think you will enjoy the beauty of the jungle and its creatures.
Panama Canal Construction Laborers
In many respects, the laborers of the Panama Canal construction days were real heroes.  Their great efforts made possible the arrival of August 15, 1914, when the first steamship, the SS Ancon, made the first inaugural crossing.  Many gave their lives, victims of diseases such as malaria, yellow fever, typhus, tuberculosis, pneumonia, dysentery, etc., as well as accidents of many different types.
By 1913, the non-U.S. labor force in the construction site consisted of the following:
From the Antilles Islands (Barbados, Martinique, Trinidad and other islands): 29,667
Spaniards:  8,722
Italians:  1,941
Colombians:  1,403
Panamanians:  357
Costa Ricans:  244
Jamaicans:  67
French:  19
Armenians:  14
Others:  69
When one thinks of the Antilleans who came to work on the canal, one thinks of Jamaicans.  But the truth is that, as seen above, they made an insignificant contribution.  The reason for this was that the Jamaican government prohibited its nationals from traveling to Panama to work.  Those allowed to leave had to pay a very high departure tax and few could afford it.
The Chinese had played a part during the French construction days but, contrary to the experience of their great contribution to the construction of the continental railroad in the U.S., in Panama they were a total failure as disease and depression decimated their ranks at a rapid pace.  They never played a part in the U.S. construction days.
The number of white workers joining the canal labor force increased to the numbers shown above when the sanitation efforts finally eradicated the mosquitoes carrying the dreaded diseases of Malaria and Yellow Fever.
Wages for laborers ranged from 10 cents to 13 cents an hour.  These were considered good wages in those days. 
Nevertheless, there would always be a great difference between the U.S. workers and the non-U.S. labor force.  The U.S. workers were considered "gold roll" employees while the non-U.S. were classified as "silver roll" workers and this also carried over to not only wage differences, but also in benefits and social status within the Canal Zone.
Strikes were never a problem during construction days and never interrupted the work.  However, the great slides at Culebra Cut did cause many disruptions to the project.  Even in 1914, a few months after the opening of the great project, a slide at Cucaracha Hill caused interruption of service for some time.
As for relations with the labor force, Goethals initiated the custom of meeting with the workers every Sunday morning to listen to, personally, any grievance they may have.  This served as a relief valve for pent-up tensions and over 100 workers would file by The Great Chief on each occasion.
At the end of the great enterprise, many laborers were repatriated at the expense of the United States, while many turned to United Fruit in Panama to offer their services.  However, there still remained an overabundance of labor in the country which eventually led to labor problems.
Group of Spaniard laborers. Photo taken at Culebra Cut on September 1913.
Part of the collection of the Panama Canal Commission
Material translated and edited from article by Alonso Roy, M.D., published in Epocas, July 1997.
Note locomotive in background
From The Past
Interior view of the department store "A La Ville De Paris", owned by H. de Sola and Company.
It was located on Central Avenue, in front of the side entrance to the Cathedral Church.
In the photo, taken by Carlos Endara on January 1906, during its Grand Opening, we can
observe Angel de Castro, one of the owners, leaning against the main counter.
Epocas, July 1997

- Luis R. Celerier
Longview, Texas