CHAPTER II: A CARGO OF BLACK IVORY
ALTHOUGH the outbreak of yellow fever in Barbados was not serious, the quarantine wrecked my plans. I had expected to leave the island on the Royal Mail boat for Colon. But as long as the quarantine lasted no ship which touched at Bridgetown would be allowed to enter any other Caribbean port. ...
I told him my troubles without further introduction.
He turned out to be a man named Earner employed by the Isthmian Canal Commission to recruit laborers. It had been an interesting job experimenting in racial types. From first to last the Commission had tried about eighty nationalities, Hindoo coolies, Spaniards, negroes from the States, from Africa, from Jamaica, from the French Islands, to settle down to those from Barbados. They have proved the most efficient. This recruiting officer was about to send over a consignment of seven hundred on an especially chartered steamer. They would avoid the quarantine restrictions by cruising about the six days necessary for yellow fever to mature. Then, if their bill of health was clear they could dock. My new acquaintance was not exactly enthusiastic.
It would be easy to arrange for my passage on this boat, he said, but he did not think that one white passenger among this cargo of blacks would have a very pleasing time. But of course I jumped at the chance; it was this or the risk of being held up for weeks. I was considerably cheered when I looked over the boat. I was to have the first cabin all to myself and the freedom of the little chart-house deck under the bridge. With a pipe and a bag full of ancient books about the brave old days on the Spanish Main, I could even expect to enjoy the trip.
I told him my troubles without further introduction. After leaving the boat I met Earner at his office and we went to the recruiting station. On our way we walked through the little park which is grandiloquently called Trafalgar Square. There must have been two or three thousand negroes crowded along one side of it -applicants for work on the Canal Zone and their friends. The commission pays negro laborers ten cents an hour, and ten hours a day. Their quarters are free, and meals cost thirty cents a day. It is a bonanza for them. Barbados is vastly over-populated, work is scant, and wages unbelievably low.
Last year the Barbadian negroes on the Isthmus sent home money-orders to their relatives for over $300,000, so there is no end of applicants. Several policemen kept the crowd in order and sent them up into the recruiting station in batches of one hundred at a time. The examination took place in a large, bare loft. When Karner and I arrived we found two or three of his assistants hard at work. As the men came up, they were formed in line around the wall. First, all those who looked too old, or too young, or too weakly, were picked out and sent away. Then they were told that no man who had previously worked on the canal would be taken again. I do not know why this rule has been made, but they enforced it with considerable care. One or two men admitted having been there before and went away. Then the doctor told them all to roll up their left sleeves, and began a mysterious examination of their forearms. Presently he grabbed a man and jerked him out of the line, cursing him furiously. "You thought you could fool me, did you? It won't do you any good to lie, you've been there before. Get out!"
I asked him how he told, and he showed me three little scars like this, .'., just below the man's elbow.
"That's my vaccination mark," he said. "Every negro who has passed the examination before has been vaccinated like that, and I can always spot them."
Then he went over the whole line again for tracoma, rolling back their eyelids and looking for inflammation. Seven or eight fell at this test. Then he made them strip and went over them round after round for tuberculosis, heart trouble, and rupture. A few fell out at each test. I don't think more than twenty were left at the end out of the hundred, and they certainly were a fine and fit lot of men.
This is NOT Barbados, but Apartheid South Africa. The visuals seemed to match the text.
All during the examination I had never seen a more serious-looking crowd of negroes, but when at last the doctor told them that they had passed, the change was immediate. All their teeth showed at once and they started to shout and caper about wildly. A flood of light came in through the window at the end, and many streaks shot down through the broken shingles on their naked bodies. It was a weird sight something like a war dance as they expressed their relief in guffaws of laughter and strange antics. It meant semi-starvation for themselves and their families if they were rejected, and untold wealth a dollar a day if they passed. They were all vaccinated with the little triangular spots, their contracts signed, and they went prancing down-stairs to spread the good news among their friends in the square.
Sailing day was a busy one. They began putting the cargo of laborers aboard at sun-up. When I went down about nine to the dock, it seemed that the whole population of darkest Africa was there. I never saw so many negro women in my life. All of them in their gayest Sunday clothes, and all wailing at the top of their voices. Every one of the departing negroes had a mother and two or three sisters and at least one wife all weeping lustily. There was one strapping negro lass with a brilliant yellow bandanna on her head who was something like the cheer-leader at a college football game; she led the wailing.
A number would be called, the negro whose contract corresponded would step out of the crowd. A new wail would go up. Again there was a medical examination especially a search for the recent vaccination marks. For often a husky, healthy negro will pass the first examination and sell his contract. Then by boat loads the men were rowed aboard.
About four o'clock I rowed out and went aboard. Such a mess you never saw what the Germans would call "ein Schweinerei." There were more than seven hundred negroes aboard, each with his bag and baggage. It was not a large boat, and every square inch of deck space was utilized. Some had trunks, but most only bags like that which Dick Whittington carried into London. There was a fair sprinkling of guitars and accordions. But the things which threw the most complication into the turmoil were the steamer chairs. Some people ashore had driven a thriving trade in deck chairs flimsy affairs, a yard-wide length of canvas
hung on uncertain supports of a soft, brittle wood. The chairs took up an immense amount of room, and the majority of "have nots" were jealous of the few who had them. It was almost impossible to walk along the deck without getting mixed up in a steamer chair.
There were more formalities for the laborers to go through. The business reminded me of the way postal clerks handle registered mail. Every negro had a number corresponding to his contract, and the utmost precaution was taken to see that none had been lost and that no one who had not passed the medical examination had smuggled himself on board.
We pulled up anchor about six. All the ship's officers head moved into the saloon; it was the only clean place aboard a sort of white oasis in the black Sahara. For fresh air the only available space was the chart-house deck. There was so much to do in getting things shipshape that none of the officers appeared at dinner. So I ate in solitary grandeur. The cabin was intolerably stuffy, for at each of the twenty-four portholes the round face of a grinning negro cut off what little breeze there was. There was great competition among the negroes for the portholes and the chance to see me eat. As nearly as I could judge the entire seven hundred had their innings. I faced out the first three courses with a certain amount of nonchalance, but with the roast the twenty-four pairs of shining eyes constantly changing got on my nerves. I did scant justice to the
salad and dessert, absolutely neglected the coffee, and, grabbing my writing-pad, sought refuge up on deck. The steward, I suppose, thought I was seasick.
The negroes very rapidly accommodated themselves to their new surroundings. The strangeness of it in some mysterious way stirred up their religious instincts; they took to singing. A very sharp line of cleavage sprang up. The port side of the ship was Church of England, the starboard,
Nonconformist. The sectarians seemed to be in the majority, but were broken up into the Free Baptists, Methodists, etc. The Sons of God would go forth to war on the port side, while something which sounded like a cross between "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," and Salvation Army
rag-time was in full blast to starboard.
There was only one song, a secular one, on which they united. The tune ran something like "Tammany," and as near as I could catch the words the chorus ran:
" Fever and ague all day long
At Panama, at Panama,
Wish you were dead before very long
At Panama, at Panama."
Not exactly a cheerful song, but they sang it with great fervor.
...That night we ran into heavy weather, and I have never seen anything messier than the deck in the morning. Seven hundred seasick negroes are not a pretty sight, but there was a certain selfish joy in seeing that this storm had made an end of those steamer chairs. They were all smashed to splinters the moment we began to roll.
"I hope," the captain said at breakfast, "that this keeps up. Seasickness will take the mischief out of them." But his wish was not granted. By noon we had run into a sea like a sheet of corrugated iron, just little ripples, and a metallic look. We were running about eleven degrees north, and it certainly was hot. There was not a breath of wind. The negroes recovered with their habitual quickness, and were in an unusually amiable mood. They turned out willingly to help the crew wash down the decks. I have never seen water evaporate so quickly. One minute the decks were glistening with water, the next they were already dry, within five minutes they were too hot to walk on barefooted.
Of course these negroes were not very comfortable. But they were free! There are many men still living who can remember when slave-ships sailed these very waters. It is hard to imagine what life on a slave-ship must have been. The effort to reconstruct the horrors of those days not so
very long past makes the inconveniences which this cargo of black ivory suffer seem small indeed. Above all, there was no one among them who was not here of his own free will. There was not one of them whose heart was not full of hope this voyage to them all meant opportunity. Think what it must have meant to their forefathers! Nothing which happened to them after they were landed and sold could have approached the agony of the long voyage in irons, thrown pell-mell into the hold of a sailing ship. Not knowing their captors' language, they could not know the fate in store for them. The world does move.
When, in the far future, the history of our times is written, I think that our father's generation will be especially remembered because it abolished the negro slave trade. They invented steam-engines and all manner of machines; they cut down a great many trees and opened up a continent and did other notable things. But their crowning glory was that they made an end of chattel-slavery.
Until these imported negro laborers are handed over to the United States authorities at Colon they are under the paternal care of Great Britain. The conditions under which they have been recruited, the terms of their contracts, have been carefully supervised by English officials. Above all, their health is guarded. Their daily menus and they are quite sumptuous have been ordered by His Majesty's government in London.
(source: Panama, The Canal, The Country and The People, 1914)