Sunday, July 17, 2011

Panama Canal

From Reuters, "Panama Canal's Black Builders Await Due Credit," by Tim Gaynor: Panama City (Reuters) - In the year when the United States is to cede control of the Panama Canal to Panama, the waterway's governing body has named a tugboat for its longest serving and most reliable employee.
Tugboat Cecil F. Haynes on the Panama Canal

But for Cecil Haynes, 86, a soft-spoken Panamanian of West Indian descent, it is more than just a personal tribute. It is long-awaited recognition of the role played by black labor in the canal's history.

"West Indians made a very valuable contribution to the canal," he said, sitting in the offices where he has worked since joining the commission in 1928. "But we never got the credit we deserved."

Between 1904 and the canal's completion on the eve of the First World War, more than 25,000 West Indians heeded U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt's call to "make the dirt fly."

As the Dec. 31 transition to Panamanian control looms, Haynes hopes the thousands of black workers who labored to build the canal will finally be honored alongside its white engineers.

Panamanian West Indian Museum

Housed in a one-room former colonial church in Panama City's rundown Calidonia district, the Panamanian West Indian Museum has championed the memory of the canal's black work force since the museum opened in 1981.

"The Americans were known for their engineering skill," said Melva Lowe Goodin, the museum's president. "But it was the West Indians who gave the sweat and the blood."

Black Labor On A White Canal


For the black workers from Barbados, Jamaica and Martinique who made up two-thirds of the canal's labor force, the work was hard, dangerous and indifferently paid.

"My father came here in 1904 to dig the ditch. Back then it was just jungle and mosquitoes," Haynes recalled with a smile.

White employees of the Canal Commission were given comfortable housing, while many black workers lived in railway boxcars or shacks in the forests bordering the work site.

In the early years, malaria and yellow fever were rife and accidents were frequent. Records at the wooden museum show that of 5,600 employees killed by disease and accidents between 1904 and the project's completion 10 years later, 4,500 were black.


Particularly hazardous were the vast excavations at Culebra Cut, a 9-mile(5.6-km)-long navigation channel blasted through the cordillera, the range that divides Panama, with dynamite.

Work crews were vulnerable to landslides as they dug the unstable slopes of the cut and accidents with dynamite were common. An explosion in 1908 killed 23 workers and injured 40.


With tragic irony, an action by the Canal Commission intended to improve public health put workers in even greater danger from landslides and explosions.

"Many workers went deaf as a side effect of the heavy doses of quinine they were required to take to treat malaria," Lowe Goodin said. "They just didn't hear the shouted warnings to get out of the way."

Canal Zone Caste SystemMore than seven decades after drawing his first paycheck, Haynes recalls the two-tier pay system that led to segregation of white and black workers in the U.S.-controlled Canal Zone.

"While white workers were paid on the gold roll, in U.S. dollars, we were all paid on the silver roll in local currency," he said.

Silver roll employees had to drink at separate drinking fountains and stand at different lines in the post office under what one observer called the "Canal Zone caste system."
The Canal Zone, a 10-mile(16-km)-wide security strip the length of the waterway, was run under U.S. federal laws, with its own court system and police force, until it reverted to Panamanian control in 1979.

"You couldn't go into gold roll shops," Haynes said. "And after working hours you couldn't be seen in the zone. You would be arrested for loitering or trespassing."

Black workers were classed as "helpers" although they might be qualified in a range of canal-related trades and were paid at half the rate of white co-workers.


American Experience The Panama Canal

Watch the full episode. See more American Experience.

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