The funds remitted by Barbadian labourers in Panama in the early 20th century are credited with transforming this island’s society, but the story of the conditions some of them had to endure to make that money made for a sordid tale.
Barbadians heard some grisly details last night when researcher and author Matthew Parker relayed the testing and, for many, disastrous experiences of Barbadians who took the 12-day journey by boat to help build the Panama Canal between 1904 and 1914.
In those 10 years, some 20,000 Barbadians between the ages of 20 and 40 sailed out and are said to have remitted to the island US$10 million, valued in today’s currency at US$100 million.
Parker, a British writer who authored Hell’s Gorge: The Battle to Build the Panama Canal, told an audience in the Barbados Museum’s courtyard about what one of the few Barbadian skilled workers in Panama, Harrigan Austin, said about conditions there:
“We were often forced to work in the rain, because if we stopped our wages were cut. Indeed, to some degree, life was some sort of semi-slavery and there was none to appeal to, for we were strangers and actually compelled to take what we got.”
But Parker noted that the exodus of Barbadian men, and some women who followed their husbands, was a bitter-sweet event as loved ones, family members and friends gathered at the Bridgetown dock, gaily coloured, to say their goodbyes.
At the same time, those men rejected from the trip for medical or other reasons paddled out in small boats and climbed aboard departing vessels, determined that they would make the voyage.
Parker spoke of the conditions in Barbados at that time that made the situation ripe for mass emigration.
He said that when the first American recruiter arrived, Bajans were already sailing off in the thousands to Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago.
“With wages so low, desperate poverty everywhere, and the tradition of emigration already established, it looked like fertile recruiting ground for the Americans,” Parker said.
There was initial reluctance by Barbadians to travel into the unknown, but that unwillingness vanished in about two years after some of the first few hundred brave labourers returned, showing off their wealth by riding in taxis about Bridgetown.
In 1906, there were 21 steamer voyages with 6,500 Barbadian recruits on board.
“Such was exodus of labour from Barbados that by early 1906 there was hardly any labour to go ahead with the sugar crop in the St James and St Peter parishes. Planters complained that the Panama itch was upsetting the labour market and creating excitement. The following year they passed legislation to restrict immigration, but huge protests saw the new rules ignored.”
These men who fled rough home conditions and faithfully dispatched their earnings to spur the development of today’s Barbados middle class, found themselves facing even more challenging times in Central America, out of which their endurance became legendary.
Dehumanizing treatment was the order of the day as they found themselves, along with Black nationals from other islands, at the bottom of a tiered structure of discrimination.
Topping the arrangement were the white Americans, whose government financed cutting of the canal across Panama from ocean to sea. Then there were the Black Americans, the local Spanish, and the Negro West Indians.
“On one occasion at the end of April, a group of about 150 men staged a sit-in when their American foreman ordered them back to work before anyone of them started eating. The demonstration grew more heated, with loud complaints about low wages and late payment,” Parker said.
“The foreman summoned the local police who charged the strikers and then chased them across the square. In the ensuing melee, 21 workers were seriously enough injured from bayonet stabs or rifle blows to require hospital treatment.”
Parker read an excerpt on the account of the incident by the Star and Herald newspaper: “The disgraceful scenes of yesterday will long live in the memory of those who witnessed them. The senseless attack upon inoffensive persons was enough to make anyone’s blood boil. Carelessness and utter indifference to the wants of the men who were brought here to do the actual work of digging the canal are silently, but nevertheless surely, breeding trouble.
It continued: “There is no denying the fact that the men have been badly paid and underfed, in many cases put to work under incompetent men possessing inherent hatred and contempt for the coloured races.”
A newspaper, founded in 1899 by a Barbadian, Clifford Bynoe, also reported: “One could scarcely breathe God’s free air without being clubbed and kicked. The American occupation then was a terror and disgrace.”
Parker said the lack or poor quality of food was a leading catalyst for discontent.
“Instead of the canal bringing with it good ole times, it is bringing hard work and starvation pay for the majority and fortune for the few,” The Independent newspaper reported at the end of 1904.
Parker said that on a wage of no more than a dollar a day, the West Indians were being asked to pay 75 cents for a dozen eggs, and 60 cents for a chicken. Coffee and bread brought to the worksite by West Indian women cost an hour’s wages.
“In their desperation many would survive on a diet of sugarcane, and becoming seriously malnourished,” he said.
Matthew relayed a description, by a Barbadian dynamite carrier named Arnold Small, of one of the toughest working areas known as Hell’s Gorge.
“There was no shelter from the sun or rain, there were no trees there, just a bare place. When the sun shines you get it, when the rain falls you get it, when the wind blows you get it,” he said.
Giving an example of how things were in the accident-prone working conditions, Parker recalled that in December 1908, 22 pounds of dynamite was set off accidentally, killing 23 and injuring 60.