By Lydia M. Reid
The actual building of the Panama Canal which, unknown to many, was carried out in two phases, brought in a whole new series of factors in calculating the cost of building an engineering marvel of the kind that was inaugurated in 1914 in the tiny republic of Panama. The first building phase known as the French Period lasted ten years from 1881-1889. It, as well as the American Period, 1904-1914, will be remembered for its audacity but, more than for its boldness and engineering innovation, it will recall the enormous price paid in human life.
On the heels of the most costly piece of railroad track ever built in terms of human lives, The Panama Railroad, the French Period of the building of the Panama Canal simply carried forward and highlighted the hazards from the construction of the Railroad. The building of the Canal by the French Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interocéanique was plagued from the start with the problems inherent in building a structure of its kind in a tropical country. It has been said that five hundred lives were lost for every mile (about fifty miles) of the length of the Canal, or a total of 25,000 deaths.
The tropical diseases inherent in cutting through dense, virgin jungle, and working in the uniquely hot and humid climate of Panama, not to mention boring through a particularly difficult isthmian terrain to enable the joining of the two oceans were the first factors in elevating the death tolls. There was a period of time when Panama gained the dubious distinction as a tropical pest hole and a “white man’s grave” from which any white man in his right mind should steer clear. Malaria, Yellow Fever, dysentery, typhoid, dengue, not to mention the difficulties of adapting to the tropical heat took a grand toll on the lives of the few hardy souls from France and the Caribbean islands that dared to venture to Panama.
The greatest price was paid by the laborers who came by the boatloads to the isthmus to work on the building of the waterway. The racial disparities, as we will see, became a flagrant reminder that “Panama was four times more deadly for the black man than it was for the white.” The black laborers, who were generally West Indian, if they survived, would remember the many wondrous and worthwhile things about their Canal experience. Throughout their reminiscences, however, they would recall the “tremendous physical exertion and…the constant fear of being killed,” since their deaths filled the fatality statistics by a large margin.
Death by violence was probably even more feared than disease since, particularly during the French Period, train derailments, falls from trains (dirt cars etc.), being crushed under land and mud slides, and suffocation from noxious gases was commonplace. Sudden death in too many cases would probably have been preferable to survival after violent dismemberment as a consequence of being caught under the wheels of a train and a life of pain and feelings of uselessness.
With the entrance of the Americans into the Canal construction in 1904 the Yankee’s reliance on dynamite to quickly blast away layers of soil and rock from the Cuts to carve out the Canal route the ever present possibility of being blown to pieces became a new worry for especially the black workers. The “powder men,” those extremely daring souls who transported the thousands of fifty pound boxes of dynamite on their heads or shoulders, along with the men who drilled the charge holes into the side of rocky precipices were often the victims of accidental or “premature” explosions. Most of the men who actually handled the dynamite and the charge boxes, in fact, were black West Indians as you will note in the image of the period and they disproportionately paid any false move or mistake in timing on the part of their bosses or co-workers. In understanding the nature of dynamite even the “sweat” produced by this highly unstable material is liable to set off an explosion if not handled delicately.
There were also the ghastly rail accidents. Even Gorgas himself at one point was preoccupied with the number of violent fatalities; they were “very excessive” he acknowledged particularly since so many were caused by railroad accidents. Hundreds of black men lost their life and limb in falls from moving dirt cars and other rail transport particularly in moving spoil and men to and from the greatest of all challenges- Culebra Cut. Many descendants of the original Silver Men today will readily admit that Culebra Cut, in its entirety, should be considered a large scale burial ground- un campo santo- for the amount of West Indian lives lost during construction.
The continual runs of the death or funerary trains became legendary during the Canal construction years. The routine passage of these trains loaded with the bodies of dead, mostly West Indian workmen, who had died while on the job, was a sorry sight for the survivors who looked on with somber acknowledgement of those who, only a short while before, had worked by their side. The funeral trains carried the deceased to Colon on their pick up rounds out of Empire (Culebra).
“From Colon the Panama Railroad ran regular funeral trains out to Monkey Hill each morning.” “Over to Panama,” S.W. Plume would recall in his memorable testimony, “it was the same way- bury, bury, bury, running two, three, and four trains a day with dead Jamaica niggers all the time…It did not matter any difference whether they were black or white, to see the way they died there. They died like animals.”*
What the world never imagined would be the thousands of bodies either blown to pieces or buried under mud slides and rock that were never recovered by the rescue and clean up crews that combed the sites after the explosions and deathly slides. There were also the “sick who never made it to the hospital- for the vast majority that is- the end was frequently even more gruesome.”
“The accusation that ‘black workers were sometimes disposed of in the dumping grounds- simply rolled down an embankment, then buried beneath several tons of spoil,’ appears in several accounts and is undoubtedly based on fact.”**
The numbers offered in our modern historical accounts seem to represent only a minor detail in calculating the cost of modernizing our present technological world, and yet they are only a glimpse of the great price paid by our black Caribbean ancestors. It is estimated that 22,000 laborers died between 1881 and 1889, the French period, and the American death toll was officially 5,609, brining the total estimated human cost to 27,609. However, our world today is indebted to an infinitely larger number of men who braved the hardships and perils of working on the construction of the Panama Canal.
Cited from The Path Between the Seas- the Creation of the Panama Canal 1970-1914, by David McCullough, * page 173, **page 173