The Silver People were the first immigrants from the West Indies who were originally hired to work on the Panama Railroad and later the Panama Canal in the Republic of Panama. The original group of “Silver Men,” as most of the workers who appeared on Panama’s shores from 1850 on were men, were from the island of Jamaica. Later, however, after the disastrous bankruptcy of the French Canal Company that initiated the construction of the Canal, the majority of the contracted workers would be from the island of Barbados and the surrounding “Small islands.”
The “Silver People,” or the Westindians of Panama, as they are known to the Spanish speaking people, have left an indelible mark on the history and culture as well as the economy of the modern nation of Panama. They also left a vital mark on the country- their blood- as at least 12,000 to 15,000 West Indian workers died in the frenetic years of construction either through disease (a multitude of tropical diseases such as malaria and yellow fever), by accident- crushed under the wheels of train cars- earth and mud slides- and accidental explosions that often ripped their bodies apart.
Through all their troubles and labors, however, they and the families they raised took time to create a culture and a society that was distinctive and vibrant- a new hybrid Westindian Panamanian culture which we, as a foundation, seek to preserve. Their music, language, religion, culinary skills, literature and history are still seen and felt even today on the streets, in the faces and in the language and character of Panama. Their legacy is threatened today, however, with extinction from the memory of both Panama and the world that has so greatly benefited from their labour and intellect.
We, of the Silver People Heritage Foundation, are working passionately to secure this cultural bequest left by these great, pioneering men and women who, as so very aptly put by Col. George W. Goethals, “Were it not for the West Indians, the building of the Canal would not have been possible.” We may extend that conclusion to say that were it not for the West Indians, the modern country of Panama and the global economy would not be what it is today.
For an in depth explanation of the Silver and Gold Roll system you’re invited to read our blog at The Silver People Chronicle.