by Lydia M. Reid
It is one thing to read the cold death statistics provided in official sources but clearly another to actually experience, through traveller’s accounts, of how men (and women) braved one of the deadliest localities on the face on the earth at the time, the Isthmus of Panama, to participate in the building of what was once considered an impossible dream. We must not lose sight of the historical and well documented facts, however, that the death tolls were accumulated over a period of more than sixty five years. The large bulk of the fatalities in the building of the Canal actually occurred during the building of the Panama Railroad by Yankee entrepreneurs during the years 1849-1855.
The Panama Railroad project, a daring move on the part of Yankee businessman, William H. Aspinwall, and his associates, John L. Stephens and Henry Chauncey, would never have been brought to its fruitful conclusion were it not for the large pool of cheap and available semi-slave labor to hack out the course of the “Iron Road across the Isthmus of Panama.” The Panama Railroad route would, after 1855, go on to become the quickest and safest route to the coveted California gold fields once the mad rush for gold brought thousands of frenzied fortune seekers to its shores, and in the process heap great profits for its owners.
The Panama Rail Road statistics, if they can be called that, are extremely sketchy, if not evasive. A reasonable and reliable account from David McCullough’s book, The Path Between the Seas: the Creation of the Panama Canal- 1870-1914 gives us a better as well as more human insight.
“Panama had been a pesthole since the earliest Spanish settlement. But the horror stories to come out of Panama as the railroad was being pushed ahead mile by mile quite surpassed anything. The cost paid in human life for the miniscule bit of track was of the kind people associated with dark, barbaric times, before the age of steam and iron and the upward march of Progress. The common story, the one repeated up and down the California gold fields, the one carried home on the New York steamer, the claim that turns up time and again in the dim pages of old letters, is that there was a dead man for every railroad tie between Colón and Panama City. In some versions it was a dead Irishman; in others, a dead Chinese. The story was non-sense- there were some seventy-four thousand ties along the Panama line-but that had not kept it from spreading, and from what many thousands of people had seen with their own eyes, it seemed believable enough.”
“Sickness took such a terrible toll that the men could work only one week out of three. How many did actually die is not known. The company kept no systematic records, no body count, except for its white workers, who represented only a fraction of the total force employed over the five years of construction. (In 1853, for example, of some 1,590 men on the payroll, 1,200 were black.) However, the company’s repeated assertion that in fact fewer than a thousand had died was patently absurd. A more reasonable estimate is six thousand, but it could very well have been twice that. No one will ever know, and the statistic is not so important as the ways in which they died–if cholera, dysentery, fever, smallpox, all the scourges against which there was no known protection or any known cure.”
Clearly the cost in human life was paid primarily by the West Indians, and more specifically, the Jamaicans, if history serves us well. During this period Kingston’s harbour was a much frequented haunt of the contractors or Yankee recruiters who set up recruiting stations along the docks and even into the city where they would have leaflets posted on street corners and any other areas where they were sure to be spotted.
This was the period of time when they were still somewhat welcomed by the Jamaican government and granted concessions to do their recruiting. What with the swelling ranks of unemployed young men yearning to be engaged in productive employment, the recruiters might prove to be a safety valve for the thousands of impatient youth who, at any moment, could turn rebellious. It would be a much different story forty years later when, prior to the debacle of the French Canal Company, they would be totally barred from doing any recruiting on the island after thousands of Jamaican workers had been left stranded, unemployed, and often incapacitated by work related injuries on the Isthmus of Panama.
During the Railroad years, then, we have a perfectly plausible (if not underestimated) death count of 12,000, if we are to believe observers of the time who would have had no viable reason to exaggerate.