By Lydia M. Reid
The small town of Gatun in Colon has seen the evolution of the Panama Canal for more than a century, and its cemetery, the sacred burial ground of scores of Westindian (Antillean) workers of the French and American construction periods, has been witness to many significant historical phenomena. It saw the arrival and departure of the frenzied crowds of California Gold Rush hopefuls, the French period settlers, the American period workers and the American military come and go. Once it had outlived its usefulness, however, it was abandoned by the (American) Panama Canal Commission and left to its own destiny and the tropical elements, as was the fate of many Canal Zone towns.
By 1904 there was talk amongst the ranks of American engineers of an artificial lake, an idea they had inherited from the French construction company. This time, however, it was clear that for the way to go smoothly and the consequent building of Gatun Locks to reach its successful conclusion, several villages would have to be submerged, Gatun among them. Nearly 90 homes, a church, school and a dozen small shops that flourished during the height of the California Gold Rush period were literally disappeared. The population was estimated at 3,391 inhabitants at the time.
Gatun also had a municipal cemetery which, according to reports held in the Robert F. Chiari Library of the ACP had “no more room for burying the dead.” In fact, episodes describing this cemetery are contained in a set of jealously guarded notes that are held by the library and include manuscripts exchanged by local authorities of the time.
In 1904, José Salazar, mayor of Gatun wrote that the cemetery was at capacity and that “already there is no room for one more burial.” Salazar had to wait for a positive response which didn’t come until 1907, when H. Brady, the local health inspector, received the authorization to acquire land for a new cemetery in an area adopted by, George W. Goethals, the main civil engineer and President of the Isthmian Canal Commission.
Gatun remained in the background for the next few years until in 1909 when, once again, the issue of a cemetery appeared in the public eye. The Panama Railroad Company submitted a request that another cemetery be built for the residents of the town now called “New Gatun.” These were the residents that had been relocated upon the creation of Lake Gatun when the old town of Gatun, its buildings, homes and stores, had been submerged to further canal construction. The request, however, did not prosper.
The Isthmian Canal Commission’s Department of Health forwarded a note that assured the Railroad officials that the cemetery, home to some 90 tombs, was quite sufficient for “many more years to come;” and so it was until it began to deteriorate. Bear in mind that this cemetery was a product of the French Canal (1880-1889) era and the element of time and lack of maintenance gradually gained ground giving way to the jungle overgrowth.
This was the sad picture of the burial ground of mostly Westindian workers and their families- a field of overgrown bush. Several descendants and their family members who have visited our website and left their testimonies can attest to having had to use guides to hack a path to their loved ones’ tomb with machete in hand over the years in order to pay their respects to their beloved and honourable dead.
It wasn’t until the mid 1990’s that something more than concern and regret would stir private citizens to action. Driven by their passion to see this historic graveyard restored and the memory of their Westindian ancestors re-established, several citizens, including a man of the Kuna Yala tribe decided to take things into their own hands. Eric Jackson, owner and editor of the Panama News was probably the most outspoken of the handful of volunteers who began cutting back the jungle, cleaning and restoring old tombstones and making the project as publicly known as possible. They were joined, from time to time, by other Westindian descendants of those buried in the cemetery and even scout troops have lent a hand in the clean up.
Their efforts came to the attention of Alberto Alemán Zubieta, the current administrator of the ACP (Autoridad del Canal de Panamá), and the project prospered further. He gave the official order to help complete the rescue effort of this historic burial ground and the completion of its restoration was accomplished by 1997. The ACP took over its maintenance officially and a tri-lingual, English-Spanish-French, memorial plaque was installed at the entrance. A concrete stairway was also built leading up the hill to the cemetery.
Recently, however, with the citizen approved referendum for the extension of the Canal through the construction of a Third Set of Locks, the question as to the continued existence of the cemetery has arisen. Will the cemetery, in effect, disappear upon the construction of the complex of locks on the Atlantic side? According to the specifications for the construction of the third set of locks there is direct reference to its protection.
“In the case of the locks on the Atlantic side, buildings and areas listed as having historic significance shall be maintained in its current state, in particular the Lighthouse located at Lighthouse Road, the cemetery in Thelma King Road and building 206 in Gatun.”
There remains preoccupation, however, that although the Panama Canal enlargement project is committed to preserving the memory of the sacrifice of the thousands upon thousands of Westindian workers and their families, the political protection, the changing role of the official entity that directly administers the cemetery, will ultimately rest with the municipality of Gatun. In this light and given the notorious reputation Panama has for grossly neglecting its municipal cemeteries, we still have much to worry about regarding the fate of Gatun Cemetery, another endangered Silver People Burial site.
We can do much more than just hope that local public officials will “find it in their hearts” to maintain the dignity and integrity of this precious historical site, however. The violation of the community’s right to a dignified death has been historically documented as in the wholesale burial of bodies of Westindian men without the benefit of Christian ceremony or sepulchre, basically treated as the dumping of offal during the various periods of construction, has been cited by several historians.
There are international organizations, in fact, that oversee these issues relating to the rights of humanity to dignity in death and have cited the example of the Roman Catacombs in highlighting the inalienable right of human beings to be respected and not to have their remains disturbed even as subjects of archaeological investigations of ancient burials.
We all have a right to a dignified death and, as in the case of our Silver ancestors we also have posthumous rights, as set forth in international conventions which, in recent years, have made it a highly significant issue in many parts of the world.
It is our unreserved commitment here, at The Silver People Heritage Foundation, to honour our ancestors who gave so much to the building of a world famous waterway, the nation of Panama, and the modernization of the entire world, and to insure that their final resting places be respected, restored and given their just place on the world’s road to a new and progressive era.
Note: some of our historical data has come from an article appearing in EL Faro, official publication of the ACP, August 2008 edition.