by Lydia M. Reid
We want to wish all of our U.S. readers and their families a safe and happy Labor Day during this cherished weekend in which the working men and women are honored and remembered.
This is also a perfect moment to highlight an all-too-widespread occurrence during the repatriation process experienced by the Silver men and women of the Panama Canal Zone. Just as reports of grand opportunities to leave poverty and semi-slavery behind by seeking work on the Panama Canal construction circulated throughout the West Indies during the late 1800’s and the early 1900’s, thus bringing thousands of hopeful individuals to Panama, new reports during repatriation would reveal a terrible reality.
The following archival report taken from a 1952 account will reveal the fate of too many “retired” workers from the Panama Canal who happened to survive twenty or more years of endless toil only to be retired with the paltry sum of $25.00 per month and no other worker benefits to carry them through the difficult transitional stage of leaving the workforce and re-settling in a homeland that they were probably absent from for more than three decades. This account was, by no means, the only one of its kind. The island governments by the 1940’s and 50’s began documenting many such “Wretched Cargos” of their former citizens who dared venture onto Panama’s shores seeking a better life.
“2 Dead, 9 Mad, On Pitiful Trip of Repatriates to Barbados”
20 Jan 1952
Bridgetown, Barbados,- A sad and moving story of the pitiful plight of 56 West Indian repatriates from the Panama Canal Zone, arriving Sunday afternoon 6th here is revealed in reports from the Barbados Advocate of Monday 7th and Tuesday 8th.
The workers arrived on the Colombian motor vessel J. W. Rogers which sailed from Cristobal on December 27th via Curacao. Enroute two of the passengers died and nine were insane.
Two Barbadians, Haynes Clarke, 60, and Claudius Rogers, 62, died aboard ship, and when the J. W. Rogers anchored in Carlisle Bay Sunday nine of the 56 passengers were raving mad and another awaiting the earliest opportunity for admittance to the general hospital, The Advocate reports.
From Barbados, Isaiah Hicks, Vernal Skeete, 35, Beresford Dorant, 62, Louise Hill, 65, Charles Roach, 65, and Joseph Roett, 66, were delirious. William Allen, 63, of Montserrat, Pauline Bouchett, 70, of Martinique, and Thomas Fraser of British Guiana were the other insane passengers.
Forty six of the J. W. Rogers human cargo were Barbadians, two St. Lucians, two Guianese, two Panamanians, one Grenadian, one Monserratian, one Vincentian, and three Martinicans.
A little Panamanian girl of 10 and a boy of 13 came up with their West Indian grandparents, but the ages of the West Indians ranged between 35 and 78.
It was a rather pitiful sight to see the retired workers limp, haggard, and wearing rumpled old clothing come up from below the J. W. Rogers to catch their first glimpse of Barbados- some after being 50 years out of the island. Most of them had very little baggage with them and they complained of a rough trip up.
Arriving were William Allen (Montserrat), Joseph Armstrong (Barbados), Vernal Skeete, James Walcott, Benjamin Walkes, Clementina Walkes, Pauline Bouchett (Martinique), Beresford Dorant (Barbados), Yolanda Elliott (Martinique), James Forde (Barbados), Iris Holder, Raimundo Hurdle (Panama), Silverio Muñoz (Panama), Irene Armstrong (Barbados), Irvin Beckles, Urcilla Beat, Egbert Bispham,William Blackman, Constance Brathwaite, Isaac Brathwaite, Jeanette Brathwaite, John Brathwaite, Ruth Brathwaite, Oscar Butcher, Ulrica Butcher, Charles Dodson (British Guiana), Joseph Forde (Barbados), Elizabeth Haywood, Walter Haywood, Isaiah Hicks, Clifford Hinds, Daniel Hunt, Joseph Hunt, Emma Kellman, Samuel Kellman, Alonza Kennedy, Lucy Lacry, George D. Massiah, Samuel Murray, Josephine Noel (Grenada), Wycliffe Robinson (St. Vincent), Edward Scantlebury (Barbados), Cleopatra Skeete, Cleophas Skeete, James Skeete, Charles Roach, Joseph Roett, Alfred Thomas (St. Lucia), Mary Thomas (St. Lucia), Louise Welch (Barbados), Claude Franklin (Martinique).
All bedraggled and unkempt, their faces and general demeanor spoke of poverty and years of hard toil in Panama. They brought with them parcels of clothes and were dressed in old clothing that needed washing and pressing.
Ten of the passengers, whose homelands are Montserrat, St. Lucia, British Guiana, Grenada, St. Vincent, and Martinique, are awaiting transportation from Barbados to their homes.
Forty-six Barbadians had left Panama for Barbados but two of them died before reaching home. Captain Martin said that the first of them to die, sixty year old Haynes Clarke, suffered from cancer. He died when the ship called at Curacao and was buried there. An officer of the British Council was present at the burial, Captain Martin said. The other, Claudius Rogers, died when the J. W. Rogers was a day out to sea on her way from Curacao to Barbados and he was given a watery grave. He died of a paralytic stroke, the Captain said.
The rusty looking 158 ton Colombian motor ship carries a crew of 8 who had to look after their normal duties on the ship as well as cater to the 58 passengers- with nine delirious- for the ten days that the vessel took to reach Barbados from Colon with a stop at Curacao.
Captain Martin said that the actions of the nine delirious passengers were never violent. They were kept in a room by themselves but a close eye had to be kept on them.
One of them, sixty-three year old William Allen from Montserrat, did not come ashore. Allen kept up a wild gaze and was ambling idly around the ship when an Advocate reporter boarded yesterday.
“I don’t want to go ‘shore. I from Montserrat,” he said when asked if he was a Barbadian. Allen was the only passenger from Montserrat and he was about transportation from Barbados to Montserrat.
At the Bridgetown Police Station, two of them- a man and a woman- were helpless. They lay on stretchers waving their hands in the air and making audible but unintelligible sounds. They had brought back practically nothing from Panama and were then the subjects of a board of lunacy.
The J. W. Rogers, a freighter having very little passenger accommodations, had quite a number of improvised bunks so as to carry the 58 passengers. In one cabin, enough space was just left between two bunks for a passenger to get on or off his bed. The cabin had three layers of bunks, the two top most of which were slung up with chain.
The J. W. Roger’s voyage from Colon to Curacao was very rough. High winds, heavy waves and occasional showers struck her. Most of them were sea-sick the first day of the voyage, but the majority of them were almost back to normal when they were coming from Curacao to Barbados. The voyage from Curacao to Barbados was pleasant as far as the weather was concerned.
The J. W. Rogers is on her first visit to Barbados. Captain Martin speaks Spanish, but carries an interpreter among his crew.