Labor Day Revisited

West Indian drilling gang 1912, getting ready to bore holes in the side of hills to place dynamite. Image thanks to National Archives.

by Roberto A. Reid

Labor Day memories for us at the Silver People Chr onicle and the Silver People Heritage Foundation is a time to reflect on the amount of damage our culture and heritage endured during past administrations of the Panama Canal who were custodians of archives and records; records that still have attached to them specific orders for them not to be released to us descendants as private or institutional researchers. We deem those records an important part of our human rights and part of our natural Intangible historic and cultural heritage. As many of you who follow this blog have discovered, they are extremely important for those of us who wish to reconstruct our pass and the life of our Silver Panama Canal Zone ancestry.

Today we wail and cry and again suffer the same treatment as our predecessors, something which we modern Panamanian intellectuals call “Chombophobia,” then we are accused of being overly concerned since the times have presumably “changed,” and the Black Man in the Americas is no longer persecuted by lynching by impromptu roving mobs or isn’t discriminated against.

However, we are very sorry to have been left in the hands of an unconscionable group of “planners” on the Panama Canal Zone, who even today have left a trail of evil barriers we see as discriminatory and we still deal with them as we attempt to get a better view of who we are in Hispanic America. Such policies remind us of the famous 1886 Hay-Market Riot and bombing, of Labor battles of the evening of May 4, and make us humbly happy that such a day never included our ancestors, the Barbadian or Jamaican Blacks of Panama, who at the time were working more than 16 hours a a day without meals or overtime pay and would continue to do so for many years after.

We are still very proud to call those laborers our forefathers although we must insist that some of them did come with skills for which the planners would need but would not let them work at at all. Although they in the main held their heads high and remained honest and Christian folks, even today many are not recognized as bringing wholesale Bible reading and study and who introduced such values to us in their mission schools both in Panama and the City of Colon. Not even the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1st 1863 could have saved Mr. Lincoln from assasination because of daring to show his deep Christian belief.

Very little has been emphasized of how our forefathers, the Jamaican Blacks, worked under the punishing hot sun of Panama or under the constant drenching rainfall in deep mudholes, praying that a dam would hold while building railroads all over the interior of Panama for American Robber Barons during the period 1848 to1855; “up the line” is what they called that web of railroad connections that I would later encounter on the various immense farms or “fincas” or Banana Plantations that ran all the way to the country of Costa Rica. Very little is mentioned of how our forefathers also had to dig under those strong reflector lights used to dig deeper and hasten the building of the Panama Canal at night. Neither did we have the Ku Klux Klan to put a stop to all the purported merriment and dancing under the hot and humid tropical sun or the cool evenings of Saturday nights.

Even before the surprise ruling of Plessy v. Ferguson of 1896, which would set the Black People of the world right back in their place under the “separate but equal” doctrine, our foefathers were part of Panama’s unemployed labor since the 1891 French fiasco. Historians who have studied this period have identified the droves of unemployed Westindians stranded in Panama who could still pay rent on rooms in the urban areas of Panama and Colon and whose women were still able to make a living washing clothes and organizing dances and other American holidays.

By 1903 the Jamaican government had already promulgated the law prohibiting citizens from being enlisted by any of the Yankee or European recruiters. But men could travel, if they paid a high exit tax, to go seek work or venture into any part of Central or South America in search of work. So that U.S. And Colombia renewed their former treaty on Jan 22, 1903 to enable the enterprising Americans to sign a treaty with the infantile country of Panama that was still aligned with Colombia and warned all comers to stand back and let the deal go through.

Our ancestors were here before, during and throughout this process of the birth of a nation. They were here on November 3 , 1903 when Panama declard its independence from Colombia with, and on Nov 18, 1903 when Panama signed the Canal Treaty with the U.S.. But the mysterious and menacing presence of the warship SS Wisconsin weighed anchor and departed the Panama Pacific Bay after that little Indian Man, that citizen of Panama, General Victoriano Lorenzo had been summarily shot by a Colombian military squad on 15 May 1903 at 1700 hours apparently for publicly declaring that “I will never betray my country!”

When some historians who have never even heard of the Panama Canal make preposterous assertions that the building of the Panama Canal was largely due to the use of an unskilled labor force we must correct that assumption since throughout the period of construction (1881-1960) the labor force was not at all unskilled nor were our forefathers illiterates. Many of them fought back and tried to unionize only to earn reprisals and the ire of the American Way. It is their part in the history of labor organization on the Isthmus of Panama that we applaud today, the day “that celebrates the economic and social contributions of workers.”

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