The morning of Thursday, July 17, the Miraflores Visitors’ center was buzzing with the voices of excitement and expectation. The leaders of three groups of the West Indian Panamanian community, at the request of the British Embassy, had managed to bring together many old and new faces, to this historic event: the unveiling of a memorial tribute, a bronze plaque, commemorating the enormous contribution of our British West Indian forefathers in the construction of the Panama Railroad and the Panama Canal in both the French and American periods, the hardest parts of the labor which had been left to them.
The Plaque was sponsored by the British Embassy, coordinated by the British Ambassador in Panama, Dr. Ian Collard, and the momentous event proved to be a smashing success, as it was more than well attended by a multitude of members from Panama’s West Indian (descent) community and others whose lives are or have been enriched by the original black pioneers of the British West Indies.
The well known and highly respected Reverend Ruthibell Livingston, spoke about her childhood recollections and of the vicissitudes experienced by the community of grandparents, parents, neighbors, and especially those linked to the Panama Canal Zone for employment, living quarters, and retirement income etc. Her message was not always a bucolic recall of pleasant, childhood memories, but highlighted the many difficulties and dire straits in lived by many of the West Indian workers, particularly those who were approaching retirement age, found themselves needy.
In those times, she was quick to emphasize, there were no pensions as such, any payments to the elderly workers was given to those workers who had reached old age to come out of the American relief rolls which were often denied.
However, she added, neighbors began hearing encouraging news about The British Aide Society in Panama, that needy families could call for help with the payment of rents, buying food and other costs, that the meager $10 to $15 a month “pension” could not cover. Reverend Livingston reiterated the fact that most rents for the West Indians living in the cities were $7 minimum
cost, which left very little to cover the costs of living in a Panama which the works of the Canal had started.
The key-note speaker and the official who would unveil the large bronze plaque, was the British Foreign Minister for Latin America, the Honorable Hugo Swire, then recalled the large numbers of British West Indian workers first from Jamaica and then, later on, Barbados and other smaller islands, that arrived during the American Canal period, and how they were the “preferred” labor force.
He also emphasized the British role in the discovery of the “mosquito theory” by Sir Ronald Ross, an important discovery that would help the thousands of West Indian workers to ward off the perils of Yellow Fever and Malaria which loomed heavily over the Canal projects. He was honored to preside this unveiling which, although symbolic, was a historic and official gesture in recognition of the monumental participation of the former British Subjects who built this modern wonder of the world.
It was enormously gratifying for The Silver People Heritage Foundation to witness this unique memorial event and to witness the coming together of so many descendants surviving our proud and resourceful West Indian forefathers.