The Panama Canal Death Tolls- Another Revealing Look

West Indian diggers digging up graves probably at Culebra.

West Indian diggers digging up graves probably at Ancon Cemetery. 1914

In preparing our presentation two years ago to the Honorable Legislators in the Asamblea Nacional we referenced our meticulous research into the death tolls of West Indian workers and the count of individuals buried in the former Silver Roll Cemeteries to bolster our petition for Bill 348 which became Law #7 of March 15, 2012 thus declaring the three former Canal Zone Cemeteries of Silver Corozal, Gatun and Mount Hope National Historic Patrimony.

According to our detailed studies in preparing statistics to our, at first, skeptical Commission on Education, Culture and Sports, our findings proved to be very close to the assertions made in other interesting accounts by respected authors on this controversial subject and it proved that the official statistical reports are grossly inaccurate.

A recent publication has come to our notice to refocus attention on the bloody history of the Panama Canal and the heavy toll on human lives- West Indian lives- that it exacted. One of our contacts in our Facebook page sent us a link to an author page called The 100th Anniversary of the Opening of the Panama Canal August 15, 2014—History Countdown—On this day 100 years ago , The Cowboy and the Canal- Where Corporate Greed Meets Gunboat Diplomacy.

In the author’s photos section we found an old photo entitled “Goethals’s Home at Culebra Has Been Removed” from the Arizona Republican, July 20, 1914, Associated Press Dispatch. We just couldn’t resist the detailed description and the photo of four West Indian workmen apparently digging up graves and either moving them or plowing them under to re-accommodate the home of Colonel George W. Goethals. We’re posting this 100-year-old newspaper clipping here for you to understand the magnitude of what our studies have revealed.

“The house at Culebra which for seven years has been the home of Col. Goethals, has been removed. It probably will be re-erected at Ancon on the site of the cemetery from which the bodies were recently disinterred, and again serve as the home of the governor of the canal zone until a substantial governor’s mansion is built. The destruction of the engineer’s residence marks the beginning of the end of Culebra which is to be abandoned along with Empire and other canal zone towns.”

Buried at Ancon Cemetery were approximately 5,000 “Gold Roll” white American workers who died while working on the canal between 1903 and 1914. As the term suggests, these workers collected their salaries in American gold dollars. On the other end of the spectrum were those on the “Silver Roll,” —unskilled, non-white workers, mostly West Indians—paid in local Panamanian silver coins. In reality the difference between Gold Roll and Silver Roll workers was one of race rather than one of skill sets. Non-white Silver Roll workers earned about 10 cents an hour, 72 men crammed into 50 X 30 foot huts, ate disagreeable food in filthy mess halls that had no tables or chairs and fed up to 8,000 men a day; they received no sick pay, and inferior medical facilities. Gold Roll got 42 days of paid vacation leave, over 30 days sick pay, state of the art medical treatment, modern, comfortable housing with plumbing and electricity, paved roads, libraries and churches.

Besides the American Gold Roll workers, Ancon Cemetery had received the bodies of U.S. soldiers that Ulysses. S. Grant, a “young but seasoned lieutenant” had laid to rest during his horrendous transit of the Isthmus in 1853 en route to California. Grant had been assigned the task of leading a group of approximately 350 soldiers the 4th U. S. Infantry and their family members across Isthmus of Panama. The trip was a disaster. One third of his party died from cholera or yellow fever. He wrote in his diary, “Men were dying every hour.” In all, it took over six weeks for the U.S. soldiers—those who survived the initial deadly cholera outbreak—to complete the passage. The remainder of the company lay “buried on the Isthmus of Panama or on Flamingo Island in Panama Bay.” When the Americans took over the Panama Canal, the bodies were removed to Ancon Cemetery.

The reason the Isthmus Canal Commission would undertake the expense—not to mention the risk of bad karmic energy of disturbing the peaceful repose of thousands of souls resting on Ancon Hill—can be answered simple: location, location, location. The new Governor’s Residence would be safe from flooding—and it would have a magnificent view overlooking Panama City and the Pacific Ocean.

Before the American Era at Panama, especially during the construction of the Panama Railroad, tens of thousands of laborers—both white and non-white—died under the most appalling conditions imaginable, men from the West Indies and China however, died in far greater percentages than white labors. Dead West Indians and Chinese were hauled off by the wagonloads, dumped in mass graves, unrecorded and uncounted. The 5,000 workers buried at Ancon Cemetery was just the tip of the bloody iceberg. In 1875 Popular Science Monthly magazine, like dozens of publications of the day alleged that the, “Panama Railway cost 81,000 human lives destroyed by malaria; this death-rate is equal to one man for every one death for every yard of track.”

Its claim of one death for the forty-seven miles of track is a certainly a tawdry journalist appeal to sensationalism, but as startling as the estimate sounds, it could easily have been correct. Everything about the mortality rate is guesswork; educated guesses hobbled together by reports of journalists, eyewitnesses, and U.S. Congressional hearings. These estimates range from somewhere around 22,000 to 82,000 deaths. There were so many bodies to dispose of that the Railway officials began to treat them as a commodity. The Railroad pickled the corpses of the nameless dead in wooden barrels and sold them to medical schools. Income generated from the cadaver business was sufficient to maintain the Railroad’s own gleaming new whites-only hospital.”

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