A Callin’ from Colón: Photographs of Black Employees Working on the Panama Canal

Today’s blog was written by Barbara Lewis Burger,  retired National Archives Still Picture Senior Archivist

 We hea’ a callin’ from Colon

We hea’ a callin’ from Limon

Let’s quit de t’ankless toil an’ fret

Fe where the better pay we’ll get

~Claude McKay, Peasants’ Way O’ Thinkin’

According to La Autoridad del Canal de Panamá (Panama Canal Authority) almost 57,000 workers were employed during the construction of the Panama Canal. Of that figure, the overwhelming number was people of African descent. Some of the employees were black Americans from the United States (see “The Panama Canal: The African American Experience” by Patrice C. Brown in Prologue, Summer 1997). The majority of personnel, however, were Afro-Caribbeans from the Antilles islands commonly referred to as the West Indies. The largest number of those workers—roughly 20,000—was from Barbados. Included among those seeking jobs in the Canal Zone were many West Indian women, some of whom followed their husbands, while others journeyed to Panama often for the same reasons as men—jobs and better pay, freedom, or adventure.

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In his lengthy 1912 poem, “Peasants’ Way O’ Thinkin’,” Jamaican-American writer and poet Claude McKay suggested some of the reasons islanders left their homes in droves (see William J. Maxwell, ed., Complete Poems/Claude McKay, 2004). The applicants were not unaware of the racism practiced by Canal officials, the physically demanding and dangerous jobs, the deadly diseases, the deplorable living conditions, nor of the high death rates among laborers. Individuals returning home or sending news to relatives and friends certainly relayed information about the situation. Then again, life on the islands for the unskilled and mostly illiterate was little better. Sugar prices had been depressed for many years, and sugar cane cultivation was in decline, frequent floods and droughts and even a 1907 earthquake wrought havoc, and landlessness, overpopulation, and severe unemployment made for a bleak existence. A construction job paying ten cents an hour was for many West Indians double what could be expected from working in sugar cane fields. Understandably, the opportunity to escape the dire conditions on their home islands for a chance at better pay was a strong lure that so many could not ignore.

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No matter their motivation, a seemingly endless supply of Antillean workers permeated all aspects of life and work on the isthmus. David McCullough noted in his history The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal 1870-1914 (Simon and Schuster, 1977) that “There were not only thousands of West Indians down amid the turmoil of Culebra Cut or at the lock sites but black waiters in every hotel, black stevedores, teamsters, porters, hospital orderlies, cooks, laundresses, nursemaids, janitors, delivery boys, coachmen, icemen, garbage men, yardmen, mail clerks, police, plumbers, house painters, gravediggers. A black man walking along spraying oil on still water, a metal tank on his back, was one of the most familiar of all sights in the Canal Zone.” McCullough further remarked that despite the essentialness of their labors, little official or national notice or acknowledgement was paid.

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Nevertheless, photographic coverage of their hard work exists in still picture series in the Records of the Panama Canal, Record Group 185 at the National Archives. The photographs featured in this blog document a variety of occupations. The images are from two series: the general still picture series Photographs of the Construction of the Panama Canal, 1887-1940 (National Archives Identifer 535444) and the series Photographs Related to the Construction of the Panama Canal’s Pacific Terminals, East Breakwater Works, Cristobal Coaling Plant Works, and the Operation of Floating Cranes, ca. 1911-ca. 1916 (National Archives Identifier 535446).

3 thoughts on “A Callin’ from Colón: Photographs of Black Employees Working on the Panama Canal

  1. Attended a talk recently about different Caribbean islanders who worked there. Truly staggering high mortality rate and deplorable working conditions. Forgotten part of history.

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