Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Dying to Better Themselves: West Indians and the Building of the Panama Canal

“So, take us back to 1914,” stated Adrian Harewood.


“I wasn’t there, Adrian!” quipped Olive Senior to peals of laughter from the packed audience who had already been primed to Senior taking mock umbrage at Harewood’s suggestion that her project began “decades” ago.


Senior, was aptly described by Harewood as a “decathlete” of writing; having prodigiously started at age 19 at Jamaica’s venerable institution The Gleaner, she is the author of numerous novels, poetry collections, plays and works of non-fiction. The Festival Café was brimming with those eager to explore the narrative she weaves in her beautifully produced Dying to Better Themselves: West Indians and the Building of the Panama Canal. It is an untold story of how tens of thousands of emigrants from the various mostly English-speaking Caribbean nations, along with Martinique, played a significant role in building up one of the great engineering marvels that is the Panama Canal, which just celebrated its centenary last year.


I recall vividly the reverent tones in which my father, my uncles, and their assorted friends discussed the dominant West Indian cricket team during the 1970s and 1980s during my childhood in India. It was only much later that I came to realize that the West Indies as such comprised not of a political entity but a deeper cultural unit that may well have had its beginnings leading up to the influx into Panama in the early twentieth century. Speaking of which, Harewood pointed out that the great George Headley, considered one of the best batsmen to ever suit up, was born in Colón, Panama.


The seed for the book was planted in Senior when she was just four and was visiting her mother’s side of the family, which had an uncle who plied his trade in Panama. She recalls seeing colourful stamps embossing the envelopes of letters sent by relations with money and wistful longing. Her research for the project began a few decades ago but went dormant following the theft of her many cassette tapes that contained the oral catalogue of the many who had been a part of that experience. While pursuing other endeavours, she was constantly reminded of “your-Panama-book-when-is-it-out?” best exemplified by the pertinacious pleading of a fan who reminded Senior of the 2014 centenary, prompting her to dust off the cobwebs and bring it to fruition. 


Senior held her audience in rapt attention with her delectable patois lilt, and her sagacious charm. Some of the facts she described were astounding: the fact that the lock canal system created a lake that was larger than the island of Barbados, or the fact that St. Lucia lost nearly 10% of its total population to Panama. The abolition of slavery in the British Empire did not improve the day to day realities of the predominantly black population of the Caribbean, and many, forced by poverty and lack of opportunity, decided to leave for other opportunities overseas. What began with the construction of the Panamanian railroad in the 1850s reached its zenith when the Americans took over the failure of the French to build a canal that would link the Atlantic and the Pacific.


There were many hardships for these new workers. They faced segregation in churches for the first time – instituted by the Americans who imported Jim Crow from the South— and in other sectors of society as well. Wages for blacks were fixed at a fraction of what whites earned, coupled with no prospect for improvement. It was an unforgiving landscape with poor sanitation, rampant malaria, and many deadly Panamanian fauna populating the rivers and lush jungles. Yet, Senior’s story is not just a tale of woe, but also one of accomplishment. These West Indians built a strong civic life, faithfully sent remittances (despite their lower salary) back home for the most part, maintained racehorses, and intermarried with those from other islands forming a larger West Indian identity for perhaps the first time. Most men left without organized recruitment or documentation, where in those days—much like Marlon Brando’s world of stevedores in On The Waterfront —one just boarded a ship and left, just like that. What is even more remarkable is the amount of women who left of their own volition in search of a better life. Some of the comical features occurred when these emigrés returned home. The mischievous Colón man, which many in the audience sang along the words to with Senior, is a representation of the paradoxical realities and characters which accompanied this cross-pollination.


There was a question from the audience as to how to make this history better known, and Senior mentioned that there may be a children’s edition in the form of a graphic novel that is in the works. By reminding us that history comes alive when we start to have curiosity about our forefathers’ and foremothers’ times, aspirations, meanderings, struggles and accomplishments, Senior modelled how good history can and ought to be done.