Forgotten heroes of Panama Canal

It was an experience of pain, suffering, racism and exploitation for those 60 000 Barbadians who went to Panama in the 1900s to help build the renowned Panama Canal. And, their years of daily grind would finally see opened on August 15, 1914, this man-made waterway that would change the international shipping industry forever.

The millions by many a country from that canal today is the result of the death-defying labour of hundreds of thousands of West Indian men, recruited from their homes with both true and false promises about the presumably many opportunities building the waterway held for them.

What did happen to those Barbadians when they got there?

In addition to suffering the indignity of the United States-style Jim Crow segregation, they had to work with the constant probability of instantaneous death from accidental explosions of the dynamite being used to blow through the mountains to make room for the canal.

This is a story many Barbadians have not been exposed to.

However, through the Diggers documentary aired on national television on Independence Day, Bajans who watched CBCTV8 were able to see just what happened during that period through the accounts of survivors ranging in age from 88 to 95.

American film-maker Roman Foster told Barbados TODAY during an interview at Hotel PomMarine last week that the six survivors he sourced in Panama, Barbados, Jamaica and the United States had made the documentary a sad, thought-provoking and life-changing ordeal that would forever be etched in his mind.

American film-maker Roman Foster
American film-maker Roman Foster

“It is about what Bajans and all other West Indians who went to Panama went through. Added to that is the fact that after the canal was built, these workers were completely forgotten; and no recognition was ever paid to them for the work that they did. The Panama Canal is significant because world commerce depends on it.

“If you shut down the Panama Canal today, world commerce would suffer immensely. For [these workers] not to be recognized for their efforts was an additional crime committed against them. And so, Diggers was a way of not only recording the history for eternity, but being a long and everlasting tribute to what these workers accomplished, and to correct the injustice of their being forgotten by the world,” said Forster, as he spoke about the award-winning documentary that took some 11 years to be produced.

Giving an insight into the documentary, and speaking from research, Foster said that in 1891 thousands of Jamaicans were recruited to begin the work of building the canal by a French company that went bankrupt 15 years later, and abandoned them there. He said this caused the Jamaican government to spend millions in bringing their nationals back home and almost going bankrupt itself in the process.

“The second stage of the canal begins with the United States in 1903 . . . . They wanted to pick up from where the French left off. They went to Jamaica to recruit workers and the governor of Jamaica refused to let them do it, because of the experience Jamaica had gone through with the French.

“So, the government of the United States came to Barbados, which was the next populated island in the Caribbean and the Governor of Barbados was happy, because at that time, there was a depression going on in Barbados and a lot of young people were on the streets roaming with no jobs and nothing to do.

“So when the Americans came and give them the offer, the Barbados Government jumped at it and said, ‘Sure, we give you permission to contract as many as you want’,” Foster revealed.

The permission granted was followed by a recruitment centre set up in Bridgetown where young men in their late teens and early 20s signed a 500-day contract before sailing off to the Central America nation that borders both the Caribbean Sea and Pacific Ocean, between Colombia and Costa Rica.

When the Bajans arrived, the experience was tragic for most of these men.

Firstly, they were forced to battle with the malaria and yellow fever mosquitoes rampant in the jungles of Panama.

Thousands died after they were bitten by these insects.

“They had no cure for malaria and yellow fever. At first, the white Americans were dying out because the mosquitoes were infecting them, and nobody knew what to do about it. And then it happened to Caribbean workers –– although not as badly as had happened to the Americans.

“It’s a horrible way to die, because you just turn yellow to begin with, and then you start to vomit black blood. And when you start to vomit that black blood, you are dead within hours, because that is probably the last stage of the disease.”

A potion was soon discovered, which the workers were given to control the effects of the malaria.

“So every day, the government made sure that they drank this [potion]. The side effects of that potion were that you went deaf, or after a while you couldn’t hear well. That created a problem, because you would have men digging to actually cut the country in half. And there were these long trains carrying the dirt out into different areas, and [those men] who were deaf couldn’t hear trains coming, and when they did realize it, they would be rushing, rushing; and next thing you know, they were under a train,” Foster explained.

Another sad aspect of the experience was that the workers also suffered the psychological taunt of living under discriminatory circumstances during their stay in the canal. The American laws only covered white American workers. The West Indians were not entitled to any benefits that applied to their United States colleagues.

“They came up with a system to keep the races from mixing; and the white workers were labelled gold and the West Indian workers, silver. And even the facilities in the canal zone were separated by this white and silver system.

“You go to church, white people were allowed to sit in the front and the Blacks had to sit upstairs in the back. At hospitals, just as was happening in the United States, you had a separate entrance for Whites and a separate entrance for Blacks. They were not allowed to mix at any time under any condition. Men went to jail for violating these laws.”

Diseases and discrimation were just two of the problems the Blacks faced.

These Caribbean workers, who were never trained in the use of dynamite, had no choice but to work with it to cut down the mountains to sea level.

“They wouldn’t allow the white workers to handle the dynamite; and so imagine these young men not trained in the use of dynamite, but being told what to do with it! Due to accidental explosions, a lot of them actually lost their lives, because the handling of dynamite is a very sensitive thing; and if you are not trained to do it, you are looking for trouble.”

The film-maker said cutting down the mountains also proved to be a problem.


“When you cut mountains down the soil becomes soft, and Panama was a rain-drenched country. Every day the rain would pour in Panama and loosen up the soil. So these men would be at the bottom of the mountains digging and all of a sudden the mud would slide and bury them alive in the cut,” Foster said.

After the work was done, some Barbadians returned home. However, quite a few stayed, having met their companions, got children, and had already built homes for their families there.

“To some of them, it didn’t make sense to uproot the whole family to bring them back home; so they chose to stay there. You walk through the streets of Panama today, and you would hear the same accents you hear in Bridgetown; and you would wonder, ‘Am I in Bridgetown?’ You have Jamaicans there, and you hear that Jamaican accent.”

The descendants of these original diggers now face the discrimination their forefathers did at the hands of the Panamanians who viewed them as intruders. In fact, many of the descendants have chosen to forget their past, have refused to admit their families originated in the West Indies and only speak Spanish. Some of them even went as far as to change their West Indian surnames into Spanish ones.

“The Panamanians viewed them as, ‘You come to my country and took away the jobs from me’, and that created much resentment. Working for the United States government was like a status thing in Panama, and they couldn’t understand why English-speaking black people would get those privileges in a Spanish-speaking society; and that created a lot of animosity between the Panamanians and the West Indian society,” said Foster who spent quite some time in Panama with his
production team.

There was a screening of Diggers at Frank Collymore Hall last Thursday night, attended by Governor General Sir Elliott Belgrave, Minister of Tourism Richard Sealy, Speaker of the House Michael Carrington, Barbados Central Bank Governor Dr DeLisle Worrell, and historians Sir Henry Fraser and Karl Watson, among other senior officials and diplomats.

Producer Foster said that from the comments he had received from some officials after the screening, it was evident that they were all moved by what they had seen.

Despite being approached by archives, institutions and libraries on the prized volumes of film and recordings of the history of the building of the Panama Canal, he is yet to decide where to house all of the material –– and with a stipulation that it must be available to the public. But that is the least of Foster’s worries. He said he was more concerned that to this day, no monument was erected to honour those thousands of men who laboured to build the waterway.

“Nations depend on that canal to this very day. Yet nobody has taken a minute out of their time to say let’s honour the builders of the canal. They don’t care any more.

“These men are dead; they are gone. And who cares? And that is the attitude from the government of the United States, Panama . . . ,” the film-maker Foster declared passionately.

4 Responses to Forgotten heroes of Panama Canal

  1. nanci December 11, 2014 at 8:49 am

    there’s a tv station in Massachusetts called PBS, where they showed the panama canal workers, and the hardships they went through, but they only highlighted the US workers. There’s some mention of west Indians working also, but not enough information on discrimination and horrible working conditions. Your story bring out the bad conditions working had to endure, but because they were west Indians, the conditions were not highlighted. I watch the PBS show many times, where it was told many men were killed daily, but no publicity was bought to the killings, accidents, because the government wanted the canal to finish on time. All the supervisors and managers were white Americans, so racism, and very poor living conditions were experienced by the west Indians workers. The documentary is very sad to watch, and that’s not even all of what happened. I had an uncle who used to tell my siblings and I stories of the Panama canal, but we were too young to understand the bad experience, he was talking about. Also when men got killed on the site, they were buried immediately, because work had to continue, because they didn’t want to ran over budget, its sad what happen to many young men who thought they were going to work, and make a good living.

  2. nanci December 11, 2014 at 8:58 am

    you should watch the PBS show, or contact PBS in boston and ask them to show the documentary again, or if you can google it. It ask show on Netflix or check out flipps, flipps is free, but I am not sure if you can download it in Barbados.

  3. Marcia Henry June 25, 2017 at 3:25 pm

    I received this from a friend (June 23, 2017), and just now reading it.
    Mr. Foster hit it on the head. I’m Panamanian-born, lived in the US for many years, and now returned to Panama. I’m also a member of SAMAAP (friends of the Afro-Antillean Museum), where I’m sure Mr. Foster would have gotten much information. Many Barbadians have visited Panama, and definitely visit this museum.
    I remember while in High School, how we marched and rioted b/c of the Americans and their rule in Panama. I’ve always said they brought their discrimination to Panama. Now that they are gone, Blacks are still discriminated against.
    The bad news is, how many lost their lives. The good news is, we have our Canal, and Panama is doing better than most of the Latin american countries, and many others! Folks are moving here in droll’s!

  4. Noreen Nesfield Brathwaite November 11, 2017 at 7:33 pm

    I am a Trinidadian who is really pleased to read of this account. My great grandfather and grandfather went from Barbados to work on the Panama Canal. My great grandfather who wen in 1906 got very ill and was hospitalized. He left “escaped” from the hospital and came to Trinidad. He was James Nesfield, his son, my grandfather who was James Jonathan Nesfield left to meet his father in 1909 but his father was already in Trinidad so he came to Trinidad. Jonathan Nesfield left a woman with a small son and a nursing baby at the time. I would really like to get in touch with these relatives/descendants. My mother Geraldine Nesfield is alive at 94 yrs.


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