Mr. President, black Caribbean workers “dug out” the Panama Canal for America

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A report by Jared McCallister for New York’s Daily News.

Knowing about the major contributions made by Caribbean laborers in the construction of the monumental Panama Canal, I had to respond to a recent claim by President Trump, boasting that Americans “dug out” the water-filled passage that linked the Atlantic and Pacific oceans — revolutionizing international maritime travel.

I learned about the Caribbean workers from “Diggers,” the 1984 Roman Foster-directed documentary “about the black men who came from the West Indies to work on the construction of the Panama Canal from 1881 to 1914.”

During both the French and American canal initiatives, the bulk of the Caribbean workers were recruited from Jamaica, Barbados and St. Lucia. And tens of thousands of Caribbean people became part of Panama’s population after the canal work ended.

The Panama Canal at work in this 2003 photo of ships moving through the Miraflores Locks, the first set of locks or sections on the Pacific side of the waterway.
The Panama Canal at work in this 2003 photo of ships moving through the Miraflores Locks, the first set of locks or sections on the Pacific side of the waterway.

In the Canal Zone, skilled positions were given to white workers, while it was mainly Caribbean workers who dug ditches, cut brush, transported equipment and supplies, and performed other manual labor, in addition to the too-often deadly detonation of dynamite to remove huge rocks and other obstructions. All this was done in sweltering temperatures.

In the 90-minute film, narrated by actor Brock Peters, Foster used archival footage, still photographs and interviews with some of the surviving 12 elderly Caribbean diggers who were recruited to build the canal. “Diggers” aired nationally on Public Broadcasting Service television stations in 1985.

In 2018, the Conversation academic website and Smithsonian Magazine published an article by then-Yale University Ph.D. candidate Caroline Lieffers on “the Panama Canal’s forgotten casualties,” which mentions Foster’s film.

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Noting that the Caribbean workers used “dynamite, picks and coal-fired steam shovels” in extreme heat, Lieffers said, “They lived like second-class citizens, subject to a Jim Crow-like regime, with bad food, long hours and low pay. And constant danger.”

She then mentioned Foster’s documentary as a key source of information on the Caribbean contribution to the canal’s completion.

“In the 1980s, filmmaker Roman Foster went looking for these workers; most of the survivors were in their 90s,” she wrote. “Only a few copies of Fosters’s film ‘Diggers’ (1984) can be found in libraries around the world today. But it contains some of the only firsthand testimony of what it was like to dig through the spiny backbone of Panama in the name of the U.S. empire.”

Yes, the U.S. paid for the successful construction, but in his recent speech at his Tulsa, Okla., campaign rally, Trump seemed to say Americans “dug out” the historic canal, when imported Caribbean workers worked and died while carving and blasting through more than 50 miles of sweltering, disease-ridden jungle to create the important Atlantic-Pacific-linking waterway — which made the time-consuming sea route around the southern tip of South America obsolete.

Reflecting on the prevalent racial discrimination in the U.S. at the time, all the black Caribbean and black American workers lived and labored under racially segregated designations — where whites were on the gold payroll and blacks were assigned to the silver payroll.

President Theodore Roosevelt — in a 1906 photo op — sits in operator's seat of a huge steam shovel in the Culebra Cut section of the Panama Canal during its construction. But it was Caribbean workers who dug ditches and performed other manual labor, including the too-often deadly detonation of dynamite.
President Theodore Roosevelt — in a 1906 photo op — sits in operator’s seat of a huge steam shovel in the Culebra Cut section of the Panama Canal during its construction. But it was Caribbean workers who dug ditches and performed other manual labor, including the too-often deadly detonation of dynamite.

“Separate towns, quarters, schools, libraries, recreation facilities, transportation, rest rooms and drinking fountains were assigned according to whether the employee appeared on the ‘gold’ or ‘silver’ payroll,” according to the National Archives. “Signs were posted to let all employees know which facilities were for their use only,” and blacks were paid less than white workers.

After France’s late-1800s unsuccessful attempt to create the long-sought-after 51-mile route and greatly improve international maritime travel, the United States took up the challenge in 1904. Ten years later, the canal was reality, and U.S. officials made groundbreaking inroads into the elimination of mosquito-borne malaria and yellow fever through pioneering insect control measures.

“Panama Canal,” a 2011 episode of the PBS “American Experience” series, called the canal an “engineering innovation on an unprecedented scale.” It said the canal’s construction was “the epitome of man’s mastery over nature and signaled the beginning of America’s domination of world affairs.”

And, according to Patrice Brown’s 1997 National Archives article, there was also an African-American presence during canal construction, and racism was endured by the blacks workers from the U.S. and the Caribbean.

“African-Americans started arriving on the Canal Zone in the early construction years of 1904-1908. They secured employment as many others did, directly through the various canal recruitment offices in the United States or through contractors doing work in the Canal Zone. Upon arrival, they ran headlong into a separatist/racist employment system that affected every phase of life there,” wrote Brown.

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