Photos by Cristee Dickson.
On August 15, 1914, the United States signaled to the world its superpower status with the opening of the Panama Canal, a feat that came at an enormous human cost. Undertaking the task of excavating a chasm on the anarchic isthmus of Panama (when it was still Colombia) so that trade ships could bypass the treacherous Cape Horn of South America was first France followed by the United States, though few of their countrymen actually labored on it.
Since the Spanish massacred much of the country’s native population in the 1500s, slave labor was pulled from China, Malaysia and the West Indies to construct the Panama Canal (and the railroad before it). During its 34 years under construction, workers watched the daily of procession of coffins carried by the trainload to Mount Hope cemetery by the city of Colón, killed by malignant illnesses and dire living conditions. Nearly 22,000 workers were hospitalized in the second year alone. Yet the canal is known as one of the seven wonders of the modern world.
Thousands of workers from the Caribbean (Barbados, Jamaica, Martinique, Guadeloupe and Trinidad in particular) were brought to Panama for the building of the French-run Panama Railroad in the early 1850s. Later Malay, Chinese, Irish, local mestizos and some US laborers joined them. After the trafficking of opium to the Chinese slowed and workers were forced to live free of their only escape from the harsh demands of labor, hundreds were found to have committed mass suicides, using their own hair as nooses to hang themselves with or paying Malay workers to shoot them in the head. Tropical illnesses, injuries from the dangerous working conditions and poor hygiene killed 20,000 others during eight years of French oversight. After a political scandal left the French operation bankrupt in 1904, the U.S. took the reins, but conditions barely improved.
The Canal Zone, a festering hotspot of disease and illness, came to be dubbed “fever coast.” Laborers were vexed with every kind of sickness imaginable: typhoid, smallpox, pneumonia, malaria, cholera, yellow fever, hookworm, dysentery, cutaneous infections and even the bubonic plague. Though medical knowledge at the time hadn’t viewed the mosquito as a disease carrier, 80 percent of the laborers in 1906 were hospitalized for malaria. There were ten foot mapana snakes and venomous coral snakes and a practically year-round rainy season that kept the workers perennially coated in layers of mud. When news of their working conditions made it back home, the U.S. responded with a statement issued in the Panama Star & Herald that read, “Prudence and ordinary precaution is all that is required on the part of unacclimated newcomers to our sunny shores.”
Weakened by disease, ethnic workers were suppressed in an apartheid system in which white “skilled” workers were paid in gold and non-white “unskilled” workers in local Panamanian silver. The Silver People, as they came to be known, made up the vast majority of the workforce and bunked six dozen to a hut the size of a two-bedroom apartment.
White laborers enjoyed renovated or new two-story cottage homes with screened-in verandas, modern plumbing and electricity. YMCA clubhouses for white workers had bowling lanes, billiards tables and chess boards. Their baseball leagues, fraternal organizations, athletic competitions, dance halls, band concerts, churches, bakeries, hotels and nine women’s clubs, for the wives and daughters, were all funded by the Isthmian Canal Commission. By 1908, ICC was spending $2.5 million a year for entertainment and games for white workers, and nothing on everyone else.
Today, the Silver People are memorialized in a segregated cemetery in Corozal, Panama on 46 acres of burial grounds, adjacent to the Corozal American Cemetery and Memorial, where the white workers remain.