Letters from Isthmian Canal construction workers


Material Information

Letters from Isthmian Canal construction workers Contest solicitation, overview and entry requirements
Series Title:
Isthmian Historical Society competition for the best true stories of life and work on the Isthmus of Panama during the construction of the Panama Canal
Physical Description:
Mixed Material
Afro-Antillean Museum ( donor )
Isthmian Historical Society
Place of Publication:


Subjects / Keywords:
Panama Canal


Scope and Content:
The Contest: In 1963, as the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Panama Canal drew near, the Isthmian Historical Society decided to make a collection of stories of personal experiences of non-U.S. citizens during Construction Days by means of a contest. This contest was publicized in local newspapers, by notices in the food packages given to Disability Relief recipients, and in newspapers in the Caribbean area. The following letter was sent to a total of 15 newspapers in Jamaica, Barbados, British Honduras, Trinidad, Antigua, St. Vincent, St. Lucia, and Grenada: "The Isthmian Historical Society is trying to collect the personal experiences and viewpoints of those West Indians who served in the labor force that dug the Panama Canal. Very little has been written by them or about them. Soon it will be too late to obtain personal accounts. In the hope of making a permanent record of their experiences during the construction of the Canal, our Society is sponsoring a competition for the best true stories of life and work on the Isthmus of Panama during the construction years. It would be much appreciated if you would assist us in publicizing our competition. I am enclosing a separate sheet with the information for this." The information sheet: "The Isthmian Historical Society announces a competition for the-best true stories of life and work on the Isthmus of Panama during the construction of the Panama Canal. The competition is open to West Indians and other non-U.S. citizens who were on the Isthmus prior to 1915. Entries may be handwritten but must be legible. Anyone who is infirm may have his story written for him by someone else, but in this case it must be stated on the entry that it has been written for him in his own words by someone else. Give name, address, year arrived in Panama, where employed there, and type of work done. All entries must be in the mail by November 1, 1963. The winners will be announced in December. All entries become the property of the Isthmian Historical Society. First prize will be: $50 (U.S.); second prize: $30 (U.S.); third prize: $20 (U.S.)…” Brief notices of the contest were placed in several thousand food packages ("Food for Peace" packages have been distributed monthly by the Panama Canal Company-Canal Zone Government). These notices read: "Competition -- For West Indians & other non-U.S. citizens who worked on the Isthmus before 1915. For the best true stories of life & work on the Isthmus during the Canal construction there will be awarded prizes: 1st PRIZE: $50; … Give year arrived in Panama, kind of work & where, name & address. Write of interesting experiences & people, living & working conditions, etc… The Entries: The majority of the contest entries were handwritten. In some cases the handwriting was difficult to read. In making copies of the entries, it occasionally was necessary to omit an undecipherable word, leaving a blank space to indicate the omission. Although an effort was made to reproduce the letters exactly as they were written, it is probable that there are errors. However, they will detract little from what these Old Timers wanted to say. It should be remembered that these letters were written by individuals who labored on the Isthmus prior to 1915. They are no longer young. Some are handicapped by the infirmities of age: failing eyesight, unsteadv and arthritic hands that find it laborious to form words and sentences, and minds that know what they want to say but communicate it imperfectly. Generally, unfamiliar spellings need only to be sounded and their meaning becomes clear. In cases where the entrants wrote as they speak, there may be dropped "H"8s so that "has" is written "as". Other features of West Indian speech will be noted. As spoken language, there is no English more colorful. Mr. Albert Banister's interesting letter is a good example. The Society is most grateful for all the entries and we regret that there could not be a prize for everyone. Ruth C. Stuhl Competition Editor

Record Information

Source Institution:
Afro-Antillean Museum
Holding Location:
Afro-Antillean Museum
Rights Management:
All rights reserved by the source institution.
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Martineau, E. WV.; Box 5571, Panama City, R.P.

My Father before me was a man of/gentle character, very
kind in his ways and action; he would even give up his rights
for peace sake, he was too soft in his day to accumulate wealth,
therefore he died poor. My Mother was just the opposite, she
was loving and kind to her home circle, but she was very stern
in business, and upright with individuals. She would go to any
extent to obtain her right, if she thought she was right.
From these two peoular combination I was born in the Island of
Grenada, West Indies, eighty-two (82) years ago. I came to the
Republic of Panama May 1912, not in search of work,.but to find
a better field of endeavour; I brought along with me an airated
water equipment which is commonly called soda factory. After I
paid the duty for same, I applied for permission to operate in
the Canal Zone, and authority obtained, I was established at,
High Street, Gatun.

After my business got going, I began making many queries
about North America. making an expensive enterprise in this
Republic. First I was told that two French Companies, respect-
ively with Administration Building in Panama City, which is now
occupied as general Post Office for that Government, made
efforts to build a Canal and failed. I further understood nego-
tiation began with the American Government, and settlement was
made with that Government for the sum of forty million dollars,
(e40,000,000) covering all their rights on the Isthmus. Some
time after, negotiation began with the governments of Panama,
and the U.S.S. relative to full status of the latter in the
Canal question.

So far it was understood, five miles on both sides were
granted for a long lease to the American Government with an
annual payment of four hundred anc fifty thousand dollars
450,000,000); after which the American named this enterprise
The Istlh ain Canal Commission." it then sent its agents to
Central and South America, including the West Indies, to select
able-bodied men on a contract basis, at ten cents per hour, for
low-grade laborers; when their services were no longer required,
they were to be sent back to their native lands free of cost to

This enterprise was conducted by the first Governor of the

Martineau, E. W. p.2

Canal Zone, G. W. Goethals, who was also the supervisor of the
Canal digging.

In the West Indies, the contract was proceding slowly, then
there became a slump for two reasons. (1) It was rumored that
sickness and death were raging in Panama. (2) Laborers were
required for Porto-a-Viego, Brazil, beyond the Amazon river.
This government promised to assist the Republio of Bolivia to
furnish a rail road to their borders to convey the latter prol.
ducts through the Amazon to the Western hemisphere. A disease
called Bery-Bery was discovered In Brazil, and was more danger-
ous than any kind of weaver, it was then decided by thousands
that Panama was a better place to be, so people began to follow
to. the Isthmus.

At this time the Canal Commission-withdrew.its agents, as
it was no longer necessary to use them in the West Indies.
Every one who was contracted had to be in the Canal Zone, where
there were accommodation provided for them. However.it was dis-
covered after the people were coming in such great numbers, the
commission had to invite capitalist to-build houses in all sec-
tions of the Zone, including commercial business for rent, also
professional men and women were allowed to practice their pro-
fession in order to releave pressure on the government agencies-
in this interprize.

During spare time I visited some of the various stations
where the work was most important, especially as thousands of
my people were involved. I wonted to see how effectively they
were giving service for which we are characterized. I found
them to be in excellent spirit and were working steadily, while
our Latin brothers were bringing up the rear to the best of their
ability. I also queried, what great benefits would be obtained
for the U.S.A. after spending million of dollars. I was told
that after the earth should have divided, the world of shipping
would be united, then there will be a boon for the hemisphere.

When the Coinerce in the Zone reached its maximum carrying
power, the Landlords, and commercial men of Panama and Colon,
saw they were at a rycat disadvantage in business, they applied
to the National Government for relief by giving temporary permits
to those of us who cared to reside in-both terminal cities. This
was promptly granted by the Government. Slowly removal began

Martineau, 9. W. p.3

from Zone to terminals, this brought a problem to the Zone gov-
ernment, which then had to furnish labor-train to convey the
workers to and from work daily. This method continued until
long after construction days.

However, I continued my spare time visits to the construc-
tion areas, I then noticed, that because of the English language
spoken by West Indians, there were no problem in receiving
orders from the American bosses. Such was the case from office
clerks to scavengers. Whenever volunteers were called upon to
risk their lives to climb a boom or pole or other.dangerous
objects, there were always more volunteers than were required to
do the job.

It was to ,my grief and sorrow to hear of a godd neighbor of
mine receive his death one early morning, while awaiting his-
turn to descend into the pit where he was working at the time.
At the sound of the whistle at 7:00 a.m. a service crain swung
its boom into position just where he was standing and knocked
him into the pit. It was a mournful morning at Gatun. Among
hundreds of deaths that occurred during construction days, this,
and another that occurred at Miraflores was most grievious to me
because they were my neighbors. One bright sunny morning I paid
a visit to the Mihti.ty Culebra Cut. I saw the work men cautiously
creeping up the ridges with their drills as soldiers going up
Majuba hill in Mesopotamia, in battle array. With great dexter-
ity they pressed forward in blasting and drilling, while others
with water hose washing down the soft earth to make way for the
gallant men who were storming the rocks with gallantry.


...In the early days thsc-6 men were very discriminative,
they disliked any individual who was not of Caucasian blood.
There were two-brothers, who were judges1 one said in my presence
in Balboa court room, that :one policeman s word was as good as
ten civilian's word in his court, this was clear to be seen that
he was discriminative, down to the casket of his soul. After the
Zone was depopulated, I went into Taxi and bus business, then
under the discriminating policy which I have mentioned I and my
men were always in court for frovolity; in one way or another
at one time, one of the Judges scheked my record before handing
down his sentence. He said I had many records. I said yes, some

Martineau, E. W. p.4

were true the others were lies by dishonourable policemen. He
looked at me with displeasure, I gazed at him in a similar man-
ner; I feared no consequences because I was fed up with their
discrimination policy.

I also believed the reason why the greater portion of the
people on the Isthmus hated the Americans so much was because
of the policy of those departments; however, over a decade ago,
this policy has been greatly changed to a better standard of
human dignity., I challenge any man, anywhere, at any time, to
prove that my statements in these instances are untrue. I
served the Locks Division, Miraflores Branch, from 1930 to
1948, carrying workmen to and from work during that. period, even
in war days when the shift was placed on twenty-four-hour basis.
I served on all shift. On January 25th, 1936, I was injured on
the locks by a blown-out tire,that rendered me unconscious. A
soldier liberty truck conveyed me to Gorgas Hospital, where I
regained consciousness. I was attended by Drs. Albright and
Major Mann. These statements can be verified by the Locks
Officials Mr. Statwell, Myrick Miggs and others who knew me
personally. In 1913 the then governor, Chester Harding appointed
a Land Commission, agent to check the commission houses with
the view of paying the owners and have them remove from the Canal
Zone, free transportation were provided to either terminal
Cities. The following year depopulation began in full force,
also surplus laborers began to be repatriated while the free
labor trains were still running to and from both terminal cities.

...Canal Zone Sub-police station was once established at
Savana, Panama. The two-story structure is still there, just a
little ahead of the fire station in that area. Two-inch water
pipes were played from the city to convay water there. ...

... The magnificent appearance of the entire length of the
Canal can be characterized as a symbol of man's ingenuity at
the Republic of Pana.Ja. Uncle Sam has made a groat job. God
Bless America, long live American Leadership.

Respectfully and sincerely,

Martineau, E. W. p.5


After the completion of the Panama Canal, repartration was
ordered swiftly followed by depopulation of the Canal Zone.
This brought great concern among the nationals who, resided in
the area. Speculation beg:Cn among merchants, Land Lords and
even the lowest peasant began to ask what next to be done. How-
ever the Canal Zone was to be partly evacuated. The land Lords
and merchants renewed their plea to the National Governments
stating it will do well to give residential status to West
Indians, especially those who were in the majority during the
construction of the Canal. It was then President Belisario
Porras, through his sagacity and kindness upheld the proposal,
and decreed for those of us who cared to cultivate the soil as
follows: Five acres for each bachelor and 10 acres for married
couple and after the time we may be owners by paying for titles.
He further said this is Panama's contribution to West Indians
for-their labor in helping to dig the canal. This shows clearly
we did not shoot our way as contrabands into the jurisdiction of
the Fepublio, as many people has to say. We came with an olive
branch of fellowship extending the fellowship of man to the Pan-
amanian people although it was very difficult at the beginning to
adopt ourselves to the custom and usages of the people. We did
succeed in making ourselves helpful to them. We built houses in
Chorrillo Calidonia, and Savanas district, we also promoted
sports in the stadium area, cricket games at the stand ovals
where President and Iris theaters are today. We also trained
native poneys to race, our track was in Peru Avenue, after we
transferred the same to Juan Franco pasture, our office was under
a tree tucked with galvanized sheets. We kept in that pasture
until we attracted such Panamanian figures as the late Raul
Espinosa, he took up where we left off. Today it has become the
greatest National sports in the Republic. There were economic
crises; soup kitchens had to be opened to feed the poor. This
is a small matter, it happens to all countries fome time or other
during the years. Ounce a labour union boss from the U.S.A. paid
a visit Exxtx to the lstlh.us, a boss of Panama labor union
greeted him saying, "Comrade Gremper, the U.S.A. has dumped West
Indians in Panama and Colon and made a groat problem for us."
This was not true and did not worth the paper it was written on.
"Give to Ceaser the things that are Ceaser's and unto God the
things that are God's."

I have mentioned in my previous effort how the contracted

Martineau, E. W.. p.6

men were taken into the Canal Zone, therefore we should not
jeopardize the feelings of our good neighbors who possess such
generous propenniti es at all times from every unit in the Canal
Zone. The people should bo taught more thrift than sports, too
much sports without enough funds will create serious consequences,
those who can aford should give alms to the poor. ...

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