Learning about our past to prepare us for the future
West Indians and the Building of the Panama Canal
In 1833, the British Emancipation Act abolished slavery throughout the British Empire. With the onset of the construction of the Panama Railroad in 1850, thousands of Caribbean West Indians began to migrate en masse in search of a better life. Caribbean West Indians came to Panama in the 1850’s to help build the railroads and an even larger wave began to arrive in the 1880’s to begin construction on the canal. It is recorded that under French control of the canal project 12,875 laborers were on the payrolls of which 10,844 were British West Indians: 9,005 Jamaicans, 1,344 Barbadians and 495 St. Lucians1.
Caribbean West Indians lured by the opportunity of lucrative work and the promise of wealth were confronted by a very different reality upon arrival in Panama. Workers held many different jobs in the canal zone and they were faced with appalling living conditions, disease, and rugged terrain. The foreign owned corporations building the Panama Canal established segregated communities which later caused conflicts in Spanish speaking Catholic Panama. The Caribbean West Indians were English speaking Protestants who were of African descent yet class conscious British subjects. In 1920, six years after the completion of the Canal, authorities estimated that there were 70,000 West Indians in Panama.
Panama’s black population is approximately 14 percent which represents 460,977 Afro-descendants living mainly in Panama City, Colon City and Isla Colón in Bocas del Toro. They have preserved their ancients customs and traditions which adds to the mojo of Panama which has become a melting pot of different ethnic groups from around the world