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The Panama Canal: The steep price of progress

Published:Sunday | November 9, 2014 | 12:00 AM
Glenville Ashby

Title: Dying to Better Themselves: West Indians and The Building of The Panama Canal

Author: Olive Senior

Publisher: University of the West Indies Press

Olive Senior's Dying to Better Themselves: West Indians and the Building of the Panama Canal encapsulates the dynamics of the human spirit. Arguably a social constructivist, Senior defines the individual through cultural lens, but this work ventures further.

It sheds light on man's primal seed, a tenebrous and atavistic element that will trample, kill and subvert all decency while attributing a salvific aura to wealth. The racially fuelled Watermelon War and the Culebra massacre were just two of the daunting scenarios that characterised life during that period of construction. Maybe the hieratic class of yesteryear who admonished against interfering with nature was right all along.

Of plans to join the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, Philip II cautioned against the impenetrable mountains, noting that, "We should fear punishment from heaven in seeking to correct the works of God."

Undoubtedly, we cannot fathom the revolutionary success of Panama Canal without examining the wave of migration in 1850 to meet the demands for a railroad, and later, the French failure at construction in the 1880s. But it was the success of the Americans in 1913 that showcased the depth of humankind's perseverance and genius. It also marked America's global dominance, while giving credence to the Monroe Doctrine. But through it all, Senior invites us to reflect, to reason, to offer a sober approach to materialism.

The Panama projects sparked a frenzied rush for a better life. Hamstrung by economic paralysis, Jamaicans migrated en masse. This exodus stifled national growth and drained vital human resources. To a lesser degree, other islands also suffered. Interestingly, opulent folks in Europe were also bewitched as they threw their weight behind the French effort and Ferdinand de Lesseps' Compagnie Universelle stock.


The mid-1800s was a period when corruption and judicial quid pro quo ruled. A time when racial hatred, prejudice, violence, imprudence, malfeasance and profligacy were unbridled. Indeed, a time when nature and diseases scoffed at the strongest of men. Human beings, miserable and expendable were reduced to mere numbers.

The Chinese experience during the construction of the railroad represented the emasculation of identity and personal dignity. Senior recounts: "Many were soon prostrate from fevers and other illnesses. Those still standing impressed everyone with their industry, labouring steadily without breaks except for brief moments ...." But the deadly fevers could not end their misery fast enough and many resorted to suicide. For sure, the unyielding jungle and swamps relentlessly confronted the marvel of the human will.

levelled playing field

At the same time, though, human industry was on display; familial responsibilities were honoured and cultural identity was reinforced. Moreover, the playing field was levelled as Social Darwinism reigned. Notably, gender bias was checked and the life of Mary Seacole best exemplified this shift. We learn that she "was not a trained medical doctor," but "came from a long line of women traditionally called 'doctoress' in Jamaica, a self-taught medicine woman whose knowledge of tropical disease and treatments at the time surpassed those of doctors trained exclusively in European medicine ..."

Later, women, including those who were single, thrived; and despite a patriarchal setting, many found competitive jobs in what was called the Canal Zone during America's stewardship. Success was determined by round-the-clock labour and efficiency that was absent from previous attempts at construction. A rigid class structure, though, characterised daily life.

Caribbean people, Jamaicans in particular, were at the fore. They were resilient, the bulwark, the prong of this awe-inspiring accomplishment. Senior pens that by 1885, under French control, "12,875 labourers were on the payrolls", of which "10,844 were British West Indians: 9,005 Jamaicans, 1,344 Barbadians and 495 St Lucians". Senior ensures that they are never forgotten. She states that, "Jamaicans outnumbered not just all other nationalities there, but they almost swamped the native population as well ... Jamaican doctors, druggists, veterinary surgeons, pastors, teachers, photographers, translators, news-stand dealers, newspaper compositors, proofreaders and editors were recorded for that period ..." But, for the most part, life was arduous and "the very poorest city dwellers from Kingston had merely shifted their misery from one location to another".

Entrepreneurial success, in some cases, and the difficulties of adjusting to life upon returning to Jamaica are revisited; so, too, are the culture wars, the rape of innocence, the traffic of bodies to medical institutions, the rise of the nouveau riche, and aversion to American Exceptionalism.

Unquestionably, Senior proves her salt. She is deliberate, academically rigorous and richly exhaustive. Hers is an oeuvre of scholastic and prosaic excellence. Throughout this seminal work there is a prophetic underpinning, subtle, but ever present and instructive. It is a warning, no less, that echoes the provocative counsel of George Santayana: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

Rating: Essential

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