Sun | Jan 20, 2019

'1, 2, 3, 4, Colon Man a come'

Published:Sunday | September 28, 2014 | 12:00 AM
Martin Henry

Martin Henry, Guest Columnist

Men can get their get-up-stand-up Irish moss and their bun in Panama, just like in Jamaica. This on account of the tens of thousands of Jamaicans who migrated to the isthmus first to build the railway there and then the canal, which opened in 1914. These migrants, whose story is documented in Olive Senior's just-released book, Dying to Better Themselves: West Indians and the Building of the Panama Canal, planted their seed and culture there.

Based on her new work, the prolific Senior delivered the 2014 Distinguished Lecture of the National Library of Jamaica, Colon Man and the Panama Experience, last Sunday at the Institute of Jamaica. It was there that the chargé d'affaires of the Embassy of Panama, Eric Cajar Grimas, regaled us with the Jamaican contribution to the current culture of Panama. It's not just bun and Irish moss. He spoke about the legacy of escoveitch fish, coconut rice, and sorrel on the food side, music and dance, literature and sports.

And Jamiekan as a distinct language even survives among descendants of the émigrés, as MC Orville Taylor recounted from his own recent travel to Panama.

Olive Senior has delivered another masterpiece, both in the lecture and the book. Several speakers referred to her classic A-Z of Jamaican Heritage and its great usefulness as a reference source. Her poem 'All Clear', about a returned Colon man with all the trappings of having arrived, was masterfully rendered by an NLJ staffer. 'Colon Man' had abandoned his original family and married a much younger brown woman of a higher class: "He with a clear conscience; she with a clear complexion."

What Olive Senior does in Dying to Better Themselves: West Indians and the Building of the Panama Canal is to examine in great detail an earlier migration story, the first large-scale case, really, "that of the neglected post-Emancipation generation of the 1850s who were lured to Panama by the promise of lucrative work and who initiated a pattern of circular migration that would transform the islands economically, socially and politically ... into the twentieth century."


Migrants from the Caribbean, dominated by Jamaica and Barbados, made up the bulk of the workforce for the building of the Panama Railroad in the 1850s and for both the French and American canal-building efforts.

Some returned home, like the Colon Man parading on his fine horse in Olive Senior's poem, 'All Clear', with some money to better themselves, their immediate community and, ultimately, the country. Some migrated onwards from Panama to places like Costa Rica, Ecuador (like Solomon grandpa in the folk song) and the United States following work. And many remained in Panama, whose descendants proudly celebrated Black Heritage Day on May 30.

Senior breaks up the stereotype of the Colon Man as we find it in the well-known song, "One, two, three, four, Colon Man a Come/With 'im gold chain a lick 'im belly, bam, bam, bam"; in her own poem, 'All Clear'; and in the sharp description Claude McKay renders in his novel, Banana Bottom. She establishes him as the archetype of the migrant Jamaican seeking to better himself a 'farin'.

Without need for passport or visa, poor Jamaicans, some 90,000 of them between 1905 and 1915, crowded on to ships and mostly rode open deck the 550 miles to Colon, escaping a depressed economy. What's new? Female higglers capitalised on taking goods and services of various kinds to Panama to serve the workers there. It's the reverse now.

The Great Depression mashed up migration and precipitated mass returns of Jamaicans from abroad. Many returnees settled into the Kingston shanty towns rather than going back to country. This, Olive Senior insists, fed into the 1938 Kingston upheavals. And the leadership that emerged was from travelled men like Alexander Bustamante.

The isthmus is now very much back in the news. Not only is it the centenary of the opening of the Panama Canal, work is moving apace to widen the canal to accommodate much larger ships, and Nicaragua is thinking about building its own rival canal.

From the time of the building of the Panama Canal a century ago, Jamaica has been positioning itself to capitalise on the benefits of the waterway. Just last Wednesday, The Gleaner carried a feature, 'Technological development crucial for logistics hub', in which Gordon Foote, GM for IBM Jamaica, was reported as saying the country was ripe to take up the opportunities that the expansion of the Panama Canal will present, but moves must be made to further develop the country's technology infrastructure. "Today," he said, "the movement of information is as important as the movement of cargo."


When I wrote 'Jamaica and the Panama Canal' in The Gleaner July last year, I got an extraordinary email from a Jam-Panamanian anxious to explore his roots here. Cirilo Alexander wrote:

"I've read your very interesting article In the Jamaica Gleaner online.

"I am a Panamanian citizen ... and, most importantly, a nephew of the late Sidney A. Young, who came to Panama as a young man with his parents and became the editor and publisher of the English newspaper, The Panama Tribune.

"The Panama Tribune was a vehement defender of the rights of the thousands of West Indian immigrants who came to Panama to help build the Panama Canal and work with the United States-controlled Panama Canal Company. ...

"There is a bronze bust of Mr Sidney A. Young and a park that carries his name in the suburban area of Panama City known as Rio Abajo. That bust has been relocated to a site where a three-storey building is under construction that will serve as a cultural centre for the area, where folks will learn more about Mr Young and the West Indian immigrants who came to Panama for the canal project.

"I worked with my uncle, Mr Young, as a young man back in the 1950s from both his offices, and he taught me the basics of journalism and I also contributed writing short articles in his paper. Mr Young had collaborators like Jamaicans Albert E. Bell, Jack Jamieson, Hector Connor in the city of Colon, and many others whom I personally knew.

"The government representative of the Rio Abajo area told me to gather as much information I can possibly get on Mr Young since the new structure that is being erected will carry the name of Sidney A. Young."

Can anyone help Cirilo Alexander with information on his uncle Sydney Young, a Colon Man who stayed? Olive Senior has helped us tremendously with the story of our migrants to Panama.

Martin Henry is a university administrator and public affairs analyst. Email feedback to and