I don’t have a whole lot of emotional attachment to the madre patria, not where it counts. After all, the parliament has passed a law giving the descendents of Civil War refugees the option to apply for a passport. Yet I have zero desire to do it. No, I have a negative reaction to doing it. In other words, at the level where it counts, my people are the people of the United States of America.
But sometimes I can’t resist borrowing a phrase from my good friend (and great American) Carlos Yu: “Oh, my peoples.” The story of the labor troubles on the Panama Canal is one of those times.
In 1904, the United States began construction of the Panama Canal in earnest. Problem was, it needed laborers. Lots of laborers. Preferably cheap laborers, which ruled out hiring Panamanians. (The Canal labor force would peak at more than a quarter of Panama’s economically active population. Wage rates would have skyrocketed, even had that many people been interested in killing themselves to dig a big ditch ... which they were not.) So the U.S. turned to the same place from which the earlier French canal effort had got its workers: Jamaica. Problem was, the Jamaican government remembered the disaster that was the repatriation of Jamaican workers after the French canal effort collapsed in 1889. The Crown Colony government insisted that the Americans guarantee repatriation costs for any and all workers. That ended the idea of using Jamaican labor; ultimately, only 47 worked on the Canal.
At this point the Barbadians, and later the Spanish, enter the story.
With Jamaica out, the Isthmian Canal Commission began recruiting in Barbados. The first groups of Barbadians to arrive, however, proved too malnourished to accomplish their assigned tasks. “Not only do they seem to be disqualified by lack of actual vitality, but their disposition to labor seems to be as frail as their bodily strength.” Governor Stevens himself wrote, “I have no hesitancy in saying that the West Indian Negro is about the poorest excuse for a laborer I have ever been up against in thirty-five years of experience.” This should not have been surprising to anyone who knew about conditions on the island at the time, but we’re talking about Americans. (Insert the first “oh, my people.”) After bringing in almost 10,000 Barbadians, the Canal Zone management was disappointed with the results.
The Isthmian Canal Commission now decided to turn to, in the words of a Commission official, the “semi-white foreigner (Dago).” Between 1906 and 1908, the Isthmian Canal Commission hired 8,000 Spanish workers. It paid them twice what it paid Barbadians. Now, it would be entirely reasonable to conclude that this was due to racism, but the Americans running the show weren’t particularly enamored of “dagoes.” Rather, the higher salary was what they needed to offer to get people to leave the madre patria for Panama, and the Americans were willing to pay it because the Spanish were physically stronger and more robust than the half-starved Barbadians.
The Spanish, however, were also the heirs to Spain’s militant labor tradition. (Here is where the second “oh, my people” comes in.) Spanish workers started the first major strike on the Canal in 1907. The United States tried to use Italians to break the strike, but it didn’t work; they could only attract a total of 1,941 in 1906-07, after which they received no more. So the American managers used the Barbadians to restrain the Spanish. As one foreman wrote, “I could keep them both on their metal by rivalry between the two.” The result, unsurprisingly, was an all-out riot between Spanish and Barbadian workers in 1909.
Spanish militancy led the Canal Zone to replace Spanish workers by any means necessary. The Americans pretty quickly figured out that Barbadian productivity rapidly rose to Spanish levels with access to enough calories. The head of the Canal effort, a racist Brooklynite named George Goethals, reduced the work day from ten hours to nine in 1907, which lowered exhaustion, and required all workers to purchase three full meal tickets every day. Previously, many Barbadian workers had chosen to subsist on sugar cane in order to save more money to send home — understandable, considering that meal tickets cost 9¢ ($1.98 in today’s money) and they earned only 68¢ for a nine-hour day, but terrible for their health and energy levels. Add to that the fact that American foremen (with some head-banging from higher management, regardless of their own retrograde racial attitudes) learned to treat the Barbadians with some modicum of respect, and you can predict the result: by 1909, the Americans were able to get the same work for less cash from the Barbadians, and stopped hiring Spaniards.
The Spanish did not go quietly. A violent wave of strikes rocked the Canal Zone in 1911 and 1912. But the result was predictable. (Oh, my peoples.) The strikes ended with the complete replacement of Spanish labor by West Indians, mostly from Barbados. By 1913, the Isthmian Canal Commission had brought in 19,900 Barbadians, not including the many women who followed their husbands and a continuing (if less well-recorded) migration as construction work continued after the Panama Canal’s offical opening in 1914. In fact, the Canal would not be fully open to commercial traffic until 1920.
The ultimate migration turned out to be much bigger than 19,900. In 1901, Barbados had a population of 195,558. In 1921, it had a population of only 156,744. Extrapolating from existing birth and death rates, the population of the island should have been 220,412 in 1921, implying a net outmigration of 64,000 people. This obviously had massive effects on Panama (which had a population of only 450,000 in 1921, not including the Canal Zone) ... but what did it do to Barbados?
Truth be told, I do not know for sure, but I have a strong guess, which will have to wait for a later post. While we’re waiting, what do you think?