On February 1, 1881, de Lesseps read to an enthusiastic French press a telegram from Reclus on the Isthmus, which the journal La France described as “eloquence in a few words”: “Travail Commencé.” It was thrilling news.
Reclus and Verbrugghe had arrived in Panama at the end of January, together with thirty-five engineers, five of whom brought their wives with them. As always, there was a warm welcome from the people of Panama. Also of the party was Gaston Blanchet, the representative of Couvreux, Hersent, who were to be contracted to do the actual work, although under the overall control of Reclus. The giant engineering firm had an excellent reputation based on their business on three continents. But none of their directors had ever worked in Central America. Alarmingly, Abel Couvreux had made a speech in Ghent at the end of 1880 saying that the so-called deadly climate of Panama “was nothing but an invention of the canal's adversaries.” In March 1881 a contract was signed between Couvreux and the Company that allowed for two years of preparation, assembly of machinery, and preliminary studies, which would determine the costs for the actual excavation. The directors of Couvreux were old friends of de Lesseps from Suez days, and the preliminary contract was loosely drawn and generous.
Following the arrival of the first party from France, almost every boat from Europe brought its share of engineers, office workers, or adventurers hoping to profit from the vast new project. At the beginning of 1881, Henri Cermoise was twenty-two years old and recently qualified as an engineer. French technical schools, run by and for the state, were the finest in the world, with rigorous entrance examinations, strict rules, and a rigid, theoretical approach. After his grueling training as a civil engineer, Cermoise was keen to see something of the world outside “lecture theatres and blackboards.” Having had his application to work in Panama accepted, he sailed from Saint-Nazaire on the hardworking Lafayette on March 6, 1881, on the third shipment of personnel to the Isthmus. To gain employment with the company had been difficult, he writes, and he was aware that the journey was long and hard, that he ran the risk of meeting yellow fever “nose to nose,” and that the tropical sun could kill you “like a cannon ball.” “Mais, bah!” he writes, he was going all the same.
Those words—“Mais, bah!”—typify the bravery and foolhardiness of the French years. Whatever de Lesseps, Abel Couvreux, or the Bulletin said, it was common knowledge that Panama was an extremely dangerous posting. But like a young man volunteering for service in a war, there existed for Cermoise and many of his contemporaries a belief, first, that the worst would always happen to someone else; that their country and the general progress of humanity demanded that they take the risk; and that at the end of the day, amazingly, they were prepared to die for the Great Idea of the canal.
Cermoise's account of his journey to Panama is full of excitement and exuberance. After a storm in the Atlantic, on the sixteenth day of the journey they entered calm seas. It became hot and sunny, and the air was now “charged with the perfumes of tropical earth.” There were more stops, at Martinique and on the South American mainland, before at last the Lafayette neared Colón. All that morning the passengers remained on deck, excitedly scanning the horizon with their binoculars. Soon a long blue blurred line appeared in the distance. Then, little by little, the wooded summits of the Isthmus came into view. Everyone fell silent. “A great thoughtfulness took hold of us all,” writes Cermoise, “even those least given to contemplation. Silently, we thought of these lands where we were going to engage in the great scientific battle, and where, like in all battles, there would be the wounded and the dead.”
The party went ashore, and at the railway station were met by Gaston Blanchet. “He was tall,” writes Cermoise, “with an energetic look about him.” He seemed straightforward and kind. Blanchet had a list of his new arrivals, but when he went through it he found that most of the men were not what he had been expecting. Either through bureaucratic mix-ups, or because those applying to work in Panama had lied about their qualifications, Cermoise and a friend he had made on the voyage called Montcenaux turned out to be the only two qualified engineers in the entire group. Blanchet was furious.
Nonetheless, squeezed in amidst sacks of rice and other provisions, the group traveled on the train to Panama City. Cermoise describes the low-lying marshy land behind Colón, continuing through Gatún, Bohío Soldado, and Buena-Vista, native villages along the line made up of huts “built of bamboos thatched with palms or oleanders.” After Gorgona there was a gradual rise up to Matachín, where the short, limp vegetation gave way to a taller and more solid mass of green. The railroad was single track, and at Matachín they had to wait on a siding for the train coming in the opposite direction to pass. They had time to disembark, and were offered an array of provisions including water that was “twenty-five degrees [centigrade] in the shade,” and hard-boiled lizard and iguana eggs. Even more daunting was their first look at the jungle close up. The forest here reached right to the edge of the line. It seemed utterly impenetrable, a “horrifying tangle of trees, a wall of creepers.” At last on the move again, they climbed further, to the top of the Continental Divide. At Emperador they saw a gang drilling for rock samples, the first signs of canal work in progress. Then they descended, the railtrack taking alarmingly tight curves down the slope to the Río Grande Valley and Panama City. That evening Cermoise was introduced to Armand Reclus. To Cermoise he was already a legend, having been involved in the canal project from the earliest surveying days. The Agent Supérieur welcomed him warmly.
Reclus's first priority in these early months was to secure sufficient roofs to protect workers and machinery from the rains, due at the beginning of May. Time was of the essence. Within a week of the arrival of the first French engineers, Colón had been transformed into a busy port. A new wharf was speedily constructed, and ships started docking every day carrying prefabricated wooden buildings from New Orleans and countless railway sleepers and rails. At the same time, all sorts of machinery started arriving from the United States and Europe: drills, locomotives, wagons of all types, dredges, barges, steam shovels, and cranes. All were transported in bits and had to be reassembled.
Louis Verbrugghe was now in charge of recruitment, a job in which he had local experience running his family's plantations in Colombia. The initial workers were from nearby—from Darién, Cartagena, or from the Jamaican community left over from the construction of the railroad. They were set to work expanding Colón's port facilities and assembling buildings—machine shops, a sawmill, wooden cottages for the white technicians and larger barracks for the workers. The Grand Hotel in Panama City was purchased by the Company and refurbished as its headquarters. Along the line of the railway the scattering of native villages were to be transformed. At Emperador a huge clearing was made for a work camp. Outside Gatún on the Chagres a new settlement, grandly called Lesseps City, was to be established.
After a week or so to acclimatize, Henri Cermoise reported to Blanchet to start work. Blanchet outlined the progress so far. The initial party of engineers, he said, had found much of the proposed canal line covered by impenetrable virgin forest. While the general route was known—which valleys the canal would follow—details such as where the axis of the canal passed from one valley to another were still to be determined. In addition there was much drilling to be done to discover the type of rock or soil that would have to be removed. Therefore all of the engineers were to be employed either in surveying and taking soundings along the axis of the canal, or in the central office collating the reports as they came in from the field. Blanchet offered Cermoise the choice of work: “I hadn't come to Panama to be stuck in a study again,” he wrote. “The idea of the virgin forest, with tigers, crocodiles swirled round in my head; the life of a pioneer, penetrating into the unexplored depths of this isthmus was an irresistible temptation.” The next day, still with his friend from the boat over, Montcenaux, he set off for Gamboa.
This is where the Chagres River, what Cermoise called the “implacable enemy of our great enterprise,” met the line of the canal at right angles. From Gamboa through to Barbacoas, the river followed the same route as the planned waterway. While other work parties set about clearing a 50-meter-wide strip along the line of the canal and began to take detailed measurements, it fell to Cermoise and Montcenaux to survey the site of the huge dam planned to regulate the flow of the river at Gamboa. Leaving the train at Matachín, the two men were punted upriver in a hollowed-out canoe. Twenty minutes later they arrived at Gamboa and took possession of the two huts, one for “chiefs” and one for the thirty or so workers, which constituted the camp already established. There they met a Belgian, Blasert, a veteran of the North American West, who was acting as quartermaster and administrator of the work camp. Cermoise found him an impressive figure. “He laughed at the climate, the snakes and at Yellow Fever … he considered himself invulnerable.” Blasert had even brought his wife and ten-year-old daughter with him to the camp. The latter “passed her days à vagabonder barefoot and bare-headed” around the camp.
It was immediately apparent to Cermoise that this work would have “nothing in common with what one does in Europe … When we saw the thick forest which covered the mountains we were thoroughly daunted.” The first task was to begin clearing pathways through the jungle toward those summits that seemed the highest. The plan was for the crucial dam to be constructed between two hills, each about 250 meters high, and some 500 meters apart. In Europe, comments Cermoise, both could have been surveyed in a morning. But here in the tropical jungle it was another matter altogether. The jungle was so thickly matted that one could see only a few yards in any direction, hopeless for taking measurements. The heat and humidity, like “a steam bath,” sapped the strength, making legs and arms as heavy as stone. The narrow pathways gradually cleared in the jungle were “suffocating [as] the high branches met each other overhead, forming a vault which kept out the light and the air.”
Most of the workers were local mulattoes, who were instinctively hostile toward Europeans, and to taking commands, often replying, Cermoise notes, with the declaration, “I am a free man.” They had to be handled with great tact, and at one point the Europeans, fearing a mutiny, took to carrying arms and guarding their hut by night. On the whole, however, Cermoise is generous in his praise for his workers. “In spite of the faults, the Colombians… did us great service with the clearing.” They knew the forest, and were experts with their machetes. “Bamboos, creepers, even trees fell before them like hail.” Sometimes, however, the party would meet a colossal tree that, because of the hardness of its wood, would take a whole day to cut down by ax. Progress was slow.
Few animals, apart from the odd parrot, were encountered in the jungle. However, there were plenty of snakes. More than a hundred had been killed during the clearing of the space for the camp alone. The locals seemed to be adept at dispatching them with a single machete blow, but the clearing still required constant alertness as huge specimens could fall on the men from branches above their heads. Most feared were the coral snake and the mapana, otherwise known as a bushmaster. The coral snake is quite small, some twenty-four inches long, and brightly colored with black, yellow, and red bands. It was most usually encountered in the early morning or at dusk. Its bite contains a neurotoxic venom that attacks the nervous system and is frequently fatal. The bushmaster is much larger, up to ten feet long, with enormous fangs that cling to the victim the better to inject its venom, which is hemotoxic, killing by destroying red blood cells, causing internal bleeding and rapid tissue and organ degeneration.
These snakes soon became attracted to the camp, or more exactly to the vermin that attacked the party's stores and feasted on their waste. Great care had to be taken by the quartermaster, Blasert, when fetching provisions from their storehouse. The Blasert family shared the single officers’ hut with Cermoise, Montcenaux, and a Colombian translator, Jeronimo. All slept in hammocks suspended in the corners. Madame Blasert was heavily pregnant, and the Frenchmen urged her to return to Panama City, but she and her husband insisted there was plenty of time. Soon after Cermoise's arrival, however, she went into labor. With the assistance of an “ancient black crone,” she successfully gave birth in the tiny hut to a second daughter. All the while the two young French engineers tried to sleep in their hammocks, “smoking cigarettes when the din became too loud.”
The team of Europeans became very close, and Cermoise enjoyed the challenges of the work, despite the privations. Everyone got stomach illnesses from drinking the river water, and fevers came and went regularly. For the Europeans, this could prostrate them for days, although, Cermoise notes, the locals, while just as susceptible, seemed to be able to recover after only a few hours. Vampire bats and tarantulas, which took to climbing down the ropes of their hammocks, tormented them at night. The jungle also teemed with ticks and niguas, small insects that would burrow under the skin to lay their eggs, threatening to cause gangrene. Evenings would be spent digging them out of each other.
At night, the jungle came to life. “Above all, there was an invasion of insects,” Cermoise wrote. “With each step, one's foot crushed hundreds of them; with each movement of the hand, one picked up a fistful, and with each nod, one's face brushed swirls of them flying in the darkness. One breathed them in, as one went along! Moreover, the flame of a lamp was extinguished within minutes under the heaps of their small corpses … a monstrous buzzing filled the forest and rose all the way to the sky, while in this clear tropical night the huge trees… flamed with millions of fireflies.”
t the end of April, just before the rains were due, Reclus carried out a tour of inspection. At Colón, he was pleased to see a great deal of activity. Jamaican workers were busy creating new port space by filling in the marshes to the southwest of town. Nevertheless, such was the volume of material being unloaded daily that there was considerable confusion. Just outside Colón at Monkey Hill could be seen the first actual excavation in progress, where rocks and earth were being dug out to provide the filler for the marshes below. This had generated great excitement, and was the destination for American visitors curious to see the French actually at work on their great project. At Gatún, Lesseps City was well established, with wharves for unloading from the river, and adequate shelters for the workers. Reclus inspected other work camps at Emperador and Culebra, and at La Boca, the Pacific terminus of the canal, new wharves had been constructed and a railway line laid to nearby Panama City.
But, as he explained in his report to the Company in Paris, there were great difficulties as well, many of which, indeed, would also be encountered in the early years of the American project. The first criticism that Reclus made was leveled at the choice of men. The executives and technicians chosen and sent from Europe by Couvreux were, he said, both insufficient in number and, above all, mediocre in quality. On April 30, Reclus wrote from the Grand Hotel to Charles de Lesseps in Paris that the contractors seemed to be sending over men who “would be accepted nowhere—people who have dabbled all over and have never done anything well—nutters, drunks, incompetents etc. They send us traveling salesmen for mechanics, for blacksmiths men who've never been behind a forge.” Cermoise's group, it seems, had been pretty typical. In the terminal cities and the camps, Reclus wrote in the same report, he had seen far too much liquor, both purchased and homemade, as well as endemic gambling with dice and cards. All combined to produce frequent violent disputes.
Addressing the question of the railroad, Reclus reported that his “personal relations with [the manager] M. Woods continue to be most cordial but that doesn't prevent frequent unpleasant incidents from happening.” It was essential, Reclus wrote, that the Company purchase the railroad as soon as possible. He even suggested that the railroad bosses were being deliberately obstructive in order to hold the Company for ransom and secure the best price for their business.
In fact, negotiations had been going on for some months. Trenor Park, the boss and majority shareholder in the Panama Railroad, was now holding out for $250 a share in cash. The value of the railroad had been falling steadily since the opening of the transcontinental U.S. railroad in 1869, and the real share price was nearer $50. It was a “hold-up,” and there was nothing the French company could do about it. In the end, to cover all expenses and the railway's own sinking fund, de Lesseps parted with just short of $20 million, nearly half his start-up capital. It was a severe early blow to the finances of the new Company. One-fifth of the balance was to be paid every year with 6 percent interest due on the rest. The Panama Railroad retained possession and management of the property until the whole amount was paid, and a majority of the seats on the board of directors, who still sat in New York. In spite of the buyout, then, the railroad would remain American for now.
Park, who retired from the board but put his son-in-law in charge instead, cleared $7 million on the deal. However, interestingly, he retained a strong interest in the project, and according to his daughter never doubted that the de Lesseps venture would succeed. He visited the Isthmus several times before his untimely death in December the following year, on board a steamer from New York to Colón.
As well as tourists and grateful railroad shareholders, the United States government also maintained a keen interest in the canal, and kept up serious efforts to take further control of the Isthmus. In turn, the various European diplomats in Washington, Paris, Panama, and Bogotá kept an eye on what the Americans—and one another—were up to in the region. The previous year, President Hayes, to give body to his aim of “a canal under American control,” had sent U.S. naval vessels to investigate sites for coaling and naval stations on either side of the Isthmus, near the future canal termini. The move angered the British, who saw it as incompatible with the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty, and was blocked by Bogotá after a furious popular anti-American reaction in Colombia. Nevertheless, the controversy carried into the next year, with Congress, in March 1881, voting $200,000 specifically for the establishment of permanent military bases near the canal.
In the meantime, the U.S. envoy to Colombia, Ernst Dichman, did everything in his power to persuade the Bogotá government that their country was “menaced by a grave danger.” “Turning away from the United States which had been her firm friend, ally, and protector,” he said, “Colombia recklessly and ungratefully concludes with an adventurous Frenchman, a contract for the opening of a Canal.” Dichman pressed for an updating of the 1846 Bidlack Treaty that would allow the United States to establish a permanent garrison in Panama, while Secretary of State Evarts demanded that the United States be given the right to veto any Canal concessions, future, present, or past.
Seeing “all alliances with the United States as an exemplification of the fable of the wolf and the lamb,” Colombia started sounding out European capitals over a multilateral guarantee of the waterway and considered denouncing the 1846 treaty. For the aggressive and anti-British new U.S. secretary of state James Blaine (later to be nicknamed “Jingo Jim” by the press), this was totally unacceptable. In June 1881 he wrote to the British foreign minister, Earl Granville, citing the Monroe Doctrine and condemning the plans, which he said came close to “an alliance against the United States.”
Blaine's domestic audience was delighted, and in Congress there was a growing determination to act unilaterally on the canal question. The Clayton-Bulwer agreement that forbade such a move was debated in the House and referred to as “a singular and ill-omened treaty,” which should be abrogated.
None of this went unremarked upon in London when it came to reply to Blaine's June letter. For a long time, there was a haughty silence. Blaine was an upstart troublemaker, it was felt—he had already waded into disputes with Britain over other matters. In the meantime, Granville confidentially sounded out the European capitals about this possible international guarantee that had so annoyed Blaine.
One by one, the replies came in from Britain's European ambassadors. Every power was in favor, in principle, but no one wanted to make the first move. France was keen to provide support for beleaguered Colombia, but could not be at the forefront as it was a French company at work on the Isthmus. In September, Britain's Madrid representative reported that Spain “would be glad to see England and France take joint measures to check the pretensions of the United States’ Government with regard to the interoceanic canal, but that Spain hesitated to place herself ‘en premiere ligne’ in opposition to the United States, in view of the consequences which might ensue in the island of Cuba, where a fresh insurrection could easily be fomented by American influence.” In Germany, Bismarck, who still held German ambitions in check, declared himself neutral in the matter, and said that it was a question for the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty between the United States and Britain.
In November a reply eventually made its way to Washington from the British Foreign Office, taking issue with details of Blaine's pronouncements and slapping down the pretension of the Monroe Doctrine. By now, Blaine, encouraged by favorable press support at home, had written to the British again on the subject, this time asking that the clause in the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty that forbade the fortification of the Canal be revoked. Because the United States had no navy to speak of, he argued, the only way that their vital strategic interests could be protected was through the establishment of permanent military power on the Isthmus itself. Otherwise, the primacy of the Royal Navy would make British control of the waterway a done deed. Privately, Blaine made a contingency plan to build a railway through Central America to Panama to “enable the United States to keep military possession of the canal in the event of a war with Great Britain.”
But for now, Britain was not prepared to be bullied by a power with huge potential, granted, but no real international strength. Granville replied that it would be “manifestly unjust” for the Americans to request abrogation. Soon after, as the new president, Chester Arthur, took control, Blaine was out of office and out of favor. This coincided with a popular feeling that unilaterally breaking a treaty with Britain would have been unwise. “Did Blaine want war?” asked the newspapers, mirroring the sudden popular recoil from pushing the mighty European powers too far. “Mr. Blaine had overshot the mark and misjudged public sentiment,” decided the New York Herald, only days after backing his aggressive approach.
If the Americans remained stalemated by the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty, they were still responsible under the original 1846 Bidlack Treaty to keep the transit passage on the railroad open, and more often than not, there would be United States Navy gunboats standing off Panama City and Colón. By now, Colón was unrecognizable from six months earlier. There had been an explosion of wooden huts and shanties out into the swamp around Manzanillo as the town's population doubled. In the harbor there was a constant coming and going of steamers, and on the reclaimed land to the south of the island was a grid of warehouses, offices, and residences, many in a grand style.
Inland, Blanchet and his men pressed on. By the middle of 1881, there were some two hundred technicians and about eight hundred laborers, and the number was increasing. The engineers were from not only France but also Germany, Britain, Switzerland, Russia, Poland, and Italy. Many of the mechanics were American, who came along with equipment purchased in the United States. The workers were not only Colombians, but also Cubans, Venezuelans, and West Indians.
In Gamboa, Cermoise's camp was transformed by the influx of a considerable number of new personnel and a batch of prefabricated buildings from the United States. “Everyone had his own room!” he exclaims. Now in charge was a distinguished French engineer called Carré, who brought with him an expert Belgian cook and much improved provisions. There were even regular deliveries of ice. Because of the importance of dealing with the problem of the Chagres, the Gamboa camp was now a key site on the Isthmus.
By the middle of September, Cermoise's surveying work was completed. While Carré remained behind to start mapping the giant area to be flooded by the dam, Cermoise was given a new job in Panama City. His friend Montcenaux was sent to Gatún, the most notoriously sickly area of the Isthmus. After nearly seven months in the bush, Cermoise writes, “We said goodbye with a certain sadness to this corner of the world where we had more than once shivered with fever, but also where we had passed many good days, busy with cheerful work in the company of devoted friends.” His new task was to work on the detailed maps and charts being prepared from the reports now flooding in from all along the line. As well as measuring levels, the engineers were sinking five great wells to test the ground along the summit of the Continental Divide. The greatest was some 150 feet, three times deeper than any well drilled during de Lesseps's visit early in the year, but still less than half the planned depth of excavation. The findings encouraged the canal planners—there seemed to be a lot less hard granitelike rock than had been factored into their costs. Before, drills had hit solid rock in several places, sometimes at 20 feet or less, and stopped. Now, with improved drill bits, the rock was passed through and in some cases found to be only 2 feet thick, an “angular boulder of dolerite.” Below, there was “brown clay and pulverized rocks, seamed with diverse colors.”
In fact, the ground was nothing like anything the majority of the geologists had ever seen before, bearing no resemblance whatever to the terrain in Europe mined and dug by many of those present. The unique geological history of the Isthmus, with the land bridge sinking below sea level and then rising again in a series of cycles and a long record of ancient volcanic activity, had created bewilderingly complex strata, including layers, at various angles, of breccia, limestone, coral, carb, sand, gravel, volcanic lava, and clay. In the forty-odd miles from Colón to Panama City there are six major faults, five substantial volcanic cores, and seventeen fundamentally different types of rock. Every well told a different story. But the engineers focused on the positive: at least it was not all solid rock. In fact, the surveys had said it all: dig here, and you do not know what you are going to find. As it turned out, it would have been easier had it been solid rock.
Blanchet himself turned his attention to the rivers, establishing observation posts on the Chagres, Trinidad, Obispo, and the Río Grande; these were equipped with fluviographs, which confirmed the challenge that the rainy season would bring to the successful construction and running of the canal, with rivers rising 20 feet in as many hours and their rate of discharge increasing overnight from 3,000 to over 60,000 cubic feet per second.
By October 1881, much of what de Lesseps had outlined back in March had been achieved. That month the Bulletin published details of the “second campaign” for the next twelve months, which included settling the question of the dam for the Chagres, the digging of a waterway between Colón and Gatún, and the removal of five million cubic meters of spoil from Culebra, the point of maximum elevation. In addition, all the necessary machinery was to have been ordered.
But not all was going according to plan. Engineers had been experimenting with different excavating machinery and had found that the plant that had built the Suez Canal was proving too light for the heavy clay of the Chagres valley. Even more worrying was the question of labor. Only one in ten newly arrived laborers had remained on the job for more than six months. There were two thousand men at work at the end of the year, but de Lesseps had promised there would be ten thousand. Worst and most ominous of all, though, it was becoming obvious that the Isthmus was nothing like the healthy place that de Lesseps and Abel Couvreux had promised.
s early as March 1881, only two months after the arrival of the first French engineers on the Isthmus, the Panama Star and Herald‘reported that “Mr. de Lesseps contemplates making up what is short in the labor supply on the Isthmus and the neighbouring coast states of Colombia, with laborers from the West Indies. Barbados and Jamaica are spoken of as the principal source of supply.”
The British islands had not prospered in the years after the construction of the railroad. Since the then all-time-low sugar price of 1850, the value of the colonies’ principal export had fallen a further 30 percent. After emancipation in 1834, many former slaves, keen to establish their independence and a different life from that of plantation labor, had opted to set up small plots, producing food for themselves and for market. But most of the freeholds were under five acres—large enough for one family perhaps, but not enough to afford a livelihood for their sons and daughters, much less their grandchildren.
Furthermore, blacks remained condemned by the West Indian social structure to a permanent lower-class status, denied real recognition of their freedom, autonomy, or even humaneness. In response to this, a tradition of emigration grew up throughout the islands. Only by going abroad could a Jamaican or Barbadian find levels of reward for labor sufficient for their needs as well as lower levels of abuse.
Nevertheless, it is wrong to see the emigrants solely as passive objects, or victims of these conditions. In spite of everything, black West Indians had developed a strong sense of independence and personal dignity. The trend toward emigration also points to the ambition of the ex-slaves’ descendants to “better themselves”—to see the world outside their small island, and to earn enough to improve their conditions at home, to be masters of their own destiny. The Caribbean basin offered many good opportunities for work, not only on the Panama Railroad in the 1850s, but on other railway projects as well, in goldfields and metal and rubber industries, in logging or in plantations being set up throughout the area. The islands also exported teachers, missionaries, and ministers as well as colonists to previously unsettled areas.
In many ways the emigration to Panama during the French period is part of this pattern. There were particular “push” factors, such as the severe drought in Jamaica in 1879, but the project, in the eyes of the emigrants, also offered great opportunities. They made the journey to Panama not just to escape poverty at home, but just as much to “see the world,” “learn a foreign language,” or “seek adventure.” The chance of work on the canal was seen as a means of truly freeing themselves through their own efforts.
Nevertheless, the 1880s represent a quantum leap in West Indian emigration. Although records are incomplete, there seem to have been some five hundred British West Indians working on the canal by October 1881, 40 percent of the total workforce. The following year and for the rest of the project this percentage rose to 60 percent, as the overall workforce ballooned to over twenty thousand by 1884.
Early in 1881, the Company took on the services of Charles Gad-paille, a Jamaica-based Frenchman, to handle recruitment in the islands. Straightaway, he started posting advertisements in the local press. One such read:
A trip to Colón?
10 000 labourers
Panama Canal Company.
No indenture. Passengers returning when they like.
Both passage and food given.
$1.50 to $3.00 a day*
Medical care given when sick.
Apply to Charles Gadpaille
Agent, Panama Canal Company.
Daily wage rates in Jamaica for a field laborer in the 1880s were between sixpence and two shillings, less for women and children, so this was a great offer. If it seemed too good to be true, that is because it was. Gadpaille had no right to make many of these promises, as shall be seen. As well as newspaper advertisements, the agent posted flyers and sent runners into rural areas to drum up recruits.
Gadpaille concentrated his efforts in Jamaica, Barbados, Saint Lucia, and Martinique. Although the Company might have favored the French-speaking Martinicans, in fact they were less than impressed with workers from the Gallic Caribbean islands, considering them “pretentious, and always complaining, for they had been ruined by the political customs in vogue in the old French colonies.” So the vast majority of the workers on the French canal came from Jamaica, with Saint Lucians the next largest group. The first arrivals, in 1881 and 1882, tended to be skilled laborers and artisans who were not involved in cultivation on small freeholdings, but had drifted into the towns and cities as they were displaced from estate labor. After this first period, the typical migrant was male, an agricultural worker, twenty-five to thirty-five years old.
Henri Cermoise was highly impressed with the new arrivals from Jamaica. “They were excellent workers,” he wrote, “much more active and energetic than the Isthmians and easier to manage.” Back at home, some of the planters were less than pleased at seeing their pliant labor force leave the country, but for now the governments of the islands saw the money that would be sent home outweighing the disadvantages to the planters. The governor of Jamaica's annual report of 1882 commended the returning emigrants, “bringing with them money with which they arrange their affairs and aid their families.”
But for every laborer returning with his pockets rattling with coins, there was another who came back in a different state, or didn't make it back at all. Some Jamaican workers, Governor Musgrave reported in 1882, “are left when ill to die in the streets of Colón.” His main complaint was that his government was “put to large expenses for the relief, burial, or return to the colony of any natives whose case comes before the British consular authorities. And, moreover, many of those who return are so broken down by Chagres Fever, and other disorders, that they become a burden upon the community, and the poor rates.” It was clear that, already, disease was taking a toll on all sections of the workforce.
*Wages here, as throughout the French period, are in Colombian silver dollars, equivalent to about US$0.65–0.70.