The arrival, in July 1905, of Wallace's replacement, the rugged and ingenious John Stevens, marks a turn in fortunes for the beleaguered canal. Stevens had built the Great Northern Railroad across the Pacific Northwest. The foremost railway man of his day, he had proven his tenacity in rough territory from Canada to Mexico, surviving attacks by wolves and hostile Indians along the way. Although he would leave under a cloud two years later, his new plan of action would ultimately save the canal.
Initially Stevens, who had been about to leave for the Philippines for a railway construction job, turned down the offer to become chief engineer in Panama. “Then I was asked to meet… Cromwell,” Stevens wrote. The lawyer “seemed to have a deep and heartfelt interest in the success of the proposed work … after listening an hour or two to his silver-tongued arguments I consented… with conditions.” Stevens laid these out when he met President Roosevelt. There could be no interference from above or below, and he could not promise to stay on the job beyond the time “I had made its success certain, or had proved it to be a failure.”
Stevens sailed from New York accompanied by Theodore Shonts, the new Commission chairman. Shonts remembers being shocked at discovering that there were more canal employees booked on the steamer's return journey than were on the outward trip. Little fanfare greeted their arrival on July 24, and Stevens straightaway started assessing the situation. For all his experience, what he discovered was profoundly shocking. “The condition of affairs on the Isthmus,” he would later write, “can truly be described as desperate; even by many well-wishers it was regarded as hopeless.” Hungry men were foraging the swamps for sugarcane and the jungle for bananas, and in the faces of office workers and laborers alike he saw fear and disillusion. According to Stevens they were “scared out of their boots, afraid of yellow fever and afraid of everything.” Many believed the “history of the Americans on the Isthmus would be a repetition of the De Lesseps failure.” It was widely rumored that Shonts had been sent down to tell them to pack up and go home.
Stevens found “no organization worthy of the name,” he said, and “no cooperation existing between what might charitably be called the departments.” In the Culebra Cut, Wallace had been pushing the work ahead in order to satisfy what Stevens would call “the idiotic howl about ‘making the dirt fly.’” But when Stevens surveyed the work from a hill above la grande tranchée, he saw all seven steam shovels idle for want of spoil trains. There were seven locomotives, but they were all derailed. “I believe I faced about as discouraging a proposition as was ever presented to a construction engineer,” Stevens would write.
The first meeting between Stevens, Shonts, Magoon, and Gorgas was a chance for a fresh look at the problems facing the enterprise. Magoon explained that just about everyone who could get off the Isthmus had left. The governor reckoned the main difficulty was with food supply—shortages caused by crop failures and an exodus of men from the countryside to work on the canal had driven prices to levels twice that of New York. On two recent occasions wages had been raised for the American workers, and both times the Panamanian merchants had increased their prices to match them. Magoon reckoned some of them were making profits of up to 100 percent. Shonts's reaction was to order the establishment of “commissary,” ICC-run shops along the line, free to sell to anyone, even though, as Magoon quickly pointed out, this was against the agreement made with the Panamanian merchants by Taft. Shonts, who clearly thought that Magoon had become a little too friendly with the locals, brushed this aside, telling the governor to “keep his eye on the ball… Our sole purpose on this Isthmus is to build the canal.”
The other priorities identified during this meeting were to improve the accommodation available to the workforce and to confront the specter of fever. “There are three diseases in Panama,” Stevens proclaimed to the assembled white staff the next day. “They are yellow fever, malaria and cold feet; and the greatest of these is cold feet.” From the start the new chief engineer projected a hardy image. “I have had as much or more actual personal experience in manual labor than any one here—surveys, hardships, railroad construction in all its details and operation,” he announced, calling on his subordinates to display “dogged determination and steady, persistent, intelligent work.” According to Frank Maltby, he was “enthusiastically cheered; the men looked at each other appreciatively as if to say, ‘That's the man to follow.’”
Stevens canceled the plan to build him a large official residence at Ancón, and ordered the removal of the canal headquarters to Culebra, right on top of the work and away from the temptations of Panama City. In his battered hat and rubber boots and overalls, and with an ever-present cigar, Stevens trudged up and down the works, assessing equipment and personnel, trying all the time to spread calm and determination among the workforce. The evenings were spent dealing with the administrative mess left by Wallace and hammering some sort of organization out of the chaos.
Frank Maltby fully expected to be replaced by a new man, but heard nothing from Stevens for a week after his arrival. Then he had a brisk summons by telegram: “Come to Panama on the first train. Stevens.” “We sat out on the veranda under a full tropical moon and among the magnificent Royal Palms of Ancon Hill,” Maltby wrote of their meeting. “Everyone else disappeared. Mr. Stevens did not talk much but asked questions—and could that man ask questions! He found out everything I knew. He turned me inside out and shook out the last drop of information I had.” Maltby learned subsequently that Stevens had had someone waiting in Washington to take his place, but, uniquely among Wallace's department heads, he kept his job. Maltby, in turn, was impressed by Stevens—the fact that he had gone through “the hardships of a pioneer in the rugged West” and his quick grasp of the issues at stake. “His desk was always clear,” Maltby wrote; “one could get a quick decision.” It was a great improvement on Wallace.
Stevens's first major decision came after only a week on the Isthmus. In the full knowledge that it would not play well to the press and his political bosses back in the States, on August 1 he ordered a stop to the excavation work in the Cut. No more dirt would fly until proper preparations had been made. In the Cut, half of the steam shovels were shut down, and the free workforce transferred to sanitation and accommodation.
Stevens thought little of the French machinery, however well restored. “I cannot conceive how they did the work they did with the plant they had,” he wrote of the de Lesseps effort. In its place he put in huge orders for new American machines. Wallace had been planning to try out various different designs of excavators, spoil cars, and locomotives, but Stevens just trusted to his experience and went ahead and ordered what he wanted. Stevens respected Wallace as an engineer and put his failure down not just to the “severe case of fright” from yellow fever that had precipitated his departure, but also to his unwillingness to take on his superiors. Stevens, unlike Wallace, had no seat (for now) on the Commission, but expected, and got, whatever he demanded. “I determined from the start,” he would write, “that the only line of policy that promised success was one of going ahead and doing things on my own initiative, without waiting for orders or approval.”
To be fair to Wallace his experimentation with excavation had provided useful experience. The Bucyrus shovels had proved to be strong and reliable, and now Stevens ordered dozens more, including several state-of-the-art 105-ton monsters. Where early models had gone wrong, changes were made, with speed and strength the primary requisites. Steel replaced iron, and parts liable to break were enlarged and strengthened. The result, according to Stevens, was “a machine in every way superior to any in existence.”
Stevens also ordered 120 locomotives and 800 cars to carry away the spoil, as well as new drills, vastly superior to those used by Wallace and the French. A compressed air pipeline was planned for the length of the Cut to power them. Stevens had by now seen enough to identify the bottleneck in the excavation effort. As he put it, “The problem was simply one of transportation.” To maximize the effectiveness of any excavator, it had to be serviced efficiently by spoil removal trains. Thus, for Stevens, the railway, the Panama Railroad, was the key to success on the Isthmus, something never fully appreciated by the French.
Stevens's first impression of the Panama Railroad had not been favorable. He described it in July 1905 as “two streaks of rust and a right of way.” Its management was “thirty years behind the times.” Most of it was still single-track, there were practically no sidings, and the rolling stock had been obsolete for years. In the summer of 1905 traffic was almost at a standstill with thousands of tons of freight piled in cars, on docks, and in warehouses, some of which had not moved for eighteen months. Even shipping papers and other records had been lost. Stevens was told the good news that there had been no collisions on the line for a year, but replied dismissively, “A collision has its good points as well as its bad ones—it indicates there is something moving on the railroad.”
Stevens brought in a new manager, W G. Bierd, and laid plans for the double-tracking of the whole line, the installation of a new telegraph line, and for the rebuilding of culverts and bridges. At the termini he ordered that new sidings and yards be started, along with extra warehouses, docks, and new coaling plants.
All this would need a massive influx of labor. While he was still in New York, Stevens had met William Karner and instructed him to return to Barbados and to keep the recruits flowing to the Isthmus (although Stevens did warn that he was a “crank” for Chinese labor). In addition, recruiting agents in Martinique and Cartagena were told to step up their work.
Since the disappointing first shipment in January, the attitude to working in Panama had been transformed in Barbados. Karner puts this down to an incident in early May 1905. On the return trip of a Royal Mail steamer from Colón to Bridgetown, “two colored men stepped from a rowboat to the landing,” he wrote, “almost in front of the window in my office … They attracted considerable attention from the men working on and around the landing. It was quite unusual to see a negro laborer riding in a cab, and when these two men, who were smoking, got into a cab and started uptown, the crowd of colored men and women stood aghast and wondered. They soon learned that the two men were in the first shipment I made, January 26th. They had saved money, paid their return passage and still had money for a good time at their home-coming … From that time on there was a steady increase in numbers in our shipments.” “Colón Man” had arrived in Barbados.
The “Panama Craze” that suddenly took hold of the island led to a repeat of the scenes witnessed at Kingston docks a generation earlier. On one recruiting day, described by American journalist Arthur Bullard, more than two thousand people crowded into Bridgetown's Trafalgar Square, where the police could barely control the crush. “I wanted to go and do you know the reason why?” asks Barbadian Benjamin Jordan, who was nineteen in 1905. “In Barbados they wasn't paying you nothing. Even getting ten cents an hour to come to Panama was better than staying in Barbados.” Another canal old-timer, interviewed for a television documentary in 1984, simply wanted to be part of the great project: “one of the greatest engineering feats the world has ever undertaken.” Soon groups of young men wearing their best suits and heading on foot for Bridgetown docks became a familiar sight all over the island. Panama offered excitement, adventure, an escape from the tiny, claustrophobic country with its poverty and rigid social and racial stratification. It was almost an act of rebellion. One group of young men on the way to Bridgetown, it was reported in the Legislative Council, passed a field where a gang of sugar estate workers was being supervised by the plantation manager. One of the young men in the Panama-bound crowd shouted: “Why you don't hit de manager in de head, and come along wid we!” It may have been meant in jest, but it sent a shiver of anxiety through the island's white elite.
According to Arthur Bullard the men waiting in Trafalgar Square were ushered a hundred at a time into a large warehouse where they were given a medical examination. Benjamin Jordan had passed all the medical checks, but had a final question to answer: “The doctor was examining us ten in a row,” he remembered. “He said he wasn't sending anyone to Panama under twenty. I was the smallest one in the bunch. When he came to this fella, he said, ‘How old are you boy?’ ‘Twenty.’ ‘How old are you boy?’ ‘Twenty.’ Everyone was twenty. When he come to me, I was the youngest of the group, you know. All of the other nine were twenty. I was the smallest. I was only nineteen and had got to put on a couple more years. ‘I am twenty-three, doctor.’ ‘No, boy, you're not twenty-three years old, but you'd like to go to Panama, wouldn't you?’ ‘Yes, doc.’ ‘Well I'll send you. But you nine, go home.’ Well I had to get out of the city fast,” says Jordan. “They were going to break my this that and the other to prevent the doctor sending me. I had to hurry up and get out of the town.”
Loading the steamer to Colón started at nine in the morning and took most of the day, as the men's contracts were checked and possessions carted on to the deck. Huge crowds gathered to see the men off and wish them good luck. “I never saw so many negro women in all my life,” wrote Bullard of the sailing day he witnessed. “All of them in their gayest Sunday clothes, and all wailing at the top of their voices.” Bullard was taking the same steamer to Colón. Onboard were seven ship's officers and more than seven hundred blacks. “Every square inch of deck space was utilized. Some had trunks, but most only bags like that which Dick Whittington had carried into London. There was a fair sprinkling of guitars and accordions.” As the boat got under way the singing of hymns started, with one side of the deck Church of England and the other nonconformist. “There was only one song, a secular one, on which they united,” writes Bullard: “Fever and ague all day long/At Panama, at Panama,/Wish you were dead before very long/At Panama, at Panama.”
The journey to Colón took about twelve days, and all the time the passengers remained on deck, in rain and sun with not enough room each to even stretch themselves out. On Bullard's ship, he writes, the decks were often hot enough to fry an egg, and the passengers had to be hosed down to keep them cool. Even so, in the heat tempers flared and on one occasion the captain had to threaten a man with his revolver to break up a fight. Seven men were clapped in irons and put in the baking-hot brig.
Young Benjamin Jordan got off the steamer at Colón in October 1905. “They brought me here, put me down in the Cut, put a pick and shovel in my hand. I had never seen a pick and shovel before. I started to cry.” His boss took away his tools and gave him a job as a waterboy fetching drinks for the other workers. Jordan was not the only new arrival to find the confusion, noise, and mass of unfamiliar machinery overwhelming and frightening. “On the appearance of the place, I thought I'd go straight home,” remembered one digger who arrived at the end of 1906. “Everything looked so strange, so different to home. I felt that I would go back home. But it wasn't so easy to do that, you know, so I continued.”
Karner in Bridgetown continued to increase his shipments dramatically. During the first nine months of 1905, fifteen steamer loads carried some three thousand Barbadians to the Isthmus under contract. Recruitment was halted in September due to a lack of accommodation for the workers, but was restarted at the beginning of 1906, during which twenty-one steamer voyages carried over sixty-five hundred new recruits. In March 1906 Karner even chartered a steamer, the Solent, to be engaged in nothing but carrying workers from Bridgetown to Colón.
There were Barbadians traveling to the Isthmus under their own steam as well, in roughly equal numbers to those going from the island under contract. This included those who did not like the idea of signing themselves up for nearly two years or had been rejected on medical grounds, as well as men who hoped to get better terms than the basic unskilled labor deal Karner was offering. Harrigan Austin was an experienced carpenter, and arrived in Panama on Sunday, October 9, 1905, having paid his own steamer fare. Austin was one of about a hundred men and women—nearly all West Indians—who responded to a competition staged in 1963 for “the best true stories of life and work on the Isthmus of Panama during the construction of the Panama canal.” The initiator was the Isthmian Historical Society, run by American Zonians. The competition was publicized in newspapers in Panama, Central America, and the Caribbean islands, and offered a first prize of $50. Although some respondents might have tailored their accounts to suit the purpose of winning the money, the large collection contains many diverse attitudes and opinions as well as a wealth of detail.
Harrigan Austin's Panama adventure did not start well. To raise the fare of £2 10s. (US$14) for the passage, he had to pool the savings of his extended family, and took virtually nothing with him apart from his carpentry tools. He landed at Colón, “having had a hazardous trip, of thirteen days in bad weather, poor accommodation in general with sparing meals on a crowded ship, we were all more or less hungry. We saw after landing on the dock, a pile of bags of brown sugar. And the whole crowd of us like ants fed ourselves on that sugar.”
Austin was taken on straightaway and loaded with the other men into one of the freight cars, which were then “hurried off, and distributed at various Stations. My lot happened to be Las Cascadas.” The men were led to a camp of tents, and each was assigned an army-style cot. The next morning he was put to work repairing old French quarters at Bas Obispo. His foreman was a white man, but he appointed one of the experienced West Indians as subforeman “as really the only thing he knew to do was to watch us but really very little about handling or directing a carpenters’ gang.”
Other West Indians were less cynical about their American bosses. John Butcher arrived from Barbados on January 12, 1906, and, like Austin and some two thousand more workers, was employed on assembling and renovating buildings, a Stevens priority. His first assignment was as a plumber's helper. He instantly got on with his immediate boss, a young American, Edward T Nolan (they were still in touch with each other by letter in 1963). Nolan's superior, the assistant quartermaster, was “a real pusher,” Butcher remembered. “He always promised permanent work to the better workmen. Hearing this, I tried my best to work harder and more than anyone else. Carpenters, plumbers, electricians, painters—all accepted this challenge but of course, as far as plumbers were concerned there were none better than the Nolan-Butcher team. Through hard work, we excelled in whatever jobs we were assigned… As a husky, strong, active young man who was never afraid of work, I was always in demand. I still have the joy of just knowing that there are so few of those early houses on which I did not work.”
Many of the accounts written by West Indians show similar pride in their work and participation in the Panama project. Others took pleasure in the new skills they were rapidly forced to acquire—operating tools such as hammers and drills that they had never even seen before. But Harrigan Austin, already an artisan when he arrived, was deeply disappointed when he was put on the same wage level as the unskilled labor: “We were often forced to work in the rain,” he wrote, because if they stopped, their wages were cut. “Indeed to some degree life was some sort of semi-slavery and there was none to appeal to, for we were strangers and actually compelled to accept what we got.” In the case of an argument, says Austin, “the bosses and policemen right or wrong would always win the game, and those men who had the chances filling such position were generally of the dominating type who tried to bring others into subjection for their fame.”
The police of the Isthmus had given the massive influx of West Indians, or “Chombos” as they derogatorily called them, the same sort of welcome afforded to the arrivals of a generation before. There was particular dislike of their presence in Panama City, where large gangs were at work for the whole of 1905 building sewers and waterworks, and paving the main streets. On one occasion at the end of April a group of about 150 men staged a sit-in when their American foreman ordered them back to work before most had eaten their lunch. The demonstration grew more heated, with loud complaints about low wages and their late payment. The foreman summoned the local police, who charged the strikers and then chased them across the square in front of the old Administration Building. In the ensuing mêlée twenty-one workers were seriously enough injured by bayonet stabs and rifle butt blows to require hospital treatment.
“The disgraceful scenes of yesterday will live long in the memory of those who witnessed them,” wrote the Star and Herald on April 29. “The senseless attacks upon inoffensive persons was enough to make anyone's blood boil… Carelessness and utter indifference to the wants of the men who are brought here to do the actual work of digging the Canal is silently, but nevertheless, surely breeding trouble. Who is responsible? There is no denying the fact that the men have been brought here under false pretences and misrepresentations and have been badly paid and underfed … and in many cases put to work under incompetent men possessing an inherent hatred and contempt of the colored races.” The Colón Independent, a triweekly founded in 1899 by a Barbadian, Clifford Bynoe, would write a year later of this time, “One could scarcely breathe God's free air without being clubbed and kicked … The American occupation then was a terror and a disgrace.”
Consul Mallet, whose job it was to try to protect British citizens from such attacks and to seek redress from those responsible, blamed both the Americans and the Panamanians for the incident. Writing to the foreign secretary about the “serious disturbance,” he explained: “the majority of Americans here—I refer particularly to those who hold subordinate positions—exhibit an extraordinary contempt for the Jamaican negro, and most of the trouble so far has been due to the blustering behaviour of the foremen in charge of the gangs.” But he wrote too about the “intense dislike and jealousy felt by the police towards the coloured natives of Jamaica on the Isthmus.” There had been increasing complaints, he reported, about the violent methods resorted to by the native police when making an arrest for some trivial offense. “In fact,” he ended, “their arbitrary conduct is no better to-day than it was during the worst period of the Colombian regime on the Isthmus of Panama.”
After much prevarication Mallet at last extracted an official apology from the Panamanian secretary for foreign affairs. Magoon, of whom Mallet had a high opinion, made conciliatory noises, but the canal authorities asked the Panamanian police to arrest Jamaican Charles Schuar, who was seen as the leader of the workers’ action. He was promptly imprisoned and then deported.
There did follow, however, a reorganization of the police by an American instructor, and, on Mallet's suggestion, some West Indian constables were taken on to help police their own neighborhoods. But the West Indians remained wary. “In Jamaica a constable is a peacemaker,” one told an American journalist. “Here he just hits a man with a stick.”
From the very start, and for much of the construction period, the question of food would remain a leading catalyst for dissent and dissatisfaction among the West Indians. While prices rose fast to “Klondike” levels, wages had stayed the same for the workers. In November 1904, the PRR had actually lowered its minimum wage to bring it into line with the canal's pay rate. The money saved was spent on increases for the white skilled railroad employees. Further pay hikes for the Americans on the Isthmus had not been matched for the West Indians, many of whom now found themselves in a desperate situation. “Instead of the canal bringing with it those good old times it is bringing hard work and starvation pay for the majority and fortunes for the few,” complained the Colón Independent at the end of 1904.
On a wage of seldom more than a dollar a day, the West Indians were being asked to pay seventy-five cents for a dozen eggs and sixty cents for a chicken. Coffee and bread brought to the works by West Indian women cost an hour's wages. In their desperation, many were surviving on a diet of sugarcane and were becoming seriously malnourished. At the beginning of 1906, two American journalists from the New York magazine the Independent interviewed a man they described as of “unusual intelligence.” He declined to be named in the article, and is referred to only as a “Jamaican carpenter.” But he is of particular interest as he had been on the Isthmus since 1894, and had worked for the French at the height of the activity of the New Company. “Things were very different in those days,” he told the interviewers. “The workmen are more afraid of the Americans than of the French … there are no loafing jobs now, such as there used to be. It is like running a race all the time. You don't mind it for a day, but you can't keep it up.” Although the basic pay, he said, was better from the Americans, there were no longer chances to increase this through piecework. “Besides,” he went on, “the blacks had more chance of promotion under the French. They could get to be timekeepers or checkers then, but they can't now.”
The biggest difference for him was the cost of living. Yams used to be sixty for a dollar, but now you only got sixteen. “If they starve themselves,” he said of the West Indian laborers, “they can save a good deal. If they are well fed they don't save. Out of 80 cents a day it takes 50 to buy food, and then there are washing, clothing etc., besides. Some of the men try hard to save; buy 2 cents bread, 2 cents sugar, and go to work all trembly and can't lift a thing.”
William Karner backs this up. “In their anxiety to save money to send back home,” he wrote of the Barbadians, “they were literally starving themselves.” An American journalist, John Foster Carr, who visited the Isthmus in mid-1905, investigated this for himself: “I have looked into hundreds of their pots boiling over bonfires, as they crouched beside them,” he wrote. “A very large number contained nothing but rice, or a piece of yam, or some plantains. Others had added a small piece of salt pork, beef, or codfish. In the rainy season, when with damp wood their primitive fires fail them, they tell me that they have often to choose between half-cooked yams and rice— which the doctors say is not digestible—and biscuits … weak and anaemic are these poorly fed laborers. They fall easy victim to malaria, and on this account alone, the Chief Sanitary Officer maintains, pneumonia with seventy to ninety percent of fatal cases is prevalent among them, when the better-fed white man is nearly immune.”
After a steady average of four pneumonia cases a month, suddenly in October 1905 there were twenty-six, all West Indians. On December 13 the headline in the Colón Independent read: “Pneumonia Rampant On the Isthmus. Has taken an epidemic form. Fatal Among Colored People.” A doctor was asked by the newspaper for the attribution of the disease. “A severe cold,” he replied. “The laborers are generally wet with perspiration and will sit in the wind to cool off. Very often they go to bed in their wet clothes and when the chilly part of the night comes on the body becomes cold.” With the return of the wet season in spring 1906, the rate would jump again. Because viral pneumonia was almost unknown on the islands, the new arrivals were particularly vulnerable.
In November 1905, journalist Poultney Bigelow made his famous trip to Colón. An experienced reporter (and former law-school classmate of Theodore Roosevelt), Bigelow had made his name with stories on labor conditions in South Africa and the Far East. His father was John Bigelow, who had visited the Isthmus in 1886 together with de Lesseps and remained a lifelong supporter of the canal. Poultney Bigelow, however, seems to have been drawn to the story by the increasing rumors back in the United States that the project was in trouble from labor strife, confusion, and corruption.
In Colón, whose condition he described as worse than anything he had ever seen, even in the “slums of Canton,” Bigelow wandered the streets, unescorted by any official, interviewing those he came across. One Barbadian he met he described as wearing “a clean collar, a black derby hat and a good suit of clothes—an educated and prosperous example of his race.” From him he heard complaints about the high cost of living and the late payment of wages. “But his main grievance was that as a man of color he received no encouragement for his work; no one seemed to care whether he got good work out of his men or not—all the white men about him were trying to see how little they could do, each for himself.” Others reported that they received unequal justice and were treated with rudeness by the American bosses.
Worst of all, however, was the sickness. “Throughout my pestiferous excursion up and down this filthy city,” Bigelow wrote, “I could not find a single man or woman who had not suffered or was not suffering from fever of some kind.” One worker he met was “a splendid specimen of manhood, a negro such as would have been recruited with pride into the Tenth United States Cavalry.” But the man was sick and could only walk with difficulty. He felt he had been deceived, Bigelow reports. The place was “unfit to live in.” He was trying to get back to Jamaica but the next steamer was already full, taking away “400 negroes, all returning to Jamaica in disgust.”
The journalist's own steamer from Colón carried the same number of returnees, and when Bigelow met Swettenham and the chief justice of Jamaica they confirmed to him “what is denied by official authority in Washington” that “negroes are returning from the canal in portentous numbers” and that the men “were not honestly or humanely treated.”
In mid-December, Stevens wrote to Shonts: “Notwithstanding nearly six thousand new laborers were brought in between August 15 and November 15, our force shows little or no increase … our forces are being constantly depleted by departure from the Isthmus … The Jamaicans are returning almost universally.”
he West Indian workers, hampered by disease and malnutrition, were criticized by the American canal authorities as weak and idle. Official ICC reports wrote of their lack of vitality and frail “disposition to labor.” “The West Indian's every movement is slow and bungling,” wrote one American journalist, echoing the prevailing sentiment. “Every small object a subject for debate; anything at all a sufficient excuse for all hands to stop work.” But, as the writer went on, there was a “certain and unjustified cruelty” in forcing “poor half-fed fellows” to work eight to ten hours in such heat. “Until you have tried to do a good fifteen minutes’ work with a pick and shovel during the rainy season … you can have no idea of the exhaustion that tropical heat brings even to the laborer who is used to it.”
Stevens declared that the value of the West Indians as laborers was low under any conditions, but admitted, “They were not getting proper food in sufficient and regular amounts to give them strength for continuous work.” The situation was improved a little with the gradual opening up of ICC-run “commissary” stores along the line, where, using coupons issued against pay, employees could buy food imported from the United States at “cost price,” or at any rate cheaper than prevailing locally. There was much praise in some quarters for the fact that the Commission, through bulk buying, could ship goods two thousand miles and still sell them at prices comparable to those in New York City. This may have been a great boon for the well-paid white workers, but the wages of the West Indians, although generous by Barbados or Jamaica standards, would not have gone far in the United States. It did not help either that cooking was forbidden in the workers’ barracks.
Construction had been ongoing on several hotels, where the white employees were served meals. Soon after taking over, Stevens decided to offer the West Indians cooked food as well in a bid to improve their productivity. Originally the entire catering operation was farmed out to a private company, but when the contractor calculated that he needed to charge $30 a month per white employee and $12 a month for a laborer, the Commission decided to set up and run the operation themselves.
While more “hotels” were built for the American workforce, for the blacks there were “messes,” kitchens established near the work sites. No tables or chairs were provided in these, so the diners were forced to squat or stand with their food. By February 1906, there were over fifty in operation, feeding 7,000 to 8,000 workers a day. Breakfast invariably consisted of coffee, bread, and porridge; lunch was usually bread, beans, and rice; supper was more bread with potatoes, soup, coffee, and perhaps some meat.
But if malnutrition declined, grumbling continued. The food served seems to have been indescribably awful. One sympathetic American called it “the leavings from the hotels … [which] are not fit to eat before they are leavings.” Barbadian John Butcher, who otherwise generally speaks well of his treatment on the Isthmus, described the rice he was given as “hard enough to shoot deers.” When they had meat, “many men spent an hour trying to chew or eventually threw [it] away because it was too hard.” Harrigan Austin remembered the food as “poorly prepared, almost raw.” But anyone who protested was arrested for bad behavior by the policemen sent to keep order in the kitchens at mealtimes.
In order to maximize the efficiency of their workers, the Commission sought to take more and more control over the lives of the West Indians. When he arrived at Colón at the beginning of 1906, Jules LeCurrieux was, at sixteen, even younger than Harrigan Austin. Although born in French Guiana, LeCurrieux's family had emigrated to Barbados, so he came under a Karner contract from Bridgetown. Straight off the steamer, the men were piled into railway freight trains for distribution along the line. “To our surprise,” wrote LeCurrieux, “we were unloaded off the train as animals and not men, and almost under strict guard to camps.”
These “camps” might have been of tents, like Harrigan Austin's, or simply boxcars from the railways, but LeCurrieux was deposited in one of the newly assembled workers’ barracks. This consisted of a separate toilet and a hut of about fifty by thirty feet. Into this space were crowded seventy-two men. No furniture, sheets, or pillows were provided. Jamaican journalist Henry de Lisser visited one of the barracks later that same year: “Inside the houses themselves you find groups of men seated round a box and playing cards; you find some listening to one of their number playing softly on a flute; you find others in bed,” he wrote. “These beds are canvas cots fixed onto iron standees which can open and shut as required. Each standee is about seven feet high, and has three cots hung on either side of it, each cot being six-and-a-half feet long by two-and-a-half feet wide … when they were all occupied the room cannot be the most pleasant place in the world to sleep in.” According to the “Jamaican carpenter,” “There is no privacy or quiet in the bachelor buildings … Some of the men are noisy at night and have no sense of decency …”
“We were taken to a kitchen,” continued Jules LeCurrieux, “and each of us were given 1 plate, 1 cup, 1 spoon, and a meal, then those utensils were ours—the price to be taken out of our first pay.” That same afternoon LeCurrieux was put to work with a gang in the Cut. His job was to drill twenty-foot-deep holes at the top of Gold Hill to be stuffed with dynamite to “tear the old hill down.”
When work finished for the day LeCurrieux was given a thirty-cent ticket, the value of which was taken from his pay. This entitled him to three meals and accommodation in the barracks. After two weeks he got his first wages, which he used to buy a pillow and blanket “and a few cakes of soap to wash our dishes and clothes.” “The discipline maintained in the labour camps is severe,” reported Mallet back to London. LeCurrieux remembers that at 9:00 p.m. an old piece of rail was knocked with a metal bar, signaling “go to bed, no sound.” At 5 :00 a.m., they were awakened by more loud knocking, and after a hurried breakfast they were on a labor train by six. To keep the men at work, they were denied food or shelter if they could not produce the ticket that said they had labored that day. “This rule worked well and tended to drive out the undesirable class,” reported Stevens. No one was allowed in the barracks during working hours—you had to be on the job or in a hospital. Those who broke this rule were arrested and fined three days’ wages.
Furthermore, about once a week there were spot checks on those sleeping in the barracks, as the Colón Independent complained: “At midnight when everyone is asleep, suddenly the cry of ‘tickets’ is heard. The laborer, frightened out of his sleep, very often cannot remember at the moment what he has done with his ticket, and is hustled off to prison.” “This system has been adopted to keep loafers out of the camps,” continued the paper, “but it would be better to allow a few loafers to get in than that so many innocent men should suffer. The system is a rotten one and must be changed.”
grew careless last week,” wrote Jan van Hardeveld to his wife, Rose, in August 1905. “Before I realised it I was one sick hombre— stomach out of order and my blood full of malaria bugs.” There was better news—he had met a fellow Dutchman, Jan Milliery, who had been in South Africa during the Boer War and had subsequently worked as a track foreman. Milliery was experienced in life in the tropics and was a good cook. The two men were rooming together and had become firm friends.
Against the advice of her family, Rose had decided to take herself and her daughters out to Panama to join her husband. In the meantime, while they waited for quarters to become available, she had been reading up about the history of the canal dream, and the more she learned, the more she began to share her husband's enthusiasm. In his letters, Jan was frank about the difficulties—there had been little headway with the “real work,” the men were “dissatisfied,” the labor problems were “acute.” The resignation of Wallace had thrown everybody. But Jan had clearly not lost his faith: “The slowness of the work would be discouraging,” he wrote home in September, “if I were not certain that our Government can and will accomplish whatever it sets out to do. You know what I always say—in America, anything is possible …” In the same letter he told Rose that the quartermaster had at last assigned him married quarters. Two weeks later the family were on their way to Panama.
The voyage for Rose was accompanied by a mixture of seasickness, “deep foreboding,” and great excitement—at seeing Jan again and at the prospect of joining the canal effort. Everyone saved their best outfits for the landing at Colón. Jan was waiting for them and climbed aboard the ship to gather his family into his arms. “The children were shy,” remembered Rose. “They scarcely knew him at first. He was so very thin and burned to a deep brown.”
To the new arrivals Colón was as shocking and overwhelming as ever. The waving, feathery palm trees were as beautiful as Rose had imagined they would be, and the flowers “larger and brighter” than anything she had seen before. But the horses that drew the carriage to the railway station were “unbelievably mangy-looking,” there was a “foul smell” cloaking everything, and “naked brown children” playing on islands in a sea of rubbish, sewage, and greenish, filthy water. Once on the train Jan confessed that their intended house was not yet ready and they would be camping out for a few days in another one nearby.
Leaving the train at Las Cascadas, Rose found herself in the “blackest, darkest place I had ever been in. Not one flicker of light shone anywhere. We stumbled over a number of wet, slippery tracks and walked along a board walk until we reached the steps of the house,” obviously long unoccupied. Inside, furniture had been thrust through the door and left, and a large number of bats were living in the rafters. They had clearly been in residence for some years: “a penetrating stench, so vile it was almost unbearable” hit them as soon as they went inside. Black lizards with bright yellow heads scurried for cover. The first priority was to get the children to sleep. Jan and Rose assembled two beds, and covered them with a mosquito net as the house was unscreened. “By the time I had undressed Janey and Sister,” wrote Rose, “they were both sobbing forlornly.”
The next morning, as Jan ran for the labor train to take him to his post in the Cut building track for the excavators and spoil trains, Rose set about finding something to give the children to eat. Venturing out of the house, she was confronted with the sprawl of “dingy, nondescript houses” that constituted Las Cascadas, and was instantly “hot and uncomfortable … as though I was being smothered between wet, evil-smelling sponges.” She identified a shop run by a “bald-pated Chinese,” but he seemed to have little to sell except tinned butter, plantain, yams, and soggy, stale English biscuits. At a nearby meat stall, Rose turned away in disgust at the flyblown ribbons of beef. They ended up having fruit for breakfast, bought from a West Indian woman hawking from house to house a tray of oranges and bananas she carried on her head.
At lunchtime, Rose's husband returned accompanied by his Dutch friend Jan, who had been renamed “Jantje”—”Little Jan”—to avoid confusion. Rose learned that as Jantje was not an American citizen he had to find his own living quarters, and was still trying to find something suitable after three months on the Isthmus. His plan was to bring his new wife and their son, born the previous November, out to live with him in Panama, and he had already started the process of getting U.S. citizenship.
Jantje Milliery had arrived at Ellis Island at the end of 1902, having briefly lived in Brussels after leaving South Africa. He married a Dutch woman, Martina Korver, from Rotterdam, the following year and they lived in Jersey City Heights. He had applied to the ICC on June 26, 1905, enclosing a reference from the Dutch consul general of Orange Free State: “Applicant is apparently a steady reliable man,” it reads. “He is conversant with track repair methods, and speaks English very well.” On July 5 he received an appointment, and sailed for Panama on the tenth. The money was not that good—he started on $1,000 a year (van Hardeveld, five years older and already a U.S. citizen, was on $1,700)—but being part of the canal meant more to Milliery than the money: it was a means to becoming an American.
That evening Jan van Hardeveld returned exhausted from his day's work. Rose and the girls had spent the afternoon trying to establish which was worse—the soggy heat of outside or the eye-watering stench of the interior of the house. Rose begged him to take some time to help her sort out the mess, but he was “so absorbed in his work that he could not see what overwhelming difficulties confronted me in trying to care for the family.” “You don't know what you are asking,” Jan replied impatiently. He could not leave his unreliable West Indian laborers for a minute, he said. “We're here to dig this canal.”
Jantje stepped in to help Rose in the business of rapid acclimatization, showing her how to hold a damp matchbox at a certain angle to strike and get a light. The local plantains, he explained, could be fried or roasted in their skins. It was all right to buy beef, but it should be cooked for a long time and then only the broth used.
Soon after her arrival Rose was taken to a local party, where she felt very out of place as the only “white” woman in the room. “The people of the new Republic of Panama considered us an uncouth race,” she soon learned. There was at that time only one other white American woman in Las Cascadas, an old tropical hand with an alarmingly pinched and yellow face. It was very much a frontier town. Going to and fro, Rose had noticed “dingy places bearing across the front the word Cantina… by the smells around the places, and the conditions of the men and women coming out of them, I knew they must be saloons. It worried me to see the little black children running in and out, freely, to see the black women staggering, laughing, cursing, and to watch our own men going in for drinks.” She had quickly discovered that Jan and Jantje carried a demijohn of rum beside their workplace icebox—”and that bothered me too.” Soon Rose found herself involuntarily averting her eyes when she passed the cantina near her house. “A brown woman sat there looking out,” Rose remembered. “She reminded me of a fat spider waiting for someone to devour. She often smiled and nodded at me in a friendly way, but I hated her.”
Then at last their proper house was ready, or ready enough for them to move in. The first building erected on the site by the French, it was known as House Number One. Despite the grand name, it was small and dingy, with only one bedroom and a tiny kitchen. But from its high position it offered a view all along the line of the canal as far as the Pacific Ocean to the south and Bas Obispo in the north, where, “the good old Star Spangled Banner, doubly beautiful and precious in this strange country, flew from the pole on top of the hill in Camp Elliott, the United States Marine Corps station.” And just below, indeed virtually under the house, was the Cut, where, Rose writes, “the French had made a noticeable beginning.” Immediately below the house lay “pieces of machinery overturned, strings of cars, engines, and twisted rails, all covered with growing vines and brush. Large trees had grown up through the couplings of a string of cars at the foot of the hill.” Farther down, however, the Americans were at work, and Jan was able to point out to the children the Bucyrus shovel served by his track-shifting gang.
For the children it was thrilling to be so close to their father at work and to the most spectacular section of the canal. According to Rose they “quickly assumed something of their father's proprietary feeling” about the project. They were also making the most of being virtually the only American children among many homesick adults. At the new house ice was delivered every day and in November an ICC-operated food store opened at Empire, two miles away. Even so, day after day was the same meal: “beans, soggy crackers, Danish butter, and fruit. Occasionally a chicken relieved the monotony.” On one occasion Rose took the train to Panama City, where she found that anything could be obtained but at exhorbitant prices. She was also unimpressed by the “crooked gambling houses, filthy saloons and brothels. The well-known ‘American sucker’ had come to the Isthmus and was being properly fleeced by those who knew how.”
Toward the end of the year, a trickle of wives started arriving. One in Las Cascadas had a fright on her first day when she mistook an iguana for a crocodile, and “remained in a permanent state of terror … every little bug made her hysterical.” Rose did her best to help the newcomers become oriented, and, doing so, she wrote, “I sometimes succeeded in bolstering my own failing morale.” Meanwhile her husband was becoming increasingly tired and grumpy, endlessly complaining about the standard of work of his West Indian laborers. “There was little I could say or do to make him relax,” wrote Rose. “The Canal about which he was so intensely, feverishly concerned might have been his own personal project—his and Teddy Roosevelt's.”
Other Americans needed more than the belief in Roosevelt's “great march of progress” to induce them to come to the Isthmus and stay there for any length of time. The first step was to offer exceptional wages. Soon after taking over, Stevens established four recruiting agents, one in New York, one in New Orleans, and two roving. These interviewed candidates and promised anything up to double his current salary in the United States. They also offered free transportation to Panama, free furnished accommodation and medical care, and long, six-week annual paid holidays. According to a senior American administrator on the Isthmus, “Special inducements were added one after another, until an established system was developed which contained perquisites and gratuities which in number and value far exceeded anything of the kind bestowed upon a working force anywhere on the face of the globe.” But the initial results were disappointing. Jobs were easy to come by in the United States at that time. More than anything else, though, the shadow of fever still darkened Panama's reputation.