In CíLebra, the mountains were on the move. Work on deepening the Cut had begun in earnest with the end of the steam-shovel men's strike in July 1907. But as the gorge grew in size, it was as if the land was fighting back. On the night of October 2, after particularly heavy rain, a great mass of earth and rock plunged down into the Cut from the slope just south of Gold Hill at Cucaracha. Two steam shovels were overturned and nearly buried, track and piping carrying water and compressed air were destroyed, and the drainage system was wrecked. Horrified engineers then noticed that the slide was continuing. An area of about fifty acres continued to move for the next ten days, sliding into the canal prism at a speed of about fourteen feet a day. Gaillard, the engineer in charge of the Cut, described it as being “a tropical glacier—of mud instead of ice.” Goethals reported that “it required night and day work to save our equipment.” By the time the equilibrium of that particular part of the mountain had been restored and the movement stopped, over half a million cubic yards had entered the Cut. In his end-of-year report for the Foreign Office, Mallet wrote, “the magnitude of the task is much greater than was at first thought.” “There is less disposition,” he went on, “to under-rate the French failure.” Certainly Goethals quickly revised his earlier view—the job in the Cut was now deemed the “most formidable of the canal enterprise.”
The first great Cucaracha slide was just the beginning. As the ditch was lowered foot by foot, there followed numerous similar “gravity slides.” In many places along the walls of the Cut, a layer of semi-porous clay sat on top of a stratum of impervious rock. Rainwater seeped through the clay to form a soapy, greasy layer on top of the harder rock. When this rock sloped toward the Cut, there would come a point when the friction between the two layers became so reduced that the top layer slipped into the Cut, “like snow off a roof.” The following year, 1908, saw slides of this type at Paraíso, near Gold Hill, and at Culebra.
But such was the baffling geology of the Cut, with rocks of all different types in bewildering combinations, that gravity slides, most usual during the wet season, were not the only problem. Some of the strata, previously long-buried, reacted to the air in a way that caused them to become unstable and unable to support material lying above. Other harder rock, depending on its lines of fracture, would collapse into the Cut when its lateral support was removed, bringing down upper layers as well.
Spaniard Antonio Sanchez, who worked in the Cut for four and a half years, told of a curse going back to French times. The ground itself, he said, would take revenge against those who sought to “dissect nature's creation.” Most vivid in his memory was the shrill sound of whistles from an accident site. If they were not at work, foremen would appear at their camp to demand that they come to help dig out men and equipment buried by slides. But while they were attempting to rescue the buried men, they too were subject to the danger of further slides. Sometimes the deep mud they worked in would prevent them from getting out of the way quickly enough if there was another earth movement. The majority of the time, he reports, they would only manage to dig out disfigured and broken bodies.
Most of the slides, however, were slower, although more substantial than these sorts of avalanches. But even if a slope moved toward the Cut at only a few inches a day, it still required the re-laying of miles and miles of track. And as soon as a slide was cleared, an engineer remembers, “the old hill politely slid back again, completely filling the canal.” As a West Indian worker put it, “Today you dig and tomorrow it slides.”
The slides made Culebra an unpredictable enemy for the “Army of Panama.” The deep gorge, wrote a senior U.S. administrator, “was a land of the fantastic and the unexpected. No one could say when the sun went down at night what the condition of the Cut would be when the sun arose the next morning. The work of months or even years might be blotted out by an avalanche of earth.” At the end of 1907 Goethals had to refuse to set a completion date for the canal as, he said, “The difficulties we are liable to encounter are unknown to ourselves and uncertain.” Another senior engineer confessed that it was impossible to plan for the final shape of the ditch as “this material has or will ultimately make its own design as to slopes.” In other ways as well, the Cut was “fantastic and unexpected.” Such was the geological chaos of the ground that dynamiters and steam shovel operatives, as Goethals explained, “found themselves handling hard rock one hour, while the next hour they might be working in earth or clay.” In some places the downward pressure of the unsupported rock faces would push up the comparatively soft strata of the canal floor, sometimes as much as thirty feet. On one occasion, Gaillard himself was standing at the bottom of the Cut when the ground he was standing on rose six feet in five minutes. Just as uncanny for the diggers were the cracks that appeared at the bottom of the Cut, spewing out stinking sulphurous fumes or boiling water. Blasts hot enough to char wood were emitted from the ground, caused by the oxidation of iron pyrites in the soil or by the vaporization of water in the intense heat of friction as the despoiled ground writhed and slipped.
To prevent the slides Goethals tried all the techniques then available. Shovels worked at the top of the slopes to reduce the weight of material pushing down on the lower levels. Long “nails” were driven into the sides of the trench to bind the porous layer to the rock beneath; slopes were plastered in concrete. Such measures were being used with success at the time by the British in Hong Kong, but the scale and complexity of the Cut would doom all to failure. To keep water from the slopes, large diversion channels were built near the crests to carry away moisture that might otherwise saturate the sides of the Cut. But this approach failed as well. The only option left was simply to dig it all out again.
Unlike the French, Goethals had the muscle to do it. The massive steam shovels, by now personalized with female names, were removing huge amounts of dirt. On average over the construction period they dug out a million cubic yards each, a testament to their sound construction and efficient maintenance. In the peak month of March 1909, there were sixty-eight shovels at work in the Cut excavating an astonishing 2 million cubic yards. In the same month seven hundred thousand pounds of powder was exploded. Thanks to the system set up by Stevens, 160 trains, carefully controlled from the construction headquarters at Culebra, ran in and out of the gorge every day, pulling thousands of flatcars to and from the dumps; in the Cut's nine miles there were now seventy-six miles of construction track.
The work never stopped. At the end of the day, the track shifters, dynamite gangs, and steam-shovel operators were replaced by coaling trains and maintenance crews who worked through the night so that nothing should delay progress the next day. And although about a quarter of the effort involved digging out material from slides, the Cut still got deeper and deeper and more and more spectacular.
he Cut was the “special wonder of the canal,” “one of the great spectacles of the ages.” Over 70 percent of the vast total canal excavation came from its nine miles. For the increasing number of tourists, gazing down into the great man-made canyon from its edge high above, it was an inspiring sight. “The Cut is a tremendous demonstration of human and mechanical energy,” wrote a British visitor. “It is simply the transformation of a mountain into a valley.” It was more than “heroic human endeavour,” said another. It was a “geological event.” The scale was overwhelming. “From the crest,” wrote an American tourist, “you looked down upon a mighty rift in the earth's crust, at the base of which pygmy engines and antlike forms were rushing to and fro without seeming plan or reason. Through the murky atmosphere strange sounds rose up and smote the ear of the onlooker with resounding clamor.” These included the “strident clink, clink, clink of the drills … the shrill whistles of the locomotives … the constant and uninterrupted rumble” of the ever-moving dirt trains, the “clanking of chains” of the shovels, “the cries of men, and the booming of blasts. Collectively the sounds were harsh, deafening, brutal such as we might fancy would arise from hell.”
William Baxter started work as an official guide in 1911. In that year there were fifteen thousand tourists. “They are generally comfortable men and women of 50 or more,” he wrote. The English tended to wear cork hats, though “some American men dress as if for a trip through the jungle when they go out on a sightseeing train. Most women wear heavy ugly shoes. All tourists carry umbrellas.” “Patriotic tourists, or perhaps it would be better to say ‘chauvinistic tourists,’ are rather common,” he continues. “They have two great topics: ‘The French Failure’ and ‘The Cost.’ It is futile to explain to them that a private company of Americans would have failed as the French company did, under the same conditions. ‘We have done it, and they failed,’ is always the answer.”
For the “antlike” figures working far down below, the Cut was known as “Hell's Gorge.” The noise alone is hard to imagine. On a typical day there would be more than three hundred rock drills in operation, as well as the steam shovels, trains, and the blasting of some six hundred holes, with all the booming and crashing reflected and amplified by the walls of the “big ditch.” But that was only a part of it. As a Barbadian dynamite carrier, Arnold Small, remembered, “There was no shelter from the sun or the rain. There were no trees, then, just a bare place. When the sun shine, you get it, when it rain fall, you get it. When the wind blow, you get it.” Ten feet of rain fell in the Cut during 1909, converting it to a muddy nightmare. John Prescod was working at Bas Obispo “at the steam shovel in mud and water. One pair of boots last me one day. In the afternoon walk to the camp barefoot.” “I had never saw so much rain in all my life as I see in the Cut,” says another digger. “You had to work all through the rain, I remember when I was in the drilling gang, the boss allway say keep the drills agoing so as to keep your body warm sometimes, you are so cold that your teeth keep rocking together, in the morning you had to put your clothes on damp no sun to dry them.”
In the dry season the perpetual wet was replaced by 120-degree heat, and clouds of choking dust. “For the first couple of days or weeks, you are always out of breath,” says Arnold Small.
Harry Franck vividly remembered the day he spent during 1912 traversing the Cut enrolling workers in a census he was conducting. “The different levels varied from ten to twenty feet one above the other, each with a railroad on it, back and forth along which incessantly rumbled and screeched dirt-trains full or empty, halting before the steam-shovels, that shivered and spouted thick black smoke as they ate away the rocky hills and cast them in great giant handfuls on the train of one-sided flat cars that moved forward bit by bit at the flourish of the conductor's yellow flag. Steam-shovels that seemed human in all except their mammoth fearless strength tore up the solid rock with snorts of rage and the panting of industry, now and then flinging some troublesome, stubborn boulder angrily upon the cars … Each was run by two white Americans … the craneman far out on the shovel arm, the engineer within the machine itself with a labyrinth of levels demanding his unbroken attention. Then there was of course a gang of negroes, firemen and the like, attached to each shovel.”
All around, scores of drills were “pounding and grinding and jamming holes in the living rock.” Anywhere near them was “such a roaring and jangling that I must bellow at the top of my voice to be heard at all. The entire gamut of sound-waves surrounds and enfolds me.” There were gangs everywhere, on the floor of the canal and on the terraces and “stretching away in either direction till those far off look like upright bands of the leaf-cutting ants of Panamanian jungles.” And over it all hung heavy clouds of coal dust from the trains and shovels.
With so many men and machines crowded into this narrow space, almost nowhere was work more dangerous or life cheaper. “There were so many engines at a time in the Cut,” remembers Rufus Forde, “that most every month, a man lost his leg or badly damage. When any thing like that happen one engineer will turn to next engineer, one just grease the wheel. In those days a fowl life was more valuable than our lives.” One Panama-born West Indian remembered seeing a man cut cleanly in two, with his legs carried away by the train, which did not bother to stop. “Billy had been the engineer. He will stop his train on the tracks for a horse or a cow, but not for a human. Those were his words always.”
Tales of serious danger from accidents dominate the accounts of the West Indian workers. One remembered seeing a Spanish track layer hit by a locomotive and pushed for about twenty feet along the track. “He was still alive, with mostly all his skin was stripped off like a piece of ham bone. All I could hear him say was ‘Mi madre, mi madre!’” Harry Franck reckoned you needed “eyes and ears both in front and behind, not merely for trains but for a hundred hidden and unknown dangers to keep the nerves taut.” Scores of men were killed by being hit by the swinging boom of a steam shovel. Jan van Hardeveld narrowly escaped being crushed trying to right an overturned shovel, but soon after had his leg badly injured by a flying spike maul. Antonio Sanchez worked several months of 310 hours, the overtime being night work on track relocation when “the mud and slime was always present as well as the danger of the various spoil trains and rolling stock in dark and rainy nights.” In March 1909 he was disabled for three months when his foot was crushed by the wheel of a train.
Even worse than the traffic and machinery was the vast amount of dynamite being deployed to break up the rock so that it could be handled by the shovels. Accidents were numerous. Goethals blamed the incompetence of the workers, but some of the explosives became unstable from exposure to the Panamanian climate. On other occasions the subterranean heat in the Cut ignited the charges before the men were safely clear. Once, a premature explosion was caused by a bolt of lightning during a storm, killing seven men. The most common danger, however, was when excavating machinery hit unex-ploded charges. “It was a very awful sight to see how they dig out the bodies,” remembered Constantine Parkinson, “but it did not mean nothing in construction days people get killed and injured almost every day and all the bosses want is to get the canal built.”
The worst such accident occurred in December 1908, at Bas Obispo at the north end of the Cut. “Preparation was made to shoot down a high Hill in the center of the waterway on Sunday A.M.,” said Jamaican Z. McKenzie. “Unfortunately on Saturday about 12.30 P.M. the blast went off. I just leave the Gang to eat my lunch. I ran to the Spot & Saw what happened. Oh, it was a day of Sorrow for the living.” The accidental ignition of 22 tons of dynamite, in two separate explosions, was heard three miles away and left 60 injured and 23 men dead, 17 West Indians, 3 Spaniards, and 3 Americans. West Indian Amos Clarke remembered seeing “flesh hanging on the faraway trees. It was something terrible and awful to look at.”
Antonio Sanchez described going to work every day in the Cut as like “going to a battlefield … we had to sweat and be brave.” Even at a supposedly safe distance from the great explosions, bits of rock would be flung into the air for hundreds of feet. “Many times the rocks would hit laborers with such impact that they would fall unconscious on the spot,” he said. “As there were no other means for our protection, we used our shovels to cover our heads from the impact of the flying projectiles.” Harry Franck noticed that the track switchmen, or “switcheroos,” built sheet-iron wigwams, not as shelter from the sun, but as protection from flying rocks.
John Prescod was in a drilling gang near Empire in mid-April 1913. In one “difficult place,” at the bottom of a steep and unstable cliff, it was impossible to set up the drills due to rocks falling from above. His foreman was Charley Swinehart, the friend of the van Hardevelds. “General foreman came to spot,” Prescod wrote, “say your all don't started up yet no boss rock falling down un us. Say if I go up and set up a drill God dam it I going to fire the whole bunch of you I am sorry to say sad accident occurred. Rock fall from the bank knock Mr. Swinehart down in the canal Put him on a flatcar rush him to Ancón Hospital die the same day.” According to his official record, thirty-two-year-old Swinehart, an old-timer having been in Panama since April 1905, died of a fractured skull. Rose van Hardeveld says that he was still breathing as the hospital car rushed him to Ancón, but he passed away before his mother could reach his bedside. “Two days later, all of us who had become such close friends gathered in the hospital chapel to weep with the bereaved mother and sisters,” Rose writes. The surviving family returned, “brokenhearted,” to the States.
o stop the flooding Chagres from flowing into the Cut as the trench deepend, a huge earth dike was built across the north end at Gamboa. But as in French times, frequent flash floods caused delays and damage to equipment. Still the work was pushed on, even when, in 1910, the Cucaracha slide started up again. By 1912, it had deposited over three million cubic yards into the canal prism. And now the other side of the trench had come to life. At Culebra a huge crack appeared about a hundred yards away from the crest of the Cut. The new clubhouse was disassembled and moved away, as were some thirty other buildings in the town. But still the crack widened as the edge started to slip inexorably downward. Eventually seventy-five acres of what had been the town fell away into the canal. The mass dumped was twice that of the Cucaracha slide.
Goethals simply ordered it dug out again, but Gaillard was distraught. Then in January 1913 Cucaracha slid again, this time completely blocking the end of the Cut. For Gaillard, this seems to have been something of a final straw. He appeared to suffer a breakdown and left the Isthmus. Back in the United States he was diagnosed with a brain tumor and died before the end of the year. Everyone assumed that it had been the pressure of digging the Cut that had killed him. His fellow engineer and friend William Sibert wrote of his death: “at the end of long years of patient, exacting work, of terrific responsibility, the tragic end has come … just as much a direct result of the struggle itself as if it were the work of a hostile bullet.”
Even as the shovels lowered the floor of the canal scoop by scoop, there were many who believed that the Cut could never be finished, that it would continue to fight back until it had defeated its de-spoiler. For their lock-canal plan the French had estimated that 23 million cubic yards had to be moved from the Cut. The Americans initially upped this to 53 million cubic yards, but the estimate rose to 78 million cubic yards in 1908, 84 million cubic yards in 1909, 89 million cubic yards in 1911, then to 100 million cubic yards in 1913. This was partly because of the widening of the bottom width but also due to breaks and slides. George Martin, who had been on the Isthmus since 1909, remembers when working in the Cut in 1911, his bosses’ “encouraging talk. ‘Boys, are you saving your money? It won't be long now, we will see water into the Cut.’ But we just take it for a joke,” he wrote. “I personally would say to my fellow men, that could never happen. My children would come and have children, and their children would come and do the same, before you would see water in the Cut, and most all of us agree on the same.”
eorge Martin, an apprentice carpenter, had been eighteen when he arrived in Panama from Barbados. He had heard, he wrote, “A voice from a great people” inviting him to help build the Panama Canal. His first job was on the relocation of the Panama Railroad, identified by Goethals as a priority. The line had to be moved to high ground to avoid the area of the proposed Lake Gatún. The job was far bigger than the original railroad construction of 1850–55, requiring either fills, cuts, or bridges for most of its length. The work took Martin deep into the jungle, where spiders and snakes abounded, as well as what he called the “Goosyana Fly”—”when he stings, he leaves worms in the flesh.” There were also swarms of Anopheles mosquitoes. “The fever lashed good and plenty,” Martin writes. “In those days you watch men shake, you think they would shake to pieces.” As it was impractical to carry out antimosquito measures in the temporary camps along the new line, Gorgas's department was reduced to catching them in traps, one of which netted 1,800 specimens in a week. But Martin had a good boss who “did not order or compelled, he only pleaded, so we obeyed.” Martin worked on a culvert, and, when it was completed, on laying the tracks on it. “We took the spiking of the rail, to the pulling, like a merry-go-round,” said Martin. “This were a sight to watch us work along this line; the work was hard but we did it cheerful… Every man with an iron bar about five feet long, one would sing, and while he sings, you watch the track line move. The white bosses stand off and laugh. The Songster had a song, goes this way, he would sing the first part, and we comes in with the second part, it goes:
Nattie oh, Nattie O—first
2nd Gone to Colón
Nattie O Nattie O
2nd Gone to Colón
Nattie buy sweet powder
Powder her—— — —you know
Nattie buy sweet powder
Powder her—— —same
And so he would sing this song over and over, gentlemen watch track line move, the work appeared sweet, the white foremen enjoyed the singing they laugh and did laughed.”
Martin's is perhaps the most positive of all the hundred or so accounts in the “Competition for the Best True Stories of Life and Work …” collected in 1963 (he received the second prize of $30). He writes of the incessant rain and constantly wet clothes but adds, “We worked joyfully in these days.” The food he was given was good, and the boxcars they were first billeted in were “like palaces.” Martin worked for the canal for nearly forty-six years until the mid-fifties. Looking back at the construction days he saw them as a time of excitement, and also comparatively low prices. “$2.50 [commissary] book was plenty in those days,” he wrote. “Construction days were better days, never to be seen again, the money was paid small, but we live big.” On one occasion he was accidentally given two $5.00 books for the price of one. “What to do with $10 in those days? … I bought a ham, at that time it look as big as I were … real lean, I took ham to work every day in order to have it finish, my associate and I ate ham for days. I don't think about ham these days it's too high in price, now it is for the other fellow.” Best of all though was “our ice-cream, I am saying here it was refreshing. We worked hard, but cheerful, I can assure you,” he went on. “Our boss never had any worries, he only says what he wanted, and it was done.”
Mallet reported in early 1913 that the West Indians had become a “fine body of disciplined and skilled workmen.” Many of the Americans were beginning to agree. The secretary to the Commission, Joseph Bishop, would later write that the work of the West Indian artisans “proved very satisfactory.” Overall, he continued, the West Indians were “quiet, usually honest, as a general rule well and respectfully spoken, demonstrating an aptitude to learn the rudiments of the various sorts of work for which they were contracted.” Another engineer declared that the West Indian laborer had lived down his bad reputation and developed into a good workman, “and pretty certain always to make a fair return to the United States on the money it paid him in wages … The American republic always must stand indebted to these easy-going, carefree black men who supplied the brawn to break the giant back of Culebra.” Unlike the Spaniards, wrote Harry Franck, “the negroes from the British West Indies … could almost invariably read and write; many of those shoveling in the ‘cut’ have been trained in trigonometry.” (Not that any of this was reflected in their pay. A black West Indian would have to be skilled and to have served for a number of years to earn as much as the minimum for a European laborer—US$0.20 an hour. By September 1909 fewer than a thousand had qualified.)
As a rule, the West Indians were sober, industrious, and religious. Harry Franck remembers frequently coming across “young negro men of the age and type that in white skins would have been loafing on pool-room corners, reading to themselves in loud and solemn voices from the Bible.” “What was the black culture that the West Indians brought to Panama?” asks poet, social historian, and “silver-man” descendant Carlos Russell. “An amalgam of European customs and ideals with a decidedly British (Anglo-Saxon) veneer imposed on a fragmented African base, weakened, but not eradicated by centuries of slavery. It was a culture with a distinct penchant for things and ways British. Proper spoken English, conservative dress, a black suit, stiff collar and tie in the tropics, proper deportment and a loyalty and dedication to a job which demanded much and paid little.” And life and culture were changing as the construction years passed. “Now here comes a little improvement,” writes Jules LeCurrieux. “The West Indian Negro woman began to immigrate here, then the poor old bastards found themselves wives of their tribes and began to live like human beings and not beasts, or slaves, they found someone to cook them a decent meal, to wash their clothes, some one to be a companion.” Although the authorities approved of the increasing arrival of West Indian women and children, as they had for the whites, there were precious few ICC-provided accommodations for families, so most lived in expensive rented flats in the terminal cities. Harry Franck, while taking the census of the Zone in 1912, went into many of these. “They lived chiefly in windowless, six-by-eight rooms,” he wrote, “always a cheap, dirty calico curtain dividing the three-foot parlour in front from the five-foot bedroom behind, the former cluttered with a van-load of useless junk… a black baby squirming naked in a basket of rags … Every inch of the walls was ‘decorated’ … With pages of illustrated magazines or newspapers … Outside, before each room, a tin fireplace for cooking precariously bestrided the veranda rail.”
Not only was the black workforce ruthlessly excluded from Gold Roll facilities, but also virtually nothing was provided for their amusement, edification, or recreation. In one year, the ICC actually spent fourteen times more per person on “extras” for the white personnel than for the blacks, who, of course, made up the large majority of the employed numbers. So the West Indians were largely left to their own devices.
The church provided the center for the developing West Indian communities. “The men are kept hard at work full six days a week,” wrote a visiting American journalist. “On Sunday morning every religious community is busy—you would think a great revival was in progress.” By 1910, nearly forty “black” churches were in operation in the Zone, almost all established without any material assistance from the ICC. The majority were Anglican but there were also Methodists, Baptists, Pentecostals, and Episcopalians, as well as more “charismatic” congregations. For one of the leading black Panamanian historians, the church was “a forum for expression on many issues. It preserved the self-respect of the workers, and stimulated their pride.” Others were more cynical, seeing the white-dominated Anglican Church in particular as a tool to “tame them and provide a relief valve.” The loud singing, extravagant dress, and general exuberance of the low-church black congregations was commented on by Americans, with approval as well as condescension. As far as they were concerned, emotion and energies were being worked out that could otherwise be directed against them.
But the Christian churches of various denominations did not have a monopoly on the spirituality of the imported black workers. As in the islands, their influence was leavened by other traditions that took in “obeah,” or sorcery, herbal medicine, and rituals of spirit possession, all of which survived from their African inheritance.
Other carryovers from Africa via the Caribbean islands were the Mutual and Friendly societies, designed to protect those injured or bereaved. As during the French era, “Burial clubs” or “su-sus” became widespread in Panama, whereby small sums were deposited every month against the cost of one's funeral. This was not only because of the high death rate, but also because of the social importance of funerals to the West Indian community. Within the separate island communities—Barbadians tended to stick with Barbadians and Jamaicans with Jamaicans—there was in general a high degree of communal and interdependent living. Harry Franck comments that while West Indians seemed to know everything about their neighbors down to the most intimate detail, the Americans he came across would often not even be aware of their neighbors’ names. In the absence of any ICC-organized activities, the West Indians put together their own cricket teams, as well as card or domino-playing circles. Clothes and music were also important. The Caribbean people, says one “digger” descendant, “were the unquestioned leaders of glamour and glitter.” “Let me tell you,” says West Indian Benjamin Jordan. “To see people at night. Saturday night they have dances in different places. People put up huts and have dance parties and the rest of it. On Saturday night, it was a joyful time in Culebra. Liquor was common at that time. You give a dollar or a dollar and a half for a quart. That did a lot. To see those people dancing and making merry… Boy!” Another West Indian remembered “the elegant quadrille dances, men and women graciously moving though the many fancy figures” to the music of “Calypsos, mambos and meringues.”
For policeman Harry Franck, Saturday nights, when the men had just been paid, was “the vortex of trouble on the Isthmus.” On one occasion he went into “the rough and tumble” of New Gatún, where he encountered “a singing, howling, swarming multitude.” With a colleague, he went into one of the bars, or, more exactly, the white side of it. “Beyond the lattice-work that is the ‘color line’ in Zone dispensaries,” he wrote. “West Indians were dancing wild, crowded ‘hoe-downs’ and ‘shuffles’ amid much howling and more liquidation; on our side a few Spanish laborers quietly sipped their liquor.”
Indeed, the “Silver and Gold” distinction made no exception for Saturday nights or any other time or place in the Zone. Away from the works, there was next to no mixing between the races. In fact, the system was ever tightened. In February 1908, Taft, to please the unions as he prepared his bid for the presidency, declared that only U.S. citizens (and, after a protest, Panamanians) could be on the Gold Roll. The last of the West Indians were demoted, but the order also further complicated the tortuous euphemism of the Gold/Silver distinction. For one thing, there were a number of black U.S. citizens working for the ICC. Some five hundred had been recruited during the early years, almost all on the Silver Roll. It had been hoped that they would be good at “managing” the West Indians. But the authorities soon realized they had made a mistake—the American blacks were far less malleable and passive than the imported “third-country” workforce. As a West Indian writes, “The majority of them were employed as team drivers, and when delivering goods would refuse to unload same, claiming they were no labourers, they were team drivers. They also were tutoring the other employees to act accordingly. In the view of the fact, they were sent back home.” “We had colored Americans working, good men, skilful men,” remembered another West Indian. “But they can't pull with the White Americans always a fight and trouble.” Furthermore, the small number on Gold Roll contracts vigorously protested when, as blacks, they were refused service at Gold Commissaries, or ordered to take off their hats “although no such requirement is made of white employees.” Consequently, to preserve the color criterion that underpinned the Gold/Silver distinction, no more U.S. blacks were given Gold Roll contracts, and by February 1909 only one such employee remained, a Henry Williams.
So by 1908 there were hardly any nonwhite Gold employees left, but when Taft made his nationality order as far as Gold and Silver was concerned, it opened a can of worms for the authorities. Soon after, Goethals received a petition from ten Silver Roll American blacks complaining that as U.S. citizens they were entitled to the lavish Gold Roll privileges. After much discussion among the top brass, a compromise was decided on whereby the men were given home and sick leave entitlements, were paid in gold, but were still officially Silver Roll and thus excluded from clubhouses and commissaries.
Another protestor, Henry W Scott, proved more of a handful. In early January 1910, he complained that he had been denied a foreman position in the Pacific Division because, he was told, “he was colored and not eligible for employment on the Gold Roll.” Utterly fed up, he now wanted a job in Panama City, where the “prejudice feeling” did not exist “as on the Canal Zone.” “My father having performed distinguished service in the Civil War. And on behalf of the twelve million American colored people and taxpayers, I most respectfully make application for one of the above places,” he ended. But he had also been in touch with his senator back in the States, Wesley L. Jones, who, it turned out, had fought with his father in the Civil War. Jones wrote to Goethals, “Mr. Scott is part colored but I understand he is a young man of splendid ability.”
Goethals had to tread carefully. Not only was the racial segregation of the Zone legally dubious, but also the Republican Party had sold itself as the defender of the blacks. He wrote back to the senator on January 24, 1910: “The fact of his being an American citizen does not entitle him to employment on the gold roll, as employment on the gold and silver rolls, respectively, depends entirely upon the class of work our employees do and not upon their nationality or color.”
Cases like this highlight the confusions, contradictions, and hypocrisy of the Gold/Silver distinction. Happily for the authorities, the number of these awkward American blacks continued to dwindle. In July 1912 there were only sixty-nine at work for the ICC. The following year, only fifteen remained and this threat to the “logic” of the system was almost gone.
ater generations of Panamanian Antilleans, when looking at the actions of the American blacks or the Spaniards, would accuse their West Indian “silvermen” fathers and grandfathers of passivity during the construction period in the face of poor working conditions and the discriminatory policies of the canal authorities. Certainly, there would be no organized West Indian labor resistance until well after the canal was finished and the workforce much depleted. But many factors weighed against concerted labor action during the construction period. For one thing, there was still a surplus of labor on the islands. At the end of 1907 over two thousand men were actually laid off at the completion of the building work, and by the end of 1909 Karner could pack up his recruiting operation in Barbados as labor needs were more than being met by independent emigration. The result was a pool of some five thousand unemployed and usually desperate West Indians living in Colón or elsewhere from which the ICC could draw as and when it liked. As the Star and Herald noted, every man had “the knowledge that there are ten hungry applicants for each vacancy who will like the conditions well enough.” Furthermore, there was little tradition of organized labor in the islands, and the West Indian community was, for now, divided by loyalty to individual islands.
The West Indians were also kept in line by the vigorous and often violent efforts of the Zone police to punish even the mildest infringement. If this was not enough to curtail organized action, there was the daily struggle to make ends meet when often three-quarters of a wage would have to be spent on rent. There was also the exhausting fight against malaria, pneumonia, other diseases, and the effects of accidents. The West Indian accounts nearly all tell of at least one stay in the hospital, often many more. By 1914, Gorgas's sanitation squads had drained more than a hundred square miles of swamp through the building of nearly two thousand miles of ditches and drains. But although infection and mortality rates kept on falling, malaria and its recurring symptoms of agonizing fever and shaking, followed by mind-numbing lethargy, would continue to affect many of the inhabitants of the Zone. In 1914, nearly half the workforce, over 24,000 people, were admitted to the hospital at some time during the year for a variety of illnesses or accidents.
The two simplest explanations for the lack of West Indian protest or action against the ICC's regime were provided by a resident of Colón, Mr. Foster Burns, who in 2004 was 104 years old. First, he said plainly, the men wanted and needed the money. However it looks now, work on the canal was the best get-rich (or at least stop-being-hungry) scheme on offer. Second, the men were so busy working that they had no time or energy left for anything else. This certainly rings true. Although most American employees—with the exception of a few foremen and doctors—were limited to an eight-hour day by a law of Congress, Stevens had secured a special clause exempting “alien” labor on the canal from this stipulation, so the West Indians worked ten hours a day for six days a week. And this was before overtime (often compulsory and unpaid) and the journey to and from work.
The actual labor was usually backbreaking, and frequently carried out, of course, in very difficult conditions. There were few cushy jobs available to the black workers. Albert Peters tells of how being assigned to a dredge involved having to continually dive into the muddy, slimy water to free the suction pump. In the burning heat or ankle-deep mud of “Hell's Gorge,” thousands carried heavy and dangerous dynamite boxes, manned the largest and most violent drills ever seen, and stoked suffocating, red-hot steam furnaces on shovels or locomotives. And from 1909 onward, an increasing proportion of the laborers were working on the giant locks—the “concrete cathedrals”—being built at either end of the central “bridge of water.” Here the work was, if anything, even more dangerous and unpleasant than in the Cut.