On Being West Indian In Panama

A Reflection By Four Elders

The following is a synthesis of interviews conducted in the Republic of Panama in December 2011 by Dr Natalia Kanem, a visiting associate of The Lloyd Best Institute of the West Indies. Four Panamanian elders of West Indian
descent reflected upon their heritage and the meaning of being West Indian in Panama in yesteryear and today.

West Indians made so many contributions to this country. The great journalist and historian George Westerman (1910-1988) was one of our biggest champions. We’re professors, diplomats and justices of the Supreme Court. We’ve been ministers of government. Most of us are labourers until today, although we’re not counted so we can’t really say definitely. What you can say is that it’s getting like we’re no longer West Indian any more. Our identity is fading. The young people are assimilating and our language and the culture are getting lost.
In the past, yes, that was a strong identity. It came with hardship, prejudice and pride. Many people will ask you if there’s prejudice in Panama. Ask me. I’m well educated, I’ve earned enough to live comfortably, I dress well. The perception is that if you’re doing well, you’re not Black again. Right away they can tell that I’m different. They don’t expect my appearance or behaviour. That’s because generations of West Indians in Panama were trained not to make waves. We don’t demand our rights like others do. The unwritten law in the Canal Zone days was ‘West Indian, keep your head down.’ If one person stepped out of line, they’d waste no time. The punishment was the entire family would be forced to leave. We were taught to bow your head. Even for my group graduating from high school in the 1960s that was, and for a lot of us still is, the mentality.
Nowadays we afro-antillanos are trying to pass along the sense of pride we have for what West Indians did for Panama. Only today a lot of our children and grandchildren don’t speak English, only Spanish. They want to be regular Panamanians, so we’re losing that advantage. Some of the young folks only make B/300 (US$300) a month when instead they could have gotten B/500 a month working at the call center. Then again, the best way we use to keep the poor down is to screw up the public education in the country. I am the product of a public education and we made it, but that can’t happen as readily today.
I’m proud of the SAMAAP association, our standard bearer. (Sociedad de Amigos del Museo Afro-Antillano de Panama is the main support entity for Panama’s distinctive West Indian museum.) SAMAAP is bringing back the steel bands and other parts of the culture. They don’t always get the support, though. When Panama recognized the etnias (ethnicities), if it weren’t for SAMAAP we would have been left out of the caucuses. Prof. Melva Gooding is one of the people who represent us. I’m so glad we selected her. She’s well-spoken, she fought for our recognition, and she speaks her mind. Enrique Sanchez is another person who took up the banner and made additional inroads as our representative.
At last we have May as the month to celebrate the etnia negra (African ethnic group). A man in Bocas del Toro province, Claral Richards, pushed for that for many years. Mind you, African people populated Bocas from the 1500s. By the mid-1800s when emancipation was on the horizon, plantation owners ran from Jamaica and established a beachhead in Bocas. That was the first wave of West Indians in Panama. More came with the [transcontinental] railroad in the 1850s and the French canal attempt at the end of the 19th century. Of course when the Americans called for canal workers, that was the biggest influx. The Jamaican government refused to send people officially because their country would have had to bear repatriation costs. Barbados co-operated, so the largest contingent of contracted workers came from there. Anyone who could get a passage came, from Martinique, Guadeloupe, Trinidad and Grenada, to St. Lucia, Guyana and Dominica. Remember they had us as ‘silver’ workers on the Zone while the majority of whites were on the ‘gold’ roll. We had worse housing, different churches, separate drinking fountains and even separate lines at the post office, just like jim crow, yet without us the canal would never have seen the light of day. West Indians withstood diseases like malaria and yellow fever, injuries from dynamite blasts, and all of the maltreatment and segregation. We cut the continent in half and our impact is felt here until now, in our cuisine like sorrel and fruitcake, in the language and in our attitude.
They don’t tell you that the Tajada de la Sandía massacre was sparked by a Jamaican. It was the first instance of American transgression in our country. In April 1856, after the gringos began coming across during the California gold rush, one of them cheated Manuel Luna, a watermelon (sandía) vendor, out of five cents. Luna objected. The American pulled out a gun. Other vendors rallied to assist Luna and it became a huge melee that marked the first time that Panamanians died in a revolt against foreign exploitation. In school we are taught about this proud moment in our history as an early example of the defense of our sovereignty, only no one ever says that it was a West Indian who initiated it.
In my case, my grandfather was Jamaican, I have a bunch of Bajan relatives, and we have the French creole set. All of this infuses our expressions, like tout mun bagai! My grandmother worked in the commissary and cooked for the white people on the Zone. My father was a water-bearer at age 13. Other relatives had small shops in Calidonia. Everyone had something doing. Yes, man, the West Indians came to Panama City and Colon, and even those who didn’t dig no ditch, worked in hospitals and in homes. When it came time to return, many stayed back to educate their children, and became homeowners. You’d get French and English island people marrying each other and supporting each other. It’s rare to see a West Indian beggar. We had that work ethic and ended up doing better than the average poor Panamanian. Some of us migrated to the States since we could speak English. That was a big West Indian advantage.
When the Canal was finished in 1914, children born to West Indians had a problem. They didn’t have an official nationality. Panama didn’t want us, the Americans rejected us and the British said you weren’t born in their islands so you didn’t belong to them. After a long while the Panamanians accepted us and here we are. The interesting thing was that we had all these people come from all over the Antilles. All the different island people mixed and participated with each other and with other Panamanians too, to the point where we ourselves don’t know what’s the difference among the islands. Panama was the first place where large numbers of West Indians mixed up and came together as a unified ethnic identity.

Places of Origin of Antillean Canal Workers
Courtesy of Leticia Thomas, PhD

Number Employed by Contract

Place of Origin 1904-1914

Barbados 9,900
Curacao 23
Fortune Island* 361
Grenada 93
Guadaloupe 2,053
Guyana 332
Jamaica 47
Martinique 5,542
St. Kitts 942
St. Lucia 296
St. Vincent 55
Trinidad 1,427
Total contracted workers 31,071

Source: Adapted from Westerman, 1980.

Note: Includes only workers hired on their home island by official contract, not workers who had remained on the isthmus after previous construction ventures nor workers who migrated independently.

*Now Long Cay, Bahamas.


  1. Very interesting. My father was from Bocas del Toro and my mother arrived from Jamaica with my grandmother at the age of 9. Yes, my grandma worked as a cook with the white folks and, boy, could she cook! Everything I know and do today is because of her. I was the one that lived with her in Colon, and helped her carry a daily basket of food to the lottery and the post offices. She sold everything and never was broke! I know about the gold and silver roll. My father worked on one of the tug boats of the Canal, so we lived on the Canal Zone and were “privileged” to shop in the commissary. The only thing my father didn’t like was that they didn’t teach Spanish in the CZ schools, so we went to schools in Colon. I am grateful for that today because I am fully bilingual. Many families migrated to the U.S. and others right after high school they felt that the Panamanians didn’t want us.

  2. Thank you for an amazing and educational summary. My background is jamaican and st. Kitts. My father was a jamaican Chinese and my mother a west Indian, beautiful black woman. I am black and proud of it. I live and love my heritage. My siblings, of a different father are all black and we are one. That’s what I love about west Indian culture. No matter the origin, we are one people.

  3. Very interesting. I was one of the first Canal Zone Police only aresting Panamanians for trespassing or contraband, until an African American call my attention to what I was doing. He gave me Soul on Ice by Eldrige Cleaved. I became transformed overnight and challenged the rest rooms with sinage of Helpers and Mechanic. The Canal Zone was an apartheid system.

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