The building of the Panama Canal took nearly 50 years and involved a failed attempt by the French before the United States took over. Laborers came from Europe and the nearby islands of Jamaica and Barbados to work on the canal and improve the Panama Railroad. Though most workers eventually returned home or immigrated to the U.S., many were joined in Panama by their families and remained. Construction of the canal and railroad forced the American government to confront health issues in Panama, particularly malaria and yellow fever. The influx of foreign labor and improved health conditions significantly impacted the Panamanian population.
The Early Panamanians
The original inhabitants of Panama were indigenous Amerindian tribes of Choco, Cuna and Guaymis. Spanish conquerors nearly decimated the Amerindian population in the 1500s and it became necessary for the Spaniards to import African slaves as farm laborers. Over the next three centuries, freed slaves, Spanish peoples, and the remaining population of Amerindians intermingled and ultimately identified themselves as Panamanians.
Thousands of African, Chinese and West Indian workers arrived in Panama for the building of the Panama Railroad in the early 1850s. A significant number of workers died from disease or committed suicide due to the harsh labor conditions. The Africans and Jamaicans who stayed found work on banana plantations and became the basis of Panama's Afro-Panamanian population. The few Chinese immigrants who remained often became retail shop owners.
First Canal Immigration
The first attempt at building the Panama Canal was made by the French, beginning in 1879. Workers were recruited from Cuba, Colombia and the West Indies -- primarily Jamaica -- on the promise of much higher wages than they were capable of earning in their home countries. France's project was abandoned in 1893 due to mismanagement and the loss of nearly 22,000 lives to accidents and disease. Most of the workers who perished were from the West Indies. Of those that survived, most returned home with tales of horrible working conditions and low wages. Those who stayed were absorbed into the Afro-Panamanian portion of the population.
Second Canal Immigration
The U.S. took over and resumed construction on the Panama Canal in 1904. Unable to attract workers from Jamaica, officials recruited in Barbados and by 1905 more than 22,000 Barbadians were working on the canal. Ultimately, more than 75 percent of the 50,000 canal workers were Afro-Caribbean. A large number brought their wives and families to live in Panama after completing the canal. This caused a shift in the ethnic demographic of Panama City and Colon City. The cultural differences between the Protestant English- and French-speaking West Indians and the native predominantly Catholic Spanish-speaking Panamanians often caused friction between the two groups.
The economic benefits to the population of Panama were not nearly on the scale of those realized by the U.S. in constructing the Panama Canal. However, significant improvements to the lives of the Panamanian population were achieved. With the aid of U.S. forces, Panama gained its independence from Colombia. Health care technologies instituted by the U.S. to control malaria and yellow fever greatly reduced the death rate from these diseases. The establishment of schools and the employment of Panamanians in the Canal Zone also improved the lives of Panamanians who previously had engaged in subsistence farming.
- PBS.org: American Experience: Timeline: Creating the Canal
- College of Liberal Arts and Sciences: University of Florida: Afro-Tropical: The Migration to Central America: Panama
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Malaria: The Panama Canal
- Minority Rights Group International: World Directory of Minorities: Afro-Panamanians
- PBS.org: American Experience: Panama Canal: General Article: The Workers
- Harvard Business School: Working Knowledge: What Roosevelt Took: The Economic Impact of The Panama Canal, 1903-29
- EveryCulture.com: Countries and Their Cultures: Panamanian Americans
- Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images