Author calls for recognition of the ‘Colon Man’
NOTED Jamaican author Olive Senior has emphasised the importance of recognising the men and women from the West Indies who worked on the Panama Canal, and the valuable contribution they made to the development of countries in the region.
The educator, novelist and poet described the emigrants who travelled to Panama as agents of transformation.
Senior, in a very informative and gripping lecture at the Institute of Jamaica, downtown Kingston, last week Sunday, also sought to debunk the stereotype of the ‘Colon Man’. The lecture, titled ‘Colon Man and the Panama Experience’, served to commemorate the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914.
“The long and short of it was blood, sweat and tears. A lot of tribulations but triumphs too; their triumph was a combined effort of ordinary men and women to move the morbid islands of the West Indies into the 20th century,” she said.
“The overall impact of emigrants at that time was probably greater than that of later years, partly because they were able to travel and return home so frequently. And while there was always a section of the population that battled poverty and destitution, the money that the successful ones brought back or sent home substantially boosted the islands’ economies and pushed the development of institutions such as banks and the postal service,” Senior added.
Further to that, she noted that the emigrants’ investments in lands and housing changed the physical landscape of Jamaica and established several large and small businesses.
According to Senior, Jamaicans and other West Indians first started travelling to Panama in 1850 when they went to work on the Panama Railway, and later in 1904 when the French unsuccessfully tried to build the canal.
However, she said there was a “virtual stampede” of men and women from the West Indies when the United States started to build the Panama Canal between 1904 and 1914, which saw 150,000 to 200,000 workers from the West Indies.
“Most of the departures were poor, black males and later females in search of empowerment. But it seems as if everyone went — teachers, doctors, ministers of religion, traders, entertainers, merchants, photographers all travelled to provide service for their countrymen and women and to better themselves,” she said.
According to Senior, “Going to Colon became a style, and ‘Colon man’, or ‘Panama Man’ as he was known in Barbados, became the iconic image back home satirised or glorified as part of the West Indies epic”.
But despite the popularity of the Colon Man, Senior said many people are still unaware of the contributions of those who participated in building the Panama Canal.
“Amazingly, although virtually every West Indian at home or in the diaspora will acknowledge some echo of Panama in his or her family history, virtually nothing is known in the islands or elsewhere about the events that brought about seismic change in the islands, nor is there awareness of the part played by their antecedents in the building up of the countries to which these early emigrants went,” she said.
“Since the 1850s when they first went to Panama in large numbers, West Indians not only helped to alter the physical environs, they also simultaneously helped to develop religious, educational and cultural institutions. They were also pioneers in every sense of the word, whether as plantation workers or industrial workers, as artisans, professionals or farmers,” Senior said.
She also pointed out that many outsiders do not even associate the West Indies with the construction of the Panama Canal, although two-thirds of the workers were from the chain of islands.
“The Panama Canal could not have been built without them,” she emphasised.
Senior, in explaining the concept of the ‘Colon Man’ or ‘Panama Man’, said that he was often viewed as a man who went away to work in Panama and returned home either with nothing, or well dressed, showing off his “bling”.
“Another image of the Colon Man was his attraction to women when he returned with money,” she said.
However, Senior said that there was more to the ‘Colon Man’ and that he was also viewed as an archetype — “a model, a man who was driven by the desire for self-improvement and a man who was dying to better himself”.
Senior’s lecture was based on her newly published book, Dying to better Themselves: West Indians and the building of the Panama Canal, which speaks about the struggles and triumphs of the men and women who worked on the construction of the canal.