When Bahama negroes complained about living conditions, just days after arriving as labourers on the Panama Canal, they were called idle. When they complained about not being paid, they were called liars.
Construction on the Panama Canal began in August 1850 on the mainland around Monkey Hill (Mount Hope). When the first group, of 50 Bahamian negroes, signed on to work on the Panama Canal in 1905, the men had no idea that they were going to be sent to a mosquito infested, disease ridden, mud swamp, in the middle of a jungle, which no one wanted to go to or stay in. The dense jungle of Colón, Panama, two miles back from Monkey Hill Station, was teeming with numerous varieties of venomous snakes, poisonous insects, and deadly spiders. Many who went in, never made it out.
Thousands of workers died from yellow fever, malaria, and other tropical diseases. By the year 1905, the death rate was over 200 per month. What was largely unknown at that time was the role the mosquito played in carrying disease.
SEGREGATION – Silver Meant Negro
West Indian Negroes from Barbados, Bahamas, Jamaica and other West Indian British colonies, who worked on the Panama Canal, were called “Silver.” “Silver” were the non-whites, and “Gold” were whites who worked on the Panama Canal. Silvers got the worst living conditions, the worst food, the worst jobs and the least pay.
The “Silvers,” the West Indian negroes who died while working on the Panama Canal were buried in a cemetery in Colón, Panama, then called Monkey Hill Cemetery. It has been renamed Mount Hope Cemetery.
Some Bahamians, who worked on the Panama Canal in the early 1900s, are undoubtedly buried there.
Mount Hope Cemetery, formerly named Monkey Hill Cemetery, is now on the list of World Monuments Watch.
“At the Atlantic terminus of the Panama Canal, within the gates of Mount Hope Cemetery, the landscape of graves reveals some of Panama’s rich history. Originally known as the Monkey Hill Cemetery, Mount Hope became the burial ground for black West Indian immigrants who died working on the intercontinental Panama Railroad for the American Panamanian Railroad Corporation between 1850 and 1855. As work began on the canal, first with the French Canal Company (1880–1889) and later during the American period (1904–1914), the cemetery became the resting place for thousands of Jamaican, Barbadian, and other West Indian canal laborers, known as the Silver People. During the time of the railroad, a policy of separate payrolls based on race was first implemented; the French adopted the practice, and the Americans continued the segregated system through the Gold and Silver Rolls. “Gold” referred to the primarily white American employees, who received higher pay and more privileges. “Silver” were the nonwhites subjected to inferior working and living conditions, and were likewise segregated in death. Together with the Corozal Cemetery, located at the Pacific end of the Panama Canal, these burial landscapes are an important reminder of the lives lost to one of the most significant and iconic water passages in the world, and of the racial, social, and economic exclusion many suffered in its construction.”
Originally known as the Monkey Hill Cemetery, Mount Hope became the burial ground for black West Indian immigrants who died working on the intercontinental Panama Railroad for the American Panamanian Railroad Corporation between 1850 and 1855. As work began on the canal, first with the French Canal Company (1880–1889) and later during the American period (1904–1914), the cemetery became the resting place for thousands of Jamaican, Barbadian, and other West Indian canal laborers, known as the Silver People
1905 – FIFTY ISLANDERS COMPLAIN OF THE TREATMENT THEY RECEIVE
“COLON, May 9. – Fifty Bahama Islands contract labourers, who are brought here on the American steamer Advance last Friday, and were detailed to work at the Colon reservoir, two miles back of the Monkey Hill station, obstinately refuse to work, claiming that they have to work in mud swamps, that their huts are not fit to live in and that the food is unsatisfactory.
The islanders marched in a body yesterday to the British Consulate and laid complaints before the vice-consul, who is looking into the alleged the grievances.
In the meantime the men are idle.
The canal authorities are finding it difficult to obtain labour for that locality.”
(San Francisco Chronicle, Wednesday 10 May 1905)
Map of the Panama Canal
Colon is on the Atlantic Ocean side
(The Progressive Age, Thursday 24 July 1902)
DESCRIPTION OF COLON, PANAMA 1903
(The Quad-City Times, Sunday 20 December 1903)
1906 COMPLAINT OF BAHAMA NEGROES
In 1906, as some of the Bahamians began to return home, unable to cope with the segregation, the eight months of constant rain and the ever present threat of disease, they complained about not being paid. The response was that the men were essentially liars.
“Passengers arriving here today from Nassau on board the steamer Niagara brought information to the effect that the Governor of the Bahamas had left Nassau to investigate reported complaints of negro labourers employed on the Panama Canal.
The labourers upon returning home said that they had not been paid for their work on the isthmus. The passengers say it is generally believed at Nassau that the Negroes were paid but that they squandered their earnings at the isthmus and on returning home hatched up the complaints in question to account for the lack of funds.”