George’s Story

George in Panama

In 1905 recruiters turned their attention to the island of Barbados. West Indian labor was cheaper than American or European labor, and a West Indian worker was eager to believe a rags-to-riches tale spun by a recruiter. The “Colón Man” was reborn as representatives from Panama boasted of a rewarding work contract, including free passage to Panama and a repatriation option after 500 working days. By the end of the year, 20 percent of the 17,000 canal workers were Barbadian.

Initially, accommodations for canal employees provided little protection against the wet weather or jungle life. The Isthmian Canal Commission (ICC) housed most workers in dilapidated barracks built two decades earlier by the French. Some employees opted instead to pay for rent in one of the two coastal cities, although options there were not much better. Others who could not find housing near their work site pitched tents or lived in old boxcars or barns.

The living conditions exacerbated the poor hygiene in the area, and newcomers quickly learned about the serious threat of disease on what was dubbed “Fever Coast.” Smallpox, pneumonia, typhoid, dysentry, hookworm, cutaneous infections, and even the bubonic plague infected workers throughout the American excavation period, but yellow fever was the most treacherous ailment, both physically and mentally. Just the mention of an outbreak caused such panic that defection rates were higher than mortality from the disease itself. Experts predicted that yellow fever would kill hundreds of workers each year. Malaria, while less lethal, was more common. A strain of the disease called “Chagres Fever” led to jaundice, coma, and severe internal hemorrhaging. Even more damaging was its ability to recur after a patient had recovered. Statistics on illness among workers were staggering: in 1906 alone 80% of the total workforce was hospitalized for malaria.

As work on the canal entered its second year, the death toll for laborers was four percent and 22,000 were hospitalized. Every evening, a train traveled to Mount Hope Cemetery by the city of Colón, its cars brimming with coffins, forcing the men to confront the great odds against their survival.

 

George upon arriving in New York City

It would have been incredibly difficult for George to find work upon arriving in NYC.

1905 was a huge year of immigration from Southern and Eastern European countries.

This would have made George the lowest man on the totem pole.  As Southern and Eastern immigrants were discriminated against as in, African Americans had it worse.

 

In 1905 recruiters turned their attention to the island of Barbados. West Indian labor was cheaper than American or European labor, and a West Indian worker was eager to believe a rags-to-riches tale spun by a recruiter. The “Colón Man” was reborn as representatives from Panama boasted of a rewarding work contract, including free passage to Panama and a repatriation option after 500 working days. By the end of the year, 20 percent of the 17,000 canal workers were Barbadian.

Click here to read the full article and learn about George’s working conditions in Panama.

 

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