Martinique's heavy toll on the Panama Canal

Canal du Panama actuelThe Panama Canal is a maritime canal that connects the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean. Its construction was one of the most difficult engineering projects ever undertaken. Its impact on maritime trade was considerable since ships did not need to sail through Cape Horn and Drake Passage, at the southern tip of South America to reach America East to West and vice versa. From now on, a ship going from San Francisco to New York via the canal only covers 9,500 kilometers compared to 22,500 via Cape Horn.

Débuts des travaux du Canal du PanamaThe first attempt at construction did not begin until 1880 under the leadership of the French, Ferdinand de Lesseps and thanks to a giant fundraiser on the Paris Stock Exchange. The failure of this attempt was not a renunciation because the work was finished under the direction of George Washington Goethals, an American civil engineer and the canal was able to open in 1914. Indeed, the Americans had just bought back from England the exclusive concession to dig the future Panama Canal. They had already brought together 5,500 engineers, architects, technicians from technical support and civil protection. The Americans' objective was to better exploit California and to double their land penetration to the West by a sea route.

The construction was not done without human and material damage. Many workers were victims of malaria, yellow fever and landslides. The human losses would be of the order of 25,000 men.

The implementation of this colossal project comes at a time when in Martinique, the economic period is disastrous. The sugar crises are linked and the island is still shaken by the eruption of Mount Pelée which destroyed Saint-Pierre in 1902. The island is struggling to find other development sectors than agriculture. Unemployment is high on the island. In addition, the island had also experienced a drought in 1905 causing difficulty the coastal fringe of the North Caribbean of the island.

Martinique exports to Panama: from dream to nightmare

It is therefore in a context of economic crisis that the Americans arrive in Martinique with the proposal to go and build the Panama Canal. Indeed, the latter are looking for manpower and offer Martinicans to go and enrich themselves by going to work abroad. The message is, it must be said, very attractive: “Get involved, get involved! 500 days to make a fortune in the most beautiful country in the world! Housed, fed, laundered, and a wage of 90 cents an hour! Do not miss this chance of a beautiful trip and an exhilarating job that requires neither skill nor qualification with at the end of the contract, a return to the country. Strong muscles and robust health to make a fortune! Just a signature at the bottom of this contract and you will be leaving with this boat in less than two days! Engage yourself!". Such was the harangue of the American recruiting agents who roamed the Caribbean islands in search of manpower for having involved in the most hazardous of adventures with more than 45,000 volunteers in 10 years.

Thus, agricultural workers unemployed after the sugar crisis, the victims of the eruption of Mount Pelée who had lost everything, the sans grade (French expression for people at the bottom of the social scale without qualifications), young people in search of adventure and easy money, fathers of families or children the poor are touched by this call and respond favorably.

Nearly 5,542 Martiniquans and 2,053 Guadeloupe residents are responding to the American call. The number of Martinican workers is certainly underestimated because it does not include individual departures, nor those who left during the French attempt by Ferdinand de Lesseps in 1881 or even illegal departures thereafter. In 1905 for example, there were exactly 2,887 Martinican people on the site. It should be noted that during the 1920s, individuals went to join members of their family who had moved to Panama. Thus, the total number of Martinican and Guadeloupeans who participated in the breakthrough of the Canal was around 50,000.

Bateau avec les Antillais au départ pour le Canal du PanamaOn the boat taking them to the Promised Land, whole families sang, their hearts full of hope. But when you arrive in Panama, in Colon, the reality was quite different. The West Indians arrived in a dirty, backward country rife with malaria. The promised house with electricity is just a simple camp of workers from all backgrounds gathered to work in the future canal.

The first Martinicans arrived to work on the canal in 1851. They had come mainly to be fishermen, but when they heard about the work on the canal, they responded positively to the call.

Travaux au Canal du PanamaFrom Panama, they only saw the bottom of the canal and the tropical forest to be cleared with a machete. Teams of apprentice blasters without training or protection followed the actions. He was going to blow up the tree trunks, clear it up with a pick and a shovel. Clemente Garres, whose father is from Martinique testifies that the latter had signed a contract ten hours a day at a dollar an hour: “But in fact, he spent between 16 and 18 hours a day on this interminable construction site. I kept the original of his contract and his identity card. He worked every day, without a single day of rest or vacation. He only stopped when he was sick and at that time he was no longer receiving a salary.”

The conditions there were appalling: “The men were dying by the dozen, for lack of security of course, but also for medical reasons. They were all taking preventive treatments to protect themselves from malaria. One of the major side effects of quinine is the noticeable loss of hearing. Thus, when the alarm sounded just before an explosion, most of the workers did not hear it and therefore did not take shelter.

Left with the dream of a better life, they were only victims. In addition, they had to face the pervasive segregation in grocery stores, schools, church pews, hospitals, movies and even at the drinking water points.

The odyssey review

On August 15, 1914, the canal was finished. The Americans are laying off all workers, in their own way: without severance pay, without pension, without pension. In addition, taking advantage of the outbreak of the First World War, the Americans earmarked the funds earmarked for the repatriation of the West Indians to other projects.

The story of the Martinicans who left for the Panama Canal is that of a cruel financial bankruptcy, thousands of deaths, the disabled and the unfortunate people who will never be able to return to their native island. The number of deaths is unknown and often underestimated, but nearly 600 Martinicans and Guadeloupeans today rest in the graves bearing a number referring to names found in the registers archived in Washington. Antillean immigration ended in 1920 with family reunification.

The West Indies paid the heaviest price for this canal, which today makes the world commercial navy happy. Their descendants settled in Panama have not forgotten this link with their origins and each July 14 participate in a ball on the Place de France in Panama where they hum the words of the Marseillaise. At present, there are between 60,000 and 70,000 descendants of Martinicans and Guadeloupeans living in Panama and who have the nationality of this country. They continue to speak French and Creole.

In 1992, the government of Panama officially declared the emigration of Guadeloupe and Martinique to be part of the country's history. A West Indian cemetery has even been erected as a national historic monument to express the gratitude of the people of Panama.

Canal du Panama actuelToday, more than 100 years after the inauguration of the Panama Canal (79 kilometers long and 16 km wide), it is the crossing point where the most goods and nearly 14,000 ships transit each year. The area covers an area of 400 hectares and assumes 23,000 direct jobs, 250,000 visitors per year, 2,492 businesses and a transaction volume of around 12 billion US dollars.