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Movable Empire

The story of how America’s imperial quest for labor shaped the hemisphere’s working class.

From History of the Panama canal; its construction and builders, 1915. Internet Archive Book Images / Flickr

Around the turn of the twentieth century, the United States acquired an economic, political, and colonial empire. That empire transformed the US. Yet while scholars have examined many aspects of American expansionism, they’ve neglected a key issue: imperial labor migrations.

From across North America, the Caribbean, southern Europe, and Asia, men and women labored in the service of global American power. They built roads and canals; cooked, washed, and cleaned homes; they served in the military, assisting in colonization and pacification of foreign populations. They nursed the wounded, and they harvested bananas and sugar cane to build profits for corporate capitalism. Their labor built the empire from the bottom up.

These dynamics shaped a project at the center of the United States’ assertion of global power: the construction of the Panama Canal. Building the canal required the labor of a global working class. Yet in their search for manpower, US officials refused to hire more than a few local Panamanians, believing indigenous labor would not work hard enough, would abandon labor sites to return home, or would cause trouble.

So, the American empire had to look elsewhere. Officials scanned the globe, ruling out Mexicans as too prone to strike, Chinese as violating racist immigration laws, South Asians as expensive and likely to cause trouble, and on and on, around the globe. The National Archives are filled with boxes organized by nation, reflecting the canal officials’ search for ideal workers. Chief Engineer John Stevens, for instance, desperately wanted to recruit Chinese laborers; when this was finally, firmly denied, he resigned.

Ultimately, US officials brought laborers from dozens of different countries. Thousands came from the United States, northern and southern Europe, and India. And when Stevens was replaced, his successor, George Washington Goethals, focused on Caribbean workers of African descent for the bulk of the required labor.

The vast Afro-Caribbean migrations to and beyond the Panama Canal Zone allow us to explore the dynamics of mobility, class, and empire.

The Best True Stories

In 1963, the Isthmian Historical Society conducted a competition for the “Best True Stories of Life and Work on the Isthmus of Panama During the Construction of the Panama Canal.” More than one hundred canal workers submitted brief memoirs. Most were handwritten; men sent in all but one. These short testimonies, a few pages each, provide one of the best sources on the thinking and experiences of Caribbean canal workers.

Though the workers were describing events fifty years earlier, many struggling with failing eyesight and arthritic hands, they wrote vividly. They expressed pride and some astonishment in the work they’d done as young men, most fresh off boats from Antigua, Barbados, Grenada, or Jamaica. They described leaving their island homes, working hard as diggers or dynamiters or blacksmith helpers. They spoke of premature explosions, avalanches, and train accidents.

These hundred or so workers formed a small part of the tidal wave of Caribbeans heading to the Panama Canal Zone in the early twentieth century. From 1904 to 1914, twenty thousand men signed labor contracts from Barbados alone; that many — including women and children — likely traveled to Panama from Barbados without contracts.

Typically, they left impoverished lives as sugarcane workers, becoming global travelers in hopes of economic mobility and new experiences working on the Yankees’ canal. Many of the men who submitted testimonies originated in Barbados, Jamaica, or smaller islands, but others had been born in Panama to Caribbean families that had moved to the isthmus during the French construction effort in the 1880s.

Much to the chagrin of Panamanians, this key primary source is now held in Box 25 of the Panama Canal Zone Library-Museum Collection at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

Box 25 includes the memoir of George Martin, who came to the Canal Zone at the age of eighteen. It was, he said, “like a new world.” His was a relatively cheerful testimony, perhaps framed to please the Americans conducting the competition, yet he noted the challenges workers faced due to weather, disease, and industrial accidents.

In 1909 and 1910, he said, we “worked in the rain as if it were sun . . . We had a white boss whose name were Atkins, a young looking fellow at the time, the rain beat him, it turned us colored people almost white, but our boss, it brought him like white Calico, I mean white.”

They tolerated the rain but feared malaria. Martin described watching a gang of men approach him one day when two fell to the ground shaking: “in those days, you watch men shake, gentlemen, you think they would shake to pieces.” In this case, one of the men was dead before help arrived. Or, as Albert Peters, a migrant from the Bahamas, put it: “If you had a friend that you always see and missed him for a week or two, don’t wonder, he’s either in the hospital or at Monkey Hill [the cemetery], resting in peace.”

The words of another worker, Constantine Parkinson, leapt off the page. The son of a Jamaican immigrant who had worked on the French canal effort, Parkinson was born in a little town on the Atlantic coast surrounded by mango and coconut trees. As a nine-year-old, Parkinson watched the American officials arrive, having acquired permanent and complete control over the Canal Zone, and begin building coastal fortifications and military forts that would soon erase his hometown altogether.

Parkinson started work as a flagman on a survey gang for the American government at the age of fifteen, but like most workers he changed jobs when he could to improve his pay and working conditions. He soon became a water boy, then gradually worked his way up to brakeman for the Panama Railroad.

He describe many challenges and dangers — drinking quinine to prevent malaria, confronting snakes, watching a landslide swallow a score of European workers, or seeing a premature dynamite explosion send flesh flying in the air — but his testimony ends with the story of the railroad accident that took his right leg.

He’d attempted to climb aboard a fast-moving train, slipped, and fell under the train. The horse-pulled ambulance rushed him to Colón Hospital where doctors amputated one leg and part of his other foot. Undoubtedly, he was lucky to survive.

Parkinson and Martin migrated as a result of both the US government’s decision not to hire local laborers and Caribbean people’s decisions to make the journey. These twin choices, in turn, had a profound effect on the Americas. This tidal wave of migratory transformation not only made Caribbean culture and life central to Central American societies but also provided the catalyst that brought tens of thousands of Caribbean men and women to the United States.

Globetrotting Caribbean Americans, one of the most literate migrant groups in history, flush with their experiences laboring amid two different empires, became participants and leaders in the labor movement, radical politics, and culture. Over the course of the twentieth century, the Caribbean immigrant stream played a central role in remaking the African American experience.

The Bigger Picture

The “Best True Stories” provide an evocative window into workers’ experiences, bringing the world of labor on the canal to life. But they tend to stress only certain aspects — particularly the most dramatic accidents and hardships. Were these men representative of the broader Caribbean diaspora? With that question in mind, I headed to the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis in the summer and autumn of 2014 to try and learn more about Constantine Parkinson, George Martin, and the others.

There I found the personnel records of thousands of canal employees, including those for many of the men who later submitted to the “Best True Story” contest. The files opened up the world of canal laborers in numerous ways. Working with graduate assistants at the University of Maryland and with the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities, we have digitized and analyzed the information for several hundred canal workers.

The records allow us to trace canal employees’ shifting occupations over the years, their troubles with the US government, their search for loved ones who had migrated ahead of them and lost touch, their disagreements with family members, and, as the decades wore on, their struggles with disability, old age, and death.

One document in Constantine Parkinson’s file included a photograph of this man I had spent much time thinking about. He stared up out at me, holding a large number in front of him, almost as a convict would. Black man, it said, able to read and write, bald. Employed as watchman at Cristobal Dock at $1.10 per day. Physical deformities or peculiarities? “Lost right leg.”

Parkinson’s story unfolded in the pages that followed. After the amputation, he recuperated for two years but then, remarkably, spent another forty-two years working for the American government on the Panama Canal. He took jobs as a telephone attendant, an issuer of tools, and then finally as a watchman in the customs department.

The file documented not only his decades of work but also his regular — sometimes relentless and usually successful — petitions to the government for a new artificial leg as medical technologies improved.

In 1957, after Parkinson had worked forty-eight years for the canal, officials slated him for retirement. Afterward, the Star and Herald published a brief notice about his work for the canal government. He had served as interpreter for customs or police, invented a new checking system for employees that “reduced disturbances among the men,” and was a long-time shop steward for AFSCME’s Local 900. The newspaper also noted his many contributions to community programs over the years.

Parkinson received modest disability pay from the Canal Zone government and lived thirty more years after his retirement, finally passing away in 1989.

As I examined personnel files for other workers, I focused in particular on the Applications for Photo Metal Checks. Each reduced employees’ lives to occupation, color, place of birth, and a listing of their physical deformities or peculiarities.

Douglas Mitchell of Obeah, Martinique: black, scar over left eye; James Mitchell of Grenada: black, small scars on first finger of left hand; Fitz Thomas of Barbados: black, upper row of teeth missing; John Butcher of Barbados: missing joint second finger left hand; Cedric Milne: brown, of Jamaica, scar on back of left hand; Handel Carr: black, of St Vincent, mole over left eye.

Such fragments reflect the dangers of work on the canal or plantation labor on their home islands, not to mention the physical toll of their working-class lives.

For Canal Zone bureaucrats, the notations served a different purpose, helping to identify employees whom officials found difficult to tell apart. This was especially important since these workers used their mobility repeatedly and regularly to suit their needs — changing jobs, homes, and even their names more rapidly than the bureaucracy could handle.

Indeed, Caribbean employees moved frequently to evade government surveillance and to improve their pay and working conditions. Other pages in the personnel files attempted — often futilely — to track and register this remarkable mobility.

Imperialism From the Bottom Up

The Panama Canal makes for a particularly dramatic example, but it’s important to remember that managing and disciplining labor — and managing movement — was vitally important in the new American empire.

The records in the National Archives tell the story of empire from the perspective of those who built it. Their travels and travails have significance for the way we think about the United States in the world. The vastness of their movements and complexity of their circuits not only made possible the building of empire but also generated a globetrotting, cosmopolitan worldview among the hundreds of thousands — perhaps millions — of migrants.

This research calls for a more global perspective on the making of the American working class. Mobility clearly shaped experiences, identities, interrelationships, and ongoing processes of migration, but scholars are just beginning to understand how.

How did Caribbeans or white and black US citizens in American territories experience their class identity? How did they interact with other identities? Did empire itself, as well as race or gender, shape these experiences, changing the degree to which they did or did not feel class solidarity with others? How did these various elements shape their lives, particularly in a context of rapid and long-term mobility? These dynamics emerge clearly in the life of Constantine Parkinson. As someone who lived and moved amid various imperial and governmental regimes, Parkinson strategically used occupational mobility and careful negotiations with the United States to improve his life. Class, race, and empire shaped the world he navigated. The United States’ expansionist character led him into and between empires and people of various nationalities, races, and ethnicities.

We should reject the notion that the only way empire impacted the working class was to harden and rigidify the racial outlook of white US workers. From Central America and the Caribbean and onward to the Philippines and Hawaii, empire and class interacted in complex ways for the many workers of color pulled into the orbit of the United States.