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WILD COOT: Panama connection


HARRY RUSSELL

WILD COOT: Panama connection

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THERE IS A BOOK, The Path Between The Seas, written by David McCullough, that deals with the Panama Canal between 1870 and 1914.

On page 518 (my copy) there is a picture of 1 500 labourers arriving at Cristobal from Barbados on the steamer Ancon. See them all well dressed, bedecked with hats or caps looking hale and hearty.

I never knew him because he died long before I was born, but one of those labourers must have been my grandfather Jacob Taylor, my mother’s father.

She often spoke about him. If I recall correctly he went to Panama twice working on the canal. She told us that he accumulated a great deal of money, and on his final return bought much land in Watts Village, St George, acquired a grocery, constructed a wood horse (carousel), and gave his children a comfortable life. Unfortunately, his business allowed too much credit and was eventually taken over by the Bridgetown merchants.

History often repeats itself, as my mother’s property at the corner of Gills Road and Roebuck Street was eventually sold by the bank cheaply to some very, very prominent people. But that’s another story that will be told in due course.

Recently the name of the Panama Canal has cropped up frequently as Barbados seeks to identify with the labourers who went to Panama to build the canal. Those who survived and came back, and those who lived and stayed were lucky. Many died at the hands or bites of the mosquitoes and the blasts of the dynamite.

“For seven years,” says McCullough, “the Culebra Cut (the main cut) was never silent, not even for an hour. Labour trains carrying some 6 000 men began rolling in shortly after dawn every morning except Sunday . . . . Construction of the canal would consume more than 61 000 000 pounds of dynamite, a greater amount of explosive energy than had been expended in all the nation’s wars until that time.

“Several fatal accidents were caused when shovels hit the cap of an unexploded charge . . . . Looking back years later one West Indian remembered that ‘the flesh of men flew in the air like birds many days’ . . . . Still, more men would be killed, and very often, as at Bas Obispo, there would be too little left of them to determine who they were.”

Death from malaria and yellow fever was worse.   

The Wild Coot paid a visit to Colon in 2003 compliments of one of the banks that he was inspecting on behalf of a Caribbean government (not Barbados). He was enthralled by the sheer artistry and grandeur of the finished product – the Panama Canal. More than anything else he had the privilege of meeting families whose grandparents were Barbadian. He spoke to them in Spanish, but all of a sudden they broke out into raw Bajan. Fantastic, and the accent was perfect.

One thing, their living conditions left much to be desired. Since the departure of the Americans on the expiration of the canal lease, I fear that the situation will become worse as less money will circulate.

Panama’s main attention now is to develop its Free Trade Area and the capital itself. Much of the attention now is to attract the type of offshore business that Barbados is trying to attract.

The jury is out in regard to the effort to divert business from Panama in terms of what Barbados has to offer. Maybe and just maybe when Bajan people in Colon hear that a Bajan prime minister is about to pay them a visit, they may be wondering if he will be able to offer them a better life in Barbados. We could probably send the proposed airline carved from LIAT to pick them up and house them on the proposed future islands that we are going to build when we become a republic.

Anyway, the Wild Coot enjoyed his many visits to Panama inspecting banks. Since the time of Noriega the economic situation has settled. Banks and businesses that had scaled down their operations have regained their confidence.

• Harry Russell is a banker. Email: [email protected]

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