‘Colón Man’ and the Legacies of a Link: Activism
Activism and the Middle Class
Panama migrants, according to historian Patrick Bryan, are believed to be one of the sources of an emergent middle class in the 1880s. Though many of the migrants were farmers and many did not survive or succeed financially from emigration, a few returned home to become “small settlers and shopkeepers” (Bryan 219). It is also speculated that of the land purchased during that time many were by returning migrants. In a more general way, the Colón experience enabled many to improve their lives.
An even more significant effect of the returning migrant was their attitude to colonial authority. Senior notes that the Panama migration returned many activists who represented a challenge to existing imperial authority and subservience. Senior also notes that they became catalysts of change and were at the forefront of political upheavals in the 1920s/30s.
“They brought back new ideas of race, class, of republicanism, of egalitarianism, of union organization, worker solidarity…”
Many Jamaicans can refer to a family member or fore-parent who went to Panama sometime between 1850 and the 1940s. Other associations with Panama still remain through certain Jamaicans, who have risen to national prominence.
Mary Seacole - Pioneering Nurse and Hero of the Crimean War- travelled to Panama in the 1850s to offer medical assistance to those suffering from cholera, yellow fever etc.
George Headley - Cricketer - born in Panama to Jamaican parents
Leonard Howell - founder/pioneer of Rastafari – believed to have made several trips to Panama and at one point worked with the United Fruit Company there.
Evon Blake –Journalist/ Writer – went to Panama in the 1920s; Blake started out as a columnist for the Star and Herald of Panama from 1928 to 1929 and then moved on to serving as secretary to the manager of Panama Agencies Company in Cristobal. Later, he joined the staff of the United Fruit Company.
Alvin Marriot – Artist - in 1940 he went to Panama as a carpenter primarily to widen his experience
The Legacy in Panama
Though often unacknowledged, the migration of English-speaking West Indians (Antilleans) did more than create a racially/culturally diverse Panama. The more significant legacy has been their contribution to education, religion and businesses in the areas they lived.
“No group of West Indian Canal workers has achieved a more enviable record than that of the teachers...”this group has collectively and severally written into the history of Canal Zone school system an exceptional service record.”
Source: Westerman, Historical Notes on West Indians on the Isthmus of Panama
During the construction of the canal West Indian labourers operated small schools. Some were pioneer entrepreneurs establishing many private schools in Panama and Colón. These schools were eventually used by immigrants and natives. Westerman states that many residents of the Isthmus sent their children to the West Indians for schooling.