Dying to Better Themselves
West Indians and the Building of the Panama Canal
440 Pages, 7.00 x 10.00 in
- Published: August 2014
The popular West Indian migration narrative often starts with the “Windrush Generation”in 1950s’ England, but in Dying to Better Themselves Olive Senior examines an earlier narrative: that of the neglected post-emancipation generation of the 1850s who were lured to Panama by the promise of lucrative work and who initiated a pattern of circular migration that would transform the islands economically, socially and politically well into the twentieth century.
West Indians provided the bulk of the workforce for the construction of the Panama Railroad and the Panama Canal, and between 1850 and 1914 untold numbers sacrificed their lives, limbs and mental faculties to the Panama project. Many West Indians remained as settlers, their descendants now citizens of Panama; many returned home with enough of a nest egg to better themselves; and others launched themselves elsewhere in the Americas as work beckoned.
Senior tells the compelling story of the West Indian rite of passage of “going to Panama” and captures the complexities behind the iconic “Colón Man”. Drawing on official records, contemporary newspapers, journals and books, songs, sayings, and literature, and the words of the participants themselves, Senior answers the questions of who went to Panama, how and why; she describes the work they did there, the conditions under which they lived, and the impact on their homelands when they returned or on the host societies when they stayed.
Many books have shown how the “conquest” of the Isthmus of Panama by land and sea revolutionized the modern world. Dying to Better Themselves distinguishes itself by exploring how the myriad individuals touched by the construction of the railroad and the canal changed their Caribbean world as well.
List of Tables
Note on Terminology
To Shrink the World by Half ”
PART 1. THE PANAMA RAILROAD
The Panama Railroad, 1849–1855
PART 2. THE FRENCH CANAL
The French Canal, 1881–1904
PART 3. THE US CONSTRUCTION OF THE PANAMA CANAL, 1904—1914
Who Went, How and Why
What They Endured, 1904–1907
The Work They Did There, 1904–1914
The Lives They Lived, 1904–1914
How They Loved, Laughed and Prayed
PART 4. THE POST-CONSTRUCTION YEARS AND THE RETURN HOME
Life in Panama after Construction Ended
What They Brought Back Home
- BOCAS Prize for Literary Non-Fiction
- Gordon K. and Sybil Lewis Award
- Foreword Reviews' INDIEFAB Book of the Year Award Finalist, History (Adult Nonfiction)