Monday, August 22, 2011

The Panama Canal

Before reading David McCullough's "The Path Between The Seas" I knew little about the building of the Panama Canal.  Sure, I'd heard about the mosquito infested jungle with its tropical fevers and malaria.  I recalled the world famous photo of Theodore Roosevelt in white suit and straw hat at the helm of an immense steam shovel. But I had no idea of the number of years this project took, the geographic and engineering obstacles it overcame or the incredible sacrifice in human life it involved. 

Today technology seems to advance in such a cerebral way. In sterile laboratories behind surgical masks, in pristine manufacturing facilities controlled by computer software and operated by immense "sweat-less" machinery. The construction crews one encounters along the highway or in the process of erecting yet another mall seem to lack the glistening skin and dirt smeared faces once associated with labor. Instead, its backhoes, bull dozers and excavators; fancy new hard hats and fashionable safety apparel; the ever present cell phone and of course the reusable insulated coffee cup. For some reason, no one ever appears to be working. I know this isn't true, because things are getting done, but whatever happened to the pick and shovel and perspiration soaked head band?

Obviously the modern day Occidental isn't about getting his or her hands dirty. If the job we need done can't be accomplished with a machine, then we ship it overseas or we open the fence along the border for a few months. When the grunt work is at an end, the illegal work force is shipped back home at tax payer expense.

Indentured servants, African slaves, Chinese labor gangs and that old main-stay, the impoverished European immigrant seem to be a thing of the past now that most of our dirty work is being done in other parts of the world. But lets keep things in perspective. Although the Panama Canal is considered one of the United States greatest 20th century achievements, who really provided the labor? 

"The full work force in the last years of construction numbered about 45,000 to 50,000, which was nearly equal to the combined populations of Colon and Panama City. But the total number of white North Americans was only about 6,000, of whom roughly 2,500 were women and children."

Conditions were so bad in Panama during the early years of construction, so rife with disease and work related injuries, that both the Japanese and Chinese governments refused to allow their citizens to work in the canal zone. Instead, it was the black islanders of the Caribbean who made up the majority of the pick and shovel crews; 20,000 from Barbados alone. 

"Segregation by color, long an unwritten rule in Panamanian Society, became established policy. There were separate mess halls for blacks. Housing, schools, hospitalization were separate, but by no means equal." White employees were paid in gold (the American standard at the time) but people of color would be referred to as "silver roll" employees, receiving their wages in silver. They were paid 10 cents an hour and worked ten hours a day, six days a week in the equatorial heat and humidity. And of course, just because they were black, they were no less susceptible to death by malaria or yellow fever regardless of the day's prevailing sentiment. 

I try to teach my kids that everything contributing to civilization's infrastructure was made from the earth by labor at the expense of energy. I also remind them that men are created equal and no man should purposely pass off his required "dirty work" to another. An education should not exempt a person from doing their fair share of the labor required to sustain their own life.

Which brings to light a great quote from George Goethals, the third American Chief Engineer to oversee the work of the Panama Canal (a man who drove himself sixteen hours a day on a regular basis):

"Executive ability is nothing more or less than letting the other fellow do the work for you."

With all technology's advances, that is one thing that appears to have remained the same.

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