Panama: Peeps at Many Lands - Edith A. Browne

Panama and the Negro (Continued)

The island of Barbados is slightly larger than the Isle of Wight. It is very flat and has only a few beauty spots; so far as scenery is concerned, it is the least attractive of the West Indian islands. But in many respects Barbados is the peer of its more beautiful neighbours, and it has won distinction above them all as a health resort. The soil is very fertile and the land has been remarkably well cultivated; sugar-cane is the principal crop, and the prosperity of the little island has been largely the result of British enterprise in connection with the sugar industry. But during the last few years the Panama Canal has played an important part in advancing the interests of Barbados.

Bridgetown abounds in signs of the island's prosperity. As we wander in the neighbourhood of the wharves we have to be very careful to keep out of the way of the "spider-men," who are running towards the quay, at break-neck speed, in the shafts of skeleton carts, each of which is loaded with a hogshead of sugar. A delicious smell of toffee lurks in the air. We are shown over a warehouse that is stocked with sugar, and we pass many others that have a similar store of riches. In the principal streets we notice several big shops. Here and there we espy imposing-looking public buildings. There are white people driving about in carriages. Among the swarms of coloured folk in the streets there are no beggars.

You can understand, now, that sugar may have had a great deal to do with making this town what it is, but you are wondering how the Panama Canal can have influenced its fortunes. Here are a few hints which will enable you to spot several signs of that influence, and to realize the way in which it has worked:

"In like manner as the Demerara gold-digger toils in a half-clad, half-starved condition in the distant gold-fields of Guiana, in like manner as he forgets his troubles and goes the pace immediately he returns to the haunts of civilization, so does the Barbadian toil and starve in the Canal Zone, so does he forget, or seem to forget, his recent hardships, on his arrival at Barbados after a spell of hard work, and in a similar way does he start to be a swagger fellow, whose presence makes the stores in Broad and Swan Streets hum with quickened trade. . . .

"The dry goodsmen in Bridgetown are not one whit behind each other in catering for the tastes of the interesting individual under notice, who purchases things which he needs, things he may need, and things which he will never need with unimpeachable impartiality. . . . His soul dearly loves such joy as the possession of a suit of flaring tweeds brings with it—something with a pattern which seems to say 'come and have a game of chess'; and his cup of happiness overflows if such minor blessings as a gaudy neckcloth decorated with a brass pin and an imitation Panama-hat are thrown into the bargain.

"There is another kind of hat which has completely captured his fancy, a variety of soft drab felt of the 'planter' pattern, but having the distinctive virtue of possessing two rims, one lying over the other. Our most estimable friend turns one rim up and the other down, and—well, 'there you are,' as the drygoodsmen say in mock admiration when they take him aside and dress him up like a Christie Minstrel. In Panama an improvised sweat-rag does fairly well as a handkerchief, and still more frequently the perspiration is removed from the toiler's brow with a masterful scoop of the thumb, but the same individual once returned to Barbados must wipe his face with tinted silk, or with what he thinks is silk, because his friends in Broad Street and Swan Street tell him so—not on oath, though. One handkerchief is not enough; moreover, he must have three. One protrudes in an aggressive-looking, hornlike taper from his breast-pocket; another is deposited in his hat-crown, the edges showing around the wearer's head here and there to betray its existence; while the third handkerchief is knotted negligently around the neck and is useful in hiding 'tide-marks' of trickling perspiration on the hard-worked celluloid collar; and occasionally even a fourth coloured handkerchief, used to hail a passing friend from a tram-car bench or a cab seat, is not an unheard-of luxury. And then, too, his boots must be stylish, even though they make him swear, then limp, then swear and limp, and finally send him home with his feet innocent of boots, which he carries in his hand for comfort's sake . . .

"The returned Panama Canal labourer is an uncommonly vain fellow, and his vanity feeds largely on his imagination, which is of a sprightly enough kind. As he struts along in all the glory of a gay tweed suit, a cylindrical collar and a flaring necktie, one can see him smiling complaisantly to himself now and then, as he glances down at this fine raiment. For once the characteristic Barbadian shrewdness seems to die out or sink into a dormant condition. The empty flattery piled on him by the active salesmen in the stores seems to get upon his nerves and make him addle-headed. While the mood lasts he is a conceited fool of the first water, who will walk five or ten miles to make an exhibition of himself and his new clothes to some particular individual, and as he struts along one can almost see his imagination at work, flattering him into believing that all Barbados is whispering admiringly, 'There goes Mr. Cudjo Hogg from Panama.' He will surely have bought a four-shilling nickel watch and a massive copper chain, and his face is a study as, with fitting impressiveness, he draws the 'ticker' from his pocket and examines its face with a weighty frown, a performance he repeats with an interval of a few minutes. . . .

"The red-hot fortnight after his return to Barbados, with its numerous indiscretions and excesses, has made something of a hole in 'Mr. Cudjo Hogg's' exchequer. Often, by this time, his resources are entirely depleted; he climbs down to his former humble position with abject humility of spirit, and the chances are ten to one that he will be seen lurking about on the lookout for someone to buy his nickel watch and copper chain, which is a game that requires a lot of playing in Bridgetown to be even moderately successful. Next comes the sale of the much-prized clothes, and the proceeds of the last lot sold go to the examining doctor in Bridgetown for the necessary certificate of good health to enable the ' broken ship' to set sail once again for Panama.

"It would, however, be manifestly untrue to state that all the money that flows into Barbados from Panama is frittered in the manner just described. 'Panama money' is no disguised blessing in the island, and one sees evidence of its sensible application all over the colony. On yonder hillside little board and shingle cottages, still unpainted, have sprung into existence, each being a home procured by some faithful toiler, whose remittances to wife or mother or sister had arrived regularly. Those at home had pinched and thumbed the money so that there would be a surplus from the cost of living to buy lumber for the erection of a cottage when the bread-winner at the Isthmus returned home to ply hammer and saw in carrying out his darling wish. The little home erected, off he goes to Panama again, with an itching ambition to become also the owner of the land on which he has built his house. Sometimes the case is that of two young people who wish to get married but lack the means for the initial outlay. Comes the answer to the problem, 'Go to Panama.' 'Panama Money,' has worked miracles at Barbados and made paths smooth which would otherwise have been hard and thorny.

"Visit the money order department of the Bridgetown Post Office when remittances from Panama are being cashed. What a scene is this, and what a crush, and what a stream of money we see pouring over the counter into the pockets of the people. This class of money order business has outgrown its customary accommodation, and special arrangements have had to be made to meet the increased volume of business; and the services of the police have been requisitioned to control the surging stream of eager people awaiting their turn to get their money orders cashed.

"As one observes the continuous payment of money to the people, the extent of emigration from Barbados to Panama is in some measure realized, also the extent to which the island's labour market is over-manned to be able to spare so many labourers of a class who comprise the bone and sinew of the population, and all this without any marked effect on the labour supply. Barbados has been able to spare at short notice thousands of her workers without the residue gaining in the slightest measure any increase in wages which one might, not unnaturally, expect to result from emigration on such wholesale lines. It would be saying too much to assert that local enterprise has in no measure been hampered by the exodus to the Isthmus. Local enterprise has been hampered; in some cases it has been extensively hampered; there can be no doubt about that; but judging the matter in the light of the generally accepted doctrine, `the greatest good for the largest number,' emigration to Panama has been to Barbados as great a blessing as it would be a curse to colonies differently circumstanced in respect to their labour supply."

In many ways this sketch is typical of the influence of the Panama Canal in the Making on the West Indian islands as a whole. From many of the islands big batches of coloured labourers have emigrated to Panama to work for the American "bosses." Hardly any of them have ever before been farther away from the shanty in which they were born than a near neighbouring sugar, cocoa, cotton or banana plantation. The vastness of the Canal works, the wonderful performances by the machinery, and the war which men are waging against Nature strike wonder into the hearts of people who have travelled far and seen many of man's most marvellous engineering achievements. It is not at all surprising that every negro who goes to play an active part in such an undertaking soon feels that he is indispensable to the success of the job; and that just as soon he begins to dream of going home for a holiday, when he has made a bit of money, and showing his friends what an important person he has become—in his own estimation. "Mr. Cudjo Hogg from Panama" may be met with in any of the islands; and in any of the islands may be seen signs of "Panama Money" having been put to good use. But owing to the density of the population of Barbados, and the ambitious character of the Barbadian negro, it is in Barbados that the signs of the influence of "Panama Money" are particularly numerous and striking.