Panama Railroad

The Tragedy of the Chinese:

With the Chagres firmly bridged at Barbacoas, the management of the Panama Railroad Company began a last mighty drive to complete the road. Beyond Barbacoas the right of way crossed relatively easy terrain for a few miles: a broad alluvial plain to Gorgona. But on the other side of Gorgona a range of broken hills barred the way as far as Matachin. Digging through this range proved even more difficult than Totten had expected, the soil composition being igneous rock and tough clay. There was an unexpected blessing, however, in the discovery of a layer of volcanic stone of suffcient depth to justify quarrying. Totten delayed forward progress long enough to build a spur to the quarry; then he began sending back loads of rock to bolster the “soft” sections of the road.

The railroad management fretted over all delays in forward progress, including building the spur. Complete the road and then build the spurs, they ordered Totten. To their way of thinking, early completion was merely a matter of persistent work and flooding the project with laborers. The arrival of 360 more Irish in January 1854 was the beginning of that flood. By the end of February over 9,000 workers were busy on the 18-mile stretch between the Obispo River and Panama City. The dire warnings of the perils to be faced in Panama from climate and malignant disease issued by Vanderbilt and his colleagues dissuaded many Americans from coming, but other nationalities - Irish, Hindus, Chinese, English, French, Germans, Malays - responded to the call. Workers died in large numbers, but the railroad company did its best to discredit the notion that this death rate was in any way out of the ordinary. The company’s attitude inspired such statements in the Star & Herald as follows:

“As to all the nonsense about malaria, fever, pestilential swamps and the thousand other ills that are charged to the Isthmus, we report again, they exist no more than in any other tropical climate, and that prudence and ordinary precaution is all that is required on the part of unacclimated newcomers to our sunny shores.”

In their secret deliberations the board of directors of the company must have commented upon the exorbitant toll of human life taken by cholera, dysentery, sunstroke and accidents, although such factors did not greatly worry nineteenth-century men of business, who regularly sent young children into dank coal mines and worked women in unheated, dimly lit textile mills for a few cents a day. Disease and industrial accidents were logically foreseeable. It was the unforeseen, appearing with maddening frequency, which confounded their logic and jerked at their sensitive purse strings. The tragedy of the 1,000-man Chinese contingent was one of the most dramatic of all the unforeseen disasters.

Early on the morning of March 30, 1854, the sober, right- thinking Argonauts who chose to stroll on the sea wall at Panama City rather than spend their time in saloons and card rooms were rewarded for their virtue by the sight of the clipper Sea Witch entering the harbor. The Witch, owned by Howland and Aspinwall, was 192 feet long with towering masts and a black dragon as figurehead. Launched in 1846 for the China trade, by 1854 she was a famous ship. The Sea Witch was the first vessel to sail from New York to San Francisco around Cape Horn in less than 100 days. Twice she had broken the speed record from Canton to the United States, and neither of these passages has ever been equalled by a sailing ship.

Many of the sea wall strollers, eager to relieve their boredom, rowed out for a closer look at the beautiful vessel and thereby suffered disillusionment. The Witch was filthy and stank like a slaver. She had made the run from Canton to Panama with her holds packed with Chinese coolies. Soon she was joined in the harbor by two other sailing ships, equally filthy and odorous, also loaded with the Orientals.

The railroad company had purchased the services of the coolies from a Canton labor contractor under a system similar to that of the British indentured servants sent to Virginia and Georgia during the seventeenth century. The company agreed to pay the contractor $25 a month for each man sent, and then the contractor made his own arrangements with the individual coolie - generally doling out four to eight dollars a month in wages and retaining the remainder as payment for ocean passage and food. It was a slave system, but the Panama Railroad Company was not averse to using slaves if they would help complete the road.

The onlookers on the sea wall noticed with amazement the great number of Chinese discharged from each vessel “They must have been stowed in every available nook and cranny,” reported Dr. H. D. Van Lewen after observing the debarkation, When all were ashore, they formed into a long line; and followed by a crowd of curious onlookers, they marched through the city and out the gates on the inland side. Indeed, they presented an odd spectacle, Small in stature, averaging five feet in height and 120 pounds in weight per man, they resembled a weird procession of carnival midgets in their blue pajama-like suits and large conical hats. Even their silence was impressive. The coolies marched without a word, heads bowed, their delicate hands hidden in their billowing sleeves. When they appeared at the construction site near Matachin, the Irish crews stared in ill-humored surprise and then burst out in angry cursing. Long classified as stable and outhouse cleaners in Great Britain and the U. S., the Irish had risen to the heady rank of white Anglo-Saxons on arrival in Panama and wanted everyone to know it. No other nationality displayed so much animosity toward people of darker skin and foreign ways as the Irish. Their attitude became so hostile that Totten moved the Chinese camp as far from them as possible. The coolies’ nearest neighbors were a small contingent of Malays, also despised by the Irish, but greatly feared. The Malays, armed with muzzle-loading rifles and razor-sharp bolo knives, were murderous adversaries. The Chinese and Malays eyed each other warily, but maintained peace.

The quality of the Chinese work heartened the construction bosses, but infuriated the sensitive Irish even further. Their shovels took smaller bites of earth and their barrowmen took lighter loads of fill than the white crews, but they worked more steadily, without breaks to smoke or gossip. They wove round high baskets which they loaded with fill and carried balanced on their heads, to the amazement of the white overseers. These baskets they ornamented with grotesque painted symbols designed to repel the Evil Eye. Whenever one of the diminutive Chinese with a huge basket on his head trotted past an Irishman, the Irishman generally crossed himself superstitiously at the sight of the heathen drawings and swore under his breath.

Two or three times a day a Chinese cook appeared, carrying across his shoulders a long pole which held a steaming keg of hot tea slung from each end. Each coolie paused briefly to drink a small cupful, then returned to his task. As a rule, the amount of their completed work at the end of the day exceeded that of a comparable group of white workers.

The Irish also found much to criticize in the off-duty activities of the Orientals. After work they marched back to their camp where barrels of hot water awaited them. Stripping off their clothes, they soaped, scrubbed, rinsed and dried themselves with towels. They anointed themselves with scented water, and then donned clean clothes for their evening meal, After eating, they sat beside their campfires, humming songs, twanging weird melodies on stringed instruments, or twittering with bird-like conversation over interminable games of fan tan. The Irish looked upon such bathing and scenting as unnatural and “foreign.”

Under the terms of the labor contract the Chinese contractor agreed to furnish cooks and mess facilities for the coolies, and the railroad company was supposed to maintain in its commissary such Chinese food as “dried oysters, cuttlefish, bamboo sprouts, sweet rice crackers, salted cabbage, vermicelli, tea, and hill rice.” The contract also specified that the Chinese would have joss houses and opium. The railroad recruiters had agreed to stock the drug in the company commissary along with the Chinese food. The coolies had brought with them priests to staff the joss house who set up racks of pipes and the necessary yen she gow scraper tools. On Saturday nights and all day Sunday, after an 80-hour work week, the entire Chinese crew lolled about, smiling drunkenly in the sickly sweet smoke from the pipes.

The Irish, although they engaged in violent alcoholic binges during their own off-hours, were shocked by the “heathenish, idolatrous practice of opium smoking.” One of their number, distinguished among his fellows by his ability to read and write, wrote a letter to a Catholic priest in New York accusing the Panama Railroad Company of trafficking in drugs. The letter appeared in the New York Herald. The railroad company directors were not especially concerned about the letter until a bookkeeper pointed out that the cost of the opium furnished to the Chinese amounted to 15 cents a day per man. This was an expense of $150 a day, and a criminal act to boot! They wrote Totten that the Panama Railroad Company was chartered under the laws of the State of New York, and the laws of that state forbade the unlicensed dispensing of drugs. Because of the illegality, the directors said, no more opium for coolies would be imported. Of course the laws of New York also forbade the employment of slave labor, but the directors were not concerned with that technicality.

Busy as always with many problems, Totten decided to ignore the company order, and made a note to inform the commissary that the drug was to be imported as usual, Then, before the commissary was informed, Totten was stricken with another attack of fever and no one knew of his decision.

One day several weeks later, as Totten lay on a cot in his iron hut near Matachin recovering from the fever, he was roused by someone shouting outside. “I staggered across the room on malaria-quaking legs and unbolted the door to admit Mr. Baldwin,” wrote Totten. “I recall that he was pale, sweating profusely and had a look of horror on his face. ‘Colonel Totten, you must come at once,’ he said. ‘The coolies are hanging themselves in the trees and falling on their machetes, Some are paying the Malays to shoot them and chop off their heads!’ ”

Totten dressed as quickly as he could and put on his sun helmet. Then, with Baldwin giving him a supporting arm, the chief engineer staggered to his handcar. As they skimmed along the jungle track, propelled by two naked natives turning a double crank, Baldwin related what had happened. The opium supply had run out two weeks before and when he tried to draw more at Manzanillo, he had been told the supply was exhausted and orders had been received forbidding the commissary to order the drug. After being deprived of opium, acute melancholia had struck the Chinese, Their work gradually slowed to a halt and this morning the mass suicides had begun.

“Should I live to be as old as Methuselah, I shall never forget the sight that met my eyes that morning,” Totten wrote. “More than a hundred of the coolies hung from the trees, their loose pantaloons flapping in the hot wind. Some had hung themselves with bits of rope and tough vines. Most, however, used their own hair, looping the long queue around the neck and tying the end to a tree limb,”

Crumpled Chinese bodies were scattered about everywhere on the ground like broken dolls. Some had thrown themselves violently on their machetes. Others, in the words of Totten, had “cut ugly crutch-shaped sticks, sharpened the ends to a point, and thrust their necks upon them.” Still others, obviously, had been aided in their self-destruction, their heads being almost blown off or severed from their bodies. From the surrounding brush came the occasional sound of a high-pitched Malaysian giggle followed quickly by the explosion of a blunderbuss or the sickening chunk of a blade chopping a neck, as the Malaya busied themselves earning fees.

Sean Donlan, the construction foreman, a hardened veteran of two years on the Isthmus, made a report to Totten. According to his latest count there were 125 of the coolies hanging in the trees and over three hundred more dead on the ground. Others had tied stones to their clothing and jumped into the river. Still others now were sitting in the shallow water, waiting for a freshet to come along and drown them. Donlan said he was positive that if they did not get opium, the remainder would kill themselves.

Totten staggered back to his handcar. He wrote later, “Some anonymous, grubby, ink-stained bookkeeper in New York who did not know a spiking maul from a fielding pin, who had a head full of trash instead of brains had decided to institute certain economies which had fatal results.” Totten’s investigation showed that the coolies’ depression over the deaths of a number of their group from fever had been deepened by withdrawal from the drug to the extent that they chose suicide as the only escape from the hell of their existence on the Isthmus. Rather than be responsible for the deaths of the rest of the coolies, Totten “ordered the captain of the Gorgona to get up steam and pick up those sitting in the water and take them forcibly to Jamaica and there to turn them over to the Chinese colony on that island, where I hoped and prayed they could obtain their drug.” This ended the widespread use of Chinese workers on the railroad construction. However, Chinese influence is obvious in Panama. Today in Colon and Panama City many houses offer glimpses of the Far East: balconies decked with screens showing gaudy dragons, and gay paper lanterns swinging in the breeze. Most of the purebred Chinese to be seen are men, but many of the Negro women swing on their hips babies who have eyes slanted in the Oriental cast.

The Chinese disaster became the source of several legends which joined others in the mythology of the Yankee Strip. One story has it that since “mata” in Spanish is “kill” and “chino” means “Chinese,” then Matachin was named as a contraction for “Dead Chinaman.” In commemoration of the Chinese suicides. This is not so. Matachin also means “butcher” and wa sso named on maps drawn as early as 1678, long before the Panama Railroad or any other was dreamed of, much less constructed. Also there is an elaborate article by one L. Simonix published in 1884 in the Bulletin, a publication of the French canal company, which adds to the Chinese legends with this passage:

“It is said that upon the railway of the Isthmus, which is 75 kilometers in length, there is buried a Chinaman under each crosstie.” Of course this is completely untrue. There were over 140,000 crossties used in the original Panama Railroad - more if one counts those in sidetracks and spurs - and never more than a thousand Chinese employed.



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