Historical Bits & Pieces by Chuck Pishko

Black History Month is a time when we look back at the accomplishments of black leaders on national and local levels. Today I’d like to honor those Virgin Islanders who in the early 1900s left their families and their land in order to find work that allowed them to feed their families and save their lands.  

The economic advantages enjoyed by the islands as a transshipment place for cargoes and wholesale business disappeared with faster transportation and communication. Steamships didn’t require safe harbors for long waits that generated anchorage fees. Cable and wireless provide more accurate scheduling. The islands also lost the chandlery services supplying the ships. Dry dock repairs were now being made at Puerto Rico and Curaçao. Finally steamships were converted to burn oil and the coal carriers were finished.

Our sugar factories couldn’t compete with the large crops and modern equipment of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic. The economy slumped and the working classes had to move to find jobs.

People traveled to the Greater Antilles to cut cane, to New York City to labor wherever possible, and to the Isthmus of Panama to build the Panama Canal, the wonder of the world greater than the Pyramids. In 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt “seized” control of the Panama Canal Zone. The United States had already bought the rights and assets of the French company which had tried to build a canal. Columbia had signed the Hay-Herran Treaty with the U.S. which would have paid Columbia $10 million. A new Columbia government balked, so Roosevelt talked Panama into seceding from Columbia. It worked with the help of the U.S. Navy and Marines.

A new treaty between Panama and the U.S., the Hay-Bunau-Varilly Treaty of 1905, gave the U.S. a zone 16 kilometers wide for the canal. After Roosevelt died, President Wilson apologized to Columbia and gave them $25 million in compensation.

Panama became home to the largest Jewish community in the Caribbean. They came during the construction of the canal sensing the opportunity for flourishing commerce. For example, former Governor Morris F. deCastro was born in Panama of St. Thomian parents while his father held an engineering position during the construction of the canal.

By and large, the Canal was built by black “Antillanos” who contributed their “blood, sweat, and tears” to the cause. Lito Valls used the same term when referring to the enslaved Africans on Annaberg who made Governor Berg’s fortune which enabled him to build Katherineberg on Denmark Hill just outside the town limits of Charlotte Amalie. Katherineberg is now the official residence of the governor.

According to Dahl & Licht who wrote in “Surveys in 1961 on St. Thomas and St. Croix”; 2004, p. 74, the house was built outside Charlotte Amalie as a “tax haven” since property outside the town was taxed on the basis of area cultivated whereas property in town was based on the area of the buildings and would have been over 40 times higher.

Paid in Silver
There were 30,000 West Indians, 5,000 Americans, and 3,000 to 4,000 Europeans working on the canal. The West Indians were paid in Panamanian silver dollars and they would then change their money to U.S. dollars so they could send it home at a lower postage rate. Because of the Virgin Islands’ central location it was often a collection point for Caribbean workers to be gathered on the final leg of the trip to the Panama Canal. The agents of the U.S. Isthmian Canal Commission created an international incident between the U.S. and the Kingdom of Denmark when they disregarded local authorities here and just began recruiting workers. Douglas Armstrong in his book “Creole Transformation from Slavery to Freedom” points out that St. John East Enders found wage-based employment on the Panama Canal before transfer and verifies it with an illustration of an employee’s identification tag found at Hard Labor.

While the construction jobs paid well, they exposed the workers to the U.S. segregated work forces. U.S. workers were paid in gold in separate pay lines and West Indian workers were paid in silver. Since the “silver” workers were out in the cuts doing the back-breaking pick and shovel work, they would run pay trains out to them where they would show their brass ID tag and photo ID in order to be paid.  

Extraordinarily hard work, miserable living conditions, and segregation were endured by Virgin Islanders so that money could be sent home to maintain their families and hold their land.