The Canal Builders: Making America's Empire at the Panama Canal; workers who lived & died for it

Reply Sun 5 Feb, 2012 09:32 am
The Canal Builders: Making America's Empire at the Panama Canal
by Julie Greene

Book Description

A groundbreaking history of the Panama Canal offers a revelatory workers-eye view of the momentous undertaking and shows how it launched the American century

The Panama Canal has long been celebrated as a triumph of American engineering and technology. In The Canal Builders, Julie Greene reveals that this emphasis obscures a far more remarkable element of the canal’s construction—the tens of thousands of workingmen and -women who traveled from around the world to build it. Drawing on research from around the globe, Greene explores the human dimensions of the Panama Canal story, revealing how it transformed perceptions of American empire at the dawn of the twentieth century.

For a project that would secure America’s position as a leading player on the world stage, the Panama Canal had controversial beginnings. When President Theodore Roosevelt seized rights to a stretch of Panama soon after the country gained its independence, many Americans saw it as an act of scandalous land-grabbing. Yet Roosevelt believed the canal could profoundly strengthen American military and commercial power while appearing to be a benevolent project for the benefit of the world.

But first it had to be built. From 1904 to 1914, in one of the greatest labor mobilizations ever, working people traveled to Panama from all over the globe—from farms and industrial towns in the United States, sugarcane plantations in the West Indies, and rocky fields in Spain and Italy. When they arrived, they faced harsh and inequitable conditions: labor unions were forbidden, workers were paid differently based on their race and nationality—with the most dangerous jobs falling to West Indians—and anyone not contributing to the project could be deported. Yet Greene reveals how canal workers and their families managed to resist government demands for efficiency at all costs, forcing many officials to revise their policies.

The Canal Builders recounts how the Panama Canal emerged as a positive symbol of American power and became a critical early step towards twentieth-century globalization. Yet by chronicling the contributions of canal workers from all over the world, Julie Greene also reminds us of the human dimensions of a project more commonly remembered for its engineering triumphs.


On Their Backs: the men and women who labored to build the canal, February 17, 2009
By Val G. Hemming

Julie Greene has written a moving "labor" history chronicling the lives, labors, travails and enormous challenges faced by the thousands of laborers recruited by the United States to assist in construction of the Panama Canal. While most supervisory and executive positions were held by American white men, thousands workers were recruited from the Caribbean, southern Europe and even Asia. We learn about engineering challenges, backbreaking labor, courage and heroism.

But, all was not well. Race, citizenship became tools for discrimination and abuse. People of color and different ethnic origins remained commodities to be used and when used up to be shed or sent home. The blatant racism and discrimination of 19th and 20th Century American society was magnified in the Canal Zone as the officers of the Isthmian Canal Commission sought to recruit thousands of laborers and to provide them with housing, wages, food, health care, recreation and tried to keep order.

Ms Greene illustrates her history with compelling stories and narrative about the lives of the "invisible people" on whose backs and lives the canal was built. Her writing is clear, interesting and not didactic. Many readers of history know about the roles of the French, Theodore Roosevelt, John Wallace, John Stevens, George Washington Goethals and William Gorgas in the extraordinary story of building the canal. Most, however, know little of the physical, social, medical and legal challenges faced by the common men and women, the manual laborers, who poured their bodies, and too often their lives, into one of the world's great feats of engineering and human endurance.

This book is a must read for any person wishing to understand the human cost of building the Isthmian canal. The story is a sobering mirror of racial attitudes that pervaded American society in the late 19th and the 20th century and which persists even to the present. This is a solid contribution to the history of American imperial ambitions and to the history of American labor. Julie Greene is to be congratulated for a cogent and timely contribution to the history of the Panama Canal, American labor history, and of America's relations with its southern neighbors.


By Rita Sasso "Rita Sasso" (Panama, Rep. de Panama Panama)

This review is from: The Canal Builders: Making America's Empire at the Panama Canal (Penguin History of American Life) (Hardcover)
It isn't fair to dismiss this very interesting piece of history in favor of THE PATH BETWEEN THE SEAS, they compliment each other. One is the history of the Panama Canal and the other is the history of the people who built the canal, if you read both you really know about the Panama Canal.

I can understand why "Zonians" would not like this book. It explains why they were the way they were and how they got to be that way. It is not a very pretty picture.

I have lived in Panama most of my life. I am an American citizen but my life had nothing to do with the Zone. Every time we went from one side of the country to another we had to cross "foreign territory" and needed two licence plates on the car, one from Panama and one from the Zone. We also needed two driver's licences, one from Panama and one from the Zone. Even as American citizens we were excluded from the movie theaters, bowling allies, club houses, swimming pools, schools, hospitals and comisaries. Our exclusion was reenforced by security guards.

Zonians always considered Panama a province of the United States and had terrible culture shock when they had to return to the States after retirement because they did not own their houses, Pan Canal did. They then found out that they had to pay for services like water, electriciy and that maids cost alot of money. Their lawns were not automaticaly taken care of and their trash was not picked up for free. Most of them spent all their lives in Panama (on the Zone) and never bothered to learn Spanish. It wasn't until almost the end that Spanish was taught in Balboa High School.

Julie Greene has gone a long way to explain why the racist attitude displayed and ingrained in so many Zonians came about but the fact that it remained long after it was fashionable in the States is based on the start of the project and its manipulation of the work force.

This is good reading for those of us who lived the Canal Zone either on the inside or on the outside.
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