Message of the President on the Panama Canal
Communicated to the two Houses of Congress
by President Theodore Roosevelt
December 17, 1906
Chinese and Other Labor
Of the nineteen or twenty thousand day laborers employed on the canal, a few hundred are Spaniard. These do excellent work. Their foremen told me that they did twice as well as the West Indian laborers. They keep healthy and no difficulty is experienced with them in any way. Some Italian laborers are also employed in connection with the drilling. As might be expected, with labor as high priced as at present in the United States, it has not so far proved practicable to get any ordinary laborers from the United States. The American wage-workers on the Isthmus are the highly paid skilled mechanics of the types mentioned previously. A steady effort is being made to secure Italians, and especially to procure more Spaniards, because of the very satisfactory results that have come from their employment; and their numbers will be increased as far as possible. It has not proved possible, however, to get them in anything like the numbers needed for the work, and from present appearances we shall in the main have to rely, for the ordinary unskilled work, partly upon colored laborers from the West Indies, partly upon Chinese labor. It certainly ought to be unnecessary to point out that the American workingman in the United States has no concern whatever in the question as to whether the rough work on the Isthmus, which is performed aliens in any event, is done by aliens from one country with a black skin or by aliens from another country with a yellow skin. Our business is to dig the canal as efficiently and as quickly as possible; provided always that nothing is done that is inhumane to any laborers, and nothing that interferes with the wages of or lowers the standard of living of our own workmen. Having in view this principle, I have arranged to try several thousand Chinese laborers. This is desirable both because we must try to find out what laborers are most efficient, and furthermore, because we should not leave ourselves at the mercy of any one type of foreign labor. At present the great bulk of the unskilled labor on the Isthmus is done by West India negroes, chiefly from Jamaica, Barbados, and the other English possessions. One of the governors of the lands in question has shown an unfriendly disposition to our work, and has thrown obstacles in the way of our getting the labor needed; and it is highly undesirable to give any outsiders the impression, however ill founded, that they are indispensable, and can dictate terms to us.
Negro Laborers and Their Quarters
The West India laborers are fairly, by only fairly, satisfactory. Some of the men do very well indeed; the better class, who are to be found as foremen, as skilled mechanics, as policemen, are good men; and many of the ordinary day laborers are also good. but thousands of those who brought over under contract (at our expense) go off into the jungle to live, or loaf around Col.on, or work so badly after the first three or four days as to cause a serious diminution of the amount of labor performed on Friday and Saturday of each week. I questioned many of these Jamaica laborers as to the conditions of their work and what, if any, changes they wished. I received many complaints from them, but as regards most of these complaints they themselves contradicted on another. In all cases where the complaint was as to their treatment by any individual it proved on examination that this individual was himself a West India man of color, either a policeman, a storekeeper, or an assistant storekeeper. Doubtless there must be many complaints against Americans; but those to whom I spoke did not happen to make any such complaint to me.
There was no complaint of the housing; I saw but one set of quarters for colored laborers which I thought poor, and this was in an old French house. The barracks for unmarried men are roomy, well ventilated, and clean, with canvas bunks for each man, and a kind of false attic at the top, where the trunks and other belongings of the different men are kept. The clothes are hung on clotheslines, nothing being allowed to be kept on the floor. In each of these big rooms there were tables and lamps, and usually a few books or papers, and in almost every room there was a Bible; the books being the property of the laborers themselves. The cleanliness of the quarters is secured by daily inspection. The quarters for the married negro laborers were good. They were neatly kept, and in almost every case the men living in them, whose wives or daughters did the cooking for them, were far better satisfied and of a higher grade than the ordinary bachelor negroes. Not only were the quarters in which these negro laborers were living much superior to those in which I am informed they live at home, but they were much superior to the huts to be seen in the jungles of Panama itself, beside the railroad tracks, in which the lower class of native Panamans live, as well as the negro workmen when they leave the employ of the canal and go into the jungles. A single glance at the two sets of buildings is enough to show the great superiority in point of comfort, cleanliness, and healthfulness of the Government houses as compared with the native houses.
Negroes Do Their Own Cooking
The negroes generally do their own cooking, the bachelors cooking in sheds provided by the Government and using their own pots. In the different camps there was a wide variation in the character of these cooking sheds. In some, where the camps were completed, the kitchen or cooking sheds, as well as the bathrooms and water-closets, were all in excellent trim, while there were board sidewalks leading from building to building. In other camps the kitchens or cook sheds had not been floored, and the sidewalks had not been put down, while in one camp the bathhouses were not yet up. In each case, however, every effort was being made to hurry on the construction, and I do not believe that the delays had been greater than were inevitable in such work. The laborers are accustomed to do their own cooking; but there was much complaint, especially department, especially as regards yams. On the other hand, the married men and their wives, and the more advanced among the bachelors, almost invariably expressed themselves as entirely satisfied with their treatment at the commissary stores; except that they stated that they generally could not get yams there, and to purchase them outside. The chief complaint was that the prices were too high. It is unavoidable that the prices should be higher than in their own homes; and after careful investigation I came to the conclusion that the chief trouble lay in the fact that the yams, plantains, and the like are rather perishable food, and are very bulky compared to the amount of nourishment they contain, so that it is costly to import them in large quantities and difficult to keep them. Nevertheless, I felt that an effort should be made to secure them a more ample supply of their favorite food, and so directed; and I believe that ultimately the Government must itself feed them. I am having this matter looked into.
The superintendent having immediate charge of one gang of men at the Colon reservoir stated that he endeavored to get them to substitute beans and other nourishing food for the stringy, watery yams, because the men keep their strength and health better on the more nourishing food. Inasmuch, however, as they are accustomed to yams it is difficult to get them to eat the more strengthening food, and some time elapses before they grow accustomed to it. At this reservoir there has been a curious experience. It is off in the jungle by itself at the end of a couple of miles of a little toy railroad. In order to get the laborers there, they were given free food (and of course free lodgings); and yet it proved difficult to keep them, because they wished to be where they could reach the dramshop and places of amusement.
I was struck by the superior comfort and respectability of the lives of the married men. It would, in my opinion, be a more admirable thing if a much larger number of the men had their wives, for with their advent all complaints about the food and cooking are almost sure to cease.
I had an interview with Mr. Mallet, the British consul, to find out if there was any just cause for complaint as to the treatment of the West India negroes. He informed me most emphatically that there was not, and authorized me to give his statement publicity. He said that not only was the condition of the laborers far better than had been the case under the French Company, but that year by year the condition was improving under our own regime. He stated that complaints were continually brought to him, and that he always investigated them; and that for the last six months he had failed to find a single complaint of a serious nature that contained any justification whatever.
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February 12, 1999