The Canal Builders

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 1)

In January, 2009, when Barack Obama became the first African American president of the United States, another unprecedented event also took place: Elizabeth Alexander recited her poem “Praise Song for the Day,” celebrating the workers of past generationsincluding slaveswho created the American infrastructure; “who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges,/built/ brick by brick the glittering edifices . . .” While workers like those honored in Alexander’s poem might well have constructed the building where Obama was sworn in, historically their contributions have been little noted. More common is the sentiment of the poem “Dedication,” composed by Robert Frost for John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961 and forecasting “The glory of a next Augustan age.”

In the same vein, histories of the Panama Canal have typically emphasized the engineering feats involved in its construction and the glory reflected on the political and professional leaders who promoted the project. A celebrated 1906 news photograph, featured in at least three major books on the history of the canal, shows a white-suited President Theodore Roosevelt atop a giant Bucyrus steam shovel at the building site. The picture, says University of Maryland historian Julie Greene, “telegraphed to the world the importance of the Panama Canal project.” Like Alexander, Greene shifts attention from the planners to the builders: “Absent from the picture,” she notes, “are the thousands of workingmen who actually dug the canal.”

Greene details the lives of those workers in The Canal Builders: Making America’s Empire at the Panama Canal. Her account of their daily experience seeks to supplant, or at least supplement, the “tale enshrined in popular memory and innumerable histories and novels” about “breakthroughs in medicine, technology, and science and wise engineering decisions” which, “according to traditional accounts of the project, allowed the United States to succeed where France had failed” in its attempt to build a canal during the 1880’s. Greene’s additional goal is to demonstrate that it was the “human rather than the technological or scientific dimensions of the project” that presented the greatest challenge to the project’s leaders. The tremendous size and diversity of the workforceup to sixty thousand workers from some 105 countries around the worldcreated an unprecedented test of efficient social order in the Canal Zone.

During the construction period, from 1904 to 1914, the popular image of the Canal Zonefostered by contemporary journalistswas one of an ideal progressive society, a model of efficiency and social justice. Progressives of the era believed that the strong government role in the canal project validated theories of “scientific socialism,” of highly productive government-run ventures that also delivered social services to workers and the community. Expectations ran high: The zone was to offer “a display of America’s domestic strengths in a world setting” and “progressivism for the world.”

Greene evaluates this image, drawing on a large amount of newly unearthed archival material to show that nothing turned out as expected for either the project managers or the laborers. Workers came from all over the world anticipating high wages, a healthy diet, and comfortable living quarters. The project leadership, in turn, expected a docile, manageable workforce. In reality, employees were divided into two categories: those paid in gold and those paid in silver. The “gold” workerstypically white American skilled craftsmenreceived better wages and living accommodations, while “silver” workersmostly unskilled laborers from outside the United Statestended to receive lower wages and often substandard living quarters. If the system was not racist to begin with, it became so in time, owing to continual reclassification of individuals or groups of workers along racial lines.

Death from disease or accidental injury was an everyday occurrence in the Canal Zone. More than five thousand workers perished before the project was completed. Managers also faced unexpected obstacles. The workers whom management expected to be so tractableespecially those from Spain and the West Indiesproved resourceful in getting around the rules and fomenting labor strife when they felt...

(The entire section is 1784 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 1)

Booklist 105, no. 11 (February 1, 2009): 12.

The Economist 390, no. 8620 (February 28, 2009): 89.

Foreign Affairs 88, no. 3 (May/June, 2009): 176-177.

Kirkus Reviews 76, no. 23 (December 1, 2008): 1241-1242.

Library Journal 134, no. 3 (February 15, 2009): 116.

The New York Times Book Review, March 29, 2009, p. 11.

Times Higher Education, April 2, 2009, p. 49.