The life of the invisible black Hercules : West Indian migration, labor, and communal identity in Panama, 1881-1949.

Date of Award


Document Type



College of Liberal Arts

Degree Name

Bachelor in Arts


By the 1850s, less than twenty years after the abolition of slavery in the British West Indies, black West Indians began to exercise their newfound freedom by choosing to migrate to the Isthmus of Panama to start new lives and search for economic opportunities. Low wages, the lack of job opportunities and land ownership, and disenfranchisement inspired West Indians to seek other labor opportunities outside of the confines of their islands starting in 1881 with the French attempt of constructing the Panama Canal. When the French failed, the relatively young United States stepped in to finish the project. Although global politics are important, this project highlights the agency of the West Indian laborers that saw Panama as a land of economic opportunity despite the marginalization, racism, and exploitation they faced. The fortitude of the West Indians has not been studied yet it provides great insight into the men that made the construction of the Panama Canal possible. This work charts the West Indian immigrants experience in Panama to validate the importance of understanding a marginalized population in the larger stories of empire and the global economy. The departure from the tradition political history that surrounds the Panama Canal changes the conversation to focus more on the individual agency that West Indians exhibited throughout their time in Panama and how this agency allowed for the creation of a unique communal enclave and identity in Panama. Furthermore, it illuminates the important details concerning what happens to the West Indian community once the Canal is completed in 1914. Taking a transnational approach, this project explores how West Indian ambition allowed West Indians to reimagine their freedom and economic opportunity in the changing political and imperial dynamics of the Caribbean and Latin America.