There’s no denying that the building of the Panama Canal had a profound impact on the socioeconomic history of the English-speaking Caribbean and the fate of many of its people.
It was a period rife with political intrigue and opportunism and corporate greed, during which the US government was the protagonist and American business interests served as the supporting cast.
The stage was set and the drama had gone into full swing by the turn of the 20th century when the US Congress, acting on the recommendations of the Isthmian Canal Commission – a committee set up to examine the possibilities of creating a water passage between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans – took the decision to build a canal through the narrow land bridge between North and South America.
Prior to that, in 1882, France had attempted to build a sea-level canal to create a trading route similar to that envisaged by the US. They recruited a huge labour force for the project. By 1888 it numbered about 20,000 men, the vast majority of them Afro-Caribbean workers from the West Indies. However, the French company, Compagnie Nouvelle du Canal de Panamá charged with constructing the canal ran into difficulties and had to halt the project.
The Americans capitalized on their failure. The US government under the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt bought over the company’s assets. They then signed the Hay-Bunau-Varilla treaty with Panama which had recently gained independence from Columbia, thanks in part to the Roosevelt’s covert support for Panamanian rebels fighting for self-rule. The treaty guaranteed Panama nationhood and secured a perpetual lease on a 10-mile strip for the canal. The Americans completed the project in 1914 and called it the Panama Canal Zone. It was an achievement that helped to strengthen America’s political domination and economic exploitation of much of South America.
To this day, the Panama Canal continues to be an indispensible trading route for North America and a vital link in global shipping. It also forms the backdrop of Barbadian author Dr Ronald A. Williams’ latest novel, A death in Panama. Set in Panama, the US and Barbados, it draws readers into the mysterious and frightening world of the Panama of the first decade of the 20th century when the canal was being built and fortunes were being made. Much of this wealth was ill-gotten gain obtained ruthlessly and illegally.
Come 1976, President Jimmy Carter assumes office and preparations get underway for the handover of the canal to Panama. Many of the companies that benefitted from the American hegemony over the Panama Canal Zone are terrified that the horrific secrets of the pre and post canal-construction period will come to light following the handover.
At the centre of this drama are two old men, Rupert Barnes and Octavius Bryant, both survivors of that lawless period. As the American government moves toward return of the canal, both men find themselves drawn into a conflict that had begun in the jungles of Panama. Barnes, through whose memories much of the action unfolds, gives us access to his life at that time when he was a teenager, and the reader is drawn into a world of mysticism, sexuality, broken promises and lost faith. During the course of the story he is transformed from a cheerful, naïve boy to a disillusioned man who believes that his salvation is no longer possible.
His promiscuity and thoughtlessness as a young man bring him into conflict with his grandchildren whom he did not know existed. Ultimately, accepting that his life is a moral vacuum, Barnes decides to confront Bryant whom he blames for his moral decline. This he intends to be his final act. Bryant, on the other hand, is engaged in his own final act; the destruction of the Panama Canal.
Dr. Ronald A. Williams was born in Barbados. He now resides in Maryland, USA and is a vice president of the College Board in Washington, D.C. He has a Ph.D. in English and enjoys reading and golfing. He and his wife have two daughters. He’s also the author of the novel Four Saints and An Angel.