Maybe, because I have lived next to the Panama Canal most of my adult life, I have taken this engineering marvel for granted. It was always there; therefore, no big deal. I was dead wrong.
After retiring, and having ample time at my disposal, I’ve been researching this fascinating subject and realized how big this accomplishment really was. I can only compare it to the construction of the great pyramids of Egypt or the Great Wall of China. The book, “The Path Between the Seas”, written by David McCullough thoroughly describes this engineering wonder in great detail. It could very well be the best book ever written about the construction of the Panama Canal.
What attracted my attention during my research, was the considerable number of human lives that were lost during this construction project; specially during the first phase of the construction. This post is dedicated to the memory of the French workers who crossed the ocean to fulfill their dreams, and in the process lost their lives. They never returned to their loved ones back home. The inhabitants of the Caribbean are dearly remembered as well.
The structure of this post consists of two parts. The first part, is the written story of the workers who died during the construction of the French Canal. The second part, uses images to consolidate the message. I followed the storyboard format widely used by filmmakers, animators, comic book illustrators, screenplay writers and photomatics artists; just to name a few.
I. The French Workers Who Died During the Construction of the Panama Canal
The burial ground located at Paraiso, is the resting place of some of the first workers of the Panama Canal from the French Construction era (1880-1889), mostly Martinique, Jamaica and Santa Lucia. These people most probably were the West Indian workers who worked on the Pacific Side of the waterway.
The construction of the Canal by the French Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interocéanique was plagued from the start with the problems inherent in building a structure of its kind in a tropical country.
Malaria, yellow fever, dysentery, typhoid, dengue, not to mention the difficulties of adapting to the tropical heat, took a grand toll on the lives of the few hardy souls from France and the Caribbean islands that dared to venture to the Isthmus of Panama.
Ferdinand de Lesseps failed in waging an all-out warfare against malaria and yellow fever, the “black vomit” that claimed victims in twenty-four hours.
Workers wrote their wills before leaving for Panama, a few had the foresight to bring their coffins with them from France. Walter LaFeber wrote in his book dubbed, “The Panama Canal: the crisis in historical perspective”:
“As one reporter describes Colon, it was:
…a foul hole, by comparison, the ghettos of White Russia, the slums of Toulon, Naples and old Stamboul…deserve prizes for cleanliness.
There are neither sewers nor street cleaners…toilets are quite unknown, all the rubbish is thrown into the swamps or onto rubbish heaps. Toads splash in the liquid much…, rats infest the solid filth…, snakes hunt both toads and rats, cloud of mosquitoes swarm into the homes.
As many as 20,000 died before de Lesseps gave up in 1889. Left behind was a partially dug canal and a small French cemetery outside Panama City where, as a later visitor said, ‘little crosses corrode in the tropic air.’”
On the French Cemetery, you will find hundreds of white crosses staggered down a grassy slope just past the small village of Paraiso. This is the final resting place of the French engineers and administrators who succumbed to malaria and yellow fever during the de Lessep’s failed attempt to build an inter-oceanic canal.
II. Photo Gallery of the French Cemetery
Sign at the entrance of the French cemetery at Paraiso in the former Panama Canal Zone. I tried my best to eliminate the deep shadows, but Nature was stubborn. (Credit: Omar Upegui R.)
A cement walkway used by tourists to visit a memorial located at the top of the cemetery. (Credit: Omar Upegui R.)
A panoramic view of the Old French Cemetery honoring and remembering thousands of lives that were lost during the construction of the Panama Canal. (Credit: Omar Upegui R.)
Message embedded in the memorial of the French Cemetery that reads, "To the memory of those Frenchmen who died during the construction of the Panama Canal." (Credit: Omar Upegui R.)
A close-up of a white iron cross at the French Cemetery. Notice that there is no name on it, only a number. (Credit: Omar Upegui R.)
View of small white crosses with nameless victims of tropical disease which killed thousands during the early stages of the construction of the Panama Canal. (Credit: Omar Upegui R.)
Another view of hundreds of tiny white crosses of the French engineers and manual workers who died during the construction of the Panama Canal. (Credit: Omar Upegui R.)
View of the cement walkway used by visitors to exit from the French Cemetery. (Omar Upegui R.)
As I left the sacred ground, the following words engraved on a metal plate located at the top of the slope, circled around my head:
“A ceux qui au prix lé migration et d’un pénible labeur ont sacrifié leur vie póur le bien être de leurs enfants. Le 13 Julliet 1994. Pierrre Petit, Dépure Maire, Morne-Rouge Martinique”. In English, “To those who in the price of migration and work, have sacrificed their lives for the welfare of their children.”
Rest in peace, you did your job while you journeyed through this world. Good Day.
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