Requiescant In Pacem (R.I.P.)


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

A sign at the entrance of the French Cementery at Paraiso in the former Canal Zone.  I tried my best to elliminate the deep shadows, but Nature was stubborn.  (Credit:  Omar Upegui R.)
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 visitors to visit a memorial located at the top of the cemetery.  (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.)
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.)
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.)
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 thousands of small white crosses with nameless victims of tropical disease during the early stages of the construction of the Panama Canal.  (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.)
View of thousands of tiny white crosses of the French engineers and manual workers who died during 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.)
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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17 thoughts on “Requiescant In Pacem (R.I.P.)”

  1. I love the shadows on the sign at the entrance, Omar, it just seems right for a cemetery.

    The human cost in such a project today would never be allowed.

  2. Hello Jim and Nena:

    I tried to smooth the sign by removing some of the dark shadows; but no joy.

    Twenty-five thousand deaths is too much of a human toll to pay for a construction project. Medicine in those days was still incipient. Knowledge of yellow fever and malaria was nonexistent.

    Dr. George C. Gorgas did a wonderful job when he came in during the second phase of the canal’s construction.

    Regards,

    Omar.-

  3. I can’t seem to ever get enough information on Panama and the canal, Omar! haha Maybe because I feel guilty for taking their most valuable asset: my bride, Nena?

    Anyhow, I searched to see if an unshadowed version was available and this is as good as it gets:

    Here in Texas you could wait for Fall when all the leaves fall but I don’t believe that’s an option for you! haha

    Thanks for the photos and the stories, I will never get tired of seeing Panama through Don Ray and your sites, thank you!
    jim and nena
    fort worth, tx

  4. Hi Jim & Nena:

    Yeah, that photo doesn’t have those dark shadows that I tried to avoid. Maybe next time I should go to the site during the last hours of the day.

    Thanks to Don Ray I got into the photo taking hobby. He and Abraham Lincoln inspired to me go out and take photos of my surroundings. Since then, I love it.

    The most valuable asset…I agree.

    Regards,

    Omar.-

  5. Good Morning,
    I recently visited The Panama Canal via the Elderhostel Program, and The French Cemetery was my favorite stop. I very much appreciate the photos and information above, because little exists about this lovely place.
    Georgia Burnette
    Niagara Falls NY

  6. Omar, I have done a pictorial history of the construction of the Canal. I have about 7000 high resolution photos of that era. I picked the top 225 for the book. I cannot get it published but will self publish. To accomplish that I need to do a slide show and would like to use a couple of your photographs of cemeteries. I dedicated the book to those who lost their lives and want to show the grave markers with numbers in my slide presentation.
    May I have your permission to do so. Of course I will send you a book when it is printed.

    1. Hi Ron:

      You have my authorization to use my pictures for your book. I’m glad to help you out. The only condition is that you provide proper credit to me as the legitimate owner of such images. Other than that, you can proceed to use the pictures you see fit.

      Best of luck with your book about the construction of the Panama Canal.

      Regards,

      Omar.-

      1. Thank you Omar,

        When it is printed I’ll send you a copy. I am making up a dedication Power Point type presentation to stress the dedication but your comment made me think why not use that as part of the dedication in the book. It would have to be black and white, but I can handle that part if it is ok with you. I did not wish to use color in the book because all the photographs from the construction era are B/W and I don’t want to detract from them.

      2. That’s okay with me Ron. Whatever is necessary for the success of your book. Too many people died during during the construction of the waterway who have been treated as if they never existed. Yours is a good cause.

        Regards,

        Omar.-

  7. Thank you Omar,

    When the book is printed I will send you a copy. I want the photos for a PowerPoint promo for the book but your comments gave me the idea to actually use them in the book where I dedicate it to the men who gave their lives. Since there is no color in the book I will have to make them black and white. I will give you credit and the address of your webpage so readers can see your pictures in color.

    Book Title: The Panama Canal, The invisible Wonder of the World. Hopefully printed this sumer.

  8. Howdy Ron:

    Very simple. Photographs are property of Omar Upegui R. author of blog, Lingua Franca in Panama City, Panama. This is it. No big deal.

    Best of luck with your new book,

    Omar.-

  9. Hello Sir, I was given one of the French white cross grave markers. #4151

    How it came to be in the US, I do not know. Do you have any information on who this poor fellow was?

  10. My wife’s French citizen Grandfather, Louis Marie LeBreton, died in Colon Hospital in 1909. His Isthmian Canal Commission Report of Death 13411 indicates that he was buried in Mt. Hope Cemetery; however, I have not been able to find him listed in the Mt. Hope database or other database. We will be on a tour and cruise in Panama from February 24 to March 7, 2017. Additionally we plan to stay in Panama City on February 23 and March 7 and 8 and hope to be able to visit her grandfather’s grave site. We found your post very informative and interestingly written. Thank you! We will appreciate any information or suggestions you can furnish on finding his grave site? My cell phone number is (925) 262-3281. Thank you again for your help.
    Sincerely, Carl Walker

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