Conducts research and collects data on the global history of labour, workers, and labour relations

Tropical Labour

15 August 1914
Panama Canal under construction, 1907
Wikimedia Commons

Navigation on the Panama Canal formally commenced on August 15, 1914. Between 1904 and 1914, tens of thousands of labourers from around the world had made their way to the Panamanian Canal Zone. Working conditions were notoriously dangerous. The majority of labourers (most Spaniards and Cubans as well as almost all workers from the West Indies) were paid on the 'silver roll', a euphemism in which 'non-white' and non-Anglo workers received poorer pay and conditions than white North American workers while doing the most dangerous tasks.

Probably the thousands of Spanish-speaking workers brought to Panama the seed of anarcho-syndicalism. In early 1907 Spaniards, including anarchists, began to agitate. By August 1911, anarchist militancy had spread to such an extent throughout the Canal Zone that the Federación de Agrupaciones e Individuos Libres del Istmo de Panamá (Panamanian Isthmus Federation of Free Associations and Individuals) could be created.

Read more? Kirk Shaffer, 'Tropical Libertarians. Anarchist Networks in the Caribbean....' in: Anarchism and Syndicalism in the Colonial and Postcolonial World 1870-1940 (Leiden 2010)