MPP Mike Colle could hardly believe what he was seeing. There he was, perched in front of his TV watching a documentary on the Panama Canal and the substantial contributions that West Indians made to the 50-mile ship passage that links the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
Colle made a few calls to a few of his West Indian-born friends trying to find out if they knew how much West Indian labour had contributed to the canal.
“The response was almost the same,” he said. “They just didn’t know.”
That prompted Colle to focus on the untold story of the canal builders for his annual Black History Month presentation last week.
Nearly 50,000 labourers from various Caribbean islands helped build the canal that is a key conduit for international maritime trade. It’s estimated that almost 25,000 lost their lives.
“This is a story that has never been told about the incredible human engineering accomplishments of these West Indians,” said Colle. “Not only did many of these men lose their lives, but they have never been recognized to any great extent. No one has given credit to these men who built this canal with their blood, sweat and tears. I want you to join me in helping to spread the word of this story in memory of these forgotten heroes.”
The majority of the workers – nearly 19,900 – came from Barbados. Grenadians, Guyanese, St Lucians, Jamaicans, Kittitians, Trinidadians, Martiniquans, Guadeloupans, and Curacao residents also helped build the canal.
“The important message in this story is that if you don’t know what people accomplished in history, you cannot respond and pass that on to the younger generation,” said Colle. “To give a child confidence and sense of self worth and pride, you have to know of the achievements of your forefathers.”
MPP Margarett Best attended the event and praised Colle for sharing this important piece of history.
“Mike has always been a supporter of the Black and other minority communities and that’s why it was important for me to be here tonight,” said Best.
Folklorist Letna Allen and musician Glen Ricketts performed at the event.