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Edith A. Browne

Panama and the Negro

Our steamer has just dropped anchor off Bridgetown, the capital of the British West Indian island of Barbados. She will be stopping in port long enough for us to make an excursion ashore, but we must not leave the ship until the doctor has been on board to see that we are not "infectious," and the harbourmaster to satisfy himself that we are not "undesirable aliens." Meanwhile, plenty of amusement will be provided for us by ten little negro boys, and a brigade of adult darkies who have come out in small boats to meet the liner.

The children are remarkably clever divers, as you will soon see if one of you will give the signal for which they are chorusing. A penny will start the show. Yes, throw it into the water, anywhere you like, and the farther away the better will be the fun. Look at the youngsters racing along in their home-made skiffs, with their eyes fixed on the flying coin. A second later, and the coin has disappeared—so have the boys. Now curly black heads are popping up into the sunshine; someone must have found the penny, for the children would not come to the surface whilst there was a chance of making money below. See, there is the prize-winner, he is just banking the penny in his mouth, Little folks on the ship do not find any difficulty in persuading fathers and mothers to give them coppers to throw in the sea; grown-ups join in the flinging of the largess, coins are sent flying, often after a make-believe start, in all directions, and the diving exhibition becomes more and more exciting.

The older darkies, in charge of rowing boats which look very trim in comparison with the children's home-made craft, are touting for passengers; at the same time they are so vigorously trying to do each other out of the chance of being first to mount the gangway ladder that we begin to fear all the boats will be capsized before we are ready to go ashore.

What a hubbub! Little and big darkies are shouting at the top of their voices, and talking nineteen to the dozen. Their antics and pranks make the general meaning of their chatter quite plain; but no wonder you are all puzzled as to what language or languages they are speaking. I can assure you that every one of them is talking English. But English as she is spoken by a West Indian negro sounds like a foreign tongue to untrained ears. By the time we have come to our journey's end you will have grown fairly familiar with the lingo in which we are now being asked for pennies and patronage, for we are going to see a great deal of Little Black Sambo and his kith and kin. There are thousands of negroes at work on the Panama Canal, and in common with all their West Indian friends and relations they have a horror of silence. When they are not talking they are singing—folk songs occasionally, but hymns with a refrain are more popular. And in talking—or writing—they never use a short word if they can possibly make shift with a long one, and show marked ability for steering clear of a simple, straightforward sentence.

The Negro race was introduced into the New World by the Spaniards because the native Indians were not strong enough to endure the hardships of serving the colonists and explorers. In the early expeditions into the interior the Indians were used as carriers, and hundreds, thousands in some parts it is said, died from the effects of being overworked, overloaded and roughly treated. A threatened dearth of drudges and beasts of burden led Spain into pressing the African native into her Empire-building service. Shiploads of negro slaves were sent to the West Indies, Panama, and numerous other centres of Spanish colonization; as a result of the slave traffic, the bulk of the population in Spanish-American territory soon consisted of blacks. By the time slavery was abolished the majority of the negroes in America were many generations removed from African-born ancestors. The freed blacks looked upon the country in which they had been born as their homeland, and when they understood they could go where they chose, they showed a strong preference for staying where they were. Hence, negroes and coloured folk are more numerous than white people in many parts of the American continent and in all the West Indian islands.


Going to work, Barbados.

When the Barbadian boatmen are allowed on board they begin a wily search for greenhorns who do not know the regulation fare to the shore. All the people on the ship seem to be familiar with the tariff. The boatmen have had countless opportunities of learning that British and American visitors to the West Indies have occasionally been away from home before; but no amount of experience can teach a Barbadian negro not to be surprised at finding anyone who knows as much as he does; he is the most enterprising of West Indian blacks, and the most uppish. When, at last, the boatmen's demands drop somewhere near to being reasonable, and bargaining becomes general, we come to terms for the return journey. A few minutes later we are landing at Bridge-town.