Barbadians and the Panama Canal

Bert Wilkinson | 6/30/2016, 10:41 a.m.
A delegation of officials from Barbados, including Prime Minister Freundel Stuart, traveled to Panama on the weekend for the formal ...
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A delegation of officials from Barbados, including Prime Minister Freundel Stuart, traveled to Panama on the weekend for the formal opening of the expanded Panama Canal project.

Not many other leaders from the 15-nation Caribbean Community were invited to partake in the ceremonies, but Barbados was the clear exception because of its long association with things Panamanian.

Stuart was identified as a special guest by President Juan Carlos Varela Rodriguez because thousands of Barbadians, or Bajans as they are familiarly called, had worked on the construction of the original canal, which was opened for business way back in August 1914.

Many of the Bajans who worked there opted to stay, start families and generally settle down as locals. This resettlement is one reason why many descendants of Barbadians in Panama physically look more like Caribbean people, enjoy things that are culturally associated with the nearby Caribbean and bear names such as Walcott, King and Marshall, titles that dominate on the 166-square-mile island.

Barbados is the most easterly of all the islands.

“Barbados’ attendance is an affirmation of the important role of Barbadians in the construction of the original Panama Canal, and the Panamanian authorities are acknowledging our major contribution to this waterway,” Stuart said, before flying off to the ceremonies on the weekend.

At least 70 leaders, members of the U.S. Congress and other high officials from around the world attended the ceremonies, which saw a 984-foot Chinese container vessel being the first to pass through the extended waterway.

The waterway gives ships a marine connection between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Without this connection, journeys could be longer by up to a month.

Bands played music while the vessel carefully navigated its way through the $5.4 billion project that widened the 102-year-old canal. At least 40,000 workers labored on the project. The expanded facility will allow ships laden down with as many as 14,000 containers to sale through it.

Stuart said that up to 60,000 Barbadians, or one-fifth of today’s population, would have worked on the project, earning money to send back to relatives at home.

“Many did not return and their resettlement gave birth to a new generation of Panamanians of Barbadian descent,” he said. An estimated 16 percent of Panama’s 3.7 million population can trace roots directly back to neighboring Caribbean countries, Barbados in particular. Others came from Trinidad and Jamaica.

Panama has in recent years been strengthening its ties with the Caricom bloc of nations. Its president was a special invitee to last July’s head of government meeting in Barbados, reciprocating a visit Stuart had made to the republic three months earlier. Stuart had also used the opportunity of his visit to meet with Panamanians of Bajan descent and will likely do so again on this trip.

In the meantime, the Barbados campus of the University of the West Indies is the hub for English language training for Panamanian students.

A class recently graduated from the school. Classes lasted four months.