On Wednesday, October 1, 2014, Olive Senior, in association with UWI Western Jamaica Campus and the Institute of Jamaica, gave a Distinguished Lecture on “Colon Man and the Panama Experience”, in commemoration of the centenary of the opening of the Panama canal in 1914.
A prelude to the programme in the form of folk songs about Panama canal workers, including the popular “Colon Man Ah Come”, was given by singers from UWI led by Lilieth Nelson.
The chairman for the programme, who welcomed all present, was none other than Dr. Simon Clarke, a Colon Man himself, having been born in Panama of Jamaican parents. He was not resident in Jamaica until he went to Calabar High School. He gave us snippets of information about his life there: on racial segregation, he told us about the ‘silver’ and ‘gold’ cities, and newly arrived Jamaicans refusing to leave the ‘gold’ line at the post office!
Dr. Luz Longsworth, Director of UWI Western Campus; Mrs. Nicole Patrick Shaw, Deputy Director, Institute of Jamaica; and Mrs. Winsome Hudson, National Librarian/CEO of the National Library of Jamaica all brought greetings from their respective institutions which had organized the programme.
Ms. Kristen Laing, PR and Marketing Officer, NLJ, then read Olive Senior’s poem, ALL CLEAR, which deals with the large scale emigration of West Indian males to work on the Panama Canal and elsewhere in Latin America in the Caribbean.
The young lady who introduced Olive Senior, on behalf of Mr. Steffon Campbell of CARIMAC, confessed that if she were to tell us of all this award-winning writer’s accomplishments, there would be no time for the lecture. You can read more about Olive on her website.
The highlight of the evening was Olive’s lecture, based on her newly published book, Dying to better Themselves:West Indians and the building of the Panama Canal, published by University of the West Indies Press (September 30, 2014). Although Olive began her research for this book twenty years ago, revisiting the subject from time to time, meanwhile writing 14 other books, her presentation radiated the excitement of finding the Colon Man to be "one driven by the need to improve his conditions; dying to better himself." She also mentioned the “neglected post-emancipation generation of the 1850's” when there existed poverty we cannot imagine today. From that time, Jamaicans have been migrating to Panama in search of employment. Because of the relative proximity of Panama, there developed a “pattern of circular migration that would transform our islands economically, socially and politically well into the twentieth century.” She emphasized the significance of the contribution that Jamaicans made to the development of Panama, as well as that made by Jamaicans who returned with their savings to invest at home. For a more detailed account of her lecture, I recommend you to the articles by Tanesha Mundle in The Daily Observer and in TallawahMagazine.
Better still, buy a copy of the book to read for yourself!
The evening closed with a vote of thanks by Mr. Aubrey Stewart, Campus Chairman, UWI WJC Guild of Students, followed by a postlude of Refreshments and Book Signing. Unfortunately, the first printing of this book has sold out, except for the few copies which had been kept back for Montego Bay, which were soon sold. I will edit this post with information about when books from the second printing become available.
|With my 'beach-buddy' Olive before her lecture|