Review: THE CANAL BUILDERS: Making America’s Empire at the Panama Canal by Julie Greene

by Rebeca on May 14, 2009

the-canal-builders-jpegTHE CANAL BUILDERS: Making America’s Empire at the Panama Canal
By Julie Greene
The Penguin Press.
475 pages.

Reviewed by Randall Radic


Remember the movie The Ten Commandments? Charleton Heston squared off against Yul Brynner, and in between them were all those Hebrew slaves? Millions of them. All working fourteen hours a day, building magnificent edifices in honor of Pharaoh. And not because they want to, but because they’re slaves, who are whipped and starved if they don’t. In other words, the Ten Commandments showed us the way the world worked in those days – thousands of years ago. Slaves did the manual labor and died, while the Pharaohs got the glory.

Not very long ago—about a hundred years—a similar event took place. Historians called it “a stupendous undertaking.” Only this time, instead of an arrogant Pharaoh’s visage gazing out over his empire, it was a photograph of Theodore Roosevelt hoisting himself into the cab of a giant steam-shovel-driver, pretending to run the machine himself.

This was the updated version of the way the world worked. The people who did the real work were no longer slaves. Now they got paid. However, they still lived in squalor and they still died from overwork. The person in charge was no longer a Pharaoh, now he was called a President. But the high-muckety-muck, no matter what he was called, still got the glory.

Some things never change. Or do they?

Julie Greene has written a stupendous book about the building of the Panama Canal. Only instead of focusing on the great feat of engineering that the Canal encompassed, Ms. Greene’s book focuses on the people who actually did the work. As she says regarding the photo of President Theodore Roosevelt in the Prologue: “Absent from the picture are the thousands of workingmen who actually dug the canal.”

The Canal Builders zeroes in on the human factor – the lives of the 60,000 laborers who traveled to Panama to build the Canal. Some came seeking adventure, drawn to the activity like moths to a flame. Others came because they needed a job and couldn’t find one in their native country. Still others were searching for a new life in a new place. They were bored and something of historical significance was occurring in Panama.

They all came for one reason or another.

As Ms. Greene details in her book, most of these toilers came from the Caribbean nations, especially Barbados and Jamaica. They were recruited and promised big money, which was true. They made more than they ever could have at home. What they weren’t told was how many of them would die. No one told them that they were expendable. No one mentioned that the grand goal was the building of the Canal. No one told them what the cost would be in human lives.

Lots of white imperialists from the USA showed up too, looking for big paychecks. And they found them — $200 a month, paid in gold. Everybody else was paid in silver.

They all—no matter what their skin-color —lived in Panama City, which overnight turned into a heaving mass of multi-hued human flesh—Americans, Chinese, Jamaicans, Barbadans. And as one would expect—for that was the way the world worked—segregation took place. There were affluent neighborhoods and poor neighborhoods. Inequality was rampant.

The story Ms. Greene tells in her book is one of exploitation, misery, money, and, sometimes, even kindness. The picture presented is that of the foundation of today’s American Empire, where the USA dominates the world economically and militarily. And Ms. Greene castigates America for its participatory role in this evil dominion. “Strategies devised during the canal construction project have reached across the decades to the current day. We can see them…in the persistent notion that citizens deserve certain rights that are denied to aliens…the exercise of U.S. power around the world.”

Her viewpoint is valid, even depressing. But there might be more to the story. A different pair of sunglasses might dim the glare. Ms. Greene might have missed one or two things. And a couple of those things might be: that rather than evil exploitation, what was taking place at the Canal was globalization, which is a work in progress. The world is growing smaller and smaller, which – maybe – is better, because there will be less and less exploitation. Hope springs eternal.

Also missing is the hard-to-accept truth that that’s the way the world works. To paraphrase Jesus, “Exploitation you will have with you always.” Jesus didn’t mean ‘get used to it.’ Rather, he meant there’s always scope for change. Constant vigilance is required to make things better. The poor will always be around, so there will always be the opportunity to give.

It simply means that everything is a work in progress, and that progress can be seen in the fact that wonderful books like The Canal Builders are written, read and talked about. Books like this one can have an impact on the way the world works, because they’re about people, not about “stupendous engineering feats.”

radic2About Randall Radic
Randall Radic, a former Old Catholic priest and a convicted felon, lives in Northern California where he reads, writes and smokes cigars. He is the author of A Priest in Hell: Gangs, Murderers and Snitching in a California Jail, and the forthcoming Gone To Hell: True Crimes of America’s Clergy.


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