The Latin American Institute at the University of New Mexico's Research Paper Series
As a crossroads for world commerce, Panama has always attracted outsiders. Traders, laborers, and adventurers swarmed to the Isthmus whenever new projects began. Between 1850 and 1950, as many as 200,000 West Indian blacks traveled to Panama, the most voluminous trans-Caribbean movement of people ever . The high tides of migration occurred in 1850-55 (the Panama Railroad), 1880-89 (the unsuccessful French canal), 1904-14 (the U.S. canal), and 1940-42 (the third locks project). West Indians saw Panama as a promised land with abundant jobs for the robust and easy money for the clever. They hoped that the journey to Panama would be the end of the Diaspora. In black history, the Diaspora--or dispersal of Africans to many parts of the world--continues. The first stage saw tens of millions enslaved and sent from their homeland. In the second stage, their descendants won freedom and became citizens of new countries. Yet another stage came, when poor blacks had to move again due to depressed economies, civil wars, droughts, and overpopulation. Those who migrated to Panama between 1850 and 1950 formed part of this new dispersion, because poor harvests and competition from Cuba, Brazil, and beet sugar had ruined the island economies. Did black West Indians who went to Panama escape the Diaspora? Some did not, for they pushed on from there to other parts of the Americas in search of better jobs and acceptance by the native populations. Tens of thousands came to the United States. The majority did remain in Panama, however, constituting the single largest immigrant community in the country.
Michael Conniff. "Black Labor on a White Canal: West Indians in Panama, 1904-1980" The Latin American Institute at the University of New Mexico's Research Paper Series (1982).