Conozca Su Canal

West Indian descendants in Panama honor their ancestors.

The Society of Friends of the West Indian Museum of Panama (Sociedad de Amigos del Museo Afroantillano de Panamá SAMAAP) was organized in 1981 by a group of afrodescendants to support the West Indian Museum located in the old Christian Mission Church on the corner of 24th St. and Justo Arosemena Avenue in Calidonia (also known as Marañón or Guachapali). One of the first activities that year was to honor the surviving Canal diggers, and more elaborate tributes were subsequently organized as part of “Conozca Su Canal” (Know Your Canal) week.

Each year, this week is scheduled around the 15th of August and has been a collaboration between SAMAAP and the Panama Canal administration for more than thirty years. The celebration begins on Sunday with attendance at a church service, for as good West Indian descendants, we are conscious of the mercies of God and thankful for being at this place and time. Other activities during the week include bulletin board contests at primary schools, intercollegiate speech contests, film presentations, and cultural programs at secondary schools. The week-long celebration culminates with a gala event in honor of outstanding citizens of the community.

In 1989, Cedric Gittens, a SAMAAP member who had witnessed burials at sea, came up with the bright idea to organize an aquatic pilgrimage on a launch on Canal waters as part of the “Conozca Su Canal” celebration since West Indians had worked, died and were buried in the waterway. This idea was put to the then Panama Canal Administrator, Fernando Manfredo, who gave his full support, so from that year, this pilgrimage was incorporated into the “Conozca Su Canal” celebration and has continued to be an integral part of the week’s activities.

During the pilgrimage, the ceremony includes musical groups, words from a pastor and a representative of the Panama Canal Administration, who provides an explanation of the history, operation, and now the expansion of the Canal. Praise is given to God for blessings received, and flowers are left on Canal waters in remembrance of our ancestors. This ceremony has attracted documentary seekers, researchers, film makers and reporters from all over the world. It has helped to disseminate knowledge of the Canal, its history, and its operations, which is the objective of “Conozca Su Canal”

Learn about the contributions of our ancestors to this engineering marvel.
Click here to watch video.

Photograph of West Indian workers arriving on SS Ancon in the Port of Cristobal in Colon, Panama to work on the canal. The Ancon was the first ship to make the crossing through the canal once completed in 1914. Many West Indians workers gave their live during the construction of the Panama Canal in the early years of the last century.

During the construction phase of the canal “the blacks had the pick-and-shovel jobs; the whites occupied the trades and had professional and supervisory roles.

People came from all over the world — the United States, Europe, Asia, Panama, Latin America and the Caribbean — to work on canal construction but recruiters targeted West Indian laborers. According to the museum, more than 31,000 Afro-Caribbean people worked on the canal during the American construction with most coming from Barbados (19,900), Martinique (5,542), Guadalupe (2,053) and Trinidad (1,427).

Europe, in contrast, sent only 11,873 laborers and Latin America, 2,163.

Black laborers suffered from malnutrition, lived in filthy barracks or huts and were vulnerable to the poisonous snakes, malaria and yellow fever that plagued the so-called “Fever Coast.” All told, at least 20,000 workers died — a disproportionate share of them black — during the French era. During U.S. construction of the canal, disease and accidents claimed 5,609 lives. Black workers accounted for 4,500 of the deaths.


  1. 9-11-2012

    Congratulation for an excellent week of activities. Just keep up the good work in and with the community.

  2. 11-3-2014

    Conozca su Canal week is looked forward to by many. Keep it up.

    They may have been few, but there were also white collar West Indians on the payrolls during the US construction of the Canal.

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