Indians have been in Panama since the 1800's...
● They came to work on the Transisthmian Railroad, and later on the Panama Canal.
Later waves of Indians have arrived for business purposes. Panama is an international commercial center which has attracted people from all over the world, including Indians and Chinese.
Indians have become an integral part of our society and are very respected, usually excelling in business. Some Indians have totally assimilated into the culture but some who have arrived recently live in very tight knight communities, marrying among themselves or finding brides/grooms in India.
I grew up interacting with Indians or people of Indian descent. My godfather for example, was of Caribbean ancestry and his last name was Desai. He was a very good looking man, I should say!
Anyway, its not unsual to see Indians in Panama. We call Indians "hindus". Ah, something interesting about the term "coolie", that term was used in Panama as well to refer to Indians. The term merged into the term culiso (Panamanean Spanish).
A "Culiso" is a person of dark skin and wavy or straight here. So, obviously the term derives from "coolie" which was used to refer to Indians. Isn't that fascinating?
Most of the Indians who moved onto Columbia returned to Panama thence to Belize and Mexico. They were always in search of work. Many worked hard to raise cash to buy land. In 1891 it was estimated that about 300 East Indians were living in Belize where they worked on the sugar estates where they diversified the sugar based agri industry with plantains, bananas and other crops.
The colonial government of British Honduras was so pleased with their agricultural skills that they issued them land which was never given to freed black slaves to develop diverse crops.
Heavy taxation drove the East Indians out of Belize in significant numbers.
My grandfather and his uncles who were doctors on ships transporting workers all across the globe indicated many workers now free labourers moved onto Africa etc. seeking work.
My grandfather's journals got burnt to ashes in the early 1960's but I recall dinner and lunch table conversations.
Some East Indians even went as far as the Yucatan but left because of the 1848 war between the Mestizo and Mayan Indians who felt their lands were being misuse. I would venture to say that many Panamanian blacks and natives are mixed with East Indian since these guys made many kids with many women back then.
● Indian Indentures to the Caribbean went to Panama as non-contracted labourers in the 1800's. However, there were also some Sikhs who were in America as early as 1812 or earlier, who intermarried with Mexicans who went to Panama as merchants.
So Panama has had significant people of indian descent.
● In most cases, minorities in the Latin American countries shed their identities faster than those in English speaking countries.
For some, they were forced to assimilate. In Panama for example, the president Arnulfo Arias during the 1940's, designated non Spanish speaking East INdians, Blacks and Chinese as "races of prohibited immigration".
Also, some Chinese were forced to marry Panamanians if they wanted to keep their businesses. One of my best friends' grandparent was a target of this law. He was Chinese (from China with a family in China). He lived and had children with a Black spanish-speaking Panamanian. So, we have a generation of Chinese-Mestizo people in Panama.
We still have very closed-knit communities in Panama, though. The Jewish, Lebanese, Indian, Chinese population hardly mixes. I would say that earlier waves of immigrants tended to mix a little. But the recent wave is keeping within themselves.
Not so for people of West Indian ancestry.
Because the Panama Canal Zone was VERY segregated due to Jim Crow laws, West Indians kept within themselves because they were forced to. They also did because of choice. Those who lived outside of the Panama Canal or other West indian communities intermixed a bit more with the local Panamanians. that has changed drastically. Now, you can hardly tell who is of West Indian ancestry and who is not.
There has been an incredible amount of intermixing and the evidence is seen in people's
physical appearances and the names they carry. For example "Malcom Garcia Reed". The Irish last name might be an indication of a mother of West Indian ancestry.
● We are fairly certain that some Indians who originally went to the Caribbean to work on the sugar estates later moved on to Panama to work on the Panama Canal.
On the site http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/tr/panama.html there is talk of English speaking West Indian blacks working on the later stage of the canal.
"Nowhere were efforts more dramatic than at the Culebra Cut, where 100,000,000 cubic yards of earth and rock would have to be removed. The laborers at Culebra-mostly English-speaking West Indian blacks who made ten cents an hour-moved as much as 200 trainloads of spoil a day."
Another site http://www.thechronicle.demon.co.uk/tomsite/8_8_12ma.htm talks of "Jamaicans, Barbadians and other islanders flocked to Panama to build the link between the two Americas that the Frenchman de Lesseps and later the Americans had dreamed of."
There appears to be a Museum of West Indian labour on the canal. "Housed in a one-room former colonial church in Panama City's rundown Caledonia district, the Panamanian West Indian Museum has championed the memory of the canal's black work force since the museum opened in 1981."
They were desperate for labour on the Canal, and did much recruiting in the West Indies. I believe the former indentured Indians would have been an attractive target, as they were used to working in heat and tropical conditions, and most of them would have picked up some English during their time on the sugar estates.
The obvious place to look for overseas Indians in Panama would be the customs and immigration records in Panama, and the passenger manifests of ships that came to Panama during the recruitment period. On our side, we should take a look at the newspapers in the West Indies during the time of recruitment, which should contain mention of attempts to get West Indian labour to the Canal.
There is some reference to Canal labourers moving on to sugar estates in the nearby regions of Colombia after the canal was completed, and those sugar estate records and land ownership records may be useful too in pinning down the movement of the Indians.
Some interesting work for an interested party here, friends. Wish it were me, but Canada is a bit too far off for that and I don't speak or read Spanish.
Contributed by Ibn Panema, Varuna Singh, Ram Jagessar.