This essay explores the archival presence of West Indian women in the archives of the Isthmian Canal Commission, the biggest repository of original documents regarding the construction of the Panama Canal. Using a 1909 photograph of a nude black West Indian woman found in a file labeled “Freak Letters,” it considers the difficulties of recovering historical subjects structured by imperial frameworks of productivity and perversity, tracing instead the counternarratives of mobility, affect, and self-determination that might have shaped this black woman’s life. Using this approach, the essay uncovers the archival logic behind “Freak Letters” and recreates the woman’s milieu, highlighting her mobility and diasporic connections. It argues that this woman’s embodied intervention simultaneously confirms and challenges the narratives of US empire that sexualized and limited her. Ultimately, the essay seeks to build an empathetic, archipelagic counterdiscourse as the basis for our explorations of subjects historically silenced or denigrated.

Within the mostly monotonous administrative correspondence of the Isthmian Canal Commission, the governing body of the Panama Canal, lies a peculiar find—a 1909 picture of a young, nude, black woman within a file titled “Freak Letters.” The woman stands in front of bushy palm fronds, her hands on her hips; with bright, open eyes and a wide smile on her face, she is looking straight at the camera. She wears a few accessories—a beaded necklace and small hoop earrings. Her body takes up almost the entire frame, and she stands firmly in the center, staring back at the photographer and the viewer with a “competing gaze.”1 Her presence and exuberance in the photograph overwhelms—her determination to establish herself in this space evident despite the original pornographic purpose of the photograph and her placement among “freaks.”

This essay originates from this woman’s self-making. It considers the difficulties of recovering certain historical subjects structured by the imperial archive and traces instead the counternarratives of mobility, affect, and self-determination that shaped black West Indian women’s lives.2 I seek above all to magnify the image this woman created of herself and the multiple historical registers that inform our knowledge about women like her. This woman’s embodied expression simultaneously confirms and challenges the narratives of US empire that sexualized and limited her.

The National Archives at College Park, Maryland, holds the biggest repository of original documents regarding the construction of the Panama Canal, a landmark event of hemispheric integration, imperial consolidation, and massive Caribbean migration. Within this archive, only nine subcategories make direct, extended reference to black West Indian women, despite their crucial role in providing domestic labor and care throughout the decade of construction. These documents fall into only two categories—miscellany or sexuality. The danger of this archive is that it suggests black women in the Panama Canal Zone either did not matter or served the sole function of sexual objects.

The imperialist projects of the United States in the early twentieth century maintained a “fantasy of empire” through their administrative documentation, eliding the tensions of violent colonial expansion by creating a comprehensive textual corpus of knowledge that silenced or contained subjects that fit uneasily within its project.3 The ruling institution of the Canal Zone, a military administration known as the Isthmian Canal Commission, valued above all the efficient management of labor with an eye toward fast completion of the canal. As chief engineer Colonel George Goethals described, the biggest challenge was “the necessity of ruling and preserving order within the Canal Zone.”4 The great majority of the general files maintained by the commission thus concern administrative and technical issues under categories such as “Force” and “Buildings—Construction, Maintenance, and Disposal.” Anything not covered under these subjects fell under miscellany, including “Holidays” and “Amusement.” The logic is clear. Work and administration (defined through subcategories of efficiency, scheduling, and finance) prevailed, while amusement and free time were relegated to miscellany.

This central tension between the efficient management of labor and the containment of disruptive intimacy and entertainment culminates in “Freak Letters.” The “freak” folder existed primarily for the amusement of middle management, who would send each other newspaper clippings and photos to add to “the freak file.” Here, Isthmian Canal Commission administrators preserved miscellany that they found particularly arousing, aberrant, or perverse. They thereby used humor and entertainment as a disciplinary logic through which they contained subjects seen as widely outside the bounds of productivity and industrial growth by designating them as “freaks.” West Indian women were particularly disquieting imperial subjects for the canal administration, since they predominantly traveled without official contracts and settled in the borderlands of the Canal Zone, traversing work and domestic spaces and performing necessary, though undervalued, intimate labor. It was precisely black women’s independence as migrants and workers in the Canal Zone that threatened to expose the limits of “successful” American imperial control.

The photograph I analyze here was at the center of a case investigated by the American Canal Zone police regarding the distribution of pornographic photographs of a black woman. The image reveals the woman’s body to the eyes of both American administrators during the canal construction and, decades later, the researcher in the archive. This woman’s photographed body was always meant for consumption, to be distributed, bought, and sold among the male workers of the canal construction project and later to serve as entertainment for canal administrators. In this way, the photograph seems to repeat the tradition of reducing the black female body to “mere spectacle,” an extension of the female slave on the auction block, of the Venus.5

On a methodological level, this essay seeks to model the possibilities that feminist scholars can explore when faced with images meant to sexualize and commercialize black women’s bodies. I suggest that when we reject the Isthmian Canal Commission’s relegation of black women to the category of pornographic “freak” pleasures, we can recover historical subjects not as static extensions of the imperial archive but as embodiments of the overlapping and mobile zones of the Caribbean diaspora. Through her gestural revolt against the conventions of pornography, the woman in the photograph opens up the image for alternative interpretations that flow out from the borders of the Canal Zone throughout the Caribbean diaspora. Read in a diasporic context, she outwits the disciplinary humor of the archive itself, loosening her image from a historical dynamic that structurally and unequivocally silences traces of black women’s lives.

On Archival Silence and Possibility

The photograph of the black woman in Panama exists in a discursive field that overdetermines her as an ahistorical, oversexualized subject. Filed under “Freak Letters,” she is positioned at a particular intersection of race, class, and gender that leaves her historical narrative illegible and obscured. Following Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s landmark work on power and archives, this essay attends to the imbalances that enter the historical process during the moment of fact creation and fact assembly (the making of sources and archives, respectively), creating the archival vacuum on black West Indian women’s experiences of the Canal Zone.6 But rather than seeing it only as an extension of this silencing, I read the preservation of this woman’s photographed body in the “freak” archive as an active strategy of power that sought to corral the multiple lines of desire and possibility stemming from its creation and distribution. Canal Zone administrators maintained the imperial fiction of order and efficiency by narrowing this woman down to an “obscene freak.”

Black feminist scholars have traced road maps for how to address the silences that structure black women’s archival traces by destabilizing colonial discourses and taking up the perspectives of enslaved and colonized black women. This essay builds on the work of scholars such as Marisa Fuentes, Saidiya Hartman, and Mimi Sheller who have questioned the role of power in the production of black women’s history and challenged notions of empiricism that continue to structure our archival approaches.7 Building on the work of social historians of gender and slavery, these scholars use archival fragments to account for the conditions under which black women emerge from the archive of slavery. My work follows their methodology, similarly taking on an archival fragment at the intersection of racialized sexuality and troubling the question of erotic agency that the photograph presents. This essay considers the conditions of black women within the archive of an American imperial project that sought to control the intimate lives of its subjects, but it also locates this woman within a diasporic context of trans-Caribbean mobility and economic self-determination.

Scholars have also considered the archival constraints of visual media for racialized and gendered subjects. In “The Taste of the Archive,” Brent Hayes Edwards relates a similar instance of finding an unexpected item in the archive, a suggestive photograph of a man exiting a public urinal in Paris found within the personal papers of Claude McKay. Edwards connects the dots of diaspora and desire and argues that McKay’s preservation of this photograph is something like “a queer practice of the archive: an approach to the material preservation of the past that deliberately aims to retain what is elusive.” Edwards’s work with McKay’s photograph highlights both the difficulty of translating and the possibilities of delving into the “recalcitrant artifacts” of historical archives, though his focus on a male and literate subject allows Edwards more structural access than would ever be available for the woman in the Canal Zone photograph.8 Approaching this essay requires more than reconstructing the life of this black woman, as Edwards was able to do with the subject of McKay’s photograph. It requires a consideration of critical, historical possibilities that stem from, but neither complete nor exhaust, the experience of this black Caribbean woman.

Tina Campt and Mireille Miller-Young both consider what Miller-Young calls the “gestural interventions” of black subjects within visual archives. Campt mines the use of quiet and immobility in colonial identity photos, while Miller-Young identifies black female pornography performers’ use of “facial stunting.”9 Though they see inverse responses, both authors identify creative performances that “rupture the sovereign gaze” of visual regimes of power.10 Whether through immobility or eye-rolling, the black people portrayed in these visual media refused and confronted the terms of their subjection. My analysis of the Canal Zone photograph similarly traces how this woman ruptures the colonial gaze through her bodily presentation.

Despite her image’s origin as a source of visual pleasure for white American men, the woman in the photograph elaborates an “intelligible, readable sense of self,” producing a photographic subject that steps outside the gazes that fix her to the pornographic or the “freak.”11 The subjecthood she embodies for the camera, loosened from archival and pornographic repressions, forces us to shift our historical perspective and instead consider the multiple historical narratives that crisscross this woman’s life. Uncovering the facts of the life of a specific black working-class woman is nearly impossible with the data provided. Instead, the option is to resist a limited, archival portrait of her and instead conceive of imaginative, diasporic possibilities. My project takes the recalcitrance of this archival object as a generative space to build an empathetic, horizontal, archipelagic counternarrative.

The Normative Photographic Presence of Racial Difference

Pictures of West Indians in the Panama Canal Zone during this period are not rare. Several collections, such as the photographs of Ernest Hallen, the official photographer of the Canal Zone; the postcards of I. L. Maduro Jr.; and the journalistic photographs of Willis J. Abbot, include numerous images of West Indians, though more often than not they are anonymous background characters in a Panamanian “scene,” usually workers digging a ditch that visually overwhelms them.12

Ernest Hallen’s official photographs feature mostly mechanical and technological feats that represent the first “systematic documentation of a given industrial production process by a specially appointed photographer.”13 I. L. Maduro Jr. owned a shop selling postcards, maps, and souvenirs in the midst of what is now called the Casco Viejo (the Historic Old Town) of Panama City, on Central Avenue and Fifth Street. Maduro’s shop was a popular destination for tourists and residents alike—it was the go-to destination for Panama hats—and remained open past the 1920s.14 Journalist Willis J. Abbot compiled photographs taken throughout the period of construction with the support of the canal administration in his 1913 book Panama and the Canal in Picture and Prose. Like Maduro’s postcards, the photographs in Abbot’s book (many previously printed in syndicated newspapers throughout the United States) were expressly published to satisfy the curiosity of the American public to see “man’s crowning achievement in remodeling God’s world” and the “colonial existence” of Americans and their subjects abroad.15

Many Americans and travelers bought and circulated canal postcards. In a series of letters to her literary club, Mary Chatfield, a stenographer in the Isthmus, described the pictures she obtained at Maduro’s shop:

I enclose the postcards of the Administration Building, the cathedral facing the plaza, a view of the Bay of Panama, some of the Ancón Hospital Buildings, showing palm trees, Pacific entrance of the canal at La Boca, views of the Culebra cut and a picture of some colored women carrying heavy loads on their heads. One day I saw a colored woman walking along the street wearing a man’s crownless sailor hat and in place of the crown she had a large ripe pineapple. Evidently she considered this the proper way to carry it for she had nothing in her hands. If you study these pictures they will answer many of your questions. They are taken by Mr. I. L. Maduro, Jr. of Panama, and if any of you want more you can get almost every scene on the Isthmus by sending for the complete set.16

The construction of the Panama Canal coincided with a period of increased circulation of postcards and the growing importance of photographs as a central medium for disseminating news and archiving historical events. Though Chatfield bought postcards of many tourist sites in Panama, the one that most caught her interest showed a black woman carrying a pineapple on her head. For Chatfield, as for many other tourists to the Caribbean and Panama, the main interest in the growing field of postcard photography was in documenting and indexing cultural and racial difference. Chatfield’s memoir suggests the complex imbrication in Panama between “backwards” racial difference (the “other,” the jungle) and the technological “modernity” of the construction. More significantly, it shows how white Americans saw black West Indian women as the hinge of this difference. While black men who worked as official canal laborers fit easily into the imperial narrative of productivity, for observers it was black women who visually symbolized a racial difference that could not quite come under the purview of imperial control. Black West Indian women, who worked outside the bounds of the commission and maintained semi-autonomous communities, were the specific site where photograph and postcard audiences imagined the limits of American governance.

This was particularly the case under the gaze of white American women who closely inhabited spaces with black women in the zone and saw the “domestic sphere” and their black maids as the fields where they could propagate American imperialism.17 Of all the postcards, Chatfield singled out only the one that depicted a black woman carrying a pineapple on her head. These postcards, as she told her friend, answered “many of the questions” white Americans might have had about their role in colonizing the space of the Canal Zone. The postcard of the black huckster and her unique (to Chatfield) way of carrying the fruit provided proof of the necessity of American civilizing influence.

Canal postcards mostly follow a similar model: they focus on important buildings or sites, and they are all brightly lit, outdoor, long shots or bird’s-eye views. Almost every single one is composed with a distinct vanishing point, emphasizing the length of the scene, looking down streets or railroad tracks. The use of this technique emphasizes the space as “objective reality” and the photograph as an indexical representation. Hallen’s shots show a similarly homogeneous aesthetic approach, privileging an “objective” documentarian view, almost always shot from a medium range.

Despite the textual silence on West Indian women, popular and official photographs of the Canal Zone include them in a sizable number of visual depictions (though still far behind the number of photographs of engineering and technology). Clearly postcard buyers and newspaper readers were interested in consuming depictions of the canal area that included black subjects and specifically black women. Abbot, for example, included a color illustration of West Indian washerwomen in his chapter documenting the sanitation efforts of the early construction period (see fig. 1). The caption below the artwork explains: “Taboga, site of the Commission sanitarium, is the most picturesque point readily accessible from Panama City. The laundry place is the gathering point for the women in the village.”18 The illustration and caption identify black women as “picturesque” subjects who add an element of racial curiosity to the technological feats in Panama.

The women at the laundry seem to exist in a “jungle” beyond the civilizing force of the canal commission. The illustration includes a topless woman in the background, not in an overtly pornographic way but rather in an offhand manner, as if to reiterate that black West Indian women’s bodies in the zone were naturally available as the objects of gendered racial difference to American viewers. Abbot’s inclusion of the “realistic” watercolor illustration in a section about sanitation emphasizes that audiences in the United States sought out images that provided a photographic space to imagine the reach of America’s rule, envisioned as a sanitizing influence that rid the jungle of dangers.

Hallen’s official portraits, which also circulated heavily among Zonians and in the American press, often included photographs of white Americans in rigid poses, everyone wearing stiff, starched clothes. In figure 2, for example, the celebrated division engineer Colonel D. D. Gaillard poses formally with his wife inside their home in the Canal Zone. Hallen’s pictures of West Indians, in contrast, were “spontaneous,” and all of them were exterior shots. Portraits of white Americans emphasized domestic scenes and were always accompanied by lengthy identifications of names and occupations, while black West Indians were portrayed as anonymous parts of the scenery, not worth naming in captions.

The great majority of these depict West Indian men at work, surrounded by massive iron structures or large ditches. While photos of West Indian men mainly glorify the massive labor of building an engineering feat, the photos of West Indian women serve as representatives of “the race” as a whole, showing, for example, the so-called typical home of a West Indian laborer. These photographs emphasize that depictions of West Indians not only were in wide circulation but were alluring objects for visitors to Panama. They served primarily an anthropological desire to document the construction of the canal as a process of labor, evidenced by black men at work. But they also documented a photographic justification of imperial social governance, which was evidenced by depictions of black West Indian women as subjects in need of a “civilizing” influence. The photograph of a “typical home” in figure 3, for example, was meant to reinforce notions of racial difference and deficiency precisely by focusing on black women. Unlike “proper” white American “ladies,” who were always arranged in impeccable indoor environments, black women were depicted as standing in the threshold of the home and the street and were surrounded by the implements of their labor, such as washing tubs and hanging laundry. Black women, the photograph suggests, did not fulfill their prescribed feminine role in a private, domestic sphere but rather flouted notions of respectability and disregarded the ideas of precision and efficiency that ruled zone labor.

None of these photographs contain content meant for sexual consumption. However, the archive suggests that nude pictures were certainly not rare during the period. T. B. Miskimon, an inspector for the chief engineer, explained in a report that “worse pictures, much more indecent, are openly sold in Chinese and Spanish stores in Colon and Panama.”19 Vice, gambling, saloons, and prostitution proliferated in the Panamanian cities adjacent to the Canal Zone, where their existence, as Jeffrey Parker argues, “contradicted claims that the gateway between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans heralded a new age of modern scientific virtues that promoted orderliness, sanitation, and efficiency.”20 West Indian women were particularly associated with the sex trade, and the US administration often blamed them for the spread of venereal disease among white American workers and soldiers.21

Official photographs, commercial postcards, and the “indecent” pictures sold openly all encapsulated a central understanding about black female subjects in the Panama Canal Zone—that their existence was primarily as bodies presented for the gaze of white American tourists, white American canal administrators, and the men who consumed and distributed pornographic portraits. The textual absence and photographic presence of black West Indian women in the archives work in concert to reiterate the black female subject as fundamentally corporeal and justify their availability for racialized sexual consumption.22

The voyeuristic, exploitative, and overtly sexualized stereotype of a West Indian woman in the Canal Zone of 1910 was thus already a well-established image produced by the American imperial venture in Panama. West Indian women inhabited a precarious legal and physical space in the Canal Zone, where their independence as workers and the high demand for their labor made them morally suspect.23 Even the photograph collections that do not depict black women in sexualized terms evince a concern for their in-between status, both within and beyond the surveilling gaze of the canal’s imperial venture. Like West Indian men, they provided labor during the canal construction, but their mobility—between the West Indian and American home, between the zone and Panama, between Panama and the islands—and relative autonomy could not be as easily incorporated into the archival logic of racially segregated productivity that defined the construction period.

The Freak Folder

“Freak Letters” is not a frequently used archival designation but neither was it unusual during the early twentieth century. It typically referred to a category of letters deemed puzzling, annoying, or bizarre, usually from an anonymous source. The Isthmian Canal Commission file titled “Freak Letters” is indeed filled with an unexpected medley of documents, including tales of a criminal marching band, anonymous death threats, and letters of apocalyptic visions. The documents collected here range from the comical to the criminal. The subset in an accompanying file titled “Freak Letters (Obscene)” departs somewhat from that initial category. More than just “bizarre” in the context of administrative correspondence, the files in “Obscene” all had a unifying sexual theme, though some are merely suggestive while others are verbally and visually explicit.

“Freak Letters” holds the miscellany that did not fit neatly into the priorities of the canal administration, such as engineering and accounting. But while “Freak Letters” may have been a relatively commonplace designation at the time, “Obscene” speaks to an added level of archival appraisal and selection by the Isthmian Canal Commission. The general subject index rarely contains direct mentions of sexuality.24 Thus, a folder entirely devoted to matters deemed freakishly “obscene” stands out within the mostly sanitized divisions of the archive’s organization. This singularity is precisely what activated my desire as a researcher.25 “Freak Letters (Obscene)” seems to be the place where the “intimate tracings” of life in the Canal Zone interloped into the rational, triumphalist logic of the imperial archive.26

Even odder is the appearance of a West Indian woman within the folder. The administrative files hold little evidence of West Indian women’s presence in the Canal Zone, despite the crucial domestic and intimate labor they provided. In fact, only eight individual folders (out of a collection of more than four hundred boxes holding ten to twenty folders each) contain extended mentions of West Indian women.27 Four of these are about prostitution. West Indian women do not even appear at all in categories where one would expect them to, such as “Laundry Service,” a form of labor widely associated with black women in the Canal Zone. Within an archive of such few black women, any occurrence stands out singularly.

The disparate medley of cases, clippings, and marginalia makes it hard to discern the organizing logic of the “freak” file. The archives of the Isthmian Canal Commission were kept primarily by the Record Bureau. The bureau began to take archive keeping seriously around 1911, when they sent letters to every major division in the zone requesting them to report on the size of their existing files, their current location, and their potential disposability.28 Each division kept its own irregular archives independently during construction, but the bureau began to consolidate and curate these loose files sometime around 1911. Yet the photograph of the nude West Indian woman dates from 1909, implying that even before its more systematic archival practices were set and enforced, the administrators of the Isthmian Canal Commission already preserved miscellany that they found strange or “obscene.” At least by 1934, the “Freak Letters” file had become notorious enough among canal commission employees that an anonymous note from that year sent to the Record Bureau from the Executive Office commented, “Perhaps you would like to add this to your ‘freak’ file.”29 This comment, though a few decades later, confirms that the “freak” file was not merely an archival discard bin but constituted an interpretative act by these administrators, who sought to identify and categorize these “freaks” for their amusement and for posterity.

Though the word freak, initially meaning “a fleck of color,” entered the cultural lexicon in the seventeenth century through John Milton’s Lycidas, it was not until the mid-nineteenth century that the word took on the meaning of “anomaly.” Around this time, freak shows became “the ritual sites where the uncertain polity could anxiously contemplate the new parameters of embodiment that cultural transformations had wrought” in response to modernization, standardization, and new geographies and rituals of labor in nineteenth-century Victorian England.30 In the United States, the word became popular precisely during the time of the canal construction as a result of the growth of freak shows. These shows helped Americans “master the most extreme and terrifying forms of Otherness” deemed naturally deviant while maintaining the national fiction of assimilating difference.31 The dynamic of certain bodies becoming repositories for political, social, and economic anxieties at a particular crossroads is relevant to the period of construction in Panama, a time of similarly radical shifts in labor, geographies, and technologies. “Freaks” in the Canal Zone served as “others” that threatened to expose racialized and gendered anxieties about imperial sovereignty.

“Freak Letters (Obscene)” contains only cases related in some way to either sexuality or death. There is no identifying mark that binds these “freaks”—the folder includes women and men, black and white, diverse ethnicities and nationalities—except that they all inhabit and work in the Canal Zone. In every case, at least one participant is an official laborer of the commission or is indirectly related. The logic of the canal archive segregates any instances that do not fall under the rubric of what administrators considered labor that was productive for the construction of the canal or symbolic of American progress and efficient administration, particularly those that involved love or sex. Evidence of the kind of labor that the administrators did not consider productive was excess, unassimilable by the canal administration, and thus placed in this aberrant category. The “freaks qua freaks” existed only for the entertainment of Record Bureau and canal employees. Initially, each of the files within this folder existed as something else—a criminal investigation, a police report, a newspaper clipping. They only became “freaks” after being classified within a file to which only canal employees had access.

A typical example is a small clipping from an unidentified newspaper ad in 1922 that requests a “GIRL—for cocking and general housework.”32 The clipping is accompanied by a note in which two clerks ridicule the request for “cocking,” joking about the unintended sexual meaning caused by a misprint of “cooking.” The relative mundanity of this clipping brings up the question of archival choice. It shows that mid-level canal administrators were diligently saving pithy clippings and jokes, themselves understanding the Canal Zone as a sexualized space despite administrative attempts to dismiss or criminalize intimate encounters.

Though the clipping does not mention race or nationality, the overwhelming majority of domestic workers in the zone were black West Indian women. The men in this exchange would have immediately understood a racial dimension to their joke. The canal administrators would have perceived the “girl” as a black West Indian subject who straddled a line between “legitimate” and sexual labor. Though asinine, the clipping still functions from the premise that any “girl” employed for housework, and by extension black women, was sexually available. What was “freakish” about this incident was not the association of domestic service with sexual favors but its intrusion into the public arena that defied the general logic of Canal Zone industry and productivity.

Along with the photograph, there are two other textual mentions of black women in “Freak Letters (Obscene).” The first is in a 1908 letter from six Barbadian men to S. E. Brewster, a Bridgetown businessman and the commission’s official representative of recruitment in Barbados:

We find it necessary to approach you for the purpose of selecting us six (6) decent-looking colored girls young women about 20yrs: who may be desirous of coming to the Isthmus. We take it upon ourselves to pledge that they will not be neglected in any way. Life down here is pretty dull without a partner especially for one who is capable of meeting the demands of a “middle class” life and more so when he is desirous of associating himself with his own country people.33

The men seemed to trust the labor recruiter would be able to select six unknown women who would satisfy their need for “decent-looking” “middle class” companionship. At no point do the men make lewd statements about these women nor do they speak to the sexual nature of this arrangement, though there is an obvious sexual implication to their request for partners.

The second is a statement from Sergeant William Rutherford, acting district commander at Ancón Central Station, to his chief of division on 10 August 1913, reporting the arrest of the white American foreman James W. Lord and the black St. Lucian Silvery Henry for “disorderly conduct.” On 8 August at 10:00 p.m., Rutherford had received a complaint about “disgraceful” interracial acts in a room in Ancón (room 7, house 11): “I went to the room and looking through the slats in the door I saw Lord lying across his bed dressed only in B.V.D. under clothing which was unbuttoned from top to bottom, the woman, Silvery Henry, was sitting in a chair engaged in picking ‘crabs’ from the man Lord’s privates.”34 The crime was not interracial sex itself, which, though discouraged, was not illegal. Rather, it was disgraceful or sexual conduct within official single quarters. Both participants were found guilty of disorderly conduct and sentenced with a $25 fine for Lord and a $10 fine for Henry, both of which Lord paid.

As with the photograph of the West Indian woman, this case contains an ambivalent relationship to black female sexuality—a disavowal of her actions through a joke about “picking crabs,” paired with the voyeuristic attraction of a “peeping tom” looking through slats onto a private scene. Though the black woman in this case is identified as Silvery Henry, we know little else about her, and the report positions her as a sexual accessory to Lord. Nevertheless, there is something “extra” in the report, an ironic aside that provides a glimpse into the affective possibilities of a black West Indian woman in the zone. Rutherford ends his report by characterizing Henry and Lord as romantic partners in crime: “Both defendants left the District Court Room and went in the direction of the Ancón Post Office walking side by side.” A handwritten sidenote provides a coda to the case: “Lord moved from I.C.C. [Isthmian Canal Commission] quarters and is living in private room elsewhere 8/15/13,” likely so he would be able to continue his relationship with Silvery Henry.35

The “freak” aspect of both these incidents lies in the intrusion of matters of a sexual nature into the sphere of labor. In both, male employees of the canal evinced a need for female companionship. For the group of Barbadian men, it was in part that they requested companions as a requisite for maintaining their job morale. In the case of James Lord and Silvery Henry, the couple engaged in sexual contact in a commission-owned building that was explicitly meant for single men. Moreover, these cases stood as “freaks” in front of the organizing logic of the canal commission because they flouted the unspoken standards of respectability and productivity that ruled the Canal Zone. Instead, they foregrounded the intimate and romantic lives of workers beyond the specific needs of construction. In the case of Henry and Lord, their interaction showed that the laws of Jim Crow segregation that structured canal society could not successfully limit interracial encounters and thus, by implication, that the laws governing intimate and sexual encounters in the zone failed to contain the potential ways of relation among its residents. In pursuing relationships outside the moral boundaries of the Isthmian Canal Commission, these people questioned the organizational logic of the Canal Zone and thus became “freaks.”

The Photograph

The items in the case file present a complex of characters and relationships that outline the structural conjecture at which this woman found herself—the “workings of power” that defined her life.36 The first item is a letter written by Canal Zone visitor James B. Tolliver on 17 May 1910 to Lt. Colonel Harry F. Hodges in Culebra. Tolliver was a member of the National Purity League, one of many temperance organizations in the early twentieth century that focused primarily on white slave trafficking. Tolliver was transiting through the zone, likely staying at the Imperial Hotel, a simple three-story structure with basic lodgings for $2.50 a night.37 In the hotel lobby, Tolliver saw “a group of loungers” laughing at a picture and, “pretending to be interested,” acquired a copy of the photograph. Incensed by the exchange of this “filthy output,” Tolliver wrote to the highest police authority in the zone asking them to investigate the man who had produced these photos.38

The letter is followed by a memorandum written directly to the chief engineer of the Canal Zone, Colonel George Goethals, by his personal investigator, T. B. Miskimon, following up on the complaint. In it, Miskimon explains that a young black clerk named Arnold Williams had been caught passing around and selling a pornographic photograph of a young woman. He tells the story of how the picture was acquired: One year ago, in February 1909,

two Americans, at that time employed at Tabernilla, got this negro Arnold to take this girl out in the jungle and take her picture undressed. The girl was a well-known character among the men around this town, and worked for a certain Locomotive Engineer’s family. . . . The other American and the negro Arnold took the picture as here shown and another in a side view. Later it appears that the lady employing this girl got “wise” to her character and drove her off. She shortly after left town and has not been seen since.39

This paragraph contains the only information about the woman in the photograph throughout the case. She would remain completely anonymous except that after the last page of the memorandum, in the clinical cold of the National Archives, lies the aforementioned photograph—a close-range shot of a naked, young, black woman smiling at the viewer. There is no concrete confirmation that this woman is West Indian, but several clues would support this interpretation. Though she could be Afro-descended Panamanian, the demographics of the region make it much more likely that she was a West Indian immigrant.40 The clerk, Arnold Williams, was from Jamaica and clearly had some sort of relationship with her, and she worked as a maid, a position overwhelmingly identified with West Indian women in the Canal Zone.

Williams worked as a yardmaster’s clerk in the town of Tabernilla, the site of the Canal Zone’s biggest dump. As Steam Shovel and Dredge records in a 1908 article, “Work on this dump is handled like clockwork.”41 A yardmaster was in charge of directing the activities of the train yard. As a clerk to an important white American employee, Williams likely had more contact with other Americans than many West Indian laborers. Nevertheless, throughout the investigation, white administrators universally refer to him as “the negro Arnold.” Though in a relatively privileged position, Williams was still subject to the rampant discrimination and legalized segregation of the Roll system in the Canal Zone, a system that defined unequal compensation for white and black employees and segregated the use of public facilities.42

Until it closed in 1910, the Tabernilla dump, about halfway up the canal and not particularly close to the major administrative or populated centers, received 16 million cubic yards of material (of an estimated total of 76 million).43 It closed on 12 December 1910; the machine shop was shut down, buildings were demolished, and many laborers were transferred out. Yet before the dump’s shuttering, Tabernilla had been a bustling, labor-oriented town—dominated by men and with fewer recreational facilities than a place like Ancón, closer to Panama City. Tabernilla was likely an unpleasant place for a woman of any race.

On being questioned, Williams denied ever having taken the picture, though he admitted he had made and distributed some copies. The investigator Miskimon seemed unconcerned with Williams’s culpability, saying that “even had he done so, it would only be a misdemeanor in the Canal Zone Laws.” He guessed that Williams likely did not receive any money for distributing the photograph. However, it is equally likely that he did receive some form of compensation for these pictures. Immediately following the investigation, Williams resigned and returned to Jamaica, “so he stated on account of the illness of his mother,” according to Miskimon.44 Though his mother could very well have been sick, it is also possible that Williams left after an intimidating encounter with Canal Zone police or after amassing enough funds to return to Jamaica.

Miskimon interviewed a few Americans in Balboa who he thought knew the “correct ‘dope’” on the situation. Notably, though the report explicitly states that two Americans had initiated the incident by asking Williams to convince the young woman to participate in the photograph, the investigator chose not to name them, thereby exculpating them from the lurid events. From the outset, then, the report squarely places blame on the two black participants, using the testimony of white Americans as authoritative evidence. These Americans further explained: “When they got into the jungle one of these Americans who was married and living in this town, saw another American accompanied by his wife taking a walk in that locality and becoming afraid that they might catch on to what was going on, he ‘skipped’ back home.”45 Though the report sets this scene in “the jungle,” clearly it was not hidden in the jungle but was a mere step away from the road, behind some brush but immediately adjacent and somewhat visible to passersby. The investigator, using a trope common in the Canal Zone, linked black sexuality and “the jungle.” For Americans, Panama itself was the wilderness and they the bringers of civilization come to keep the jungle at bay. Though this meant literally clearing brush and eradicating mosquitoes, as the Canal Zone grew it also came to mean clearing the zone of immorality and metaphorically displacing it to Panamanian territory just outside the zone.46

The report also discloses that the young woman worked as a maid in a nearby American family’s home, the home of a locomotive engineer. There were thirteen locomotive engineers in Tabernilla at the time (one, Fred Ganard, was paid ten more dollars than the others).47 While locomotive engineers were well paid in relation to silver workers, they were certainly not as well paid as foremen or surgeons and occupied a relatively low social status among other white Americans in the zone. As a domestic, this woman performed one of the most common jobs held among black West Indian women in the Canal Zone—three out of four non-US-citizen women working in the Canal Zone for independent employers were domestic servants.48 These women engaged in the role of social reproduction—nurturing white children, cooking for the family, taking care of the house. However, as we shall see below, this woman’s position as a maid tells us little about her potentially wider employment opportunities in the zone.

Diasporic Possibilities

The wording of the investigator’s letter allows no agency for this young woman. He describes the incident as two Americans who “got this negro Arnold to take this girl out in the jungle and take her picture undressed.” The report positions her as a pawn in the “obscene” games of these men. However, the photograph itself does not conform easily to this reading. The woman does not portray herself as meek, unwilling, flirtatious, or lewd but as a bright and smiling participant, presenting her body in a straightforward manner. When we position this woman as a diasporic subject—as part of a wide group of West Indian migrants who circulated the Caribbean looking for employment opportunities in the early twentieth century, settling in various regions, and creating linkages throughout the islands—we can access different potential narratives about her that this photograph suggests.

One of the few things we know about her is that she worked as a maid. White American women speak obsessively about their servants in memoirs about their time in the Canal Zone. While these memoirs only present white women’s perspective on the lives of black women whose labor they demanded and prescribed, the texts can also provide rare glimpses into the private lives of domestic servants when read against the grain. In Elizabeth Parker’s memoir, Panama Canal Bride, a friend relates a story: “My first maid, Mary, was doing fairly well. Then she came to me one day and said she couldn’t work anymore because she was ‘making a baby.’ I asked her if her husband had a job and she said, ’Usban’! ’uh! Hi don’ ’as no truck wid ’usban’s.”49 Elizabeth and her friend interpreted this occasion as yet more proof that West Indians had low moral standards with respect to marriage and sexuality. At the time, West Indian women often had children out of wedlock, and most West Indian couples lived in unsanctioned concubinage. Available sources indicate that Americans discussed this disapprovingly and that the canal commission and churches heavily discouraged the practice. During construction, the commission passed Ordinance No. 14 in 1905, which sought “to prohibit and punish lewd lascivious cohabitation.” It stated that “it shall be unlawful for a man and woman to live together as man and wife without being lawfully married.” Anyone found living without a marriage certificate would be fined $25 and sentenced to thirty days in jail.50 As cohabitation was mostly prevalent among West Indians, the ordinance was clearly designed to give the police broad power to intrude on any West Indian coupling. The law was sometimes enforced and West Indians charged under “lewd and lascivious behavior.” In 1908, for example, there were 131 arrests on this charge alone.51

Elizabeth’s friend was surprised that Mary decided to leave her job because of a pregnancy—to the employer, both the pregnancy and the decision came out of the blue. Her surprise about Mary’s private life shows the disparity between white bosses’ perception of their control over their maids versus the real extent of their authority. West Indian women like Mary or the subject of the photograph did not in fact lead sequestered lives and could instead pursue other opportunities, even as they were limited by the exploitative and patriarchal labor standards of the American Canal Zone. In the end, Mary was fired, but she was likely aware of that possibility and still chose to prioritize motherhood. Stories like Mary’s, only found in personal narratives like Parker’s memoir, give us a wider glimpse into the possibilities the woman in the photograph had available to her. Moreover, it reminds us that she had a personal, affective life that we cannot access, and that it was not necessarily dictated by her relationships with men.

There are few primary sources in which domestic servants speak or in which West Indian women in general speak. Yet in one of these few, a 1906 Senate investigation of a group of Martinican women suspected of prostitution, most of the women interviewed described their employment as a combination of odd jobs used to support themselves and their families. One of these women, Ferdilia Capron, described her profession as “any work that comes in handy.”52 In fact, most West Indian women in the Canal Zone engaged in a variety of jobs, making do with a mix of domestic labor, laundry service, and huckstering. The woman in the photo likely engaged in a variety of jobs and did not define herself solely as a maid to a locomotive engineer. In a time of precarious labor, West Indian women like her often asserted their occupational mobility and economic self-determination.

T. B. Miskimon’s investigation report also remarks that the young woman was “a well-known character among the men around this town.” This might imply that she engaged in sex work in Tabernilla. Equally likely is that, as a black woman, she was subject to suspicion about prostitution and immoral conduct by her mere status in a predominantly male town. Putting aside the investigator’s moral judgment of the woman, it is important to consider the possibility that she engaged in sex work along with other forms of employment. We can read her participation in this incident as a type of sex work. Was this photograph completely coerced? Did she receive compensation? We can imagine, perhaps, that she and Williams were acquainted and had a plan to gain money from white American men through selling photographs. This is not to dismiss the coercion and sexual danger black women faced at any time in the Canal Zone but rather to acknowledge the fluid boundaries of this incident. Nevertheless, as Marisa Fuentes reminds us with the example of mulatto brothel owner Rachael Pringle Polgreen, we cannot equate sexual intercourse with agency in the case of black women.53 Whether or not this woman actively participated in the exchange of the photograph, the murkiness of “agency” in the incident only serves to highlight her precarious existence in a system of sexual exploitation.

The investigator’s letter alleges that she was fired when her boss “got wise to her character.” Afterward, the young woman was nowhere to be found in Tabernilla. The investigator saw the employer’s actions as the catalyst for the woman’s departure. However, the high American demand for domestic labor and its relative low supply made job desertion a common and accepted part of West Indian women’s labor practices during the years of construction. As Julie Greene argues, “Geographical and occupational mobility provided one of the most effective tools for creating independence for themselves in the regimented and industrialized Canal Zone” for West Indian women.54 In the course of living in the Canal Zone, many white American women cycled through four or five maids each.55 It is more likely that this young woman, like many other black women, used her relative mobility to her advantage to navigate the labor market and society of the Canal Zone. Perhaps in response to this incident, to a recurring exploitative relationship with the clerk Arnold Williams or with some white American men, or perhaps for another unrelated reason—mistreatment at work, better wages, another partner—she left her job.

Given that the Canal Zone inspector did not bother to confirm the woman’s location, it is possible she stayed in Panama. “Only about a third of the West Indian community worked for the canal at any moment,” Michael Conniff writes. “The rest were dependents or had jobs and businesses in Panama’s terminal cities.”56 This was especially true of women, who rarely held canal-sponsored labor contracts and were less likely to live in the American territory. Perhaps the woman left or was fired from her job and instead sought employment on Panamanian land. There, she would have likely settled in one of the emerging West Indian neighborhoods such as El Chorrillo. West Indian concerns about national belonging during this period were heavily informed by the geographic, economic, and discursive proximity of red-light districts like Cocoa Grove to their neighborhoods, and to the increasing preoccupation by American and Panamanian politicians about West Indian prostitution at the dawn of World War I.57

The woman in the photograph may have returned to the island from which she originated. Like many women in the West Indies, she might have saved money from her labors or received remittances of “Panama money,” enough to open a bank account somewhere. In the decade of construction, around twenty thousand Barbadians opened new accounts at the Barbados Savings Bank, and almost half were women, with similar trends in other islands. She might have later invested this money in land or life insurance, securing a future inheritance for her descendants and loved ones.58 Or perhaps she used it to travel to the many other places that had growing opportunities for West Indian women, such as Limón, Costa Rica, or New York City.59 Rather than a static, ahistorical subject, we can imagine the multiple movements that might have characterized this woman’s life.

The photograph is both the centerpiece and the great lacuna of this woman’s life, as represented in the archive and in this essay. Including the photograph here could contribute to a continued dissemination of her body as an object of visual-sexual pleasure. The viewer inevitably takes the position of the gazing subject, reproducing the relations of power that created the photograph in the first place.60 As Susan Sontag has argued, the photograph becomes “a potent means of acquiring [the subject], of gaining control over it.”61 As academics, we often seek to understand, to know a person or event “fully” and, in a sense, to gain control over it. The objective in this essay is not to reassert control over the “freak” outlier but rather to expose the archival silencing that this woman’s gestural intervention punctures and to render visible her possibilities of self-determination.


I would like to thank the participants of the Tepoztlán Institute for the Transnational History of the Americas 2015, in particular comentaristas Ricardo Ortiz, Araceli Masterson, and David Kazanjian and my co-panelist Emmanuel Martínez, for giving comments on the very first version of this piece. The final version was advanced by further comments from the History of Women and Gender Seminar at New York University in Fall 2018. My sincere thanks to Barbara Weinstein for inviting me to present and for her generous feminist mentorship. I also thank Michael Gomez, Ada Ferrer, Sinclair Thomson, Anasa Hicks, Rachel Nolan, Emilie Connolly, and AJ Murphy for reading and commenting on various versions of this essay. Thanks to Satu Haase-Webb for scanning assistance. Zeb Tortorici provided a much-needed last-minute intervention.


This term is used in Mireille Miller-Young, A Taste for Brown Sugar: Black Women in Pornography (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014).


Untitled photograph, folder PCC-81-Z1/0 Freak Letters (Obscene), box 1331, Record Group 185: Records of the Panama Canal, entry 34B, National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), College Park, MD (hereafter, Freak Letters [Obscene], NARA).


See Thomas Richards, The Imperial Archive: Knowledge and the Fantasy of Empire (London: Verso, 1993).


George Washington Goethals, Government of the Canal Zone (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1915), 8.


Saidiya Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts,” Small Axe, no. 26 (June 2008): 11; see also bell hooks, “Selling Hot Pussy: Representations of Black Female Sexuality in the Cultural Marketplace,” in Black Looks: Race and Representation (Boston: South End, 1992).


See Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston: Beacon, 1995).


See Marisa Fuentes, Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016); Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts”; and Mimi Sheller, Citizenship from Below: Erotic Agency and Caribbean Freedom (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012).


Brent Hayes Edwards, “The Taste of the Archive,” Callaloo 35, no. 4 (2012): 970, 948.


Tina M. Campt, Listening to Images (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017); Miller-Young, Taste for Brown Sugar, 25, 24.


Campt, Listening to Images, 5.


Kevin Coleman, A Camera in the Garden: The Self-Forging of a Banana Republic (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2016), 4.


See Ulrich Keller, The Building of the Panama Canal (New York: Dover, 1983), a publication of the photographic holdings at the National Archives; I. L. Maduro Jr. Photographs, c. 1904–14, Benson Latin American Collection, University of Texas at Austin; Willis J. Abbot, Panama and the Canal in Picture and Prose (New York: Syndicate, 1913), a publication of previously syndicated journalistic photographs; and Vicente Alberto Pascual Landa, ed., Reverso dividido: Patrimonio gráfico de Panamá en la colección de Charles Muller (Panama City: Museo del Canal Interoceánico de Panamá, 2007).


Keller, Building of the Panama Canal, viii.


Criterion Newspaper Syndicate, Latin-American Year Book for Investors and Merchants for 1918 (New York: Criterion, 1918), 553.


Abbot, Panama and the Canal, 8.


Mary Chatfield, Light on Dark Places at Panama (New York: Broadway, 1908), 72.


For relationships between black and white women, domesticity and colonialism, and so on, see Thavolia Glymph, Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008); Amy Kaplan, “Manifest Domesticity,” American Literature 70, no. 3 (1998): 581–606; Rosemary Marangoly George, “Homes in the Empire, Empire in the Home,” Cultural Critique, no. 26 (Winter 1993–94): 95–127; Vicente Rafael, “Colonial Domesticity: White Women and United States Rule in the Philippines,” American Literature 67, no. 4 (1995): 639–66; Ann Laura Stoler, Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power: Race and the Intimate in Colonial Rule (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002); Laura Wexler, Tender Violence: Domestic Visions in an Age of US Imperialism (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011); and Nupur Chaudhuri and Margaret Strobel, eds., Western Women and Imperialism: Complicity and Resistance (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992). For those in Panama specifically, see Paul W. Morgan, “The Role of North American Women in US Cultural Chauvinism in the Panama Canal Zone, 1904–1945” (PhD diss., Florida State University, 2000), though Morgan does not comment on the relationship between white and black women.


Abbot, Panama and the Canal, 152.


T. B. Miskimon, “Memorandum for Acting Chairman,” 27 May 1910, Freak Letters (Obscene), NARA.


Jeffrey Parker, “Sexual Angst of Empire: Race, Manliness, and Prostitution on the Panama Canal, 1914–1921,” (paper presented at the annual Institute of Latin American Studies Student Association Conference, University of Texas at Austin, February 2008), (accessed 24 September 2017).


See Jeffrey Parker, “Empire’s Angst: The Politics of Race, Migration, and Sex Work in Panama, 1903–1945” (PhD diss., University of Texas at Austin, 2013).


For discussion of a similar dynamic in the representation of black enslaved women, see Jennifer Morgan, Laboring Women: Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004).


US Senate, 59th Congress, 2nd Session, “Papers Concerning Women from Martinique,” Investigation of Panama Canal Matters: Hearings before the Committee on Interoceanic Canals of the United States Senate, vol. 1 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1907), 931–81.


A few folders deal with prostitution, venereal disease, and white slave traffic—a comparatively tiny amount in this archive. These files are always restrained by the aggressively policing language of the sanitation department, alongside a descriptor such as “Policy and Procedure for Control.”


Zeb Tortorici, “Archival Seduction: Indexical Absences and Historiographical Ghosts,” Archive Journal (November 2015),


Daniel Marshall, Kevin Murphy, and Zeb Tortorici, “Queering Archives: Intimate Tracings,” Radical History Review, no. 122 (May 2015): 1–10.


These folders are 2-E-6 (I): “Miscellaneous information re laborers and labor situation, efficiency, health and living conditions, probable reduction in force, etc.—General”; 28-B-3: “Anonymous letters for which there is no subject file”; 28-E-11/B (I): “Criticism of the Panama Canal by Poultney Bigelow”; 37-H-10: “Venereal diseases on the Isthmus, policy and procedure for control, cooperation between US and Panama officials”; 64-Y-4: “Segregation of prostitutes (Red Light District Limits)”; 62-B-14: “Restrictions in PRR leases against gambling, prostitution, etc.”; 62-B-248: “Cohabitation and immoral conduct of white employees with native and colored women”; and 62-B-8 (I): “Miscellaneous police investigations and reports for which there is no subject file nor classification under arrest or crimes.” All are within Record Group 185, entry 30, NARA.


10-D-2: “- to October 31, 1912, Permanent Records of the P.C. and the P.R.R. Co.; Rules, regulations, and methods for consolidation and preservation, and destruction of useless papers—General,” Record Group 185: Records of the Panama Canal, entry 30, NARA.


Canal Zone Executive Department, “Memo for Record Bureau,” 1934, Freak Letters (Obscene), NARA.


Rosemarie Garland Thomson, Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body (New York: New York University Press, 1996), 11.


Rachel Adams, Sideshow U.S.A.: Freaks and the American Cultural Imagination (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), 2.


Newspaper clipping, 22 April 1922, Freak Letters (Obscene), NARA.


Evan Sealy, Evan Gooding, Oscar Pollard, Walter Small, Clifford Harris, and Eugene Mark, letter to S. E. Brewster, 14 April 1908, Freak Letters (Obscene), NARA.


Sergeant William Rutherford, statement to Chief of Division, 10 August 1913, Freak Letters (Obscene), NARA.




Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, Volume 1 (1978; repr., New York: Vintage, 1990), esp. pt. 4, chap. 1.


Thomas Graham Grier, On the Canal Zone, Panama (Chicago: Wagner and Hanson, 1908), 17.


James Tolliver, letter to Harry F. Hodges, 17 May 1910, Freak Letters (Obscene), NARA.


T. B. Miskimon, memorandum to Colonel George Goethals, 27 May 1910, Freak Letters (Obscene), NARA.


Like the United States, Panama has its own complicated historical relationship to race and nationality. I use “Afro-Panamanians” in this case to designate people of African descent who had resided in Panama since the colonial era, to distinguish from the much more prevalent number of black West Indian immigrants who had begun to migrate to Panama as early as the 1840s. According to the 1912 Census of the Canal Zone, only 705 Panamanian women resided there (race undefined, though most American records of the time referred to Panamanian women as “natives”), whereas there were 1,739 Barbadian women and 3,493 Jamaican women, along with several thousand from other islands. Which is to say that the chance of her being an immigrant West Indian woman was exponentially larger than her being an Afro-descended Panamanian. As a black woman, she would have almost certainly been coded visually as West Indian by American residents of the Canal Zone, whatever her national background. Census of the Canal Zone, 1 February 1912 (Mount Hope, CZ: Isthmian Canal Commission, 1912). Nowadays, “Afro-Panamanian” can often refer to both categories. For a brief historical note about “Afro-colonial women,” see Melva Lowe de Goodin, Afrodescendientes en el Istmo de Panamá, 1501–2012 (Panama City: SAMAAP, 2012).


T. J. Dolan, “Panama Canal,” Steam Shovel and Dredge 12, no. 1 (1908): 169.


For more information on this system during the construction period, see Velma Newton, The Silver Men: West Indian Labour Migration to Panama, 1850–1914 (Mona: University of the West Indies Press, 1984).


Isthmian Canal Commission, “Appendix C: Report of Lieut. Col. D. D. Gaillard, Corps of Engineers, United States Army, Member of Isthmian Canal Commission, Division Engineer, Central Division,” Annual Report of the Isthmian Canal Commission for the Fiscal Year Ending June 30, 1911 (Washington, DC, 1911), 142.


Inspector T. B. Miskimon, “Memorandum for Acting Chairman,” 17 May 1910, Freak Letters (Obscene), NARA.




See Ashley Carse, Beyond the Big Ditch: Politics, Ecology, and Infrastructure at the Panama Canal (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2014); Marixa Lasso, “From Citizens to ‘Natives’: Tropical Politics of Depopulation at the Panama Canal Zone,” Environmental History 21 (April 2016): 240–49; J. Parker, “Empire’s Angst”; and Paul Sutter, “Nature’s Agents or Agents of Empire? Entomological Workers and Environmental Change during the Construction of the Panama Canal,” Isis 98, no. 4 (2007): 724–54.


Walter Leon Pepperman, Who Built the Panama Canal? (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1915), 399.


Julie Greene, The Canal Builders (New York: Penguin, 2009), 257.


Elizabeth Kittredge Parker, Panama Canal Bride: A Story of Construction Days (New York: Exposition, 1955), 27.


Greene, Canal Builders, 291.


Olive Senior, Dying to Better Themselves: West Indians and the Building of the Panama Canal (Kingston: University of the West Indies Press, 2014), 249.


US Senate, “Papers Concerning Women from Martinique,” 951.


See Fuentes, Dispossessed Lives, chap. 2.


Greene, The Canal Builders, 124.


See, for example, E. K. Parker, Panama Canal Bride; Rose Mahr Van Hardeveld, Make the Dirt Fly! (Hollywood, CA: Pan, 1956).


Michael Conniff, Black Labor on a White Canal: Panama, 1904–1981 (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1985), 29.


See J. Parker, “Empire’s Angst.”


See Joan Flores-Villalobos, “Colón Women: West Indian Women in the Panama Canal Zone, 1904–1914” (PhD diss., New York University, 2018); as well as Bonham Richardson, Panama Money in Barbados, 1900–1920 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1985); and Cecilia Karch, Rise of the Phoenix: The Barbados Mutual Life Assurance Society in Caribbean Economy and Society, 1840–1990 (Kingston: Ian Randle, 1997).


See Lara Putnam, “Borderlands and Border Crossers: Migrants and Boundaries in the Greater Caribbean, 1840–1940,” Small Axe, no. 43 (2014): 7–21; Lara Putnam, The Company They Kept: Migrants and the Politics of Gender in Caribbean Costa Rica, 1870–1960 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002); and Irma Watkins-Owens, Blood Relations: Caribbean Immigrants and the Harlem Community, 1900–1930 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996).


Allan Sekula, “Reading an Archive: Photography between Labor and Capital,” in Jessica Evans and Stuart Hall, eds., Visual Culture: The Reader (London: Sage, 1999), 189.


Susan Sontag, On Photography (New York: Picador, 1973), 137.