Book Review: Michael E. Donoghue’s Borderland on the Isthmus: Race, Culture, and the Struggle for the Canal Zone


By Alexia Rauen

Michael E. Donoghue’s historical study Borderland on the Isthmus: Race, Culture, and the Struggle for the Canal Zone exposes traditionally underrepresented issues in the Panama Canal Zone. The Panama Canal Zone, which encompasses the canal itself, a well-known trade route that splits Panama, also encompasses the surrounding area. This zone was under U.S. control from 1903 to 1979; the canal was returned to Panama in 1999. Donoghue’s book is impressive and particularly strong in its detail concerning themes of race and gender in the Panama Canal Zone.  

Donoghue expresses a frequency of negative interactions between the U.S. military and the Panamanian locals during the U.S. territorial occupation of Panama. He vividly explains how this occupation had harmful effects for numerous Panamanian women,1 as Donoghue states that, “Panamanian officials received so many complaints of U.S. assaults on women that they established a special protective system. Panamanian and Latina prostitutes wore distinctive gold-plated ankle bracelets so that U.S. servicemen could discern more easily who was a prostitute.”2 Donoghue also highlights a number of points of tension, particularly, that Panama only had one airport until 1948, which was in the canal zone, meaning that visitors flew into the U.S.-controlled zone, and if chose to leave, had to cross a fence in order to enter Panama.3 Furthermore, Panamanian citizens frequently referred to the zone’s fence as the “Berlin Wall.”4

Donoghue also spends time exploring the racial dynamics in Panama’s Canal Zone. He reminds the reader of the ethnic divisions in canal work force that accounted for different pay rates within the zone– either gold (for “white managers and foreman”) or silver (for any race or nationality deemed inferior).5 40,000 individuals of West Indian descent worked on the canal’s construction.6  Between the Zonians (those who were United States citizens who lived in the zone)7 and the non-white canal workers there was significant tension, a dynamic that was also reflected in interactions with Panamanian locals. This tale is not unfamiliar for those who have studied race relations in any part of the world.

In a fascinating account, Donoghue tells the story of John Peter Williams who influenced “the identity formation of militant West Indians throughout the twentieth century,”8 and became infamous for attacking and robbing Zonians and canal institutions deemed to be significant.9 While he was Panamanian by birth, Williams’s story is seldom-known to what Donoghue calls the “Latin Panamanian” (Panamanians who identify themselves more with their Spanish and Latin roots as opposed to Panamanians of African or Caribbean descent), but is instead remembered by people with roots in the West Indies.10 Donoghue continues to inform the reader that Zonians attempted to whiten Williams – stating his “skull was more like that of a white man” – because otherwise, the Zonians could not justify the extent to which Williams plagued their Canal Zone.11

Donoghue also includes famous rape cases that occurred in Panama for their ability to explain both race relations and commonly held views of the Panamanian woman. As upsetting as these tales are, remembering these incidents is important. In the 1955 Helton-Mitchell case, two U.S. soldiers who raped two Panamanian women received minimal to no punishment (only one of the men received 30 days in jail and a small fine), even with the significant evidence against them.12 However, in a case in which the rapist was a man of West Indian descent, the sentence was the maximum penalty of 50 years.13 Again, racial dynamics were at play, with impunity abundant for the Zonians.  

Donoghue takes a unique and valuable approach in analyzing the implications of the Panama Canal by focusing on often underrepresented groups. This book is a comprehensive and detailed text that focuses on themes of tension, primarily racial and gendered. His work emphasizes the need to understand the complexity of borders and borderlands – a need that rings true across our incredibly globalized world.

  1. Michael E. Donoghue, Borderland on the Isthmus: Race, Culture, and the Struggle for the Canal (Bogart: Duke University Press, 2014), 14.
  2. Ibid, 14.
  3. Ibid, 16.
  4. Ibid, 18.
  5. Ibid, 52-53.
  6. Ibid, 53.
  7. Ibid, 58.
  8. Ibid, 107.
  9. Ibid, 109.
  10. Ibid, 112.
  11. Ibid, 113.
  12. Ibid, 136.
  13. Ibid, 136.

Donoghue, Michael E. Borderland on the Isthmus: Race, Culture, and the Struggle for the Canal. Bogart: Duke University Press, 2014.

Image: Wikimedia