From Plantations to Islands of Science: Travels in Costa Rica and Panama - Part II

This is the second part of a three-part series on George C. Wheeler and the relationship of science and tourism in the Caribbean by the Archives' former Research Fellow, Blake Scott.

United Fruit Company employees loading bananas to be shipped to markets in the United States. Postca After visiting Cuba, Wheeler sailed to Costa Rica. As soon as his ship docked in Puerto Limón, on June 12, 1924, he became a visiting employee of the United Fruit Company (UFCO). He would live and work with the company's white community of managers and 'skilled' workers. At the time, UFCO controlled vast tracts of land on the Caribbean coast of Central America, inspiring the now infamous phrase "banana republic." The circum-Caribbean, as historian John Soluri documents, had become synonymous with bananas in the minds of U.S. consumers. By the 1920s, the only fresh fruit eaten in greater quantities in the U.S. than the banana was the American apple. [John Soluri, Banana Cultures: Agriculture, Consumption, and Environmental Change in Honduras and the United States (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005)]

Each morning Wheeler set out with his guide and colleague, Siggers, to collect termites and other "pests." UFCO depended on a legion of full-time and visiting scientists to protect its agricultural investments. Plant diseases and insects constantly threatened the Company's monoculture plantations. It was Wheeler's job, in particular, to study insects that damaged cacao trees and their fruit.

When Wheeler wasn't working in the field, however, he found time for recreation in Costa Rica's urban and rural environment:

June 22, Afternoon: Siggers, three Costa Ricans, and I tried digging into Indian graves – little success. Found a few fragments of pottery – one the head of a parrot, which I have kept. Later – Siggers and I collected in a cacao plantation behind the house. 

June 26, Left Siguirres [Plantation] at 11:55 for San José. Beautiful ride. Railroad follows the Reventazón River. San José an attractive city. Cool. Stayed at Hotel Francés – very good, $5.00 per day including meals. Evening – Teatro América (2 colones) – Compania Cómica de Argentina – 'Mustafá' and 'Los Dientes del Perro.' The actors talk too fast; I could understand very little.

Panama Canal from Barro Colorado IslandAlthough Wheeler was officially in Costa Rica as a scientist specializing in entomology, leisure activities were still part of his experience. He found time to rob Indian graves and attend risqué vaudeville shows. Depending on the moment, he could wear the hat of natural scientist, agronomist, tourist or adventurer.

Just shy of a month after leaving New York, Wheeler boarded another UFCO ship. He was headed for the main and final destination of his trip, the Barro Colorado Island Laboratory (BCI) in the Panama Canal Zone. The BCI Lab, built in the middle of the man-made Gatun Lake, was and still remains one the most important biological research stations in the Americas. When U.S. engineers flooded the lands, which would become the main waterway of the Panama Canal (1914), a small mountain of 476 ft. became an island sanctuary for nearby flora and fauna. The "natural" environment that Wheeler and hundreds of other scientists would study at BCI was the product of human engineering. The U.S. government's intervention on the Isthmus of Panama, beginning in 1903, created an outpost in Latin America not only for U.S. military and business interests, but also for U.S. scientists and leisure travelers.

In 1923, the governor of the Panama Canal Zone, Jay Johnson Morrow, evicted the few remaining Panamanian residents from the island-hill and decreed Barro Colorado a biological reserve for U.S. scientists. Wheeler visited the island the following year:

June 29, The Calimares [UFCO ship] docked early at Cristóbal [the Caribbean port of the Panama Canal Zone]. I went to the United Fruit Company office and tried to get Mr. Zetek on the telephone [BCI's manager]. He was in New York. Nor could I get Mr. Molino, his assistant. I took the [Panama Railroad] train to Cristóbal at 9:10, reached Frijoles at 9:54. Fare (first class) $1.05 - 21 miles - five cents per mile. Found John English the factotum of Frijoles, a very intelligent and friendly negro. He got a big cayuco (canoe hollowed out of log) for me with two men (Lindo, a negro, and Ernesto, a Panamanian) to row me with my baggage (two small trunks and a suitcase) across to the island for $1.50.

Map of the Panama Canal and surrounding area. From Doug Allen's collection.

All the scientists were away, the laboratory in charge of an Indian (Leonardo or 'Chico' [boy]) of the Chiriqui tribe - friendly, intelligent, exceedingly strong. The laboratory is in a clearing some distance above the landing. It is reached by a long flight of 186 steps (wooden). The house is screened. Rain water to drink. Shower under the house. From the rear of the house, a trail leads back into a forest. I followed it for some distance in the afternoon. Captured a monstrous spider wasp (Pepsis).

As Wheeler points out, it was men of color who looked after U.S. visitors. They rowed the boats, constructed the houses, cut the trails, cooked the meals, and built and fixed the machines that allowed scientists and tourists to visit the island. This of course was the natural order of things according to most white-male scientists and colonial officials in the first decades of the twentieth century. The organization of the Barro Colorado Island Lab was predicated on a naturalized social hierarchy of race, class, and gender distinctions. Women were not allowed to spend the night on the island. Workers of color were assigned the most rigorous manual labor and segregated to the "Boy’s House," apart from the main sleeping and dining quarters. Educated white men, like Wheeler, sat on top of this social order. Leonardo, for example, the friendly and intelligent Chiriqui Indian he mentions in his journal, is repeatedly described as "chico," that is boy, in need of specific direction. "Since he speaks no English, I had to tell him in Spanish what to cook and how to cook it." 

But workers often saw the situation differently. Fausto Bocanegra, a BCI employee in the 1940s and 1950s, explains that "when they got here, because of my knowledge, I was their teacher." Bocanegra and his "unskilled" colleagues, who lived in the island’s "Boy’s House," sometimes knew more about the tropical environment than their scientific guests. He remembered, one time, collecting specimens with a U.S. scientist. "I worked here almost a month with a hunter... [but] I was the hunter and he was my helper, because I caught the animals and he took what he wanted, with… permission from the Smithsonian."

STRI Staff Holding Snake, by Unknown, c.1960s, Smithsonian Archives - History Div, 90-10886.Despite claims of racial, national, and educational superiority, U.S. scientists depended on local expertise. When we read about the history of U.S. scientists or explorers abroad, however, we normally learn about "Indiana Jones" or Roosevelt-type individuals roughing it in the jungles of Latin America to seek truth and knowledge. Rarely do we hear about these people's ordinary attributes and social dependencies. We learn even less about the social and ecological context that made the adventures of these white-male Americans possible.

Without UFCO transportation and funding, U.S. military intervention and engineering, and local knowledge and labor, George Wheeler would not have been able to reach his destinations and conduct scientific research. How – in light of those historical realities – do we make sense of the long-held claim that the Tropics were somehow more "natural" or "pristine" than other environments, or in the context of so much local knowledge, awaiting discovery? From Cuba to Panama, George Wheeler depended on a diverse group of people to produce his travel experience. Tourists, tour guides, steamship workers, UFCO plantation managers and workers, "unskilled" laborers, research assistants, and U.S. army personnel were part of an elaborate and asymmetrical social network connecting the U.S.-Caribbean world.

Retracing the journey of a scientist like Wheeler is crucial to understanding how future travelers would also navigate the region. How many of Wheeler's students, colleagues, and friends followed his footsteps and went on their own Caribbean adventure, depending on the same social and environmental order?

To learn about the educational experiences influencing Wheeler's tropical travels, see Part III of this article, "The Education of George C. Wheeler."

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