Colin Jackson: the tale of Panama

Former hurdles champion Colin Jackson traced his roots across the Atlantic for the latest series of BBC1's 'Who Do You Think You Are?'. Along the way, he discovered his family's role in building Central America's great canal.
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The Independent Travel

My maternal grandfather, Everil Emmanuel August Dunkley, travelled to Cardiff from Jamaica in 1955 - Cardiff was a popular destination because of the work opportunities provided by the coal and steel industries - and I still have relatives living in Kingston, so I visit regularly. But I'd never visited Panama, where my grandmother was born. So when I was asked to take part in the BBC series Who Do You Think You Are?, I realised it could provide a great opportunity to travel there for the first time and trace her side of the family.

I remember my grandmother, Maria Roslyn, very well because she used to visit us in Wales when I was growing up. She was born in Panama, but later travelled to Jamaica where she met and married my grandfather. However, she had to return to Panama to look after her sick father when my mother, Angela, was 14. The marriage broke up and she remained in Panama until she died.

For the programme, we spent most of our time in Panama filming in Panama City. We had only four days there, so the schedule was pretty hectic, but I managed to get a feel for the place and I'd love to return. My grandmother was born in Colon, which is on the Atlantic side of the Panama Canal. But the main location for our film was the canal itself, because some of my relatives had worked on it. We also visited the old part of Panama City, the Casco Viejo, a splendid place with some beautiful old colonial buildings - they're crumbling but they're still standing. It reminded me of Old Havana in Cuba with its run-down buildings yet stunning architecture.

I was surprised at how lush Panama is and yet how commercialised Panama City has become. You feel as though you're arriving somewhere like Florida - it's so Americanised. It has all the familiar shops and restaurants that you see all over the western world. I wasn't expecting that. Our hotel, the Veneto, had been open only a few months. Located right in the heart of Panama City, it is attached to a casino, although we were so busy we didn't have time to play the tables. Our rooms were beautiful, and although Panama is a vibrant, bustling city, we weren't disturbed by any noise. You get a sense that there's a quite a bit of wealth in the city because there are lots of fabulous houses. And in the new part of the city there are a lot of skyscrapers - which was another surprise to me. In fact, Donald Trump has just built a tower there.

The Panamanians are planning to build a new canal right next to the existing one, which will take the path of the old French route. Seeing the Panama Canal for the first time was probably one of the biggest let-downs of the trip - it seems tiny and very narrow when you see it. You stand on the observation deck thinking: "OK. So that's it?" Of course, I can appreciate what an incredible feat it was to build - for one thing, it's 80km long - but it wasn't quite the spectacular sight I had imagined. Hopefully the new canal will be far more flash.

The Miraflor Museum, right next to the canal, is a fascinating place to visit. There you can learn all about the people who arrived in Panama to help to build the canal, discover its troubled history and find out why the first attempt failed. We were researching my great-grandfather Richard Augustus Packer, who was listed as having worked on the canal in 1905. If you know the name of a relative, you type it into the computer and find out if they worked on the canal or any of its facilities. It can even tell you their wages.

We discovered that my great-grandfather worked for the canal company for six months as a hospital attendant and earned $25 a month. I was quite astounded when I discovered that. It's only when you go and find out the little details that you fully appreciate what kind of life they must have had. When you consider the huge troubles and torment they went through to build the canal, it is amazing that it was ever completed. It was a huge feat back then, and it will be even now when the new one is built.

I was very moved when I visited my grandmother's grave on the outskirts of Panama City. The cemetery is in the middle of nowhere, about 40km in the direction of Colon, in the raw, green countryside. Panama's landscape can't compare with Jamaica's. To make the film, we had first travelled to Jamaica, so I had been spoilt for beautiful views. Although it's only just an hour from Panama by air, Jamaica is such an incredibly lush island that everywhere else looks quite bleak in comparison. Panama does have the appearance of a Caribbean island, the greenery and abundance of fruit trees, but in Jamaica there's a stunning view at every corner.

I have to admit I didn't enjoy the food in Panama. Even when my grandmother used to cook for us, I hated it. Everything is fried and quite sugary. I much prefer the spices that you find in Jamaican food. But there are plenty of restaurants in Panama City that serve other dishes. We found a great Italian restaurant called Pomodoro, just up the road from our hotel, which is run by a very friendly Italian who once lived in London. In the evenings, we would drive along the Amador Causeway, which leads to the coast, where there are lots of good restaurants and bars. The view back of Panama City's skyscrapers is spectacular.

We spent nine days filming in Jamaica, travelling around by bus. To me, Jamaica is almost home: I go there so often. But I've only ever stayed in Kingston and on this trip I visited places I'd never seen before - it was the first time I've been able to get into the countryside. We filmed in the parish of Manchester, which the locals call "Little Britain" because a lot of folk return from Britain to live there. I keep telling people it's like Tuscany but better. The landscape is so green and mountainous. We were about 2,000 metres above sea level - the experience was just phenomenal.

Another new place I visited was Port Antonio. It's stuck right on the eastern edge of Jamaica and has a strong colonial feel to it. In a way, it felt like it was still occupied. It has some incredibly beautiful and ornate buildings.

I'm so glad I took part in the series because it was like a personalised history lesson that I wouldn't have experienced had I stayed at home. Getting an insight into my ancestors' lives was fascinating. Through a local genealogist, we were able to track down my great-great-grandfather, Adam Wilson, who died in 1849. He was almost certainly born a slave but would have been emancipated by the abolition of slavery in 1834.

Slaves were buried in unmarked graves so I could get only a rough idea of where my ancestors were buried in the cemetery of the Greenmount Plantation where they'd worked. But we discovered that Adam was one of the first group of slaves who were freed and given their own plot of land to work. We went to visit that land, in Mile Gully, which is a spectacular place. But life would have been ridiculously tough for him so he would not have been able to appreciate its beauty as I could. Once you get an impression of their working day, I don't think they would have had time to absorb any of their surroundings.

I came away realising that it was their fight, their struggles, that put me in the position I'm in today and it was very moving. The factual side of slavery I already knew about, so it wasn't really a shock. I mean, if you come from a background like mine and you don't know about slavery, then you're very naïve. But it was great to talk to local people and hear stories that have been passed down through the generations.

The fieriness my ancestors had I think I also must have in me. Because when I lined up on many occasions to compete for Britain, it took a lot of heart and soul to get out there and be at war with my competitors. I feel really proud that I'm still linked genetically to the first settlers of Jamaica.

Although Jamaica and Panama are great places to visit I could never call them home. But my journey has made me want to discover more of this part of the world because it's such a unique place. For me, this trip was just the beginning.

'Who Do You Think You Are?' with Colin Jackson will be shown on 20 September on BBC1 at 9pm. The 'Who Do You Think You Are?' book, published by HarperCollins, price £14.99, is at all good bookshops. To find out more about tracing your family go to bbc.co.uk/familyhistory

My top view

We visited a place called Moore Town in Portland, Jamaica, from where we had one of the best views of the Blue Mountains. We were about 2,000m above sea level so we had an incredible panoramic spectacle and the climate was just perfect. It was about 26C up there and the air was so fresh. Down in Kingston it would have been around 38C.

My favourite beach bar

During our trip to Jamaica we had only one day off so we travelled down to Treasure Beach, to Jake's Place Place (001 876 965 3000; island outpost.com), which is owned by Chris Blackwell. It's a very cool café-bar and hotel on a beautiful beach. Although I can get bored sitting on a beach all day, Jake's is the perfect setting to relax, enjoy the sunshine and listen to the ocean.

My top city

We filmed in the Plaza Major in the old part of Panama City, the Casco Viejo. Here you'll find some of the most beautiful buildings in the city. Right next to the Presidential Palace there is a wonderful old cathedral and the buildings are Spanish colonial in style. The houses in the square are so stunning you can't help dreaming about buying one and renovating it.

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