This photograph taken in 1898 shows the physically demanding excavation works, needed to cut the artificial valley through the continental divide in Panama.
The work was done by men under inhospitable tropical conditions, with daily temperatures ranging from about 24 °C to 32 °C. The French company, encouraged by the success of the Suez Canal, raised funds from many individual investors to build the Panama Canal. It started the works in about 1881 but the tropical jungle climate, wet seasons, landslides and floods, difficult terrain, an environment quite unlike the calm flat surroundings of the Suez Canal, lead to increasing costs. In 1889 the company became bankrupt. 22,000 workers were estimated to have been killed during the abortive construction, 800,000 investors lost their money and the ensuing scandal became known as the “Panama Affair”.
However, unlike now, in 19th Century the financial managers and those with important and high-ranking social positions were not protected by their social status or the law but were in fact held accountable and punished by the law for the social consequences of the financial disaster.