The living conditions of the Panama Canal labourers varied depending on several factors including: race, nationality and their position on the Canal. Whenever it was possible, workmen of the same nationality were grouped together in villages of stilted shacks. White officials, overseers and skilled employees, however, were provided with much more spacious houses, made of wood, with some having verandahs and small garden plots.
Between the years 1881 and 1883, pre-fabricated houses were bought and then fitted together in Panama. Eventually, barracks for black and unskilled white employees were built. The first set was made of wood and set on pillars a few feet off the ground with up to 100 bunks placed side by side. Later, to save space and money, smaller and cheaper models were built which held 50 bunks arranged in two levels. There was no mention of any sanitary facilities however. Many West Indians decided to rent rooms in Colón and Panama City or even to set up their own shacks on the Canal company’s land. When the Americans took over the construction of the Panama Canal, they used the barracks built by the French. Later, new buildings were erected, but the better ones were still allocated by race.
Large quantities of food items were imported from the United States of America and other nearby countries for the canal labourers. French companies depended on Panamanian merchants to provide food supplies and food was also cooked and distributed from kitchens set up in the work camps. A Jamaican, Samuel Reid, who worked six miles outside Panama City, spoke of the food to the Daily Advertiser and Lawton’s Commercial Gazette (April 18, 1854):
“at six in the morning, green tea and biscuits; at nine o’clock yams, biscuits, beef and pork; at two o’clock dinner – soup, beef, pork, yams, biscuits; at six o’clock in the night – corn flour pap, coffee and biscuits…”
Providing food for canal labourers became a lucrative business. Many Chinese who came to work on the canal left to set up restaurants and cultivate food for labourers.