The Suez Canal
The Suez Canal
Linking Two Seas. A 101-mile waterway, the Suez Canal separates Africa from Asia, runs north-south across the Isthmus of Suez in Egypt, connects the Mediterranean and the Red Seas, and provides the shortest maritime route between Europe and the Indian Ocean. Running from Port Said in the north to Suez in the south, the canal is a lockless open cut with major bends, which makes use of an intricate series of lakes to both the north and south of the main canal. Over the long sweep of history, imperial powers have been sensitive to the value of a canal linking the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. It seems that the Egyptians around 1850 B.C.E. constructed the first canal, and the the Romans later extended it. After the collapse of Rome the canal came under Byzantine control and fell into disrepair, but it was reopened during the Arab conquest of North Africa before being finally filled in by the Abbasid caliphs in 775 C.E. More than one thousand years later, following his invasion of Egypt in 1798, Napoleon Bonaparte conducted a survey with the aim of reconstructing a canal across the isthmus. His plan was abandoned when his engineers argued that the Red Sea was more than thirty feet higher than the Mediterranean. This assessment proved untrue in the 1830s, and interest in the canal was quickly reignited. The French took the lead, hoping that a canal would solidify their commercial interests in the Mediterranean, boost the commercial power of Marseilles, and tip the balance of power in the region away from Britain. Fearing the commercial and strategic advantages that might accrue to its rivals by the canal’s construction, the British vehemently opposed the scheme and continued work on a railway that they had begun in 1851 across the isthmus.
Construction. The French diplomat and entrepreneur Ferdinand de Lesseps drafted the initial plans for the formation of a company to undertake the construction of the canal, gaining the support of Muhammad Said Pasha, the Ottoman khedive (viceroy) of Egypt. In November 1854 the Compagnie Universelle du Canal Maritime de Suez was established. In the face of intense international pressure Muhammad Said Pasha granted a concession in January 1856 to the company to run the canal for ninety-nine years, after which time it would return to Egyptian control. With a 60-million-franc subscription from Said Pasha, de Lesseps toured Europe to raise the remaining capital. Construction began in 1859. The bulk of the laborers were Egyptian, while the overseers and technical experts were French. Construction took a decade rather than the planned six years as a result of ongoing labor problems, difficulties supplying the workforce with fresh water, and a cholera epidemic in 1865.
Tightening Imperial Ties. Finally completed in November 1869, the canal was celebrated internationally as European governments, navies, companies, and settlers cheered the rapid reduction of travel time that followed its construction. Although the canal did not generate a profit until 1875, it breathed new life into the port cities of the eastern Mediterranean as ships traveling to and from India and East Asia now could take the canal in preference to the long journey around southern Africa. In effect, the canal tightened the ties of empire, bringing India closer to Britain, solidifying the connections between the Dutch East Indies and the Netherlands, and strengthening France’s grip over its Asian holdings. Given its strategic and commercial importance, it is hardly surprising that the canal was also subject
to intense dispute. This Controversy focused on the canal, s international status. Britian, which purched the khedive of Egypt’s shares in the canal in 1875, was at the center of these debates. Although it effectively controlled the canal by the time the Convention of Constantinople discussed international use of the Suez Canal in 1888, Britain refused to attend the convention. It was only in 1904 that Britain affirmed the convention’s recommendations that the canal was truly international and that it should be open to all ships in times of both peace and war. Nevertheless, Britain continued to exercise its power over the canal. It blocked the passage of the Spanish navy in 1898 while Spain was at war with the United States (thereby helping the Americans oust the Spanish from the Philippines), and it prevented the transit of German ships through the canal during both world wars. By the middle of the twentieth century the Suez had become the most strategically important waterway in the world, and the subsequent conflicts over the control of the canal in 1956 and the 1970s underlined the ongoing importance of the canal in international trade and diplomacy.
Ferdinand de Lesseps, The History of the Suez Canal: A Personal Narrative, translated by Sir Henry Drummond Wolff (Edinburgh 6c London: Blackwood, 1876).
D. A. Farnie, East and West of Suez: The Suez Canal in History, 1854-1956 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969).
Hugh J. Schonfield, The Suez Canal in Peace and War, 1869-1969 (London: Vallentine … Mitchell, 1969).