Sunday, November 17, 2019

Happy birthday Suez Canal

‘The scene before us was full of life and animation. Down at our feet a very Babel was at work - men loading the animals from the deep pits in which they were toiling, to a wild accompaniment of sounds, in which the moaning roars of the camel and the braying of donkeys rose above the cries of the workmen.’ This is William Howard Russell, a well-known journalist of the day, describing the Suez Canal under construction. He was travelling with the Prince and Princess of Wales on their tour to the Middle East to see the Canal, and kept a diary of the journey. The Canal would open officially a few months after their visit, on 17 November 1869, 150 years ago today.

The Suez Canal, which extends 100 miles (163 km) from Port Said to the Gulf of Suez, connects the Red Sea with the eastern Mediterranean Sea, thus allowing vessels to sail directly between the Indian Ocean and Mediterranean. It was built by the French-owned Suez Canal Co, and completed in 1869 after a decade of construction. Its completion was a cause for considerable celebration: in Port Said there was a firework extravaganza and a ball attended by 6,000 people, including many heads of state. Two convoys of ships started from its southern and northern points and met at Ismailia, half way along the canal, and the partying is said to have continued for weeks.

Because of external debts, the British government purchased the shares owned by Egyptian interests in 1875, although France retained a majority interest. Under the terms of an international convention signed in 1888, the canal was opened to vessels of all nations without discrimination, in peace and war. But Britain, which considered the Canal vital to the maintenance of its maritime power and colonial interests, won the right (through the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936) to maintain a defensive force along the canal zone.

This situation lasted until 1954, when demands by Egyptian nationalists led to a new agreement under which British troops would be withdrawn over a seven year period. Only two of those years passed before Egypt nationalised the Canal, and set up the Suez Canal Authority to run it. The seizure by Egypt led to Britain, France and Israel occupying the canal zone, and preparing a plan to invade the rest of the country. The Suez Crisis, as it is now known, was eventually resolved through the United Nations, which mandated its first peace-keeping force to ensure access to the canal. It was closed again in 1967, as a result of the Six-Day War, and remained inoperative until 1975.

The Suez Canal Authority today says the canal is one of the most heavily used shipping lanes, and one of the most important waterways in the world; and tolls paid by vessels ‘represent an important source of income for the Egyptian government’. The Authority’s website provides a lot of useful information about the canal today, as well as a good outline of its history.

For a first hand report of the Canal’s opening, it is worth visiting The Engineer’s website, and its archive copy of the magazine dating from 1869 wherein is a long dispatch by ‘a special correspondent’. There is, however, an interesting diary from that year, kept by a journalist, William Howard Russell, who travelled with the Prince and Princess of Wales (the future King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra) on a tour to the Middle East specifically to inspect the Suez Canal.

Russell, born in 1820, was an Irish reporter with The Times. His dispatches by the newly-invented telegraph from the Crimea are considered to be among the first ‘live’ war reports, and are even thought by some to have prompted the resignation of the British government (by revealing the lacklustre nature of the British forces). In the 1869 General Election, Russell ran unsuccessfully as a Conservative candidate for the borough of Chelsea. He did not retire, though, as a war correspondent until 1882, when he founded the Army and Navy Gazette. He was knighted in 1895, and died in 1907.

A short description of the royal tour is contained in The life of Sir William Howard Russell by John Black Atkins, published in 1911, and available at Internet Archive. Here is the relevant passage: ‘At the beginning of 1869 [Russell] had the honour of being invited to join the Prince and Princess of Wales in their tour in Egypt and the Near East. The Duke of Sutherland, Russell and others joined the Ariadne which was specially fitted out as a Royal yacht, at Trieste. Russell did not take part in the whole of the Prince’s journey up the Nile, but rejoined the Royal party about the middle of March at Cairo. Re-starting after a week in Cairo, the Prince and his friends were shown the Suez Canal by Lesseps. At that time the works were incomplete, but the Prince opened the sluices which filled the basin of the Bitter Lakes. From Alexandria the journey was continued in the Ariadne to Constantinople, and so on to Sebastopol. Only some 6,000 persons were living in the town which before the Crimean War had contained over 60,000. It may be imagined how Russell drew upon his memories to retell for the Prince and Princess the stories of the Alma, Balaclava, and Inkerman, and to reconstruct the terror and the pity of the plateau. From the Black Sea the Ariadne steamed to Brindisi by way of Athens and Corfu.

And here are some passages from Russell’s diary of that journey, taken from A Diary in the East, During the Tour of the Prince and Princess of Wales, published by Routledge in that same year, 1869. Originals of the book can be found on Abebooks, costing upwards of £50, but it is also freely available to view and download at Internet Archive (in two volumes).

25 March 1869
‘The Royal party started at 9am, and ran down by rail to the pier, where the works of the Canal Company are being carried forward - a large dock, 420 feet long, being already completed. They went on board an English tug, and steamed round the Mole and as far up the Canal as they could. M de Lesseps, M Borel, and M La Pousse, who were of the party, explained the object of the principal works. The party returned in the tug at 10.30 to the Hotel to breakfast. At 11.30 they left and entered the special train for Ismailia; guards of honour turned out, military bands playing, salutes fired, and all Egyptian and European officials attending their Royal Highnesses to the carriages at the station.

The train arrived at Chalouf in about half-an-hour, where all alighted, and crossing the Sweetwater Canal on a ferry-platform, proceeded along the banks of the Maritime Canal for about two miles, the Princess and Mrs Grey in a pony-carriage with M de Lesseps, the rest on horses.

There is a deep cutting here, in which camels, asses, mules, and men are busily engaged removing the sand and debris. The Timsah lake and the other finished sections do not strike one so forcibly as the aspect of the uncompleted labours of the workmen. The parts of the Canal already fit for traffic have not very much to attract one in the way of sight-seeing. Labour shuns the work it has done; but here we can inspect the nature of the task which was set for those who grappled with the undertaking at the beginning.

The inspection lasted an hour; then the party continued the journey in the train, and at 1pm got out by the banks of the old Sweetwater Canal, where two small steam launches were waiting. They went on to Serapeum, where they were met on landing by Mme Charles de Lesseps, Mme and Mdlle Guichard, Mme Borel, Mdlle Voisin, M Lavalley, and others. They walked through the little town which is springing up here, to the Maritime Canal, where they embarked in steam launches, and started for the Great Dam, through the sluices of which the Mediterranean is being let into the Bitter Lakes.

The scene before us was full of life and animation. Down at our feet a very Babel was at work - men loading the animals from the deep pits in which they were toiling, to a wild accompaniment of sounds, in which the moaning roars of the camel and the braying of donkeys rose above the cries of the workmen. The asses, poor little brutes, go in strings up and down the cutting at a quick step. The camel, on the contrary, paces up and down the declivities with immense gravity and aplomb. The ass stands whilst the Arabs are filling the sacks on his back. The camel kneels. The engineers calculate that a camel will carry one-fifth of a cubic metre of sand, and that he is only able to do the work of two asses, pompous and pretentious as he is.

Having inspected the Dam and the vast space to be inundated, some of the sluices were raised, to let in the water, which rushed rapidly into the bed of the Bitter Lakes; and the party having enjoyed the sight embarked, proceeded by the Canal to Lake Timsah (which they entered at 5.15pm), and reached Ismailia by 6 o’clock. At the landing-place there was a triumphal arch erected, and a crowd of all the colonists and troops lining the road. The Prince and Princess got into basket-carriages with large flat wheels and four horses - the rest of the party on horseback - and were escorted through the principal thoroughfares by a respectful cavalcade.

If the Suez Canal never produced any greater result, such an extraordinary city would be a remarkable development. Every one who takes the smallest interest in what is going on outside the limits of these islands, knows something about the general plan of the Suez Canal, but without a personal visit it is impossible to conceive how wonderful this little city really is. On the borders of the newly-created Lake, there lie stretched out magazines, storehouses, cafes, restaurants, boulevards, church, cemetery, set in a border of bright verdure fresh and blooming. The limits are sand and rock, the veritable Desert itself. Wood can be worked by Egyptian carpenters and French designers into pretty and fanciful outsides, and the necessity of procuring as much air as possible, and of keeping out sunshine and dust, conspire to the production of such fantastic contrivances in architecture, that, on the whole, the chalets are like nothing that I have ever seen. And then the gardens, where there are growing in their newly-found homes the banana, the orange, the cactus, and tropical plants in great abundance, form a charming ornament, and contribute to the light and graceful aspect of the town. Indeed, the houses on the Esplanade, facing the Sweetwater Canal, and looking out upon Lake Timsah and the water front, put one in mind of an exquisite bit of scenery on the stage, or one of those elaborate toys, in detached pieces, got up by cunning workmen for the amusement of the children of the great. The city has all the Desert around it to expatiate upon, and no one can say to what extent it may reach. On the map, its well-defined lines, with broad squares and streets, stretching out into mathematical points, which have no parts, look almost too grandiose. All of this - the town, the people who inhabit it, the trees, the grass - depend on one work - the Sweetwater Canal. Dry up that, and they wither and die. . .’

26 March 1869
‘. . . The Suez Canal is not made. There is a considerable amount of work still to be done. But the conception of M de Lesseps is raised out of the limbo of possibilities. The project for the junction of two seas is already in a condition to admit of a probability that the remaining part, being the easier portion, will be completed by the 11th of October.* The commercial success can only be determined by the experience of a term of years after the canal has been opened. No opinion can be safely offered on the point. If the route be conducive to the interests of commerce, no national jealousies or private interests can prevent its stream flowing through the canal at a great profit to the shareholders. The freight which the Company proposes to charge is at the rate of 10f a ton transit duty on all actual cargo, excluding provisions for the crew, dead weight, stores, &c; and the sum saved on a voyage to the East Indies would be equivalent to the total insurance on the ship, without counting the time saved, cost of the crew in food and wages, and wear and tear of material. It may be said, and with some truth, that it is too early for any speculation until the canal is open; but it is not too early to remark how complete has been the failure of sinister prophecies. . .’  * The footnote reads: ‘The opening, as the world knows, is now fixed for 17th November.’

Happy birthday Suez Canal!

This article is a revised version of one first published 10 years ago on 17 November 2009.

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