The Suez Canal

To enable everything to remain equal and because the story of the Panama Canal has already appeared it was considered prudent to write the history of the Suez Canal. As the Suez Canal was the only other canal of any significance in the world, today and when it was built, it is only right to portray its history.

It was during the 1850s that de Lesseps expounded the idea and benefits of canals to the French people. This was then expanded to the rest of Europe when he proposed to plan and build the Suez Canal. Robert Stephenson, who planned the British railway system, considered the idea of a canal that connected the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea quite impracticable.

The majority of the people in Britain opposed the idea of a Suez Canal. One of those who thought the canal was a good idea was King William IV, and he wrote to Lord Palmeston in 1833 that it was in Britain's interest, as ruler of India, to become a more friendly ally of Egypt. The reasoning behind this communication is that the king was thinking of the quicker (and shorter) route for passengers, cargoes, and mails travelling between Britain and India. The overland route, established by Thomas Waghorn, beginning at Alexandria used horse drawn boats to transport the passengers and their luggage together with any cargo, including any mail, on the old Mamoudieh Canal, which was rebuilt in 1819-20, some 17 kilometres to Afteh where the canal met the Nile. At Afteh the passengers, mail, and cargo were transferred to either sailing boats or steamships to take them to Cairo, and across the desert to Suez by a selection of canals and horse drawn vans. This continual changing means of transport (for the passengers) was rather tedious and was partially alleviated when the Alexandria to Cairo railway was opened in 1856, and almost totally when the line was extended to Suez in 1859. The Suez Canal would eliminate this changing of transports, as there would be no need to disembark until the ship had moored at the destination port.

Once de Lesseps had promoted his idea of the canal Britain disliked it even more. The reason for this increased dislike was the thought of the increasing French influence and might alter the political situation. But Britain did not appreciate the savings in shipping costs and time on the route between Britain to India and Australasia.

The story of how de Lesseps became involved in building the Suez Canal has often been told, but to make this little article complete a brief history is now to be related. Napoleon's dream of a canal across the isthmus between the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea caught the imagination of de Lesseps. Ever since then he learnt about Napoleon's dream he began to plan, think, and dream about how the Suez Canal could be built, but with no real expectation of fulfilment. While a French consul at Cairo in the 1930s he had got to know Prince Said of Egypt very well. It was in 1854 that Said had come to the throne of Egypt, and de Lesseps had retired from the Foreign Service. Within a matter of two months, in Egypt, both he and Said had come to an agreement to build the canal. De Lesseps was not an engineer, but a superb organiser, and with 20,000 workers began building the 164 kilometre lockless ship canal from Port Said to Suez.

The triumphant opening of the Suez Canal was performed by French Empress Eugenie on 17th November 1869 in the Imperial yacht Aigle. This was the crowning glory of de Lesseps achievement. The first ship to follow the yacht Aigle through the canal was the British P & O liner Delta. The world, especially the French nation, considered the Suez Canal epitomised the age, and it appeared that de Lesseps had performed the impossible. It was often compared as a gigantic achievement that rivalled the building of the Great Pyramid, yet benefiting all mankind by being freely open to the ships of all nations.

For the first two years of operation the Suez Canal Company made such a loss that they could not even pay its statuary minimum 5% on its shares. In 1872 the canal company made its first profit, and thereafter the profit increased each year. Two years later Britain bought all of Said's shareholding and, therefore, had a great influence over the canal company. Britain had now changed its position from being a hostile opponent of the canal to one promoting its benefits. By 1883 seven directors representing user interests were installed onto the board.

In 1886 ships were permitted to use the canal at night. These night passages were made possible by buoys illuminated using compressed gas and portable generating equipment that was to be used by ships using the canal. These portable generators provided a large searchlight at the front of each ship, and lesser lights on the sides and stern. The first ship to use the canal at night was P & O's Carthage in 1886. In 1909 (50 years since it opened) the bottom width of the canal was increased from 22 to 30 metres, and in addition to Lake Timsah and the Salt Lakes there were 23 passing places. While increasing the bottom width the depth was also increased from the original 8 to 10 metres, and improving the radius of the curves. The canal was constructed in a 'V' shape by excavating from either side, hence the reference to 'bottom width'.

During 1870 a total of 486 ships totalling less than 500,000 tonnes used the canal, but by 1908 this had increased to 3,795 ships and 19,110,981 tonnes. In 1870 the total receipts amounted to 374,680 British Pounds but in 1908 they were only 1,200,000 British Pounds, which indicated how much the charges had been reduced due to the increase in traffic. The inverse was true for the share price; in 1873 it was only 205 French Francs, whereas by 1912 it had increased to 6,000 French Francs.

Nineteen years since the Suez Canal had been opened, in 1888, nine powers signed a convention that guaranteed the free use of the canal. All vessels were permitted to use the canal in times of war and peace; its entrances were not to be blockaded; no permanent fortifications were to be erected on its banks; no belligerent warships must disembark troops or munitions at its ports or anywhere along the canal. If the Egyptians were incapable of defending the canal they were to appeal to Turkey for assistance, or through Turkey to each of the signatory powers.

The original 1854 concession, set up by de Lesseps, the ownership of the Suez Canal was to transferred from the Suez Canal Company to the Egyptian Government in 1968, 99 years after its opening. In 1952 Gamal Abdul Nasser overthrew King Farouk (who was a descendant of Mohammed Said) and established the Egyptian Republic. By 1956, the British (who had occupied Egypt since 1882) rule had come to an end and the country was handed back to the Egyptian Government. In the same year Egypt took over and nationalised the Suez Canal, some twelve years before it was due to be handed over to them.

During a dispute in 1967 between Israel and Egypt the Israelis invaded Egypt and occupied the canal bank. The Israelis decided to close the canal to all ships, this had never happened before in the history of the canal. This meant that all the shipping lines had to revert back to their old routes. It was not until 1975 that Egypt's President Sadat reopened the canal.

Details of the Suez Canal:

Suez Canal in Arabic - QANAT AS-SUWAYS

Length from Port Said to Gulf of Suez - 100 miles (160 kilometres)

Build time - 11 years Current average use - 55 ships per day

Dimensions in 1869 - Depth 26 feet (8 metres),
Bottom width 72 feet (22 metres),
Top width 190 feet (58 metres).

Dimensions in 1967 - Depth 40 feet (12 metres)
Bottom width 179 feet (55 metres)

Ken Lewis