A lightning history of the Suez Canal, Part II

Below is the second part of a look at the history of the Suez Canal. Part I is here.


In 1854, de Lesseps went back to Egypt for the first time in 15 years to see Said. He presented the idea of the canal, and how Egypt stood to gain from it in power, money and glory. Unlike his predecessors, who had rejected the idea, Said embraced it: de Lesseps was an excellent salesman, and one that was convinced of the merits of his own product. "The names of the Egyptian sovereigns who erected the Pyramids, those useless monuments of human pride, will be ignored," he told Said. "The name of the prince who will have opened the grand canal through Suez will be blessed century after century for posterity." By the of the year, he was officially granted the concession to pierce the canal and promised financial support as well as a supply of workers through the traditional corvée, a type of forced labour then commonly used for public works such as irrigation.

Actual work on the canal would not begin until years later. Even though he has Said's approval, there were powerful forces that opposed the canal. The British Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, felt that the canal would enhance French power at the expense of the British. The Sublime Porte, as the Ottoman sultan was called, worried that a canal would allow Egypt to entirely escape Ottoman control, and did not like feeling stuck between French and British pressure on the question. Scientists throughout Europe condemned de Lessep's idea of a direct canal, and referred back to the work of Enfantin and Le Pere to argue for an indirect route. For five years de Lesseps ceaselessly travelled between Cairo, Istanbul, Paris, London and even New York to make his case for the canal and generate public enthusiasm. He portrayed the enterprise as one that would help the spread of modernity throughout the world, uniting East and West, as well as a potentially great boon for trade. In the context of the worship of progress that was common in the nineteenth century, it was an easy idea to sell. De Lesseps countered off his opponents and secured the unwavering support of powerful men such as Napoleon III. By 1858, he began the formation of a "Universal Company for a Maritime Canal" and launched the largest initial public offering of his days. Reluctant to have the project stuck in the hands of a few financiers, he designed the company so that it would be owned by as many people as possible. Although he fell short of that aim, Said has promised to buy any unsold shares, an expensive undertaking that made him the canal's largest shareholder but at a great cost to the Egyptian treasury. It was the first of several moves towards indebtedness towards Europeans that was to doom the reign of his successor Ismail and allow Egypt to fall into the hands of the British. Most of the shareholders, though, were middlc class Frenchmen and other Europeans who had bought one or two shares and were proud to have a small part in the greatest engineering project of their time.
When the work on the canal began in 1859, it was mostly carried out by corvée labourers -- peasants from the Nile Delta that would dig out the trenches for the canal by hand. Work was slow, but they were many: at its peak de Lesseps had over 60,000 labourers working on the canal -- 20,000 coming, 20,000 digging, and 20,000 going. This was in addition to thousands of Europeans who had come to work as engineers, surveyors, contractors and other jobs, attracted by the prestige of the enterprise and the high salaries the Suez Canal Company offered. Many of these stayed on after the completion of works and until the 1950s the entire Suez Canal area had a cosmopolitan feel not found elsewhere in Egypt.

Although cheap, the corvée was by no means efficient. If de Lesseps had not been forced to abandon it later on, he would have never finished the canal in the amount of time. The decision to end the corvée was forced upon him, but in the end turned out to be what saved the project. When Said died in 1863, his successor, Ismail made the dramatic announcement that he would put an end of the corvée, which he denounced as a form of slavery. The announcement was in tune with its time -- the United States was in the middle of a civil war over slavery and Tsar Alexander II would abolish serfdom a few years later -- but it presented de Lesseps with a serious problem. Although some amount of corvée labour would continue, it forced him to resort to new digging and dredging machines that were being developed in Europe. These were big, lumbering steam and coal powered machines, but at the time they were at the cutting edge of technology. They were also very expensive, and drove up the costs of the project, forcing the company to issue a bond to replenish its coffers. Because Said has promised corvée labourers, de Lesseps felt the company was entitled to compensation, which he eventually got after an prolonged, intense dispute that ended up with Napoleon III (hardly a detached observer) having to mediate between the company and Egypt's government. The results of the mediation drove Ismail further into debt, but the Egyptian ruler, confident that he would see quick results on his investment into the canal and other infrastructure projects, nevertheless continued to spend away on the modernisation of Egypt. By that point, Egypt had invested too much into the project to begin opposing it in any serious way, and Ismail began to spend even more money to prepare for the celebrations for the opening of the canal in 1869 -- which included building several new palaces (including one to host Empress Eugenie, with whom it was said that Ismail had developed an affair) and building an entirely new area of Cairo modelled on Paris.
Meeting the 1869 deadline for the completion of canal was a race against time. De Lesseps' personal reputation, as well as the prosperity of the company whose shares had dipped amidst rumours that it would not be completed in time, were staked on it.

Yet, working overtime and devising ways to maximise utilisation of the dredging machines along with bringing back manual labourers, the canal was finally finished. The waters of the Red Sea and the Mediterranean, which some predicted would create a disaster when coming into contact, mingled without an incident. No flood occurred, and the current created by the difference in height of the two seas was barely noticeable. Has he put it in his commemoration speech, de Lesseps had succeeded in "parting the desert."

Within two decades, despite the prodigious wealth that the canal created by attracting the traffic of ships that otherwise would have to circumnavigate the Cape of Good Hope, the main backers of the canal were in trouble. De Lesseps had acquired wealth and fame, but he died in ignominy after being involved in one of the biggest financial scandal of the time: the bankruptcy of the Panama Canal Company, which de Lesseps had hoped would do the same thing for the Atlantic and Pacific oceans that the Suez Canal had done for the Red an Mediterranean seas.

The fate of Ismail, and Egypt in general, was even worse. The debt incurred by the construction of the canal and other modernisation projects delivered the country into the hands of the England. In a deft move, England's prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli, bought Ismail's share of the canal at a low price. Later on, as the country was still unable to pay its debt, he was forced to accept Dual Control, a policy that placed the budget of the Egyptian state in the hands of the English. In April 1879, he was deposed in a coup by his own ministers, who had the backing of the Ottoman sultan. Egypt was left with no stake in the canal, mounting debt, and under the de facto control of a foreign power -- a situation that lasted until the Suez crisis of 1956, when President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalised the canal to finance the construction of the Aswan Dam, provoking a British-French-Israeli invasion. The US intervened to force the aggressors to back off, which finally returned the canal into Egyptian hands. Resentful at years of foreign domination, the citizens of Port Said gathered around de Lesseps' statue and dynamited it off its pedestal, which remains empty to this day.
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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.