What Is the History Behind the Suez Canal?

History Hit

3 mins

17 Nov 2015

The Suez Canal, stretching 101 miles from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea, was officially opened in a lavish ceremony on 17 November 1869.

In 1854 French diplomat Ferdinand de Lesseps received approval from Egyptian viceroy Said Pasha to build the canal across the Isthmus of Suez. The Suez Canal Company was formed in 1858 and construction began in April 1859.

It wasn’t the first time a canal here had been considered. Ancient sources suggest the existence of a canal between the Red Sea and the Nile River as early as 1850 BC.

Millenia later, in 1798, Napoleon arranged for surveyors to assess the feasibility of a canal linking the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. The result was a paper entitled “Canal des Deux Mers” (Canal of the Two Seas).

Suez Canal, between Kantara and El-Fedane. The first vessels through the Canal. 19th century image. Credit: Appleton’s Journal of Popular Literature, Science, and Art”, 1869 / Commons.

Ferdinand de Lesseps was twenty-nine years old when, whilst serving as vice-consul in Egypt, he came across this same paper. Over the next twenty years he returned again and again to the idea of the canal.

But it was not until de Lesseps was thrust into the depths of despair by the death, from scarlet fever, of his beloved wife and son, that he threw himself into the task of making the canal a reality.

De Lesseps hoped to find additional finance for the project in Britain but he was sorely disappointed.

British engineer Robert Stevenson was sent to assess the plans and delivered an uninspiring report to the government, no doubt influenced by his own scheme for a railway between Alexandria and Cairo.

De Lesseps spoke with Prime Minister Lord Palmerston in person but found him totally opposed to the idea.

Nevertheless the Frenchman continued to canvas British businessmen on the idea and when Stevenson denounced his methods in Parliament de Lesseps challenged him to a duel, though no such encounter ever occurred.

Only by the intervention of Said Pasha, who purchased 44 percent of the Suez Canal Company, was the project kept afloat.

Map of the Suez Canal. Credit: Karl Baedeker / Commons.

The canal’s construction required a vast workforce. Egyptian peasants were drafted in at a rate of 20,000 every ten months to carry out the work by hand with picks and shovels.

However work came to a halt in 1863 when Said Pasha was succeeded by Ismail Pasha who banned the use of forced labour.

In response, the Suez Canal Company brought in steam and coal-powered shovels and dredgers that completed the removal of the 75 million cubic metres of sand required to create the canal.

The canal opens

The opening ceremony was a momentous occasion. Ismail Pasha was particularly keen to use the event to impress European leaders, among them Austrian Emperor Franz Josef, the Prince of Wales, the Prince of the Netherlands, and most notably the French empress Eugenie.

Many Muslim leaders did not receive an invitation.

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Ismail treated his guests to a lavish stay and the partying continued for several weeks.  They took boat trips on the Nile, stopping to eat in ancient temples or beneath tents in the desert decorated in red and yellow satin.

They attended traditional Arab ceremonies featuring music, dancers, Bedouin horsemen, and fire-eaters.

For the opening ceremony itself, special wooden seating areas were constructed covered with flowers, banners and other adornments for thousands of guests to witness the inauguration, which was followed by a dazzling fireworks display.

Having been disparaging of the canal project, on its completion Britain became acutely aware of its strategic importance.

In 1875 Britain purchased Egypt’s shares in the canal. Seven years later Britain invaded and occupied the country following a nationalist uprising.

The Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936 granted Egypt’s independence but also permitted Britain to maintain a defensive force on the canal.

Tensions flared again in 1956 during the “Suez Crisis” when Egyptian President Nasser nationalised the canal and Egypt was invaded by Israel, France and Britain.

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The canal was closed ten years later, following the Six Day War with Israel. It reopened in 1975.

In 2015 Egypt expanded the canal to increase its capacity in a project that cost $8.2 billion.

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