- The Suez Canal is a man-made waterway connecting the Mediterranean Sea to the Indian Ocean via the Red Sea.
- It enables a more direct route for shipping between Europe and Asia, and the East coast of Africa, effectively allowing passage from the North Atlantic without having to circumnavigate the African continent.
The Suez Canal has been in news headlines in the last two weeks after the giant container ship Ever Given, which is the length of four football pitches, lost control and got wedged sideways blocking the waterway for six days before it was salvaged and refloated.
This is the largest vessel ever to have run aground on the canal and caused dozens of ships to be stranded on either side. The blockage caused oil prices to rally on international markets on fears of a prolonged salvage operation.
The Suez Canal is a man-made waterway connecting the Mediterranean Sea to the Indian Ocean via the Red Sea. It enables a more direct route for shipping between Europe and Asia, and the East coast of Africa, effectively allowing passage from the North Atlantic without having to circumnavigate the African continent.
Today, the canal accounts for 12 percent of world trade. On average 50 vessels pass through the canal per day, although during peak traffic that number can be much higher.
Interest in a marine route connecting the Mediterranean and Red Seas dates back to ancient times. A series of small canals connecting the Nile River (and, thus, by extension, the Mediterranean) to the Red Sea were in use as early as 2,000 BC.
However, a direct connection between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea was thought to be impossible over concerns that they sat at distinct levels of altitude.
Therefore, various overland routes, using horse-drawn carriages and, later, trains were employed, notably by Britain, which conducted significant trade with its colonies in present-day India, Pakistan, the Far East, Australia and later, Africa.
The idea of a large-scale canal providing a direct route between the two bodies of water was first discussed in the 1830s, thanks to the work of French explorer and engineer, Linant Bellefonds, who specialised in Egypt.
Bellefonds performed a survey of the Isthmus of Suez, and confirmed, contrary to popular opinion, that the Mediterranean and the Red Sea were at the same level of altitude. This meant that a canal without locks could be built, making construction considerably easier.
Britain, however, feared that a canal open to everyone might interfere with its India trade and, therefore, preferred a route by train from Alexandria via Cairo to Suez, which Stephenson eventually built.
By the 1850s, seeing an opportunity for Egypt and the Ottoman Empire, which governed the country at the time, Khedive Said Pasha (who oversaw Egypt and the Sudan for the Ottomans) had granted French diplomat Ferdinand de Lesseps permission to create a company to construct a canal open to all ships.
That company eventually became known as the Suez Canal Company, and it was given a 99-year lease over the waterway and surrounding area.
Construction began in early 1859, at the northernmost Port Said end of the canal. The excavation work took 10 years, and an estimated 1.5 million people worked on the project.
Unfortunately, over the objection of many British, French American investors in the canal, a large number of these people were slave labourers, and it is believed tens of thousands died while working on the Suez, from cholera and other ailments in the squalid working conditions.
Political turmoil in the region impacted negatively on the construction of the canal. Egypt was ruled by Britain and France at the time, and there were several rebellions against colonial rule.
After the canal was opened in 1869, traffic was less than expected and the owners experienced financial difficulties, forcing Ismail Pasha and others to sell their stock shares to Britain in 1875. France, however, remained the majority shareholder.
Britain supplied 75 percent of the canals’ traffic in 1870, and naturally became its major beneficiary. But as the historian Valeska Huber has shown in her book about the canal, despite it undoubtedly boosting global free market, this process was neither trouble-free nor straightforward.
It helped the East Africa slave trade, and so created new pressures for its control. It also helped the spread of contagious diseases, prompting the establishment of a regulatory bureaucracy to monitor passengers, including on racial criteria.
Travelers noted the canal’s tedious bottlenecks, which meant that steamships were often outstripped by dhows and camels, and were regularly vulnerable to canal works, strikes, and accidents. By 1884, around 3,000 ships had been grounded along the route.
In 1888, a major conference agreed to the internationalisation of the canal, stipulating that all ships should enjoy unfettered access not only in peace time but also in war.
Britain, however, insisted on adding a rider reserving the right of the Egyptian government, which it now controlled, to close the canal whenever order was threatened. In World War I, Britain closed the canal to enemy ships and restricted merchant use to daylight hours.
In this respect, the narrowness of the canal helped the controlling power to restrict access. In 1877, Gladstone pointed out that its dimensions made panic about a Russian assault on India via Suez ridiculous as ships could easily be scuttled there or sappers deployed to render it impassable within a few hours.
The project allowed critics to portray Egypt as still a land of slavery. The biblical Israelites had escaped this slavery through divine intervention by parting of the Red Sea. The canal, an extension of the same sea, seemed, like the pyramids of Giza, to symbolise the oppression of the human spirit.
In that sense, the sight of the Ever Given wedged against this “ditch” has been another reminder of an obvious truth, that global capitalism rests on labour; the labour of those who toil now to make the goods that fill it stacked rows of massive containers. And the labour of those who earlier sweated to build this narrow link between those manufacturers and their markets.