Suez Canal Opens Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The opening of the Suez Canal reduced seafaring travel distances between Europe and the Indian Ocean and Far East by several thousand miles, enhancing world trade while easing global military operations and enhancing the strategic importance of Northeast Africa and the Red Sea.

Summary of Event

By means of an indirect route, a water link existed during ancient times between the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea, about one hundred miles south in Egypt. Over the millennia, however, this connection deteriorated and became inoperable. Interest in restoring this link was revived beginning in 1798, during French general Napoleon I [p]Napoleon I[Napoleon 01];and Egypt[Egypt] Napoleon Bonaparte’s expedition to Egypt. The idea was relinquished at that time because of the mistaken belief that the differential between the two sea levels made the plan impractical. Nevertheless, speculation about the possibility of a waterway continued. Suez Canal Canals;Suez Canal Egypt;Suez Canal Steamships;and Suez Canal[Suez Canal] Lesseps, Ferdinand de Saՙīd Paṣa [kw]Suez Canal Opens (Nov. 17, 1869) [kw]Canal Opens, Suez (Nov. 17, 1869) [kw]Opens, Suez Canal (Nov. 17, 1869) Suez Canal Canals;Suez Canal Egypt;Suez Canal Steamships;and Suez Canal[Suez Canal] Lesseps, Ferdinand de Saՙīd Paṣa [g]Egypt;Nov. 17, 1869: Suez Canal Opens[4360] [g]Mediterranean;Nov. 17, 1869: Suez Canal Opens[4360] [g]Africa;Nov. 17, 1869: Suez Canal Opens[4360] [g]Middle East;Nov. 17, 1869: Suez Canal Opens[4360] [c]Engineering;Nov. 17, 1869: Suez Canal Opens[4360] [c]Science and technology;Nov. 17, 1869: Suez Canal Opens[4360] [c]Transportation;Nov. 17, 1869: Suez Canal Opens[4360] Linant de Bellefonds, Louis-Maurice-Adolphe Ismāՙīl Pasha Lepère, Jean-Baptiste Eugénie Negrelli, Alois

Surveys by the French architect Jean-Baptiste Lepère, Lepère, Jean-Baptiste French explorer Louis-Maurice-Adolphe Linant de Bellefonds Linant de Bellefonds, Louis-Maurice-Adolphe (1840), and Austrian engineer Alois Negrelli Negrelli, Alois showed that it would be possible to dig a waterway across the Isthmus of Suez. Scientific computations indicated that the water-level differential between the two seas would not present an obstacle to the project. Ferdinand de Lesseps, a French engineer and diplomat familiar with these precedents, arrived in Egypt in 1854 and dedicated himself to linking the two seas. Using his friendship with Saՙīd Paṣa, the new Egyptian khedive (viceroy), de Lesseps obtained a concession to form a company to construct the canal.

A number of problems plagued the project, particularly the strong British opposition to the canal’s construction, expressed most forcefully by Lord Palmerston Palmerston, Lord [p]Palmerston, Lord;and Suez Canal[Suez Canal] , the British prime minister. Great Britain objected to the canal, fearing that it would facilitate and shorten the route to the Indian Ocean and jeopardize British colonial control of India—a threat posed earlier by Napoleon and not yet excluded in the age of imperial expansion. At the same time, any weakening of the Ottoman Empire, under whose sovereignty Egypt fell, would encourage Russia’s expansionist aims in the areas controlled by the Ottomans. Britain also feared that construction of the canal would encourage the separatist tendencies of local Egyptian centers of political power.

Accordingly, although the British themselves would have benefited enormously from a shorter sea route to their eastern possessions, they believed that their national interest would be better served by preventing any developments that might upset the delicate balance of power existing among the competing European states. Palmerston Palmerston, Lord [p]Palmerston, Lord;and Suez Canal[Suez Canal] and his subordinates in the British foreign office and abroad exerted maximum pressure on the Ottoman sultans in Constantinople, on Emperor Napoleon III Napoleon III [p]Napoleon III[Napoleon 03];and Suez Canal[Suez Canal] of France, and on the Egyptian khedive to veto de Lesseps’s canal project.

Port Said entrance to the Suez Canal during the late 1850’s, before the canal’s completion. Two ancient obelisks can be seen in the background.

(Library of Congress)

Not willing to be dissuaded, de Lesseps used his friendship with Saՙīd Paṣa to obtain broad licenses in 1854 and 1856 to build the waterway. Despite the lack of approval by Saՙīd’s overlord in Constantinople and the fear of offending any of the great powers (including France), de Lesseps created a corporate entity called the Compagnie Universelle du Canal Maritime de Suez (Universal Suez Ship Canal Company; now known as SUEZ), which, beginning on December 15, 1858, operated the waterway until its nationalization on July 26, 1956. The company raised capital through its stock issues and began actual construction in April, 1859. Progress was slow, largely because of mounting British diplomatic pressure.

Eventually, the terms of the concessions granted by Khedive Saՙīd Paṣa were confirmed by the Turkish sultan, and the digging of the “world ditch” resumed at full throttle after its interruption from 1863 to 1866.

In the meantime, Ismāՙīl Pasha Ismāՙīl Pasha, Saՙīd Paṣa’s successor, had reneged on his obligation to provide Egyptian forced labor on the corvée system for the project in 1863. Napoleon III’s arbitration award made Ismāՙīl Pasha indemnify the Suez Canal Company with eighty million francs in exchange for his release from such obligation. Despite numerous technical and other difficulties and the necessity of building a freshwater canal from the Nile River Nile River;and Suez Canal[Suez Canal] to supply the Suez Canal Zone, the world-famous waterway was inaugurated with great fanfare. A galaxy of international guests, led by Napoleon III and Empress Eugénie Eugénie of France, witnessed the opening of the canal on November 17, 1869. The distance of sea voyages was reduced by an average of two-thirds between Europe and the East, representing several thousand miles.

By a twist of irony, British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli Disraeli, Benjamin [p]Disraeli, Benjamin;and Suez Canal[Suez Canal] took advantage of the extravagance of Khedive Ismāՙīl Pasha and his consequent need to raise funds by purchasing a controlling 44 percent share of stock in the Suez Canal Company for the British government in 1875. In 1882, the British took physical control of the canal zone when they defeated a native Egyptian force. The British did not evacuate the canal zone until 1956. By that time, the waterway’s original depth of twenty-six feet and bottom width of seventy-two feet had been sharply increased, a process that continued under Egyptian control of the canal in order to meet the demands of contemporary ship traffic.

To do justice to one of the engineering feats of modern times, several other aspects of the canal project must be mentioned, particularly its political and social dimensions. With regard to its impact on diplomacy, it is important to consider the varying attitudes of the other great powers, especially Prussia and Austria, toward the canal project. As to the canal’s impact on personal relations, the friendship of Saՙīd Paṣa and de Lesseps stands in marked contrast to the antipathy of Saՙīd Paṣa’s successor Ismāՙīl Ismāՙīl Pasha Pasha toward de Lesseps and his Suez Canal Company. Also critical was Napoleon III’s own shift from a position of neutrality to one of active support of de Lesseps and the pressure employed by British envoys to persuade the Ottoman sultan and members of his cabinet to oppose the project.

The social dimensions of the project, however, are most often overlooked. The human cost of the project was borne primarily by unskilled Egyptian workers, many of them peasants, who were seized from their villages and transported to the construction site. There, they worked under extreme conditions and lived in miserably unsanitary camps. Many of these workers never returned home. It was to them that President Gamal Abdel Nasser Nasser, Gamal Abdel of Egypt referred in his speech announcing the nationalization of the Suez Canal on July 26, 1956, when he declared that the waterway had been built on the skulls of 100,000 of his countrymen and that Egypt had benefited very little from the project since that time. De Lesseps died a few years after the liquidation of the company that was backing his failed Panama Canal Panama Canal project. His statue, which had stood at the northern entrance of the canal in Port Saՙīd, was toppled by the Egyptian populace on the occasion of Nasser’s speech.

Significance

The Suez Canal engineering project, along with other projects such as the transcontinental railroad in the United States, opened the door for increased world trade, allowing for the transportation of goods across and through vast landscapes. The canal also allowed colonial powers to reach farther into Africa to establish colonies throughout the continent.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Beatty, Charles. Ferdinand de Lesseps. London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1956. This biography of the French engineer includes a political and financial history of the Suez Canal, focusing on the individual who, despite all odds, was most responsible for completing the project.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Farnie, D. A. East and West of Suez: The Suez Canal in History, 1854-1956. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1969. In this thorough and well-documented study, there are three chapters relevant to the construction of the waterway. Includes a useful bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Karabell, Zachary. Parting the Desert: The Creation of the Suez Canal. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003. A history of the canal. Karabell depicts de Lesseps as a shrewd salesperson who viewed construction of the canal as a means of achieving his place in history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kinross, Lord. Between Two Seas: The Creation of the Suez Canal. New York: William Morrow, 1969. A former British diplomat in Egypt, Kinross focuses his account on the role of Ferdinand de Lesseps in overcoming political intrigues as well as the financial and technical obstacles to completing the waterway. Contains attractive illustrations, including a map published on the canal’s opening in 1869.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Marlowe, John. World Ditch: The Making of the Suez Canal. New York: Macmillan, 1964. Written by a British historian of imperialism, this study is still one of the most authoritative books on the waterway and touches on the various dimensions of the project. Illustrated, with a modest bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schonfield, Hugh J. The Suez Canal in Peace and War, 1869-1969. Coral Gables, Fla.: University of Miami Press, 1969. First published in 1939, this updated edition focuses on the role of the waterway in world affairs and chronicles the construction of the canal in five chapters. This study is enhanced by an appendix containing the text of all the pertinent documents, beginning with Saՙīd Paṣa’s concessions of 1854 and 1856.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stewart, Gail. The Suez Canal. San Diego, Calif.: Lucent Books, 2001. Part of the Building History series, this brief work is written especially for younger readers. Presents the project as one of intense diplomacy as well as of engineering and construction. Includes a historical overview of the times leading up to the project and examines conditions encountered by the workers. Also includes sidebar discussions and extensive quotations from primary and secondary sources.

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