FROM THE GUARDIAN BY ANDREW ROBERTS | JUNE 16, 2003
On November 16, 1869 the strategic and economic assumptions underlying the whole of European Great Power politics underwent a seismic shift, and it was largely due to the vision and energy of one man. Nor was that man an emperor, king, president or premier, the kind of figure who had hitherto wielded the power to re-order global politics. Instead, he was an engineer.
Ferdinand de Lesseps, a Frenchman, started out as a diplomat, but he was also a genius and a visionary whose willpower, brinkmanship and occasional capacity for compromise created the most astonishing engineering feat of the 19th century. Because of him, 75 million cubic metres of sand were dug up in the 100 miles between Port Said in the Mediterranean and Suez in the Red Sea, to create a canal which fundamentally altered the outlook and interests of almost every European state, albeit in profoundly different ways.
Suddenly, the sea route from Europe to Asia no longer had to go around the western coast of Africa, thereby cutting journeys from months to weeks, in some cases only days. This overnight shrinking of the world brought the British Empire in India and the French Empire in Indochina far closer than ever before, and made Egypt rather than Turkey the focal point of the Near East. The Ottoman Empire, which exercised nominal sovereignty over Egypt and had tried in vain to prevent the canal being built, was thus further weakened.
The idea for a canal had not originally been de Lesseps's own, but Napoleon's, when he invaded Egypt in 1798; and it was Bonaparte's nephew Napoleon III who gave de Lesseps his greatest encouragement and whose wife the Empress Eugenie was the first person to go through the canal when it opened, in her 300-foot imperial yacht L'Aigle.
Absurdly enough, geographers had for decades argued that the Mediterranean Sea was 30 feet higher than the Red Sea, so that it would drain away if a canal were built, and these ludicrous calculations were only disproved in August 1869 when the final dyke was broken down and, in a report to de Lesseps, "the seas flowed quietly and peacefully together".
As this well-researched and very well-written book vividly points out, it was the last time that the canal saw very much quiet or peace; it soon became the focus for several wars and coups, much international power-play and regular near-bankruptcies of the Suez Canal Company.
Today the canal does still raise money for Egypt but, in the era of the super-tanker, not much. The statue of de Lesseps has long since been pulled down, and graffiti defaces its pedestal. As Karabell says of Port Suez: "Barbed wire, overpopulation, rusting ships and dwindling business stand as rebukes to the vision of Lesseps."
The official opening of the canal saw celebrations in Cairo and Port Said such as the 19th - or indeed any - century have rarely witnessed. As well as the beautiful French empress, escorted everywhere by Khedive Ismail, the ruler of Egypt, thousands of princes, ambassadors, shareholders, local sharifs and pashas were invited. The balls and parties went on for a fortnight amid triumphal arches, religious ceremonies, diplomatic receptions, brass bands, military displays and vast Bedouin camps. The races at the Pyramids and crowded receptions at the khedival palace were very popular with local pickpockets.
When the Suez Canal Company tried on its own form of legerdemain, however, and charged 10 francs per ton to use the waterway, disaster struck. In only six years the financial crisis was such that Ismail had to sell his shares, and in one of the great financial coups of the era, Disraeli's Tory Government bought 40 per cent of the Company, thereby ensuring British political and, shortly afterwards, military involvement in Egypt for the next 79 years.
As Karabell puts it, "For Egypt and other states east of Suez, the day the canal opened was not the culmination of a dream but the death of one", because the Canal "became an excuse for imperial expansion and then a cause of imperial overstretch".
The sweat of the tens of thousand of the Egyptian fellahin peasantry who dug the canal (on little more than indentured-labour pay) was intended, in de Lesseps's words on the first day of work in 1859, "to open up the East to the commerce and civilisation of the West" and to a lesser extent vice versa. They braved sandstorms, cholera outbreaks, dervish attacks, freak heat-waves, and scorpions and built one of the few man-made structures that can be seen from the Moon. They did indeed part the desert, and their story cannot have been told better than by this fine book.