18 - 24 November 1999
Issue No. 456
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
Once more into the breach
One hundred and thirty years after the grand inauguration of the Suez Canal on 17 November 1869, Fayza Hassan reflects on the major players involved in the project, the controversy surrounding it and the unexpected ways it influenced the course of history Transporting wheels for the dredges
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Once upon a time, in the first half of the 19th century, there was an officer of the India Army, Lieutenant Waghorn, who, on several occasions, travelled from Alexandria to Suez, sometimes by sea and other times by land, and who often plied the Red Sea from Suez to Aden on native boats. One day, he had the idea of establishing a postal service linking England directly with India. He shared his thoughts with Mohamed Ali, the then great wali of Egypt, who actively encouraged him to carry through with this plan. As a result, in 1834, a British company, the Peninsular -- and ten years later a French company, Les Messageries -- instituted a maritime service between Southampton and Alexandria to correspond with the schedule of ships periodically sailing from Suez to Bombay. In no time the new service was established on a regular basis, to the advantage of all concerned: At first, postal bags and passengers were transported by horse-drawn boats from Karmouz, on the Mahmoudiya Canal, to the port of Bulaq in Cairo; by 1842, the horses were replaced by steam. In Cairo, the postal bags were loaded on camels and the passengers onto camel-drawn two-wheel carts, which carried them safely across the desert to Suez in 16 or 18 hours. Only in 1858, when the railway was completed and finally extended to Suez, did the caravans cease their fortnightly run.
The railway project, actively sponsored by the British, had been preferred at this point to the more adventurous enterprise of digging a canal directly linking the Mediterranean to the Red Sea, which had been advised against, first by the Saint Simoniens, misled by the inaccurate calculations of the engineer Jean Baptiste Le Père, and later by the British themselves, who believed such a waterway could endanger their hegemony over the trade route to India. Mohamed Ali had been dead set against the digging of the canal, and so of course was his grandson Abbas, who shunned any foreign interference during his rule.
On 30 November 1854, however, with the railway operating smoothly and profitably between Alexandria and Cairo, the new ruler of Egypt, Mohamed Ali's eldest living son, Said, who had just succeeded Abbas, completely reversed the decision of his predecessors -- and, perhaps, the course of history. Without prior consultation with his government or the Porte, he simply gave one Ferdinand de Lesseps, a Frenchman of questionable character, the authorisation to form the Compagnie Universelle du Canal Maritime de Suez, entitled to dig a canal joining the Mediterranean to the Red Sea -- the very object of the still-raging controversy -- on land leased on the basis of a 99-year concession (from the date of the opening), at the end of which period the canal, its amenities and its surroundings would become Egyptian property.
According to Nubar Pasha, who was close to all the viceroys from Mohamed Ali to Tewfik, de Lesseps, in financial trouble at the time and at wit's end, had come to Egypt upon hearing of the death of Abbas and the investiture of Said, in the hope of finding a profitable business venture that would save him from ruin. There is a famous story retold endless times (which does not necessarily make it true), of a young, lonely and overweight Prince Said, forced to adhere to a constant slimming diet, being befriended and fed enormous portions of macaroni by de Lesseps -- then the French Consul in Alexandria -- behind his father's back. Having been given the cold shoulder by Abbas in the past, de Lesseps was counting on the new ruler's pleasant disposition towards his former accomplice in gluttony, and is said to have hoped to cash in on his past gastronomic generosity.
(l-r)Said; Ismail; young de Lesseps in his finery; procession of the ships passing for the first time through the canal
Although de Lesseps has often been described as a cheap swindler, one of his biographers at least differs in this assessment: for Robert Courau, de Lesseps, heir to a long tradition of serving and promoting the interest of France, was a shrewd but gallant diplomat, endowed with uncommon energy and a fertile imagination. He had seen his own father stand up to the British while in post at Corfu. It was only natural, therefore, that he should fall in step with the family's traditions.
Nubar, however, who contributed much to the negative image of the future canal digger, did not see it that way: "While many believed that de Lesseps was the original proponent of the canal project," he wrote in his memoirs, "others insist that he had consulted Mougel Bey, the engineer of the Nile dam (Al-Qanater) on the kind and extent of financial help he might expect from Said. Mougel had then suggested that he approach the vice-roy with the proposal of building 'a canal that would join the Mediterranean to the Red Sea'. Others, however," added Nubar, "believed that it was Linant Bey, not Mougel, who put the trickster up to it." De Lesseps's own story was that, quarantined on his arrival in Alexandria, he had been given a box full of books courtesy of the French Consulate, into which Le Père's report had found its way. Intrigued by the engineer's calculations, he had decided to study the possibilities, perhaps proving him wrong in the process.
Be that as it may, Nubar lamented, the identity of the fomenter of the idea was of little consequence, since the document that deprived Egyptian territory of its commercial dominance and was later to contribute to its political annihilation had been signed, almost secretly, without attracting much attention from the powers that could have prevented the disaster at the time. Nubar himself had learned of it quite by accident, when he was casually informed of the event by the vice-roy's old French teacher, recently promoted to the role of royal private secretary. "Why," wrote Nubar, "didn't the stupid instructor teach his pupil, the future ruler, the history of his country, Egypt?... Why didn't he make him read the passage where Herodotus recounts that the Pharaoh Necao, having thought of joining the two seas by a canal, first consulted the oracle of Delphi, then abandoned the project at once, when the Pithy predicted that this action would deliver his country into the hands of the Barbarians?" Alternatively, one can ponder over the fate of Egypt had the concession been left to run its course until 1968. Since none of the protagonists of the drama which was to develop during the best part of a century was endowed with foresight, a plate of spaghetti al dente was allowed to start the ball rolling, deeply affecting a country's destiny.
No sooner had the agreement been signed than the trouble began. Cash was needed to launch the preliminary studies and, though Said had been quite willing to extend some capital in the beginning, he had other, more urgent expenditures, which drained the country's resources. Solicited by de Lesseps, the French Consulate -- which had barely been notified of the agreement -- had no official mandate to insist on more financial contributions from the vice-roy, and chose to remain aloof. Intrigue, machinations and false pretenses, sometimes bordering on downright dishonesty, were thus the only devices on which the proponent of the project could rely in order to reach his goal and force the vice-roy to increase his contribution.
Proceeding with the help of machinery
The unsavoury way in which de Lesseps tricked Said into paying for the balance of the capital shares that he could not unload in the European capitals -- a pre-requisite for the establishment of the company -- is well known. In particular, he subscribed the balance of the unsold shares, valued at 88 million French francs in the name of the vice-roy, without prior warning to the interested party. Faced with the unexpected debt and with no ready cash available, Said refused to pay at first, but an arrangement was eventually reached whereby the amount due would be divided into yearly instalments, to be paid over a 15-year period. This was in blatant contravention of the statutes of the company, which stipulated that all capital shares had to be paid up. It placed de Lesseps in a tight spot, at the mercy of an irate shareholder who discovered the irregularity; but he was so keen to start work before more difficulties hindered the project that he took it upon himself to keep this transaction a secret. It is said that he spent many sleepless nights worrying about his fraud.
Said, however, had not seemed to notice that, for a while at least, he had the upper hand. He was the only available source of financing, and could have dictated his own terms. Nubar noted with dismay that, although the sovereign was aware that he was dealing with a devious lot, he seemed willing to be talked into going ahead with the project no matter what the cost. Nubar ascribed this recklessness to a very superficial character. As for de Lesseps, he had to wait eight years for a stroke of luck to put him back on track, when the new viceroy Ismail, pressed by the Porte's conditions for the project's ratification, unwittingly corrected the situation.
De Lesseps had convinced Said that the canal could only be dug by workers raised through the abhorred system of the corvée (forced labour) and from 1857 to 1863, the project drained the countryside of its peasants, temporarily ruining Egyptian agriculture and consequently diminishing its wealth. Having obtained his quota of men, the Frenchman concentrated on finalising the purchase of the stocks forced upon the vice-roy. He travelled to Paris on several occasions, returning every time only to inform Said that more money was needed. Since little cotton could be produced, the coffers were empty, with no hope of replenishing them soon. In this case, the only way for the vice-roy to lay his hands on more cash was through borrowing, de Lesseps asserted forcefully. The Comptoir d'Escomptes in Paris was eventually approached and Said was informed that the bank was agreeable to extending a loan of 175 million francs, provided it gained control over certain aspects of Egyptian finances. The death of Sultan Abdul-Mecid in Constantinople gave Egypt a temporary reprieve. Aware that the new sultan would not look kindly upon the mortgage, Said precipitously withdrew his application.
By this time, he had began to worry about the consequences of his association with de Lesseps and, in a desperate attempt to redress the situation, he appealed to the British during a short trip to England, in the mistaken belief that Palmerston would be prepared to save Egypt from bankruptcy. In fact, "[i]n replying to a question put in the House of Commons on 7 July 1857... Lord Palmerston [had] described the Suez Canal project as a bubble, and asserted its construction to be physically impossible. He [had] added that a canal would be inimical to British interests, opposed to Great Britain's traditional policy, and planned as a menace to British supremacy in India. If the public invested money in the enterprise, they did so at their own peril," he had said, reported P G Elgood in The Transit of Egypt. Upon hearing of this assessment, the French public, at first rather lukewarm towards the enterprise, adopted it enthusiastically as a matter of national pride. Their canal would be built, if only to remain stuck like a bone in Britain's throat.
With the British and the French at loggerheads, and following the vice-roy's visit to England, Sir Henry Bulwer -- a former secretary at the British Embassy in Constantinople during the reign of Mohamed Ali, who had risen to the post of ambassador to Turkey -- was forwarded on a mission, officially to discuss the Egyptian ruler's problems, but in reality urged on by Palmerston, who had entrusted him with the task of taking a good look at the work done on the canal. Nubar recounted at length Said's first encounter with Bulwer, who had been invited to stay at Qasr Nuzha in Shubra. When Said and his retinue arrived at Nuzha, the ambassador was waiting for him on the perron, wrote Nubar. The sovereign, wanting to ingratiate himself with the man whom he believed could extricate him from the quagmire, said in guise of greeting: "Look, your excellency: English horses, English coachman, English carriage and -- pointing to Nubar -- an enemy of the French. I could not better prove my pleasure to see you in my country."
Bulwer travelled to the canal and saw for himself that it was well on its way to completion, albeit with some additional financial sacrifices. His report was positive. At the time when he wrote it, work was proceeding erratically and illegally; the Porte was dragging its feet before giving its final consent, seemingly aided and abetted in secret by Emperor Napoleon III. Bulwer's assessment changed the attitude of both the British government and the Ottoman sultan. Serious negotiations began, to obtain the Porte's official permission to carry on with the enterprise and give it the long awaited seal of legitimacy; but by the time the sultan, assured of Britain's endorsement, came around to accepting Said's gamble, the viceroy was on his deathbed. He died in January 1863 in Alexandria, was quietly buried in Nebi Daniel and quickly forgotten.
(l-r) A painted allegory of the opening ceremony showing Khedive Ismail astride the two seas; Empress Eugénie impressed by the camels
ISMAIL, nephew of Abbas and son of Ibrahim, inherited the task of ruling Egypt. It was obvious at once that his style was different. Mohamed Ali had used foreigners to his best interest, Abbas had been rabidly suspicious of them, Said was too self-centred to care; but the new ruler is said to have been decisively enthralled with Europeans and their "civilised" ways. He sought to wrench his country from the Oriental dream he believed it was still floating in. What had been considered exotic by travellers of the past centuries was simply disgraceful to Ismail. He set his eyes on Paris and launched a full-fledged effort to transform his mediaeval capital overnight, rebuilding it according to the model. The Exposition Universelle, which he had just attended, had burgeoned out of nowhere in a matter of months. Why not his new Cairo?
In 1863, the country he had inherited was once more financially prosperous. The American Civil War had caused a sharp rise in the price of cotton and the Egyptian crop -- diminished as it may have been as a consequence of the unrest created by the corvée working on the canal -- had increased in value from 5,000,000 to 25,000,000 pounds. Ismail transferred his private debts to the state and got to work. First, he had to make decisions regarding the Suez Canal. The Porte, after studying Bulwer's report, was now prepared to condone the project, albeit with three provisos which eventually led to protracted negotiations: the company had to abolish the corvée; retrocede the land that had been ceded by Said; and retrocede the fresh water canal which was almost finished, channeling Nile water to the future Suez Canal area.
'Amid great ceremony, Africa was now declared to be an island'
De Lesseps was in Cairo at the time. A convention was promptly signed in March 1863 between Ismail and de Lesseps, stipulating that the Egyptian government would take over the fresh water canal and the land along its banks from the company. It would complete at its own expense the work still standing and, abolishing the 15-year instalments, would pay up the famous 88 million worth of shares that de Lesseps had (illegally) subscribed on behalf of Said, as a compensation for the repossessed land along the fresh water canal. De Lesseps confided to Nubar that only when the agreement had been signed and the shares fully paid up, did he feel that he was finally off the hook, and managed to have the good night's sleep that had eluded him for eight long years.
The complacency that surrounded the rapid signing of the convention was eventually marred for Ismail by the belated realisation that the company had never owned the land along the fresh water canal, and which it had "sold" to the government so willingly. The statutes had only stipulated that the company was entitled to expropriate private owners of cultivated plots wherever necessary for the public welfare, and the rate of compensation on these plots had already been determined officially. The rest of the land, forming the major part of the stretch between Lake Timsah and Port Said, was barren and would have required huge investments of time and money in order to be of any value. No one was about to claim this piece of desert, not even the Bedouins to grow barley.
On the other hand, there was no mention in the convention of the land bordering the Suez Canal itself, which, in contrast, was extremely valuable and had been duly ceded by Said to the company. Once more, the Frenchman had managed to fool his Egyptian patron; this time, not a grateful, compliant Said, but a mesmerised Ismail, who believed the rascal privy to the secret thoughts of the emperor of the French -- the same emperor he regarded with a fascination bordering on adulation. For this reason, he had been intimidated to the point of signing away precious assets without hesitation, forsaking any shred of good judgement he may have possessed.
The third condition to be fulfilled before the Porte gave its total agreement to the project -- which was now proceeding apace, in the belief that ratification was around the corner -- concerned the forced labour used for the digging of the canal.
De Lesseps had been careful not to refer to the corvée when he had made his arrangements with Said. Taking Egypt's agricultural labour needs into consideration, several gangs of workers would be hired at a franc a day a piece, he had explained. This indeed was paid labour and, in the beginning, the small number of men who worked on the project did not really deprive the fields of needed hands. Whether the government had the right to demand that the fellahin give their work for a pittance while performing a task that would not profit them was a question that bothered neither the Frenchman nor Egypt's rulers. Seemingly at ease with the principle of slavery, they just assumed that the peasants belonged to the ruler, to dispose of as he pleased.
As the digging advanced, de Lesseps organised a fete on the banks of the future Suez Canal and invited Said who, satisfied by the work in progress and in the middle of the brouhaha, agreed to let him hire 20,000 or 30,000 men for a period of three months, in order to overcome a particularly rocky stretch. From that time on, de Lesseps took it for granted that he had been allowed to raise 20,000 men every month. He met with no substantial objections. It usually took three months to gather each crew, march them from their villages to the canal zone, where they slaved for a month with neither food nor pay, and finally abandon them to pick their own way home.
Aware of what was going on, neither Said nor Ismail sided with the workers to force the company to feed them and pay them their meagre salaries. It comes as no surprise that men died by the thousands. A cholera epidemic wrought havoc among those who survived the frightening conditions in which they had to live and toil.
Now the Porte, more worried about cotton production than about the workers' welfare, was stepping in to stop the scandal. Nubar was sent to Paris for negotiations with the company. He was rather surprised to discover that de Lesseps had managed to stir up public opinion. Through the press, he had transformed his audacious venture into "a national project, the weapon with which France would end England's commercial and maritime hegemony," a bewildered Nubar wrote in a letter to his wife. He added that, on his arrival, he went to visit an old friend: "You have come to wage war against de Lesseps and his canal; I will not let you do it. I am not a rich man and only own five shares, but I will put every franc I own into this enterprise," the friend exclaimed to him in indignation. An equally amusing story found its way into another letter: "A man presented himself at the headquarters of the company; he wished to buy shares to support the isthme de Suède (the isthmus of Sweden). When the name and the country were made clear to him, he shrugged: 'I don't care where it is, I am buying because I am fighting the British!' he announced haughtily."
De Lesseps was still in Egypt, and Nubar had to content himself with a lesser representative of the company, M de Morny, who asked him for a memorandum on the corvée which he would submit to the emperor. Although public opinion held that the abolition of the corvée would mean the end of the canal, a few "more reasonable" reports began to appear in the press, headed by the newspaper Le Temps, which demanded that "de Lesseps's personal interest be considered as separate from the honour and interest of France." The case eventually went to court. An excited public filled the courtroom, hurling insults at Nubar. After eight months of haggling, Maitre Jules Favre, representing Egypt before the court, won the case and the verdict was published in 12 newspapers in Paris: the Compagnie Universelle du Canal Maritime de Suez had no right whatsoever to avail itself of forced labour to build the canal.
The company was faced with several choices, none of which it considered as rewarding as unpaid labour: Hiring Egyptians for a real salary was one option; bringing in Syrian and Greek labourers (had de Lesseps not boasted to Said that they would be only too happy to do the work?) was another; and lastly, imported machinery could provide the needed solution.
De Lesseps -- and France -- did not accept the verdict, however. An arbitration commission was appointed, presided over by the emperor himself. A settlement was finally reached: the Egyptian government would pay the company six million francs a year for a period of six years and subsequently three and a half million a year for another nine years. The company, however, would retain the stretch of land along the Suez Canal that it needed to establish the required amenities. This last point did not meet with the complete approval of the Porte, loathe to cede the smallest part of its territory to a foreign power, even temporarily. Ismail was to pay the price of his acceptance of this last condition later. For now, however, he considered that the negotiations had ended favourably for him, saving him from a rather embarrassing situation.
The company hired Borel and Lavallée, a contracting firm that conceived specially adapted dredges to finish the digging of the canal -- the only way, wrote Nubar, to have the work efficiently completed, which it was eventually, duly separating Africa from Asia by a waterway approximately 150km in length, with a depth of eight metres and a bottom width of 22 metres. In his own words, de Lesseps had "managed to bring slight improvements to God's work". It had taken more than 10 years and 287,000,000 gold francs to make his (and Ismail's) dream come true. New cities had sprouted from the desert, for which a fresh water canal had been provided; Cairo had been refurbished at great cost, craftily hiding its normally shabby face behind rococo façades; and the country was ready to receive its royal visitors (Ismail had been quite ambitious in drawing up the guest list), who would soon arrive from all over the world to attend the most extraordinary event of the century: the official opening of the Suez Canal to international navigation.
(l-r) De Lesseps masquerading as a Bedouin; loading the camels
"Ismail's arrangements for the opening, which was fixed for 17 November 1869, had the Haroun Al-Rashid touch," wrote Alan Moorehead. Four days of festivities were planned, to take place both in Cairo and in the canal zone. Although England was officially shunning the event, the Prince and Princess of Wales had attended the opening of the sluices into the Bitter Lakes, and assured the khedive of their good wishes.
In Port Said, an arsenal of fireworks was prepared (which accidentally blew up a few days before the opening, very nearly demolishing the town); 500 cooks and 1,000 servants were imported from France and Italy to cater for 6,000 guests. The best wines and the most lavish food were provided with prodigality. At Ismailia, the half-way point on Lake Timsah, an entire town had been built, complete with a palace, hotels, gardens and kiosks. The scenario provided for a fleet of vessels leaving Port Said with the most illustrious guests on board, to meet up in front of the new city with a smaller flotilla sailing from Suez, thus joining the Mediterranean to the Red Sea for the first time. At the last moment, a ship became grounded, blocking the waterway and de Lesseps, never at a loss, had it blown up just before the guests arrived.
On the morning of 17 November the theatre was ready, and the two main actors could welcome their illustrious crowned visitors with due pomp and circumstance. A great assembly of ships had gathered at Port Said, where three pavilions had been erected, one for the most prominent guests, and two others for the Muslim and Christian clergy. Muslim, Greek Orthodox, Coptic and Roman Catholic priests blessed the canal, whereupon every available cannon and gun was fired off, 20 military bands struck up "and through the drifting smoke of gunpowder the Empress Eugénie of France in the imperial yacht Aigle led the way into the canal. She was followed by Ismail aboard the Mahrousa (his scimitar blazing with jewels), the Emperor of Austria (in white tunic, scarlet pantaloons and a cocked hat with a green feather), and a number of minor dignitaries aboard two Austrian and five British ironclad, a Russian sloop-of-war and a great number of ships partly under steam and partly under sail" -- 70 vessels in all, according to Moorehead's description of the momentous scene taking place at a spot which had been an arid desert just a decade before.
The two fleets of vessels met at Ismailia at sunset, "and amid great ceremony, Africa was now declared to be an island," wrote Moorehead. A banquet, a fireworks display and a ball in the vice-roy's brand new palace, illuminated by ten thousand lanterns, followed. De Lesseps and Ismail felt rewarded and enjoyed the lavish festivities, completely oblivious to the fact that, at Ismail's accession, the Egyptian national debt had stood at three million pounds which, with the help of de Lesseps and an assortment of unsavoury speculators, he had managed to convert to a deficit of 100,000,000 pounds.
The guests eventually departed, having often abused Ismail's by now legendary hospitality; the ruler of Egypt was left with a mainly French-owned canal (which would cause his country -- and the world -- no end of problems), his make-believe capital and his astronomical debts. It was time to begin paying.
In 1875, faced with bankruptcy, Ismail who had bought his way into a khedivate from the Porte in 1867, sought purchasers for his shares of the Compagnie Universelle. "The British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli ignored the opposition of both his chancellor of the exchequer and foreign secretary and purchased these shares for four million pounds," wrote Anthony Gorst and Lewis Johnman. The British public approved the purchase and was elated: the press began to describe the Mediterranean as "a British lake" and the Suez Canal as "another name for the Thames". In 1929, Anthony Eden spoke of "the swing door of Empire" and in 1953 Lord Hankey expressed the view that the Suez Canal remained "the jugular vein of world and Empire shipping". From that time on, the canal represented, in the minds of the British, "the link that tied together the Empire and also symbolised the maritime tradition of Britain."
By the end of the 1870s, Egypt's debt position had worsened, leading to the deposition of Khedive Ismail by the British and French, who had jointly established financial control over the country in an attempt, they told the world, to find a way out of the mess. This in turn provoked an upsurge of nationalism and some disorder in Egypt's main cities. A joint ultimatum from Britain and France claiming that their property and the lives of their nationals were in danger was immediately followed by extensive rioting in Alexandria.
In June 1882, the Royal Navy positioned its warships in front of the Mediterranean city and bombarded it heavily. A British military expedition under Sir Garnet Wolsely used the Suez Canal to invade Egypt, landing in Ismailia and beating the Egyptian troops led by Ahmed Urabi at Tel Al-Kebir. Egypt was now under British occupation. In 1888, the Convention of Constantinople was signed between Turkey and the European powers to guarantee the safe operation of the canal. It was to remain effective until 1956, when nationalisation cancelled the remaining 12 years on Said's concession.
Meanwhile, de Lesseps had not fared much better: On 9 February 1893 he and his son Charles were condemned to a five-year prison term for fraudulent dealings in the canal builder's subsequent scheme: the digging of Panama Canal. Charles was jailed for a year in the end, but de Lesseps himself got off the hook thanks to his lawyers' astuteness. By the time the final judgement in the case was rendered, he was an embittered, old and impoverished man, only cared for by his loyal wife and entertained by his mischievous monkey at the family house, La Chesnaye. Few still remembered his days of glory, although his wife insisted on commemorating on 17 November, the day that had brought him world fame. On the 25th anniversary of the opening of the canal, as he lay on his deathbed, his son's fate was kept hidden from him by his few remaining friends. He died on 7 December 1894, leaving his family almost destitute. His wife and his children survived thanks to a special donation provided for by the grateful shareholders of the Compagnie Universelle.
Mémoires de Nubar, intr. by Mirrit Boutros Ghali, Librairie du Liban, 1983
An Egyptian Panorama, Reports from the 19th-Century British Press, Nicholas Warner, ed., Zeitouna, 1994
P G Elgood, The Transit of Egypt, Edward Arnold and Co, 1928
Robert Courau, Ferdinand de Lesseps, de l'Apothéose de Suez au Scandal de Panama, Bernard Grasset, 1932
Alan Moorehead, The White Nile, Penguin Books, 1973
Anthony Gorst and Lewis Johnman, The Suez Crisis, Routledge, 1997