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The bloodied history of the Suez Canal

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By Dhiraj Kumar

On 23rd March 2021, an enormous ship “Ever Given” got stuck sideways and blocked maritime traffic in the most critical water canal in the world -The Suez Canal, breaking headlines all over the world. The cargo ship ran aground into the eastern banks of the Suez Canal, resulting in a long queue of ships on either side, waiting to cross through the waterway. The “Ever Given”, owned by the Japanese, operated by a Taiwanese company “Evergreen”, is one of the largest cargo ships in the world. Registered in Panama and managed by a German Company, the ship was negotiating its way to the Netherlands from Malaysia.

Though the unknown Egyptian hamlet of Manshiyet Rugola on the desert banks of the Suez Canal witnesses thousands of ships crossing the canal each year, it is the “Ever Given” that has brought the tiny village into international fame when the giant ship accidentally docking in its backyard. This event was perhaps one of the most peculiar accidents in the 151-year-old history of the Suez Canal that connects the Mediterranean Sea with the Red Sea. With the ship blocking one of the most important historical trade routes between Port Said and Port Suez, countries who depend on it drew a collective sigh on yet another impediment to trade and transportation in the age of Covid-19 with 12% of the world trade impacted by the traffic jam at the Suez Canal. The canal has crucial economic value for Egypt, the Mediterranean countries, and Europe. As per Britannica, in 2018 the Suez Canal handled 18,174 ship transits with a net annual tonnage of about 1,139,630,000 metric tons. In 2020, despite Covid-19 fears and lockdowns, more than 18,500 vessels traversed the canal. Anxious transporters, companies, and countries waited in trepidation as the ship refused to budge despite frantic efforts of towboats, dredgers, and cranes.

This is not the first time that the Suez Canal has called for unwanted global attention. Since its inception, the project of a waterway and the conceptualization of the canal have consistently been part of conspiracies, controversies, and chicanery. Historically Egypt has been called the gateway where the west meets the east. The history of the idea to bridge the Mediterranean Sea (West) and the Red Sea (East) through a water channel transports us several centuries to 1850 BCE to the “Canal of the Pharaohs”. It certainly helps that the Red Sea and the Mediterranean Sea are at the same sea level as a prerequisite to any sort of canal construction in that period. In ancient times water from the Red Sea used to rise towards the north to lake Timsah. Egyptologists believe the Pharaoh Senusret I, the second pharaoh from the twelfth dynasty, ordered the construction of a canal to connect the lakes with the Red Sea and the Nile river. A canal was constructed by these ancient Egyptians for the passage of boats within the country. It is believed that the canal stood for 1200 years before the desert consumed this ancient waterway. In 609 BC, the Pharaoh Necho II tried to revive a new waterway, but over one lakh Egyptian workers are believed to have died during its excavation, due to starvation and dehydration from the unrelenting desert sun.

Darius the Great, King of Persia tried again to work on a canal, but the work could only be completed two centuries later in the reign of Ptolemy II Philadelphus who colonized the canal and extended it from the Red Sea to Port Said in the Mediterranean. This canal, which is also known as the Ptolemaic Canal, gave a huge impetus to traders who used land and the canal to extend the boundaries of their business. In the 7th century, during the Muslim domination of Egypt, the canal was rebuilt by The Order of the Caliph Umar. After a century, the canal was consumed by the desert again and remained buried for another thousand years. During the centuries the canal was buried, land mafia and sea pirates made trade across the continents a bloodied affair.

The demand for a canal kept rising, consequent to the strategic rise of India as the golden bird of the East. In 1497, the world-famous Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama created a milestone in maritime history when he started his journey to India, traveling from Lisbon to Calicut via the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa. Traders from England, Spain, Greece, and other Mediterranean countries began to navigate all through to the southern tip of Africa to reach the riches of India. This journey cost a lot of time, money, and lives. The rise of England and its firm eye on India dominated sea routes for the next 400 years. By 1850, ship designs had undergone massive changes compared to their ancient counterparts. For Europe, this meant ships were now much bigger and could carry a lot of cargo from the jute and cotton mills of the east to their countries, but it still meant cruising to the bottom of Africa to reach Asia. The idea of a shortcut to connect both seas and continents took shape again as the European countries kept scratching their heads to reduce the travel time between Asia and Europe for faster global trade. The answer lay with the Isthmus of Suez connecting the Mediterranean and Red Seas.

In 1854, Ferdinand de Lesseps, a French diplomat, engineer, and entrepreneur tried to persuade the then Ottoman Viceroy Muhammad Ali but he was not convinced of the need for a canal. Facing rejection, Lesseps engaged with the Viceroy’s obese son Muhammad Sa’id to solve his weight problems that struck a lasting friendship between them. After the death of Viceroy Muhammad Ali in 1948, Muhammad Sa’id Pasha took charge in 1954 and almost immediately drafted the first agreement and permission letter of the construction of the Suez Canal on a lease of 99 years from the date of opening. The profits were to be split up as per the understanding of 15% to Egypt, 75% to the canal company, and 10% to the investors. The article of Concession stated that the ships of all nations were to be allowed to navigate the Suez Canal. A friendship struck to solve the problem of obesity led to the approval of the Suez Canal!

Animosity rose between the French and the British on the control levers of the Suez Canal and the company created to manage it. England loathed the thought of the French controlling the most important shipping lane of the world and worse Britain did not even want Egypt to control English fortunes from India. The funding for the cost of the canal which was estimated to be $40 million was yet to be secured. England decided to block the funding using its massive influence in the banking circles. In desperation Ferdinand de Lesseps opened an office in Paris to close the funding and planned to sell 4,00,000 shares at 500 francs each of the Suez Canal Company, limiting 55% i.e 2,20,000 shares for the French. The modest middle class lapped up the stocks giving a boost to this newly formed organization. With the English not relenting, and only 2,07,000 shares sold till now, Muhammad Sa’id was tricked into buying the remaining shares to kick start the construction of the ambitious canal. He did not have the money for the remaining 48%, but the European Banks who had refused earlier were more than willing now to lend him the money at dubious interest rates. The project finally saw the light of day with the funding firmly in the bag.

On April 25th, 1859, the construction of the canal began. Huge challenges now arose to arrange for manpower, food, shelter, and equipment needed for the mega project. The terrain of desert sand infested Egypt caused complex problems for construction. 90% of the work was only to dig rapidly into the sand. In the 1850s there was no heavy equipment to move sand. Muhammad Sa’id forced 60,000 peasants as “Corvee Labour” to leave their lands and families and go to work unwillingly at the site of the Suez Canal. 25,000 Egyptian laborers died due to lack of shelter, food, and harsh working conditions of toiling 18 hours a day. It was said that some of the workers were forced to dig the canal with bare hands! With the death of Muhammad Sa’id in 1863, his successor Isma’il Pasha banned slavery and had to borrow more money from European bankers to afford labor or equipment for the unfinished canal. After 10 years of digging and human tragedy and sacrifices, the canal opened on November 17th was formally inaugurated.

The British and the French benefitted from the canal but not Egypt. The economy nosedived due to borrowed funds and faced bankruptcy. Isma’il Pasha had to sell off all government shares to the British for $20 million. Facing a revolt from nationalistic Egyptian forces in 1882, the British invaded Egypt killing two thousand Egyptians as it considered the revolt as a threat to its investment in the canal. Britain ruled Egypt for the next 54 years, strategically using the Suez Canal to its benefit, for both World War I and II. 

In 1952, in a bloodless coup, Gamal Abdel Nasser Hussein took over as the ruler of Egypt. He drove the national consciousness towards claiming the self-respect of Egypt after decades of foreign rule. His vision was to provide for higher agricultural harvest and hydroelectricity by building the Aswan Dam to tap the Nile. In 1956, when the World Bank rejected the ask for funds for the dam, Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal one week later in retaliation, raising global tempers. Egypt hailed its leader, but France and Britain decided to invade Egypt and bombed the Suez Canal region. The United Nations intervened and ruled that the canal belonged to Egypt, ordering the English and French to leave the territory. The Egyptians rejoiced when their land became free of foreigners and demolished the statue of the creator of the Suez Canal, Ferdinand de Lesseps at Port Said, who for the locals had become a beacon of international subjugation, on 23 December 1956. The Suez Canal was decisively of the Egyptians by the Egyptians and for the world.

Today, the canal has widened dramatically allowing bigger ships to sail through making global trade faster, and larger than ever before. The “Ever Given” ship has finally moved after 6 excruciating days but it gave the world a chance to revisit the bloodied history of the Suez Canal.

(Dhiraj Kumar is an author and writer and he is writing his first book. The views expressed are personal opinion of the author. He can be reached at dhiraj.rao@gmail.com or on Twitter @authordhiraj.)

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