The Story of Suez Canal and the Dream to Build a Shorter Route to the East

A Brief History of a Big Dream

The recent event at the Suez Canal has made many of us realise how much the world still depends on physical transportation of goods despite all the e-revolution. Suez Canal has been in the news for the last few days for the wrong reasons. It plays a critical role globally, yet we seldom spoke about it before this issue.

What is the Suez Canal ?

In simple terms, a waterway that connects Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea. Interestingly, it was artificially created in 1858 to shorten the route between Asia and Europe. Prior to 1858, ships travelling between Asia and Europe had to go around Africa. The creation of the canal in Isthmus of Suez, meant ships could navigate directly to the North Atlantic from The Indian ocean saving 8,900 kilometres, up-to 2 weeks of travel time and of course fuel.

The Dream Called “Shorter Route to the East”

Ever since the first sea route to Asia was discovered, many visionaries have dreamed about building a shorter route.

It all started in 1488 when Bartolomeu Dias navigated across Southern Africa and opened a trading route to the land of spices, India. Till then Venice played the role of middlemen in spice trade and Venetian leaders became desperate to find a shorter route to bring the trade back to their country again. They planned about digging a waterway between Nile and Red Sea and entered into discussions with the Egyptian rulers. The planning continued till 1517 and was thrown away when the Ottoman Empire conquered Egypt.

Later the head of state of Ottoman Empire, became interested in connecting Red Sea and Mediterranean instead of just Red Sea and Nile. It is believed that one of his motivation for the canal was to easily connect Constantinople (capitol of Rome) to Mecca in favour of Hajj, the annual Islamic pilgrimage. The shorter trade route to India was also another strategic reason to go ahead with the plan. Ottoman Navy’s interest in easier navigation to Black, Red and Mediterranean Seas was the third force supporting the cause. However, the calculations depicted that it was a project that was too expensive to fund for and was never completed.

In 1798, Napoleon got excited about this idea. As a first step, he hired archaeologists, engineers and cartographers to seek details of an ancient waterway passage. Their findings have been recorded in Description de l’Égypte. This included details about remnants of an ancient west–east canal through Bubastis, Pi-Ramesses, and Pithom (ancient Egyptian cities). The discoveries gave Napoleon confidence and he decided to go ahead with the project. Unfortunately, during the study they calculated the Red Sea to be at a different sea level than the Mediterranean Sea. This meant the canal construction would require complex engineering — locks, water controls etc. The project had to be abandoned due to the complexity.

In 1830, a British explorer and team found that there was no difference in elevation of the two seas. They submitted a report to the British government stating that the canal construction was indeed feasible. Around that time, the idea about “Overland Route” from Britain to India was popular and the canal did not get much attention from the British.

The 1830’s saw a rise in interest in building the canal. A number of people including French, Austrian and Italian Explorers attempted to influence others to fund the canal, but nothing happened.

In 1846, multiple experts including civil engineers, Robert Stephenson of Britain and Paul Bourdaloue of France, conducted a detailed study and found what the British explorer had found in 1830. Their study was the first “accepted” evidence about the fact that there was no difference in the sea level that can affect the canal construction. Britain opposed it possibly fearing that a canal accessible to all nations might create problems in their Indian rule.

Somewhere in 1850’s, out of friendly relationships, the ruler of the Ottoman Empire gave a French diplomat the permission to form the Suez Canal Company. While the canal would be open to everyone, the British, Austria and Russia didn’t buy many shares for the company. Britain was in-fact against it. After many hiccups, the Company was able to find enough financial aid and the construction started by 1859. Some sources say that around 1.5 million people, from various nations worked on literally digging the canal. Many people died during the construction, most of them were affected by Cholera that was spreading during those years. The company also faced many technical, political and financial problems during the construction.

After 10 years of digging, the Suez canal was inaugurated on 17 November 1869. The stories claim the opening to be a big celebration with fireworks and many ships crossing it.

After the Opening

World trade gained immediate benefits from the canal opening. Shorter routes and faster connections boosted million businesses. The Mediterranean countries saw a positive economic growth.

On the downside, it also led to the increased speed of European colonisation of Africa. In 1882, British invaded and took full control of the canal and protected the canal during the world wars against multiple other parties that wanted to take control over it. The canal played a strategic role during the world wars. By 1951, The Egyptian government gained back the control of their land and the British troop withdrawal was completed by 1956.

Current Role In World Trade

The most important shipping lane in the world is what Suez Canal is being called now. The 193 km passage takes care of 12% of the global trade, far bigger than any other trade route. That’s about more than 30% of world’s container ship traffic. Egypt in particular earns billions per year taking care of the canal. When the ship ‘Ever Given’ got stuck on 23rd March, the business world was shaken, not just because that particular ship was stuck, but because Suez Canal is quite significant for world trade. Millions in form of insurance, rise in oil price, delays in goods etc are just few of the many consequences.

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