Formerly the waters of the Red and Mediterranean seas were connected; that the Isthmus has gradually risen, leaving several great depressions — salt-lakes, or great salt marshes.
Continuing The Suez Canal Opens,
our selection from an article in Great Events by Famous Historians, Volume 18 by Gardiner Greene Hubbard published in 1905. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages. The selection is presented in four easy 5 minute installments.
Previously in The Suez Canal Opens.
Time: December 31, 1869
Place: Suez Canal, Egypt
De Lesseps replied that this was the only labor by which the great works of Egypt had been executed; that the coruee had been employed with the knowledge of England, and without protest, by English contractors and the Pacha in building railroads and in constructing the Mahmudieh Canal, where one thousand laborers are reported to have perished in one day; in digging irrigating canals, and in the cultivation of cotton plantations of Said Pacha; that England was inﬂuenced, not only by a desire to stop the work on the canal, but to obtain cotton, as a cotton famine prevailed from 1862 to 1865, during the Civil War in the United States. England proved to the Pacha that by transferring the twenty thousand laborers from the canal to his cotton plantations, a large quantity of cotton could be raised and sold at an extravagant price. This argument was too strong to be resisted; and the laborers were withdrawn with the regret that “poor De Lesseps must go to the wall.”
At that time the engineer reported that with the steady labor of thirty thousand fellahs the canal could have been completed in three years. The English press was satisﬁed; the Times declared “that as forced labor was to cease, the canal ceased,” that “the canal was almost forgotten, its building looked on as De Lesseps’s folly.”
De Lesseps protested, and the French Government interfered. In 1863 Said Pacha died, and Ismail Pacha mounted the throne of Egypt. Gifted with high intelligence, and by nature a lover of progress, the new sovereign was wise enough to see that he could gain considerable advantages for his government, and at the same time assure the completion of the great canal by a prompt and considerable sacriﬁce, which would prevent serious complications in his relations with France. The concession had given to the company, in addition to the lands and the free entry of goods, certain municipal privileges, which seriously affected the revenues and threatened in time to create vicious entanglements in the relations between Egypt and the European Powers. Ismail seized this opportunity, and wisely agreed to submit to arbitration all questions between Egypt and the canal company, accepting, without hesitation, as arbiter, Napoleon III, Emperor of the French. This he did, well knowing that while the judgment against him would probably be heavy, it would be ﬁnal, as the decision made by that arbiter would never be questioned by the company. An examination was made by a commission appointed by the Emperor, which decided that Ismail Pacha should pay the canal company for the withdrawal of fellah labor: An indemnity of 1,520,000 pounds ($7,600,000); for a cession of all rights of the company in the fresh-water canals, 400,000 pounds ($2,000,000); as compensation for tolls relinquished, 240,000 pounds ($1,200,000); as compensation for lands surrendered, 1,200,000 pounds ($6,000, 000); total, 3,360,000 pounds ($16,800,000).
This was paid in 1864, and the work was resumed. Thus, a second time, the opposition of Great Britain resulted most advantageously to De Lesseps, furnishing the means for the continuation of the work, compelling the company to substitute machine for hand labor, and that which at ﬁrst sight seemed to threaten destruction to the enterprise led to its success.
The Sultan’s approval was still delayed, and not until March 19, 1866, was the ﬁrman issued granting “our sovereign authorization for the execution of the canal.” While the arbitration was pending there was a practical cessation of work, from the withdrawal of fellah labor; but De Lesseps was not idle — he was planning for the substitution of machine for hand labor; seventy-eight dredgers of different kinds (some with iron spouts two hundred twenty feet long), engines, locomotives, cars, tugs, and other apparatus were constructed. The channel was dredged, the sand raised, thrown into the spout, and carried along its whole length by running water, raised by a rotary pump. Other dredgers were provided with buckets drawn from endless chains; others had short spouts, and some were ordinary dredgers tended by seagoing lighters and numberless tugs; where the dredger could not work, tramways, with dirt-cars and locomotives, were used. The ﬁrst cost of the machinery was between ten million and twelve million dollars, and the cost of fuel when in full operation was two hundred thousand dollars a month. The machines were more economical and rapid than the fellah labor, excavating monthly when in full operation two million cubic meters of earth, a quantity sufﬁcient to ﬁll Broadway [New York city] from the Battery to Union Square, as high as the second stories of the houses. The digging of the canal presented no great engineering difficulties. The canal for part of the way was simply a trench cut through the desert, which is gritty, not sandy; for another part of the way through salt lakes too shallow for navigation; the rest through hills, whose rugged outlines break the dead level and uniform monotony of the desert; the highest elevation was near Suez — sixty feet.
The canal is 100 miles long: From Port Said through Lake Menzaleh to Kantara, 27 miles; from Kantara through Lake Ballah, 3 miles, to Ismailia, 21.47 miles; from Ismailia through Lake Timsah, 3 miles, to Bitter Lakes, 15 miles; through the Bitter Lakes, 21 miles; from Bitter Lakes to Suez, 15 miles; total, 99.47 miles.
It is supposed that formerly the waters of the Red and Mediterranean seas were connected; that the Isthmus has gradually risen, leaving several great depressions — salt-lakes, or great salt marshes. In the deepest parts of these depressions the bottom was from ten to twenty feet below the sea-level, shelving to a few inches at the margin. A channel was dredged through these lakes, when they were ﬁlled with salt water, making great reservoirs preventing currents through the canal; for, though the waters of the two seas are at the same level in calm weather, when the wind blows the waves into Port Said and out from Suez there is a difference of several feet in the level. The current then ﬂows through the canal into these lakes, but they are large enough to prevent currents through the canal.
Ismailia, the chief city of the Isthmus, ‘is on Lake Timsah, half way across the Isthmus, where the railway from Cairo to Suez and the Sweet-Water Canal strikes the line of the Suez Canal. The Great and Bitter lakes, forty leagues in circumference, required 440,000,000,000 gallons of water and six months to fill them.
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