Today’s installment concludes 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.
If you have journeyed through all of the installments of this series, just one more to go and you will have completed a selection from the great works of four thousand words. Congratulations!
Previously in The Suez Canal Opens.
Time: December 31, 1869
Place: Suez Canal, Egypt
The highest speed permitted is ﬁve miles and three-quarters an hour, but at this rate steamers are often obliged to use full head of steam, as the water, instead of ﬂowing off all around the vessel, is heaped up in front of it. Wherever the channel is of uniform width, a vessel keeps its course without the use of the rudder, as the pressure is equal on both sides; but where the channel broadens on either side, the ship yields to the greater pressure, and heads directly for the opposite bank. Therefore, vessels frequently strike the banks or the bottom, and occasionally run into each other. Lighters and all needful appliances for assisting vessels are provided at short distances.
This canal, constructed not only without the aid of Great Britain, but in spite of her continued opposition, owes its success to her commerce, for four-ﬁfths of its tolls come from British ships. No sooner was it opened than her steamers began using the canal, for a new and shorter route was opened to her empire in the East.
England desired to obtain some control in the canal, and the poverty of the Viceroy — the Khedive, since 1867 — soon gave her the desired opportunity. The shares held by the Khedive, Ismail Pacha, entitled the owner to a certain control in the management, but the dividend on them was waived in 1869 for twenty-ﬁve years as the consideration for certain properties given by the Khedive to the company, subsequently purchased by him of the company on the demand of Great Britain.
The opening of the canal has produced a greater change in the commerce of the world than any other single event since the discovery of America. Formerly the commerce of the East was carried on mainly in sailing-vessels, under the English ﬂag, around Cape of Good Hope and Cape Horn; now, in steamers through the canal. Sailing-vessels have great difficulty in sailing through the canal and the Red Sea, and so rarely use this route, while steam navigation by the canal is more economical than sailing-vessels via Cape of Good Hope; hence a large increase of steamers. The average time between London and India before the opening of the canal was ninety days, the passage fare seven hundred dollars; in 1875 it was less than thirty-six days, the passage fare three hundred forty dollars. Freights have been reduced in the same ratio with passenger fares.
The trade with the East is now by steam; and French, Russian, Austrian, and Italian vessels participate in it, and are doubling and tripling the number of their vessels, and will before long become powerful competitors with the British. The Mediterranean is no longer a closed sea, but from all its ports, and from beyond Gibraltar, all vessels bound east sail through the Suez Canal for India, China, and Australia.
The opening of the Suez Canal has not only transferred the commerce from sailing-vessels to steamers, but has also brought commerce to the maritime countries of the Mediterranean, France, Italy, and Austria. Before the Suez Canal was opened, ships very rarely sailed from these countries to the East. The commerce was all carried on under the ﬂags of England and Holland. Now every ship to India and China passes their shores, and some steamers of the largest of the English lines start from Italy. French, Italian, and Austrian steamers were naturally drawn through the canal bearing the manufactures of their countries to the East, receiving in exchange the coffee and sugar of India, the teas and silks of China.
The East, too, has gained largely by the opening of the canal; for cheaper freights and competition have reduced the price of cotton goods, and they are now extensively used by the millions of India and China, while the labor of India and the products of that labor command higher prices. Thus action and reaction take place, and Europe and Asia are equally beneﬁted. England foresaw the effect of the opening of the canal in developing the commerce of the Mediterranean and the competition of the Continent, and therefore was so persistent in her opposition to it. She did not anticipate the enormous development of her own commerce that would result from the facilities furnished by the canal.
Egypt, in her desire to aid the construction of the canal, agreed to furnish laborers at a stipulated price, to give liberally of her desert lands and the right to construct and use a fresh water canal. England compelled her to withdraw the laborers and to regain the land.
For this labor and land and these rights she paid the canal company 3,360,000 pounds; the loss on the Elwady estate sold to the canal company and bought back by the Viceroy was 326, 000 pounds; cost of the fresh-water canal was over 1,244,000 pounds; expenses of missions to Europe and cost of opening canal, 1,011,000 pounds; she sold her shares to Great Britain at cost, but was required to pay 5 per cent. per annum interest for twenty years on this cost, 4,000,000 pounds; total, 9,941,000 pounds ($49,705,000)
Fifty million dollars was exacted from Egypt as her contribution to the canal. Even this statement, according to the best authority, largely underestimates the cost. It does not include the loss to Egypt in impost duties, nor the vast sums paid out in interest on the sums paid in 1864, amounting, up to 1880, to not less than twenty million dollars, for which, as well as for the principal, she received only what she had previously given to the canal company. Egypt, alone of all nations, receives little, if any, beneﬁt from the canal. The commerce of the East, which formerly paid tribute to her people as it crossed from Suez to Cairo and Alexandria, is now carried by foreign steamers without stopping, and pays tribute only to the Suez Canal. When England was at war with Egypt (1881-1885), the Suez Canal and the line of the Sweet-Water Canal afforded the surest way to invade and overcome Egypt. Arabia listened to the requests of De Lesseps, and forbore to destroy the canal or interrupt the ﬂow of fresh water. Lord Wolseley disregarded these requests, closed the canal to all commerce, and made it the base of his line of operations.
[In the mid 1950’s Nasser of Egypt seized control of the canal and through the ensuing crisis kept control of it. Egypt controls the canal to this day. – jl]
This ends our series of passages on The Suez Canal Opens by Gardiner Greene Hubbard from his article in Great Events by Famous Historians, Volume 18 published in 1905. This blog features short and lengthy pieces on all aspects of our shared past. Here are selections from the great historians who may be forgotten (and whose work have fallen into public domain) as well as links to the most up-to-date developments in the field of history and of course, original material from yours truly, Jack Le Moine. – A little bit of everything historical is here.
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