This series has four easy 5 minute installments. This first installment: Obtaining Government Permits.
The dream of a canal connecting the Mediterranean to the Red Sea and hence to the oceans accessing India and the orient had been held by humans since the most ancient days of civilization. How it finally became reality is told below. One feature of this account is the coverage of the business and finance side of the construction project. The other parts of the story get their due coverage, too.
This selection is 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.
Gardiner Greene Hubbard (1822-1897) founded The National Geographic Society, was President of Bell Telephone (later AT&T), and founded Science Magazine. His daughter was Alexander Graham Bell’s wife.
Time: December 31, 1869
Place: Suez Canal, Egypt
The concession obtained by De Lesseps from Said Pacha granted for ninety-nine years from the opening of the Suez Canal: “The exclusive power of organizing and directing a universal company for constructing through the Isthmus of Suez a water-canal between the two oceans, open forever as neutral ways to every commercial vessel proceeding from one sea to the other, without distinction, preference, or exclusion either of per son or nationalities.”
The concession required the approval of the Sultan of Turkey, as suzerain of Egypt, and that the annual profits, after the payment of 5 per cent. interest on the shares, should be divided as follows: To the Egyptian Government, 15 per cent.; to the stockholders of the company, 71 per cent.; to the original promoters, 10 per cent.; to the administration, 2 per cent.; and to the employees, 2 per cent.
Six additional concessions were obtained between 1856 and 1866. In February, 1855, De Lesseps went to Constantinople to obtain the approval of the Sultan, but failed through the opposition of Great Britain, by its representative, Sir Stratford de Redcliff. This opposition was continued without cessation until the completion of the canal.”
[“As if by the irony of history” the first ship that passed through the canal flew the English flag. Within twenty years Great Britain had come to contribute more than 80 per cent. of the traffic. In 1875 the British Government bought the shares of the original capital that belonged to the Khedive, Ismail Pacha. The acquisition thereby of a controlling interest in the canal was one of the conspicuous triumphs of Disraeli. In 1870 the number of vessels using the canal was 486; in 1899, 3607; receipts in 1870, about $1,031,865; in 1899, about $18,263,755.-ed]
De Lesseps believed it was essential to the success of the great plan that the channel should be deep enough for the largest vessels to sail through without interruption from locks or gates, and that there was no insuperable obstacle to such a scheme. He was not an engineer; and therefore, realizing the necessity of a competent survey before proceeding further, he invited the ablest engineers of Europe to meet at Paris in October, 1855. They accepted this invitation, and after a full consultation appointed a subcommittee to examine the route. After several months of careful survey they reported that the plan was feasible, “and the solution of the problem of the junction of the two seas.”
In 1857 De Lesseps presented to Lord Palmerston, then Prime Minister of England, the report of the engineers, for his approval. Lord Palmerston refused, saying: “All the engineers in Europe may say what they please; I know more than they do; my opinion will never change one jot; and I shall oppose the work to the very end.” Thomas Stephenson, the engineer, supported Lord Palmerston, declaring that “the scheme was physically impracticable, except at an expense too great to warrant any expectation of returns.” In Parliament the motion of John A. Roebuck, “that the power and influence of the country should not be employed in obliging the Sultan to withhold his consent,” though supported by William E. Gladstone, was defeated by a vote of sixty-two in favor, two hundred twenty-eight in opposition. The press and the public were almost unanimous in condemnation of the project; the Edinburgh Review insisted that “the canal would neither shorten the passage to India nor materially facilitate the intercourse between the mother-country and its dependencies.”
De Lesseps returned to Paris disappointed and disheartened; but the opposition of England had aroused the interest and enthusiasm of the French. The Emperor gave his public support to the company, Prince Jérôme Napoleon was appointed protector, and subscription-books were opened for the capital, fixed at $40,000,000, divided into 400,000 shares of $100 each. The French people subscribed for 207,100 shares; the Viceroy Egypt, for 177,653 shares; others, for 15,247 shares.
Not a share of stock was taken in Great Britain. De Lesseps immediately began the surveys, procuring plans and arranging the numerous details of this vast undertaking. August 25, 1859, De Lesseps struck his spade into the earth, saying, “We strike the first blow that shall open the commerce of the East to the commerce and civilization of the West.” At the same time the Viceroy of Egypt issued his circular, prohibiting the beginning of the work before the consent of the Sublime Porte had been obtained. This protest did not hinder De Lesseps, though he was greatly delayed in collecting materials and laborers. The work was begun at the most difficult places on the line of the canal, and on the harbors in the Mediterranean and Red seas.
In 1862 a small channel had been cut from the Mediterranean to Lake Timsah, about fifty miles, when England, not content with opposing this project through its representatives in Constantinople, through its press and its financiers, took more effective measures to stop the work.
The concession provided that four-fifths of the laborers should be natives, furnished by the Viceroy, and paid from one and a half to two piastres a day, with rations to the value of an additional piastre, equal, in the whole, to ﬁfteen cents a day, or one-half more than the usual wages. The concession also authorized the company to construct the Sweet-Water Canal, and granted the company large tracts of land on the line of the Sweet Water and Suez canals, with the right to have any goods or merchandise required for the use of the canal company entered without payment of any duty, and with the right to take tolls from all vessels passing through either of these canals.
England contended that this labor was coruee or forced labor; that the laborers were not properly treated, and that Said Pacha had no right to alienate any land without the consent of the Sultan.
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