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Early Plans for a Suez Canal - 1840-1847

The first efforts to build a modern canal came from the Egypt expedition of Napoleon Bonaparte, who hoped the project would create a devastating trade problem for the English. Though this project was begun in 1799 by Charles Le Pere, a miscalculation estimated that the levels between the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea were too great (estimating that the Red Sea was some ten meters higher than that of the Mediterranean Sea) and work was quickly suspended.

Napoleon was told that the Red Sea was 30 feet higher than the Mediterranean. Dig a canal, his surveyors said, and the Red Sea will hemorrhage into the Mediterranean. Napoleon's engineers also considered the idea of a canal running directly between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean, but they miscalculated a difference of ten meters between the two sea levels and gave up the idea, and it would sweep away the Nile Delta.

Then, in 1833, a group of French intellectuals known as the Saint-Simoniens arrived in Cairo and they became very interested in the Suez project despite such problems as the difference in sea levels. Unfortunately, at that time Mohammed Ali had little interest in the project, and in 1835, the Saint-Simoniens were devastated by a plague epidemic. Most of the twenty or so engineers returned to France. They did leave behind several enthusiasts for the canal, including Ferdinand de Lesseps (who was then the French vice-consul in Alexandria) and Linant de Bellefonds.

In Paris, the Saint-Simoniens created an association in 1846 to study the possibility of the Suez Canal once again. In 1847, Bourdaloue confirmed that there was no real difference in the levels between the Mediterranean and Red Seas, and it was Linant de Bellefonds that drew up the technical report. Unfortunately, there was considerable British opposition to the project, and Mohammed Ali, who was ill by this time, was less than enthusiastic.

The project of a canal from Suez to Pelusium was, on grounds inconsiderately admitted, deemed chimerical; and in a short time the other was likewise abandoned, notwithstanding its being regarded as so easy of adoption and entailing so little cost. Mehemet Ali, amid his vast designs for the regeneration of Egypt, occasionally entertained the idea of the Suez Canal; but, as the schemes proposed to him referred only to the connection of the Nile with the Red Sea, he rejected them all, for very weighty and excellent political reasons; not wishing to open to foreign navies a channel into the heart of Egypt.

Affairs remained nearly in this state until 1840, when events of considerable importance attracted the attention of Europe to Egypt. The fears of a general war were soon calmed; but the consideration of the problems which this country offered to science were revived,-especially that of the level of the two Seas; and in 1841, it was proved by the surveys of some English officers-in other respects imperfect-that the Egyptian Commission were mistaken, and that the Red Sea was not of a higher level, as had been believed.

In 1834, Major-General Chesney had supported this opinion before the Parliamentary Committee of Inquiry, asserting, from a simple inspection of the localities, and without having made any actual survey, that the idea of a difference of level was erroneous. Although this was merely a scientific inquiry, it was closely connected with the opening of the Isthmus, and the facilities to the works depended materially on its results.

In February, 1841, M. Linant Bey, chief engineer to his Highness the Viceroy of Egypt, who had been many years engaged on this subject, formed, in conjunction with Mr. Anderson (a Director of the Peninsular and Oriental Company), and Messrs. John and George Gliddon, a Company for preparing the construction of a direct canal from Suez to Pelusium. M. Linant Bey demonstrated its feasibility by careful investigation. This first Company however came to nothing.

In 1846 the project of M. Linant Bey was resumed by a new Company, formed by the efforts of M. Enfantin, and of which Messrs. Stephenson, Negrelli, and Paulin Talabot were the principal members. This was named "Society d'Etudes du Canal de Suez," and it purposed to carry out the scheme of M. Linant Bey, and to verify his assertion that it was possible to create "une sorte de Bosphore dans le desert de Suez."

The question of the level of the Seas was, in consequence, resumed in 1847, and was now completely solved, by European and Egyptian engineers, under the direction of M. Bourdaloue, well known for his consummate skill in such operations, and M. Linant Hey. These investigations into the nature of the ground laid the basis of a new project for uniting the two Seas.

Toward the close of 1847, M. Paulin Talabot, who had not been to Egypt, published the results of the labors undertaken for determining the question of the levels; and, in an important Report which he drew up, the great fact was asserted, that, allowing for tidal differences, the level of the two Seas which it was proposed to connect was precisely the same. The merit of solving this question belongs to those engaged in the operations of 1847.

It was not however merely with a scientific view that M. Paulin Talabot executed this work; he desired likewise to construct a canal, of which he produced a plan, according to which, the canal did not terminate at Pelusium, but went from Suez to Cairo, followed and crossed the Nile, and emptied itself into the port of Alexandria.

The result of the operations of 1847, in negativing those of 1799, meanwhile excited the interest of the scientific world; and to satisfy the demands which the honour of the former Commission was supposed to make, M. Sabatier, Consul-General of France, requested of his Highness the Viceroy to allow a second survey to be made. This took place in 1853, under the direction of M. Linant Bey, and it fully confirmed the results of the labours of 1847. M. Linant Bey found only one trifling divergence of a few inches. The two Seas were thus ascertained to be on a level, and this fact being established formed the basis of all subsequent projects.

The Company, of which Messrs. Negrelli, Stephenson, and Paulin Talabot were the chief members, was nearly broken up, and for seven years appeared to have abandoned any ulterior enterprise; when the Concession made to M. de Lesseps for a sea-canal from Suez to Pelusium brought their project of a canal into fresh notice. The grant was dated the end of November, 1854; and the two engineers of his Highness the Viceroy, MM. Linant Bey and Mougel Bey, drew up a complete specification, which appeared at Cairo, March 20th, 1855. Meantime MM. Baude and Paulin Talabot published, in the 'Revue des Deux Mondes' (March and May, 1855), two articles, reviving and developing the scheme of a canal which had been projected in 1847.

This canal, which was to run from Suez to Cairo, where it crossed the Nile, and from Cairo to Alexandria, is the one called the indirect line, as opposed to that of MM. Linant Bey and Mougel Bey, which passes directly from Pelusium to Suez.

The canal proposed by M. Paulin Talabot is nearly a hundred leagues in length, - the direct line is only thirty: the former had twenty or twenty-four locks,- the direct line had only one. The former crossed the Nile, either on the water or on a canal-bridge; whereas the direct line only crossed the Desert, where it meets the Bitter Lakes, Lake Tinisah, and Lake Menzaleh. The crossing the Nile presents obstacles which the Author himself admits to be gigantic, and very difficult to overcome. The direct line offers only ordinary difficulties, which engineering skill can easily surmount. The indirect line disturbs all the hydrographic system of Lower Egypt, with which the direct line does not at all interfere: the former terminates at the port of Alexandria, where there is insufficient space; while the latter debouches at Pelusium, on a beach as. extensive as could be desired, aud with an excellent anchorage.

It is unnecessary to insist upon this parallel, which is more particularly in the province of the engineer, although such questions are not excluded from common-sense considerations. The indirect line has been finally condemned by the most competent judges; and the only subject for discussion that remains, since the publication of the plan of MM. Linant Bey and Mougel Bey, is the direct line, viz. the sea-canal which is intended to divert from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean the whole trade which at present is carried round the Cape of Good Hope. I do not dwell on the project of MM. Alexis and Emile Barraidt (January 1st of last year) mentioned in the 'Revue des Deux Mondes,' together with that of M. Faulin Talabot; it suffices to say that this project increases the number of difficulties.

The scheme of M. Paulin Talabot was the ancient enlarged canal of the Pharaohs, the Ptolemies, the Romans, the Khalifs, and of M. Lepere. It crosses Egypt, and is only constructed for that country; but, instead of terminating at the Nile, it crosses the river, which it connects both with the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. This is not a sea-canal, nor does it solve the real problem which engages the attention of this age; the great ships employed in the commerce of the East Indies, can never, like mere barques, pass through so many locks; thus probably losing more time than the passage round the Cape of Good Hope requires, to say nothing of all the damage likely to be incurred. In the state of affairs at Midsummer 1S55, one doubt alone remained to be removed in all impartial and reasonable minds,-whether the construction of a sea-canal, terminating at Suez and Pelusium, passing through the isthmus without locks, was as practicable and easy of execution as was alleged. Was it possible to form an artificial Bosphorus between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean, and to re-establish the communication which nature had originally formed between these two Seas? This question M. Ferdinand de Lesseps wished to see definitively solved before the formation of a Universal Company, which the Viceroy's Grant empowered him to constitute.

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Page last modified: 09-07-2011 02:38:52 ZULU