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Lesseps Plans the Suez Canal - 1854-1859

To cut a canal through the isthmus of Suez to unite the Mediterranean with the Red Sea, seemed a simple and feasible idea; but there were always, when new undertakings are proposed, not a few ready to find all manner of difficulties, and to exaggerate the smallest obstacle. The Canal, they said, will be a stagnant ditch; it will be a wild, unmanageable current; it will silt up with the deposit of the Nile; it will be filled by the sand of the desert; the Bitter Lakes, through which it is to pass, will be filled with salt; the navigation of the Red Sea is dangerous; the shipping will never be able to approach Port Said.....

Worse, however, than such detractors were the political jealousies and opposition which such a canal immediately awoke, especially among influential personages in Great Britain. The canal, it was said by such, is projected expressly with the intention of transferring from England to France the trade of the East, so that Marseilles may become nearer than Ixradon, and French influence supreme in Egypt. Its aim is the barring of the Nile to any Turkish army which may be employed to restore the empire of the Sultan. Should the Pasha of Egypt, at any time, wish to sever the connection between Turkey and Egypt, and to erect Egypt into an independent state, the possession of such a barrier, defended, it may be, by foreigners, would render any attempt upon Egypt most precarious. And surely England cannot allow the detachment of Egypt from Turkey. It is not to her interest that there should be open between the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean a water passage at the command of either Power, and not at the command of England.

As Khedive from 1854 to 1863 Said, the fourth son of Muhammad Ali, revived the works in agriculture, irrigation, and education begun by his father. Under his rule, the first land law governing private landed property in Egypt was passed in 1858. Said abolished the agricultural monopolies of his father by granting landowners the right to dispose freely of their produce as well as the freedom to choose what crops to cultivate. He also introduced uniform military service and the first organized pension plan for public servants. The French engineer Vicomte Ferdinand Marie de Lesseps held friendly relations with the Khedive Said. Lesseps proposed to organize a company and undertake to construct a canal from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea under favorable grants and franchises. The Khedive consented to the proposition and the first concession was signed, provisionally, in November, 1854. A complete specification of the grant was drawn up at Cairo, March 25, 1855, by two engineers, Linant and Mougel Bey. M. de Lesseps appealed to the best engineers in Europe to ascertain if the work was possible. This international Commission met at Paris, October, 1855, and passed on to Alexandria where they arrived in November.

The Commission made scientific investigation of the route of the proposed canal and borings to find out about the substratum; the required depth was bored with ease. A favorable report was made and sent to the Khedive; and de Lesseps at once began to advertise the project with a view to the organization of the Maritime Suez Canal Co. To undertake the construction the Suez Canal Company was organized at Paris in 1858, the capital being 8,000,000 divided into 400,000 shares, each being for 20. The Khedive, Said Pasha, took 177,642 shares.

The concession to the company included two items that proved costly for Egypt. First, the company was granted a strip of land linking the Nile with the canal site. There a freshwater canal was constructed, and the strip of land was decreed tax free, allowing the company to enjoy the benefits of its cultivation. Second, the viceroy undertook to supply labor for the canal's construction, in what amounted to a system of forced labor.

The provisional concession of 1854 was confirmed by the Khedive in 1856 and in the confirmation more definitely was set forth the scope of the enterprise and the powers and obligations relating to the same. The confirmation convention, ratifying the Khedive's acts, was not entered into between the Sultan and the canal company until March 19, 1866, when the Sultan's Firman was issued. A very large part of the canal work had then been performed, for the canal was begun in 1860 and it was completed so as to be operative in 1869.

When the Suez Canal was projected, many prophesied evil to the undertaking, from the sand of the Desert being drifted by the wind into the canal, and others were apprehensive that where the canal was cut through the sand, the bottom would be pushed up by the pressure of the banks. They imagined that the sand would behave exactly like the ooze of a soft peat-bog, through which, when a trench has been cut, the bottom of the trench soon rises, for the soft matter has virtually the properties of a liquid: it acts, in fact, exactly like very thick treacle. Sand, however, is not possessed of liquid properties; it has a definite angle of repose, which is not the case with thin bog. This behavior of sand is familiarly illustrated in the sand-glass. It may be observed that the sand falling in a slender stream from the upper compartment is in the lower one heaped up in a little mound, the sides of which preserve a nearly constant inclination of about 30. In this property it is distinctly different from peatbog or such-like material, which has no definite angle of repose. It need hardly be said that all apprehensions as to the safety of the canal from the causes here alluded to have proved unfounded.

According to the original program, the canal was to have been constructed by forced labor, supplied by the Viceroy. The unhappy peasantry of the country, called "fellahs," were compelled to give their labor for a miserable pittance of rice. No doubt, in ancient times, when forced labour was in use, every peasant might cheerfully work, because it was for the general benefit to bring sweet water from the Nile to other dry and thirsty places in Egypt; but to be obliged to work at a waterway of salt, which was only to be of use to foreigners who passed through the country, could not be expected of human beings, and therefore the carrying out of the work was not unaccompanied by cruelties of the nature attending slave labour in other lands. This was one of the reasons why Lord Palmerston opposed the canal scheme, for the kind hearted statesman bore in mind the loss of health and life occasioned to poor Egyptians by this mode of labour, and the more so because it had been originally proposed that one of the conditions on which the French Company was to take up the project should be the execution of the work by free labor.

In consequence, no doubt, of representations from free countries, the Porte was induced to put a veto on the employment of forced labor, and everyone thought that this would be the deathblow to the completion of the canal : but M. Lesseps did not give way to despair, and he since stated that if he had depended on the labours of the fellahs only, the difficulties of the work never could have been surmounted ; and that, in fact, the successful prosecution of the work wan owing to his having turned his attention to the mechanical contrivances used for dredging on the Thames and the Clyde, from which he obtained better results in half the time and at half the cost.

In 1858 La Compagnie Universelle du Canal Maritime de Suez (Universal Company of the Maritime Suez Canal) was formed with authority to cut a canal and to operate it for 99 years, after which ownership would return to the Egyptian government. The company was originally a private Egyptian concern, its stock owned chiefly by French and Egyptian interests.

Excavation of the canal actually began on April 25th, 1859. Completion of the 160- kilometer long waterway took ten years of excruciating and poorly compensated labor by Egyptian workers, who were drafted at the rate of 20,000 every ten months from the ranks of the peasantry.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 15:33:17 ZULU