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The Story of the Suez Canal, from All the Year Round, January 8, 1876

ONE morning in the month of August, 1854, a French gentleman was engaged in superintending some masons, who were at work adding a story to his house at La Chenaie---a house that had once been occupied by the famous Agnes Sorel. For the last two years he had devoted himself to agriculture and country pursuits. His career would, indeed, seem to have closed, for he had led a busy, stirring life in foreign countries, having filled the various grades of consulship in Tunis, Egypt, Rotterdam, Malaga, and Barcelona; had been minister at Madrid, and, finally, at Rome. He had shown himself a man of energy and purpose, and for his successful exertions at Barcelona, in 1842, to avert a bombardment, had been presented with a gold medal by the resident French, and an address of thanks from the municipality. But his chief experience had been gained in the East, where he had made friends and connections, and, with a Frenchman's sympathy, had thoroughly identified himself with the politics and manners of Egypt. After some five-and-twenty years' service, he found that his course at Rome was not approved by his Government, on which, in 1849, he resolved, apparently in some disgust, to withdraw from the service and claim his retirement. The name of this gentleman was Count Ferdinand de Lesseps; and, as he was now about fifty years old, it might fairly be concluded that his career was closed, and that, beyond an occasional cast at the game of politics,--open to a Frenchman at any age---life did not offer space for any important undertaking. But his eyes and ears were still turned fondly back to the picturesque land of Egypt; and he entertained himself with what could be no more than a dream, or a fabric as baseless---of "piercing" the Isthmus. At the moment almost of his retirement, this project began once more to fill his thoughts; for, indeed, twenty years before, when in Egypt, he had often turned over the scheme, and seen in imagination the waters flowing through the canal, and the ships sailing along. In 1852 he had again recurred to the design, had drawn up a programme which he had translated into Arabic, and took the step of writing to an old friend, the Dutch consul-general, to know what chances there were of its acceptance by Abbas Pasha, then viceroy. The answer was unfavorable. But already the mind of the projector was beginning to be stimulated by obstacles, and to show that fertility of resource which obstacles generated. One of the Fould family was then proposing to establish a bank at Constantinople; and De Lesseps seized the opportunity to have the proposal opened to the Sultan. It was coldly declined, on the ground of its interfering with the prerogative of the viceroy. Seeing that it was hopeless, our projector laid the whole aside for the present, and, as we have seen, turned his thoughts to agriculture. And thus two years passed away.

On that morning, then, of August, 1854, when engaged with the masons, and standing on the roof of Agnes Sorel's house, the post arrived, and the letters were handed up from workman to workman till they reached the proprietor. In one of the newspapers he read the news of the death of Abbas Pasha and of the accession of Mohammed Said, a patron and friend of the old Egypt days. They had been, indeed, on affectionate and confidential terms. Instantly the scheme was born again in his busy soul, and his teeming brain saw the most momentous result from this change of authority. In a moment he had hurried down the ladder, and was writing congratulations, and a proposal to hurry to Egypt and renew their old acquaintance. In a few weeks came the answer, and the ardent projector had written joyfully to his old friend the Dutch consul that he would be on his way in November, expressing the delight he would have in meeting him again "in our old land in Egypt," but " there was not to be so much as a whisper to any one of the scheme for piercing the Isthmus."

On the 7th of November he landed at Alexandria, and was received with the greatest welcome by the new ruler. The viceroy was on the point of starting on a sort of military promenade to Cairo, and insisted on taking his friend with him. They started; but the judicious Frenchman determined to choose his opportunity, and waited for more than a week before opening his daring plan to his patron. It was when they had halted on their march, on a fine evening, the 15th, that he at last saw the opportunity. The viceroy was in spirits; he took his friend by the hand, which he detained for a moment in his own; then made him sit down beside him in his tent. It was an anxious moment. He felt, as he confessed, that all depended on the way the matter was put before the prince, and that he must succeed in inspiring him with some of his own enthusiasm. He accordingly proceeded to unfold his plan, which he did in a broad fashion, without insisting too much on petty details. He had his Arabian memoir almost by heart, so all the facts were present to his mind. The Eastern listened calmly to the end, made some difficulties, heard the answers, and then addressed his eager listener in these words: "I am satisfied; and I accept your scheme. We'll settle all the details during our journey. But understand that it is settled, and you may count upon me." Delightful assurance for the projector, whose dreams that night must have been of an enchanting kind! This was virtually the "concession" of the great canal.

But already the fair prospect was to be clouded, and at starting, opposition to so daring a scheme came from England, and from Turkey, moved by England. It is certainly not to the credit of England that from the beginning she should have persistently opposed it; not on the straightforward ground of disliking the scheme, but on the more disingenuous one of its not being feasible. She had so industriously disseminated this idea, that it was assumed that the canal was impracticable. Those wonderful French savants who went with the expedition to Egypt had announced that there was a difference of level amounting to thirty feet between the two seas, so that the communication would only lead to an inundation or a sort of permanent waterfall. Captain Chesney, passing by in 1830, declared that this was not so; but the delusion was accepted popularly up to 1847, when a commission of three engineers, English, French, and German, made precise levelings, and ascertained that it was a scientific mistake. Robert Stephenson, the English member of the party, pronounced the whole scheme impracticable. Articles in the Edinburgh Review demonstrated with minute and elaborate pains the falsity of the data on which the promoters rested. And a more amusing half-hour's entertainment could not be desired than the perusal of this Edinburgh Review article for January, 1856, in which it is proved triumphantly that the canal must fill up, and that no harbor or pier could be made. The article argued it all out with a formidable array of facts. Lord Palmerston's opposition is well known, but the shower of articles in the leading journal which ridiculed, prophesied, and confuted, are now well-nigh forgotten.

It was first proposed to follow a roundabout route, making two sides of a triangle, with the existing line for the third. One portion of the waterway, from Damietta to Cairo, was supplied by the Nile itself, so there remained a distance of twenty miles to be dealt with. But the Nile was in itself a difficulty---the irrigation and other works would be all interfered with, and there were enormous problems as to levels, etc. The direct course was therefore adopted. A curious scientific party, known as the Mixed Commission, formed of engineers from all the leading nations, proceeded, at the close of 1855, to make a close examination of the question on the spot; and nothing is more creditable to science than the masterly style in which every point was investigated. The result was satisfactory, and it was determined to commence the work. The route chosen was favored by many advantages; the distance, though ninety miles in length, was already canalized by various lakes, great and small, to the extent of about thirty miles or more. Roughly, the course was as follows: Starting from the Mediterranean, the entrance is found in a strip of sand, from four to five hundred feet wide, and which forms the rim, as it were, of the bowl that holds Lake Menzaleh. Here is Port Said, the gate or doorway of the canal; then, for about thirty miles, is found the great lake just named, where there rises a slight hill, about twenty-five feet high; then a small lake, and then, for about thirty miles, a series of gradually rising hills, culminating in a rather stiff plateau. Beyond the plateau is Lake Timseh, about five miles long, where there is the halfway port, Ismailia. Then succeeds another plateau, large basins, known as the Bitter Lakes, extending about twenty miles, while the rest is land up to the Red Sea. These lakes were in some places dry. There were to be no sluices or locks, though these lakes would be greatly enlarged by the admission of the waters.

It would take long to set out the story of the opposition, coldness, and rebuffs which this intrepid projector was now to encounter. His own sovereign was indifferent; but in England the hostility was almost rancorous. It was repeated again, in and out of Parliament, that even if the canal were ever made, it would be no more than a "stagnant ditch"; and this phrase became a favorite one with the wiseacres, who knew nothing and fancied that they understood. Stephenson, in the House of Commons, renewed his condemnation of the whole scheme, and in contemptuous style repeated the favorite phrase, "stagnant ditch." Never faltering, our projector brought out his company, and, after untiring speechifyings, pamphlets, repasts, etc., opened the subscription. Nearly eight millions were found. In 1859 he started with the work. His faithful friend the Pasha stood by him gallantly, and supplied him with fellahs by the thousand, according to the custom of forced labor in the country. Unfortunately, within five years his patron died, and the present Pasha, who succeeded, had not the same admiration and faith in the projector. He presently took up a hostile attitude, and declined to supply any more forced labor. It is surprising that the blow did not at once wreck the undertaking; for the forced labor was an all important element in the calculations. But the indomitable De Lesseps was now a force in Europe, and many eyes were following his proceedings with curiosity and sympathy. A man who had done so much against so much was not likely to be repelled by such an obstacle.

He appealed to the Emperor Napoleon; and here we see, again, the good fortune that attended the brave adventurer. He was a connection of the Empress---indeed, it has been stated that he was grandson of one of the Scotch Kirkpatricks; and this influence stood him in good stead. Further, he had wisely made the shares of his company small enough to attract the humble investor, and, as they were held largely over the kingdom, the whole country was interested in the scheme. The Emperor dared not disregard such pressure, and, agreeing to act as umpire, made an equitable decision that satisfied both: to the effect that the Pasha was to supply as much labor as was necessary, with a rearrangement of the concession. On this, the enterprise was pursued with fresh energy. The little canal, which was to convey fresh water for the workmen, had been completed; and at last, by the year 1865, a channel had been scraped out about the depth of a respectable duckpond, and sufficient to float a small boat through. A couple of years more, and it was deep enough to carry a vessel of thirty or forty tons. It seems incredible, but this progress only excited the derision of the leading English newspapers, who talked of "cockle-shells," and who were dull enough not to see that the problem was already solved. It was then insinuated that it was merely a coup de theatre---a cleverly arranged trick to "raise the wind," and extract more money. The idea seemed, indeed, to be generally entertained in England that it was no more than the prophesied "stagnant ditch," in which it was contrived to keep some water for show. More money, however, was wanting; and still this Cagliostro seems to have induced his disciples to subscribe without difficulty; and then a system of dredging, carried out on a magnificent and original scale, was introduced. Machines were contrived on the "elevator" principle, which dredged the "stuff@ from the bottom, and landed it on the banks direct. Finally, on August 15, the brilliant scene of the opening took place, in presence of the Empress, who had traveled from Paris for the purpose. The waters were admitted, and the Red and the Mediterranean Seas mingled together. A glorious day for our adventurer!

The cost of this scheme corresponded to its splendor, amounting to nearly nineteen millions sterling, including the charge of interest during the construction. It was a good deal more than double the estimate; but, as we have seen, the expense of paid-for labor had not been included. The time spent had been about sixteen years. Everything had come out as the projector had prophesied---even to the profits, which, as the great Samuel said on another occasion, were "rich, beyond the dreams of avarice." All the prophecies of the ill-wishers and the critics were falsified in the most ludicrous degree. The "silting-up," the impossibility of keeping the mouths open, the "washing" away of the banks; and, above all, the grave statement of the Edinburgh Review, that goods could be unloaded at one side, dispatched across the isthmus by rail, and shipped again at the other side, on just as convenient and rapid a system---all these fine-spun scientific arguments have been confuted by the event. The work remains a magnificent success.


From: Eva March Tappan, ed., The World's Story: A History of the World in Story, Song and Art, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1914), Vol. III: Egypt, Africa, and Arabia, pp. 229-237.

Scanned by Jerome S. Arkenberg, Cal. State Fullerton. The text has been modernized by Prof. Arkenberg

Note: Many Western sources about Islamic countries exhibit what has come to be known as orientalism. The terms used ("Mohammedan" for instance rather than "Muslim"), and the attitudes exhibited by the writers need to be questioned by modern readers.

This text is part of the Internet Islamic History Sourcebook. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts for introductory level classes in modern European and World history.

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© Paul Halsall, November1998

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