Suez Canal Inaugurated
The 17th of November 1869 AD
The idea of a canal linking the Red Sea with the Mediterranean is an ancient one, indeed archaeological evidence points to the existence of such a route or part of it, or even more than one, in the time of the pharaohs.
The economic and trade benefits of the canal obviously made it desirable for some parties, opening an easier route to Asian and East African markets, though the British in the middle of the 19th century were at best ambivalent about the scheme (though the great engineer Robert Stephenson did take part in work from 1846 to study the feasibility of the project). It is hard to understand why the British with their Indian territories should be anything other than positive about the canal, but they were, leaving it to the French to make it a reality. This they did, with the use of forced local labour, carving the sea-level way more than 100 miles across the isthmus from Port Said in the north to Suez in the south.
French diplomat Ferdinand de Lesseps was the driving force behind the Suez Canal Company that built the waterway, obtaining a 99 year lease on the land from Egypt’s ruler, to run from the date of opening, which occurred on November 17 1869.
Britain ignored the share offering, but in 1875 Disraeli , realising the strategic error of that stance, purchased the Egyptian government shareholding for £4 million, causing a major political row with Gladstone accusing him of bypassing Parliament in the matter.
For nearly a century the canal proved a boon to British economic interests. In 1956, however, Egypt’s President Nasser nationalised the canal 12 years before the concession was due to expire. Britain, France and Israel acted together to try to seize it back, sparking the Suez Crisis that claimed the career of Anthony Eden and demonstrated to the world, if it had been necessary, that Britain was no longer a world power and even as a colonial power was in sharp decline.
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