Suez Canal: World’s Maritime Artery
On March 23, 2021, a cargo ship made it to the headlines worldwide. Then, for a week, the ship became the focus of the world’s attention and discussion.
Ever Given, a cargo ship owned by Taiwanese shipping company Evergreen Marine Corporation, made headlines for creating a six-day ‘traffic block’ on one of the world’s most famous and important sea routes – a terrible block that cost millions of dollars per hour. The 1,312-foot-long vessel had blocked the Suez Canal – the sea route that carries over 50 cargo ships daily and controls over 12 percent of global trade.
What exactly is the Suez Canal? How did a blockage in this waterway created by a cargo ship, affect world trade?
Pharaoh Senusret III, who ruled Egypt from 1878 BC to 1839 BC, was the first to think of a waterway connecting the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea. However, the Pharaoh could not fully connect the two seas. Owing to limited usage, the route became completely covered with mud and sand and eventually, it disappeared.
The French, who established a colony in Egypt between 1798 and 1801, conducted studies about a waterway that would connect the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea.
Later, many rulers renovated the waterway and used it for shipping, but the waterway did not last long. According to Britannica, though many had dreamed of a shipping lane linking the Asian and European continents, it took several centuries for it to materialise. Shipping between the two continents had to be conducted around the Cape of Good Hope, located on the southern tip of Africa. This was arduous and time-consuming.
By the 19th century, the European powers, which had expanded their colonisation, needed faster and cheaper shipping. The idea of the Suez Canal waterway across Egypt, was born out of the quest to find an alternative to the route around the Cape of Good Hope.
According to the official website of Suez Canal, the French, who established a colony in Egypt between 1798 and 1801, conducted studies about a waterway that would connect the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea. Studies and construction work under the direction of Napoleon Bonaparte failed on account of a number of reasons.
Later, in the mid-1800s, Ferdinand de Lesseps, a French diplomat, and engineer prepared a detailed design for the Suez Canal. The project began with the approval of Sa’id Pasha, the ruler of Egypt.
According to its official website, the Universal Company of the Maritime Canal of Suez was formed in 1858 under the leadership of Lesseps to build and operate the canal. Construction of the canal, which began on April 25, 1859, took 10 years to complete.
The construction of the new route disturbed Britain, which had the upper hand over the Cape of Good Hope, the only shipping lane between Europe and Asia at that time. Britain and the Ottoman Empire tried to halt the construction of the Suez Canal, because they believed that if the French succeeded in building a comparatively shorter route, it would be a setback to their dominance over Asian countries and trade.
According to its official website, the Suez Canal was opened to the world on November 17, 1869.
Initially, only human labour was used to construct the canal. Despite the efforts of thousands of people round the clock, the work was not progressing at the desired pace.
Ferdinand de Lesseps then enlisted the help of machines and labourers brought from Europe. Construction slowed down owing to adverse weather conditions and the spread of cholera in 1865. The construction of the canal, planned to be completed in six years, took 10 years.
On August 18, 1869, after years of toil and adversities, the two seas were linked. According to its official website, the Suez Canal was opened to the world on November 17, 1869. About 6,000 dignitaries attended the function. Eugenie de Montijo, Queen of France and wife of Napoleon III, was a prominent attendee at the function. One and a half million Egyptian pounds were spent for the grand opening of the Suez Canal.
In the early days of the canal, only a handful of ships passed through it. France had a 52% stake and Sa’id Pasha had a 44% stake in the Suez Canal, which was formed as a joint-stock company. The company’s managing board had representatives from 14 countries.
The cost of construction turned out to be almost twice the initial estimate, and this seriously impacted Egypt’s economy. Egypt had borrowed heavily to carry out the project. In 1875, the newly elected ruler, Isma’il Pasha, decided to sell shares of the canal because of financial difficulties. Britain acquired these shares and became a partner in the control of the Suez Canal.
In 1956, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal, even while the Suez Canal Company still had 13 years left in the contract to continue its operations.
In 1888, representatives of the major naval powers of the day, apart from Britain, arrived at a decision on the movement of cargo through the Suez Canal. The proclamation of this conference, known as the Constantinople Convention, was as follows: Ships of all nations can sail through the Suez Canal at any time, even in times of war. It was only in 1904 that Britain signed the Convention.
In 1956, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal, even while the Suez Canal Company still had 13 years left in the contract to continue its operations. The shareholders were duly compensated, and the Suez Canal came under the full control of the Egyptian government.
Nasser’s revolutionary move angered France, Britain and Turkey. The canal had to be closed for almost a year owing to the crisis caused by the three countries turning against Egypt. This event later came to be known as the Suez Crisis.
The Suez Canal was closed for a second time during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Eight years later, in 1975, the canal reopened and shipping was resumed. In 2015, the canal underwent significant renovations. A 35-kilometre-long parallel lane was built to increase the depth and width of the canal.
Unlike other man-made waterways that exist today, such as the Panama Canal, the Suez Canal is located at sea level. This is what sets Suez Canal apart from the rest. About 19,000 ships pass through it every year. That is an average of 52 ships a day.
While it had taken 24 days to complete the 20,000-kilometre journey around the Cape of Good Hope, the journey through the Suez Canal took only 14 days. The difference in distance is about 9,000 kilometres.
The Suez Canal, spread over a distance of 193 kilometres, is the backbone of the world’s economy.
Now put on your thinking hats and think about the following questions for a couple of minutes.
Can you think of the significance of Suez Canal in facilitating International trade?
How would you describe the contribution of Ferdinand de Lesseps in the construction of the Suez Canal?
Write down your thoughts and discuss them with your students, children and your colleagues. Listen to their views and compare them with your own. As you listen to others, note how similar or different your views are to others’.
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