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Problem of the Suez Canal

Asit Mukherji

3,503 words

From Anath Bandhu Mitra (ed.), New Asia: An Organ of Oriental Culture and Thought (52-53 Bowbazar Street, Calcutta), Vol. 1, No. 4, October 1939, pp. 48-56.

In dealing with the question of the Suez Canal, it might be opportune to refer to its importance vis-à-vis the problem of communications between the Eastern Mediterranean and the Ori­ental countries.

A waterway communication between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea, already existed in geological ages along the longitudinal depression of the 77-mile stretch of the Suez Isthmus. In the period of Pharaohs, the Egyptians built an artificial canal connecting the Nile near Cairo with the said depression of the Isthmus, thus opening a new communication. The Romans used this route for the regular trade-relations they had with India, and the artificial Egyptian canal was called “Amnis Traianus” after the name of the Emperor Trajan who provided for its improvement. The same waterway was used up to the early period of Arab domination when it became obstructed through neglect. Since then the communi­cations between India and Europe followed the overland route through Asia Minor; but, when the Portuguese discovered a cheaper connection with India by doubling the Cape of Good Hope, the Venetian Republic felt the necessity of cutting a canal along the Suez Isthmus in order to maintain their hegemony in commercial relation with the Orient intact. However, conflicts with the Turks in the Near East, the aversion of the Muslims to grant any conces­sion to foreigners, the apprehension of a rapid silting-up of the canal-bed with sand, and the erroneous conception of the existence of a difference in the sea-level of the Mediterranean and the Red Sea, all these stood in the way of Venice to have her project being realised.

During the second half of the 16th century the Italian Lucciali (called ‘Ulug’ Ali) — who had become the ‘Bey of the Beys’ of Africa and the admiral of the Turkish fleet — convinced the Sultan of the utility of constructing the canal; but the enterprise was deferred as Turkey was fighting against Persia and was short of resources as well. The French representative in Turkey, Savary, informed his King, Henry III (letters of 25th July, 6th and 20th August 1586) of ‘Ulug’ Ali’s project which was then carefully considered by the succeeding French monarchs (Henry IV, Louis XIII, and especially, Louis XIV “le Roi Soleil”). Napoleon I inherited the idea and during his Egyptian expedition, took many technicians with him to study the question, and a concrete scheme was formulated.

While France, for uniting the communications with the Far East, was favouring the idea of the Suez Canal, Great Britain cherished the idea of the “overland route” through the Euphrates Valley and the Persian Gulf, and, perhaps even of railway cross­ing the Suez Isthmus. The French view was shared by the Italian diplomat De Rossetti, a representative of the Venetian Republic, of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany and of the Austrian Empire in Egypt, who aimed thereby at improving the trade of Venice and Trieste. He brought it to the notice of the Austrian Chancellor, Prince Metternich, who asked for the permission of Mohamed Ali through diplomatic channel; also the Italian States, especially Sardinia, Naples and the Pope, took great interest in the project.

On January 30th, 1845, Mohamed Ali declared to the agent of a Leipzig Association for Suez Canal Propaganda that he approved of the scheme of the Canal, but that he would not have it built until he could do it with his own money taking at his own ser­vice European engineers and labourers. And it is for this reason that M. Enfantin, head of the well-known socio-economic school of Saint Simon, was not allowed by Mohamed Ali to start building the canal. But he was not discouraged in his venture; and with the support of the principal Chambers of Commerce of Italy, Austria, France and England, a “Société d’Etudes du Canal de Suez” was founded by him in November 1846. Three groups of engineers were formed for studying the possibilities in loco: the groups of the Italian De Negrelli and the French Talabot made their survey of the zone, but the third group of the English Stephenson did nothing of the kind. And eventually called by Abbas, the pro­-British Viceroy of Egypt, Stephenson himself built, later on, the Alexandria-Cairo-Suez railway which was meant to hinder the realisation of the Canal project. But Sa’Id succeeded Abbas in 1854, and the French De Lesseps (1) who was a good friend of the new Khedive succeeded in obtaining from M. Enfantin permi­ssion to be sent to Egypt with all documents and information of the Société d’Etudes in order to secure from the Viceroy the concession in favour of the Société. After one month of nego­tiations, he obtained the concession in November 1854 and asked the Société d’Etudes to carry on any useful propaganda in Europe. In course of time, however, De Lesseps stopped writing and reply­ing to the Société d’Etudes, and though in his book “Percement de I’Isthme de Suez”, he said that he went to Egypt in October 1854 “sans avoir recu de qui que ce soit aucune espèce de mission” (a), he was writing in January 1855 to Madame Delamalle: “mon ambition, je l’avoue, est d’etre seul a conduire tous les fils de cette immense affaire . . . En un mot, je desire n’acceptcr de conditions de personne, mon but est de les imposer toutes.” (b)

The main terms of this first concession that De Lesseps secured from the Khedive were as follows:

A “Universal Company for the Suez Maritime Canal” will be formed with the object of cutting through the Isthmus a canal good for major navigation . Ninety-nine years after its inauguration , the Egyptian Government will enter in full possession of the Canal and subordinate establishments. But a friendly agreement will fix the indemnity for the Company in exchange of materials and movables. Works will be executed at the Company’s expenses. Lands belonging to the Government along the canal-zone will be granted free of charge to the Company. Of the Society’s net profits, 15% will be assigned to the Egyptian Government, 75% to the Company and 10% to the foundation members. It will be always forbidden to grant any special advantage or rebate in Canal taxes to the ships of any particular country. The Company shall have the free use of materials necessary for the Canal to be extracted from mines and stone quarries of the public property as well as custom exemption for import of requisite machineries and materials from abroad. The Company’s statutes as well as the names of foundation-members must be approved by the Viceroy; the foundation-members will be only those people whose studies, works, cares, capitals have previously contributed to the accomplishment of the great enterprise of the Suez Canal.

The concession act was granted with a letter of the Viceroy stating that works could not start before its ratification by the Sultan.

It will be interesting to note that there were many a difference between the text in the Egyptian official language Turkish and the French text of the Concession. For instance, where the Turkish text says : “We hereby give a special authorisation”, the French one states; “Nous avons donné, par ces presents, pouvoir exclusif ‘ (we hereby give an exclusive power . . .)” — an exclusive power which De Lesseps interpreted later on as a “Mandate”, although the firm intention of the Viceroy was to authorise a limited society with a universal character to carry on an enterprise of general utility.

After a short stay in Paris, De Lesseps went to London where he published articles, wrote letters to M. P.’ s, to the Mayor of London, to the East India Co., to Banks etc., in order to overcome the resistance of Palmerston’s Cabinet which was advising the Sultan not to ratify Sa’Id’s concession. But he did not succeed; Palmeston who had been a War Minister in Napoleon’s time was still suspicious of France; and the relationship between De Lesseps and the Impératrice Eugénie made him afraid that the Canal might fall under the French grasp.

In the meantime De Lesseps fulfilled his promise to the Viceroy by convening an International Committee of well-known technicians who should give a definite opinion on the project. The committee was formed by Renaud, “Inspecteur Général des Ponts et Chaussées” and Lieussou (for France); Rendel MacClean and Charles Mambly (for England) ; the Italian De Negrelli, Inspector General for Railways (for Austria); Montesino, Director General for Public Works (for Spain); Paleocapa, Minister for Public Works (for Piedmont); Conrad, Inspector of Waterstaat (for the Netherlands), and Lentze, Chief Engineer of Vistula Works (for Prussia). De Negrelli was the only one among them to have been a member of the Société d’E’tudes. Paleocapa was appointed Chairman but he could not accept for the poor conditions of his health and Conrad succeeded him.

The Committee met first in Paris on October 30, 1855 and sent a sub-committee to study on the spot the main difficulties to be overcome. Two precious statements about the members of the subcommittee are available from M. Linant and the Viceroy himself. The former wrote: “The member who appeared to me as the most distinguished one was De Negrelli who saw things broadly as a real genius, while Conrad was a positive, practical man always sticking to the question; Renaud always worried about minor details and MacClean a conscientious man, wanted to know every thing before forming an idea or opinion. The others, being specialists, remained attached to their own ideas and were not men for creation”.

The Viceroy wrote to Archduke Maximilian of Hapsburg, the brother of the Austrian Emperor and the future most unfortunate Emperor of Mexico, who was very much interested in the canal enterprise. “Among the members of the International Committee of Engineers who have been delegated by their respective Governments to study on the spot the great question of opening the Suez Isthmus, I have particularly noticed and appreciated Signor De Negrelli, whose honourableness and high capacity justify under all aspects the choice of his Government and whose enlightened co-operation in the Committee’s works is, according to my opinion, a guarantee of the good result of the enterprise in which Your Imperial Highness is graciously pleased to take interest and that I myself have so much desire to see it carried on.”

One of the main objections to the construction of the canal was the difficulty, impossible to be overcome according to the opposers to the project, of opening and keeping open a good harbour at the canal debouche in the Mediterranean. Signor Paleocapa who had done the jetty of Malamocco (Venice) wrote a treatise (Consi­derazioni sul protendimento delle spiaggiee sull’insabbiamento dei Porti dell’ Adriatico, applicate allo stabilimento di un porto nella rada di Pelusio Milan, May 1856, then translated into French) in which he definitely solved the problem, demonstrating the pos­sibility of building a safe harbour in Pelusium with a western jetty and a shorter eastern one on the model of the Malamocco jetty. And it is only then that the competent authorities after an inspection of the Malamocco jetty by the sub-committee, fully acknowledged the perfect safety of the free entrance of the Canal in the Pelusium road.

On January, 2nd, 1856, the sub-committee presented Sa’Id with a short report in which they declared unanimously that construction of the Canal was an easy task; so the Viceroy issued the second firman (5th January 1856) and approved of the statutes.

The second firman contained 23 articles and was practically the repetition of the first concession. There were, however, some differences as to the principle of neutrality of the Canal, which was more solemnly and exactly affirmed in the second firman (art. 14 & 15) and as to the foundation-members about which the article says: “La liste des membres fondateures qui ont concouru par leurs travaux, leurs études et leurs capitaux à la réalisation de l’entreprise avant la fondation de la Société, sera arrêtée par nous. Après le prélèvement stipulé au profit du Gouvernement Egyptian par l’article dix-huit ci­dessus, il sera attribué dans les produits nets annuels de I’entreprise, une part de dix pour cent aux membres fondateurs ou a’ leurs héritiers ou ayant cause.” (The list of foundation members who have contributed with their works, their studies and their capital, to the realisation of the enterprise before the foundation of the Society, will be formed by us. After the deduction stipulated by article eighteen here under in favour of the Egyptian Government, a quota of ten per cent of the annual net profits of the enterprise will be assigned t0 the foundation members or their heirs or any one having right.)

It is rather curious that De Lesseps who published so many documents about the Canal has never published the list of foundation members. Among the official documents of the Archives of the Royal Palace of Abdin in Cairo, there is not to be found any such list which ought to remain there. There is only a copy of it deposited with the notary of the Company in Paris. It is well-known that many heirs or ayant cause of foundation members, not included in such list, dis­claimed the validity of the same, but their claims were always rejected by Tribunals for reasons of limitation prescription. But no suit against the Company was ever tried by public bodies, such as the Venice Chamber of Commerce, the Lloyd Triestino, the Municipality of Trieste and the Chamber of Commerce of Trieste which certainly ought to be included in the foundation members’ list and against which limitation prescription could not be applied as they are public and semi-government bodies. The differences between the French and the Turkish texts are not limited to the firman only but some of them are also noticeable in the statutes of the Suez Canal Co. For while the French text says (art. 77): “Le Conseil d’administration est constitué comme suit, pour toute la duree des travaux et pendant les cinq premières années qui suivront I’ ouverture du canal maritime à la grande navigation” (The Board of Directors is constituted as follows, during the whole period of works and for a period of five years after the open­ing of the canal for major navigation), the Turkish text adds: “They are: De Lesseps, President; Resner, Conrad, MacClean, De Negrelli, Renier, Liessou, Revoltella, Paleocapa, Randel, Lentze, Harris, administrators”. Three of these administrators hailed from Italy.

Apropos the large concessions granted by the Viceroy to the Company, we can quote the view of the Tuscan Consul. Signor De Rossetti, — a view shared by the Members of the Société d’Etudes. Signor De Rossetti was writing to the Minister for Foreign Affairs in Florence: “It is not necessary for me to point out to Your Excellency how greatly favourable to M. De Lesseps and his projected Company are the concessions granted by His Highness, as no such power was ever given to any body by any other Government.” And we under­stand why Egyptian historians cast so severe criticism against Sa’Id who not only granted to the Company such large concessions, but even allowed the Company to be limited and omitted to require authorisation of Turkey and the guarantees that his predecessor Mohamed Ali would have required.

The International Committee held a full session in Paris on June 23rd, 1856. There were four projects to be examined: two of them were of indirect draft (Talabot) and the other two of direct draft (De Negrelli, Linant-Mangel). Signor Paleocapa demonstrated the great advantages of direct draft. M. Linant-Mangel’s project required weirs at both ends which De Negrelli’s did not want, as he considered it dangerous to have the water of the canal raised artificially; he proposed therefore a communication at the natural level, always free and open between the two seas; i.e. a real Bosphor­ous between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea.

After a deep discussion. the Committee fully approved of De Negrelli’s projects which had been prepared since 1847 as the Com­mitee’s report and minutes acknowledge.

For convincing also the public De Negrelli defended his project a remarkable study published in German in an Austrian magazine, and then translated into Italian and French in the Italian and French Suez Isthmus Bulletins which were being published from Turin and Paris.

In the beginning of 1857, the British Government occupied the Perim Island with their troops, controlling the maritime movement of the Red Sea. On July 7th, Palmerston attacked in full Parliament the project from the technical, economic and political points of view. On the 17th of July, he insisted on his ideas and obtained the support of Stephenson who tried to demonstrate that the execution of the problem was unlikely and not convenient. Paleocapa and De Negrelli answered with two articles in which they demonstrated Stephensons’s objections to be inconsistent. Other committee members replied too with summary observations in which it is said: “One of these engineers, Signor De Negrelli, our colleague and col­laborator in Egypt, has never abandoned the project of the Bosphorus through the Isthmus, and rightly saw in the practically equal level of both the seas only a greater facility for the enterprise”; and the President says in a personal report: “Talabot prepared an indirect draft project not accepted for good reasons by the International Committee. De Negrelli already in 1847 had conceived the direct draft project, as it was proved during the Committee’s journey in 1855. Therefore it is not true that the engineers with whom Ste­phenson was working, have all abandoned the project, as one (Talabot) has prepared a learned, remarkable and bold indirect draft project and the other (De Negrelli) did a direct draft project which he has been happy to see adopted in its principles by the International Committee”.

Negrelli was to have directed the construction of the canal but death overtook him in October 1858. The next month De Lesseps opened subscriptions to raise money for the enterprise and in December of the same year the Suez Canal Co. was founded. Faced by such energetic action, strongly backed by Napoleon III, England relaxed her opposition although she by no means failed to continue her acts of obstruction towards the enterprise in which she yet had no financial interest. Turkey accepted all that had been accomplished, although it was not until 1866, when the canal was more than half completed, that she gave her complete approval to the enterprise. It was Ismalia Pasha, successor of Sa’Id Pasha who managed to win the approval of the Ottoman Empire. Sa’Id, it seems, was over generous with De Lesseps in granting land. Working conditions were almost suicidal (for the natives especially) and other matters were not particularly favorable to the interests of Egypt. Ismalia Pasha, however, overcame all these, including the abolition of the “corvée” or forced labor system to which the Sultan objected most vigorously.

Sometime after Negrelli’s death, Paleocapa was offered the directorship of the construction works, but ill health prevented him from accepting the offer and the Englishman Conrad was chosen in his place. In 1858 when Lord Palmerston was doing all in his power to prevent the construction of the canal, Robert Stephenson declared before the British House of Commons that due to the great level distance between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean, the cutting of a canal through the Isthmus of Suez would cause a large stagnant lake to be formed bringing grave damage to the surrounding country and rendering the whole region malarious. Since Stephenson was regarded as England’s leading authority in these matters, the declara­tion produced a profound impression on all interested circles throug­hout Europe. The shares of the Canal company took a sharp turn downwards and for a while De Lessep’s whole enterprise faced possible bankruptcy. In despair he turned to Paleocapa for help. Replying to Stephenson’s assertions in the “Journal de I’ Isthmus” Paleocapa wrote a famous paper pointing out all the absurdities of Stephenson’s theories. As a result of Paleocapa ‘s reply, Gladstone took it upon himself to denounce his country’s opposition to the construction of the Suez Canal, characterizing his government’s actions as “scandalous, illicit, illegitimate and upheld by illegitimate means.”

Much correspondence which followed between De Lesseps, Paleocapa, Voisin, Conrad, Torrelli and others intimately connected with the Canal enterprise established the importance of Paleocapa’s reply to Stephenson at a time when the whole venture was threatened with ruin.

The construction of the Canal began in April of 1859 and after ten troublesome and eventful years, marked with financial difficulties and opposition from abroad, it was brought to completion in November, 1869.

(1) De Lesseps was born in 1805 and had been a French Consul in Lisbon, Alexandria, Cairo and Barcelona; sent to Rome on a special mission in 1849; was thrown out of service having tried to obtain recognition of the Roman Republic. He was never an engineer and never had any technical knowledge of engineering.

(a) without having received from any one any kind of mission.

(b) my ambition, I must confess, is to be alone to conduct this immense affair. . . . In one word, I desire not to accept conditions from any body, my aim is to impose all mine own.