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10 things you didn't know about the Suez Canal

Chaitra Anand
·7-min read
Ship's convoy passing through Suez Canal
Ship's convoy passing through Suez Canal

It was probably any ordinary day along the Suez Canal until one of the world’s largest container ships, nearly a quarter-mile long, buffeted by high winds and with poor visibility, ran aground on March 23 disrupting 'world trade & economy' as claimed by industry experts, though until now not much was discussed about this channel of trade in common parlance.

After days of scramble authorities have finally managed to set free The Ever Given, the enormous vessel weighing 200,000 metric tons, to clear passage way for other ships through the Suez Canal.

Under general circumstances, none would pay attention to the activities around canals leave alone the trade implications, save for this particular incident which many have touted to be 'catastrophic' to the world economy.

In this instance, it could be useful to take a look at the Suez Canal as it were in the past, its present status and what the future looks like. Take a deep dive into its complex character throughout history and influence on geopolitics and world economy. 

-The Suez Canal is an artificial sea-level waterway in Egypt, connecting the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea through the Isthmus of Suez and dividing Africa and Asia.

-It was inaugurated in Egypt in December 1869 and is one of the most amazing industrial achievements that still inspires awe and continues to impress. 

-The Canal was built to connect the North Atlantic ocean with the northern Indian one, considerably reducing the distance between Europe and Asia, and thus encouraging world trade and transatlantic transportation.

-This massive construction that took 10 years to complete, has a fascinating history 

1. It was the inspiration for the Statue of Liberty

French sculptor Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi came up with the idea of building a grand statue to celebrate the Canal, and pitched it to the Egyptian government and developer Ferdinand de Lesseps. The statue would envision a woman dressed in traditional Egyptian garb, wear a torch, and be titled “Egypt Bringing Light to Asia”. The idea had been inspired by the Colossus of Rhodos, and it would have stood at the Mediterranean end of the Canal. It was also meant to have a practical purpose, serving as lighthouse to passing ships.

The idea didn’t catch on here, but Bartholdi continued pitching it until it was finally brought to New York, where its original name was a more encompassing “Liberty Enlightening the World”.

An LNG tanker passing through the Suez Canal Bridge with a pilot boat in the foreground. An LNG carrier is a tank ship designed for transporting liquefied natural gas (LNG).
An LNG tanker passing through the Suez Canal Bridge with a pilot boat in the foreground. An LNG carrier is a tank ship designed for transporting liquefied natural gas (LNG).

2. An expansion of the Suez Canal is underway

Originally, the Suez Canal shortened trips with as much as 7,000 kilometers, while the completed project raises that to almost 9,600 kilometers.

While the original construction took almost a decade to complete, this new addition was ready, and almost double toll revenue for the Egyptian government by 2023.

3. The Panama Canal was projected by the same developer

After successfully finishing the Suez Canal, Ferdinand de Lesseps developed the idea of building another canal over the Isthmus in Central America. Encouraged by his previous success, investors and governments gave their support and go-ahead, and Lesseps recruited architect and engineer Gustave Eiffel, creator of the Eiffel Tower. Lesseps had promised that building the Panama Canal would be easier and quicker than the Suez.

The project was initiated in 1881, twelve years after the Suez Canal was completed, but was subject to many failures and misfortunes under Lesseps’ management, including an epidemic that resulted in thousands of deaths. Lesseps’ company crashed in 1889, while he and Eiffel were prosecuted for conspiracy and fraud.

4. The great majority of labourers were native

Most of the people hired to work on the Suez Canal were native Egyptians. It is estimated there must have been around 30,000 workers in total. Building the Canal was a combined effort of both primitive manual labor and the latest technologies available at the time.

Drafting most of these labourers, which often worked in the most inhumane conditions, was done under the supervision of the Khedive, basically a viceroy, or governor of Egypt. This means that labor was mostly forced, and consisted of peasants threatened into working, basically using handheld tools to dig up the canal’s way.

5. The British government initially opposed its construction

Lesseps, a former diplomat, had reached an agreement with the Egyptian government, or rather, the Egyptian Khedive, and together they formed the Suez Canal Company. But because the project had also received support from the French Emperor Napoleon III, the British government saw it as a deliberate act of defiance towards their global shipping power, which far surpassed any other at that time.

Albeit criticising the project for many years, the British government did not hesitate to buy a whopping 44 percent of the company’s shares when the Egyptian government put them up for auctioning as more funding became necessary, and continues to be a majority stakeholder.

The Suez Canal is an artificial sea-level waterway in Egypt, connecting the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea through the Isthmus of Suez. Constructed by the Suez Canal Company between 1859 and 1869, it was officially opened on November 17, 1869.
The Suez Canal is an artificial sea-level waterway in Egypt, connecting the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea through the Isthmus of Suez. Constructed by the Suez Canal Company between 1859 and 1869, it was officially opened on November 17, 1869.

6. It is approximately 19 miles (29 km) longer after its expansion

At the moment of its completion, the Suez Canal measured about 102 miles, or 164 kilometers. Out of this grand total, as much as 75 miles were excavated, which is one of the factors that added to the difficulties of its construction and delayed completion so much.

Nowadays, thanks to the expansion, the Suez Canal will be about 120 miles long, or 193 kilometers. This is a huge improvement and benefit for transoceanic trade on one of the most popular waterways in the world.

7. 15 ships were stranded on it for 8 years

Following the Six Day War in 1967, the Egyptian government blocked the Canal’s entrances with mines and abandoned ships. The 15 ships that remained stranded were moored inside the Canal, and many of the crewmembers remained on deck for the entire period. During these eight years, the people formed a community of sorts, creating their own trading systems and organizing sporting events to pass the time. A smaller part of the crew were rotated on and off the moored ships every three months. The ships were released in 1975, with all but two of them no longer seaworthy.

8. Another similar canal was built in Ancient Egypt

History has recorded that an Egyptian Pharaoh by the name of Senuset III built a canal connecting the Nile River with the Red Sea almost two thousand years before the Suez Canal, around 1850 B.C. 

9. Napoleon Bonaparte also wanted to build it

So many great men tried to build a canal connecting the Red Sea to the Mediterranean not because of sheer inspiration, but because it is such a logical and strategic construction. So when he conquered Egypt in 1789, Napoleon Bonaparte send a team of researchers to take measurements for such a canal.

Unfortunately, they miscalculated and made Bonaparte reconsider. It was only decades later, when new measurements showed that the sea level difference would not hinder construction, that the project was approved.

10. It facilitated the European colonisation of Africa

Also called the “scramble for Africa”, the years between 1881 and 1914 represent a period which saw major invasions of African territory by what already were, or became great world colonizers. This included countries like France, Great Britain, Portugal, Italy, Spain, or Belgium, and which was followed by a division and colonization of these areas. 

Source: https://www.maritimeprofessional.com

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