The Suez Canal Between 1859 and the 1950s
The two most important artificial waterways in the world are the Suez Canal and the Panama Canal. The Suez Canal is in Egypt and connects the Mediterranean Sea with the north-western arm of the Red Sea. It is about 100 miles long.
The Suez canal is on the shortest route for ships voyaging between Europe and the Persian Gulf, Pakistan and India, Australia and the Far East. It is also the shortest searoute between the eastern seaboard of North America and ports on the Indian Ocean. In the busy times of the 1950's about one-quarter of all the trade of the United Kingdom passed through the canal and more than a quarter of the ships using it were British.
The Isthmus of Suez, across which the canal runs, was once a channel joining the two seas. When it dried up, a chain of salty lakes remained. The present canal follows the course of these lakes.
The Portuguese discovery in 1498 of a route to the East around the Cape of Good Hope (South Africa) caused the Venetians, and later the French, to consider cutting a new Suez Canal. (The distance saved by the canal instead of the Cape of Good Hope route on a voyage between northern France or England and Bombay, India, is 4,450 sea miles. Between Bombay and a Mediterranean port, such as Venice or Marseilles, the saving was even greater.
For a long time, plans for a canal were confused by the belief that the level of the Red Sea was about 30 feet higher than that of the Mediterranean. That would have meant building the canal with locks. However, in 1853 this belief was shown to be untrue. In the following year the Frenchman Ferdinand de Lesseps (1805- 1894) obtained permission from the Egyptian ruler, Said Pasha, to dig a canal. Although the British did everything they could to oppose the work, it began in 1859 and the canal was declared open on November 17, 1869.
Six years later the ruler of Egypt, Khedive Ismail, became very short of money. He was a part owner of the Suez Canal and the British prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli, quickly bought Ismail's share for the British government. This gave Great Britain a share in the ownership of the canal, but Britain did not control the working of the canal until the occupation of Egypt in 1882.
Although the canal was not at first a great success, the number of ships using it gradually increased. In 1870 the number of ships that went through was 436 and their total tonnage 436,609 tons. In 1955 the figures were 14,666 ships of 115,756,398 tons, and more than three- quarters of the northbound cargo was oil (petroleum) from the Persian Gulf ports.
As ships grew bigger the canal had continually to be deepened and widened. For a long time the channel was too narrow for two ships to pass one another, and one ship had to stop and 'gare up', or make fast to the bank, while the other passed. Since 1948, however, an improved system has been used. Ships are collected in convoys, or groups, at Port Said and Port Tewfik, which are at the two entrances. Four convoys a day (two each way) leave these ports, the convoys passing one another at by-passes - which are stretches where the canal has been doubled — at El Ballah and farther south in the Great Bitter Lake. Each ship is guided by a skilled pilot.
As the canal is really no more than a wide shallow ditch dug in the sand, its banks are very liable to crumble from the wash of passing ships. For this reason the speed of the convoys is limited, and the usual time taken to pass through the canal is about 15 hours. Dredgers are constantly at work scooping out the channel.
In July 1956 Egypt nationalized, or took over, the Suez Canal and compensated the previous owners for what they had lost. Since then, the canal has been wholly under Egyptian control, and the number of ships passing through it has increased considerably.