IAt the end of 1858, the company’s Works Committee convened for the first time. It included an impressive assembly of engineers from across Europe. Lesseps appointed Mougel Bey as chief engineer and director of works.
The initial focus was on the freshwater canal, and on the area around Port Said and Lake Manzala. An urgent requirement was the construction of huts to house several thousand workers, and to arrange production and transportation of drinking water so that these workers could survive. Once the freshwater canal was completed, providing a reliable and consistent source of potable water, the number of workers could be increased to thirty thousand.
An ambitious schedule was drawn up which has been described as an exercise in wishful thinking. Initially, a small access canal would be dug between Port Said and Lake Timsah to allow engineers to test the flow of the Mediterranean inland. If successful, work would continue in the north, on the larger maritime canal. To the south another access canal would be dug between Lake Timsah and the Gulf of Suez. This would require blasting the Chalufa ridge, south of the Bitter Lakes. The jetty would be completed at Port Said; the canal widened and deepened around Lake Manzala and to the south of Lake Timsah. Completion would be expected to take six years at a total budget of two hundred million francs.
The financial projections were guesswork based on the assumption that there would be no significant delays, and that the engineering challenges were understood. But, they were not. Conveniently overlooked were the problems posed by the three plateaus along the route. Each presented different topographical challenges for which there was little precedent. Yet had the technical obstacles been fully appreciated at the outset, cost estimates would have soared, shareholder morale plummeted and the entire enterprise placed in jeopardy.
Though the general route of the canal was to remain the same as in the initial blueprints, the way it was constructed underwent radical revision. The plans did call for mechanical dredgers to deepen the channel through Lake Manzala, but for the most part the canal was to be built no differently from those dug by the pharaohs or the Romans: by unskilled workers with picks and baskets. Certainly, it was indeed the case for the first four years. Forced labour was supplied to the company by the viceroy, in the form of Egyptian peasants – fellahin – who for centuries had been dragooned to work on public projects such as irrigation canals and the erection of temples. Halfway through the plan was radically revised. By 1863, these labourers who had to be had to be moved to distinct points along the isthmus had only completed a fraction of the work. When the viceroy Said died, and his successor halted the supply of fellahin, the canal’s future looked bleak. The prospect of a labour shortage forced a rethink and, in 1864, Lesseps and his engineers turned to steam-powered machines which transformed prospects for the project.
Following the symbolic initiation of the canal’s construction in April 1859, Lesseps hired a general contractor, Alphonse Hardon, so that he himself could continue to maintain pressure on the British and the Ottomans in the political arena. Work had begun on the jetty at Port Said, a temporary wooden structure allowing larger steamers to berth and offload water, building materials and stone quarried from near Alexandria. But only when the viceroy allowed recruitment of large numbers of workers would progress be significant. Succumbing to the arguments against the canal, Said officially instructed the Canal Company to cease and desist. In response, Lesseps appealed directly to the Emperor Napoleon. In securing his backing, Said then chose to reverse course, resuming his former stance as a champion of the canal.
The two principal engineers for the project – Mougel and Hardon – had been expected to solve whatever problems arose, but that put them in an untenable position. Mistakes on such a singular enterprise were bound to be made, and the company’s expectations were unreasonable. By the middle of 1861 Lesseps decided that both men needed to be replaced, despite the manifold risks this might excite. Francois- Phillippe Voisin was appointed engineer-inchief of the canal works. It turned out that he was perfectly suited to the task, although any successor had the good fortune to be able to learn from earlier false starts.
The problem of workers remained unresolved. Small numbers of voluntary labour during the first two years rendered progress minimal. Said had promised labour on a grand scale using the ancient system known as corvée. Even though these labourers would be paid, they were still forced labour. Popular opinion in the West to any perceived ‘slavery’ meant that Lesseps was wary of using such labour to create a canal which was to be heralded as a triumph for civilization. Lesseps exhausted all the other options before having to succumb to the reality that the corvée provided by the Egyptian government offered, at the time, the only solution, despite the potential of it becoming a public relations disaster. After the summer of 1861 thousands of peasants started arriving in the canal zone.
In Egyptian culture, the corvée was accepted by many as an ancient and traditional way of life. Workers were recruited and forced to work under threat of violence, but equally they knew that after a few months they would be released to return home. At its height the Suez Canal workforce involved more than sixty thousand individuals each month. It was later correctly claimed that 720,000 labourers worked on the canal each year out of a total Egyptian population of less than four million. At any given time there was a constant flow of recruitment, transportation, work and departure. Yet the corvée were also agricultural workers who grew and harvested cash crops, such as cotton. Naturally, they could not be in two places at once. They also had to work – and live – in often fraught conditions.
The response that greeted the company’s use of forced labour was a mix of moral outrage and double standards. Partly to head off charges of abuse, the Canal Company had an extensive team of doctors trained in public health. Some of the workers even elected to stay on, establishing their own communities next to the European-style towns designed by Lesseps and the company. This labour was concentrated between Port Said and Kantara, and on the Sweet Water Canal. The latter quickly reached the isthmus and, in early 1862, it reached Lake Timsah. Its completion provided a consistent supply of fresh water, making it possible to employ far larger numbers. It was also used to transport materials, food and tools to the excavations of the narrow service canal which extended some fifty miles from Lake Manzala to Lake Timsah.
The completion of the service canal was used by Lesseps to stage a symbolic gesture of progress, when it was formally opened. The carefully planned event included Lessep’s proclamation: In the name of His Majesty Muhammad Said and by the grace of God, I command the waters of the Mediterranean to flow into Lake Timsah. When the temporary earthen sluice was broken, the waters streamed into the lake bed that had been dry for centuries.
At the beginning of 1863, the still-young viceroy Said died, to be succeeded by his nephew Ismail. Even before officially claiming the title, he quickly set a markedly new tone for the country, which brought alarm to the partisans of the canal. Regardless of the concessions that Said had granted, if the guarantees were not renewed by Ismail, they would be worthless.
Ismail was both an ardent nationalist and earnest moderniser. He loved Egypt and also wished to emulate Europe. As a reformer, his ambitions required large sums of money. His two principal solutions were: expand the production of cotton, in light of the commercial opportunity afforded by the civil war then raging in America; and to decrease the power of the Suez Canal Company. The company was hindering Egyptian development because of the onerous burden of cost-overruns, which had forced the government to pledge a large portion of its future revenue. Ismail was not opposed to the idea of a Suez Canal, but to a canal controlled by foreign interests. After formally being made viceroy, and towards this end, he declared that the system of forced labour was to be abolished, under the convenient banner of moral reform. Fighting the legitimacy of the corvée would loosen the hold of the company on Egypt and gain the sympathy of many Europeans.
Ismail deputised one of his most talented diplomats, Nubar Nubarian, to conduct the negotiations. As a placatory tactic, Lesseps announced that the city by Lake Timsah would be called ‘Ismalia’: this changed nothing. The delicate balance that Lesseps had achieved up until the death of Said had been upset by the new regime which presented as formidable a threat as any he had previously encountered. However, they were to be the final obstacles.
By the end of 1863, the negotiations had reached an impasse with no hope of compromise, largely because the dispute was less about labour and lands than a battle for control. Both sides formally requested Emperor Napoleon to arbitrate whilst also deploying their several influences to the full. Eventually, Lesseps was able to win over the emperor with his firm belief that the canal was an embodiment of progress: a concept which was perfectly in tune with the emperor’s desire that his reign should mark the beginning of a golden age in human history. He would support the claims that best served France, and civilization. According to the imperial sentence, the Egyptian government would have to pay the company thirty-eight million francs in order to compensate it for ending the corvée. It was to take a further eighteen months for the outstanding issues to be resolved.