Gold Ribbon Banner
Sunday, August 18, 2019
Suez Canal

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.

Read the rest of this article with additional pictures in Sea Breezes Magazine - June 2019 Issue
Click here to subscribe

Subscribe Graphic

Latest Issue - Look Inside!


Most Popular

  • Lifeboat Withdrawn After Some Crew Stood Down +

  • Scorpene Sub Snags +

  • New Crane Lifts Business Growth +

  • Test Spells The End of Paper Bills of Lading +

  • An Unexpected Job in Cuba +

  • 1
  • 2

Latest Products

Maritime Log

  • Lifeboat Withdrawn After Some Crew Stood Down +

    Peterhead Lifeboat Peterhead lifeboat has been taken out of action by the RNLI. Read More
  • Test Spells The End of Paper Bills of Lading +

    CargoX Demo It is possible to stop using the paper Bill of Lading according to a test of CargoX’s blockchain-based Smart Bill Read More
  • New Crane Lifts Business Growth +

    Hull Port A new £3.5mn hybrid Liebherr crane has been delivered to Associated British Ports (ABP) for operation at Hull to support Read More
  • Crowds Tribute to the Last Tyne +

    Annie Blaker The last of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution’s famous Tyne class lifeboats was launched for the last time at her Read More
  • Clyde’s Vital Role in Onshore Windfarm +

    Clydeport Clydeport has played a vital role in the building of the UK’s largest onshore windfarm on Eaglesham Moor, just 20 Read More
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3

North America

  • Record Set by Largest US Ship for Hawaii Service +

    Lurline The largest combination container, roll-on, roll-off ship ever built in the United States was formerly named in a ceremony at Read More
  • $293mn for Port Projects +

    Long Beach port The United States is to invest $292.7mn in the country’s ports through a new Port Infrastructure Development Programme. Read More
  • Facility Exports First Cargo of Propane to Japan +

    Sumire Gas The first marine export facility for propane in Canada has been officially opened. Read More
  • Changes in Tolls for Using Panama Canal +

    MSC Pohlin The Panama Canal plans to modify its tolls structure for all types of ships “to better serve the global maritime Read More
  • Largest LNG Carrier Sails From West to East +

    Al Safliya The largest LNG tanker to use the Panama Canal since it was expanded less that three years ago passed through Read More
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3


  • Line Adds Automated Power Kite to Propulsion +

    Airseas The Japanese shipping company Kawasaki Kisen KK (K Line) aims to cut ship greenhouse gas emissions with automated power kites. Read More
  • ONE Express to North Sea and Baltic +

    ONE Apus The Japanese shipping line Ocean Network Express (ONE) was due to start an enhanced North Sea Baltic Service with Russia Read More
  • MOL Links with Russian Uni for Crew Training +

    Makarov University The Japanese shipping company Mitsui OSK Lines (MOL) has signed a Memorandum of Understanding with a Russian university on co-operation Read More
  • “Prelude” Makes its Debut With First LNG Cargo +

    Prelude The first shipment of liquefied natural gas (LNG) has left Shell’s floating LNG facility Prelude some 475kms north-east of Broome Read More
  • Special Navigating System to be Fitted to VLCCs +

    AR Nav Following two-ship trials, augmented reality (AR) navigation systems are to be installed on 21 very large crude oil carriers (VLCCs) Read More
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3

Naval Focus

  • Scorpene Sub Snags +

    INS Khanderi indian News The troubled Scorpene class submarine program hit another snag in June. Read More
  • US Navy’s Frigate Program Passes Significant Hurdle +

    USS Minneapolis-St Paul US News The US Navy has unveiled its plans for the purchase of a new frigate known as FFG(X). Read More
  • Fourth Dreadnought Named HMS “King George VI” +

    Dreadnought Class UK News The fourth member of the new Dreadnought class of nuclear powered ballistic missile submarines will bear the name Read More
  • US Navy Orders Flight II Landing Platform Dock +

    LDP30 American News The contract for the construction of LPD30, the first Flight II Landing Platform Dock of the San Antonio Read More
  • US Navy Seeks Faster Ship Delivery +

    FFGX Rendering American News The future frigate program for the US Navy is getting fully underway and some idea of the urgency Read More
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3

Ferry World

  • Fragile Future for Calmac +

    Isle of Arran TMore and more, I am reading reports that say the media, and the public too, are well aware of the Read More
  • Oscar Goes to Italy +

    Oscar Wilde Irish Continental Group has entered into a bareboat hire purchase agreement for the sale of its 1987-built Oscar Wilde to Read More
  • CalMac Heritage +

    Columba I include a fine poster and artist’s image of the famed Macbrayne paddler Columba. Read More
  • Russian Adventure +

    Ocean Adventurer To the North East Coast and arriving at Aberdeen for the first time for many months, I witnessed a passenger Read More
  • Windemere Jetties +

    Osprey and Branksome Last month I commented on the new setting of the classic collection of mainly steam boats held at Windermere. Read More
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3

Sail Review/Coastal Comment

  • The Green Band of Marstal +

    Bessie Ellen The Danish Maritime Museum had the schooner Bonavista built on the island of Aero at Marstal and this year they Read More
  • Norweigan National Day +

    Thorodd I was in Montrose on the Norwegian National Day, 17 May, when its independent constitution from Sweden was confirmed in Read More
  • Port of Aberdeen Fifty Years On +

    Aberdeen Harbour Extension Project When I first arrived in Aberdeen in 1968, I couldn’t believe my luck. Read More
  • Thames Tributary Barges +

    Lady of the Lea Most of the rivers flowing into the Thames had their own barge type. Read More
  • Dry Rot and Dry Dock +

    HMS Victory For some time Victory, the 110gun ship of the line, has had trouble with dry rot and is in danger Read More
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3

From the Lookout

  • President Opens ‘Largest UK Ship Simulation Centre’ +

    Sir Michael Bibby With the training of seafarers being so important to safety at sea, and in particular navigation equipment and bridge procedures, Read More
  • Hands-Free Mooring at St Lawrence Seaway +

    St Lawrence Seaway I feel there are probably many readers, like me, who feel a shiver down their spine when they think of Read More
  • Flying the Flag on Merchant Navy Day +

    Red Ensign For more than 35 years, it has been my immense privilege to be a local Isle of Man committee member Read More
  • Lifeline Cash for “Waverley” Agreed +

    Waverley The Paddle Steamer Preservation Society (PSPS) has announced that it will provide immediate funding to support efforts to “Save The Read More
  • Viking Glory Celebrates Keel Laying +

    Front Altair The construction of Viking Glory is proceeding on schedule. Read More
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3

Cruise News/Superyacht News

  • Boudicca Pays Tribute to D-Day Veterans +

    Boudicca Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines were proud to have played its part in hosting 250 D-Day veterans. Read More
  • Captain of a Modern Passenger Carrying Sail Ship +

    Sea Cloud 2 If you have ever wondered what qualities a Captain of a cruise vessel might need to have listed on his Read More
  • Every Ash Cloud Has A Silver Lining +

    The ash cloud crisis continues to cause uncertainty as we see sporadic closures of airspace and cancelled flights, and this Read More
  • Damen Group Superyachts +

    Amels With 25 projects underway, business is booming for Amels, the Dutch luxury yacht builder. Read More
  • Singer Andrea Bocelli Trades Up in Size +

    Stella del Nord Andrea Bocelli, the blind Italian tenor and song writer whose work spans both popular music and classical opera is a Read More
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3

Ships, Ports and Places


An Unexpected Job in Cuba

In 1948, I joined the MV Yamaska Park as an EDH and, over the first few days aboard, I became Read More
Suez Canal

The Creation of the Suez Canal - Part Two

IAt the end of 1858, the company’s Works Committee convened for the first time. It included an impressive assembly of Read More
  • 1
  • 2

Companies, Events and Other Features

MV Laganbank

Bank Line's Building Boom

50 British built ships over a ten-year period from 1957 to 1967. Read More
Images by UWE JACOBS (Denmark)

Sharks! Sharks!

Are sharks “friendly” creatures, as has become customary in recent years to classify them? Personally speaking, I have encountered quite Read More
  • 1
  • 2