The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 18

Author: Gardiner Greene Hubbard  | Date: A.D. 1869

The Opening of the Suez Canal

A.D. 1869


One great enterprise made memorable in history the otherwise ineffectual reign of Said Pacha, Viceroy of Egypt, who was the son of Mehemet Ali, sometimes called the" Peter the Great of Egypt." By the concession that made possible the construction of the Suez Canal this weak son of a powerful father made his name secure in the history of Egypt and of the world. This great work also conferred a still higher title to remembrance upon another name, that of Ferdinand de Lesseps (1805-1894), the French engineer, projector of the undertaking.

While he was French consul at Alexandria (1832) De Lesseps conceived the idea of connecting the Mediterranean and Red seas by a ship canal. Mehemet Ali, then Viceroy, one day said to him: "Remember, my young friend, that if in the course of your life you have anything important to do, you must rely only upon yourself." De Lesseps remembered the advice, although perhaps he did not need it. At all events, self-reliance sustained him through many crises when those in whom he trusted failed him. For some years, after 1849, he studied the works and plans of ancient and modern engineers for facilitating commerce between the East and the West through Egypt. Upon the accession of Said Pacha (1854), with whom De Lesseps was already acquainted, the engineer was invited to visit the Viceroy, whom he afterward accompanied on a journey across the desert. During this trip De Lesseps laid his plans before Said and obtained a concession for the canal. The terms of the concession, and the accomplishment of the great work for which it opened the way, are set forth in a clear and interesting account by Hubbard, whose special mastery of the subject is evident throughout.

THE concession obtained by De Lesseps from Said Pacha granted for ninety-nine years from the opening of the Suez Canal: "The exclusive power of organizing and directing a universal company for constructing through the Isthmus of Suez a water-canal between the two oceans, open forever as neutral ways to every commercial vessel proceeding from one sea to the other, without distinction, preference, or exclusion either of person or nationalities."

The concession required the approval of the Sultan of Turkey, as suzerain of Egypt, and that the annual profits, after the payment of 5 per cent. interest on the shares, should be divided as follows: To the Egyptian Government, 15 per cent.; to the stockholders of the company, 71 per cent.; to the original promoters, 10 per cent.; to the administration, 2 per cent.; and to the employes, 2 per cent.

Six additional concessions were obtained between 1856 and 1866. In February, 1855, De Lesseps went to Constantinople to obtain the approval of the Sultan, but failed through the opposition of Great Britain, by its representative, Sir Stratford de Redcliff. This opposition was continued without cessation until the completion of the canal.1

De Lesseps believed it was essential to the success of the great plan that the channel should be deep enough for the largest vessels to sail through without interruption from locks or gates, and that there was no insuperable obstacle to such a scheme. He was not an engineer; and therefore, realizing the necessity of a competent survey before proceeding further, he invited the ablest engineers of Europe to meet at Paris in October, 1855. They accepted this invitation, and after a full consultation appointed a subcommittee to examine the route. After several months of careful survey they reported that the plan was feasible, "and the solution of the problem of the junction of the two seas."

In 1857 De Lesseps presented to Lord Palmerston, then Prime Minister of England, the report of the engineers, for his approval. Lord Palmerston refused, saying: "All the engineers in Europe may say what they please; I know more than they do; my opinion will never change one jot; and I shall oppose the work to the very end." Thomas Stephenson, the engineer, supported Lord Palmerston, declaring that "the scheme was physically impracticable, except at an expense too great to warrant any expectation of returns." In Parliament the motion of John A. Roebuck, "that the power and influence of the country should not be employed in obliging the Sultan to withhold his consent," though supported by William E. Gladstone, was defeated by a vote of sixty-two in favor, two hundred twenty-eight in opposition. The press and the public were almost unanimous in condemnation of the project; the Edinburgh Review insisted that "the canal would neither shorten the passage to India nor materially facilitate the intercourse between the mother-country and its dependencies."

De Lesseps returned to Paris disappointed and disheartened; but the opposition of England had aroused the interest and enthusiasm of the French. The Emperor gave his public support to the company, Prince Jerome Napoleon was appointed protector, and subscription-books were opened for the capital, fixed at $40,000,000, divided into 400,000 shares of $100 each. The French people subscribed for 207,100 shares; the Viceroy of Egypt, for 177,653 shares; others, for 15,247 shares.

Not a share of stock was taken in Great Britain. De Lesseps immediately began the surveys, procuring plans and arranging the numerous details of this vast undertaking. August 25, 1859, De Lesseps struck his spade into the earth, saying, "We strike the first blow that shall open the commerce of the East to the commerce and civilization of the West." At the same time the Viceroy of Egypt issued his circular, prohibiting the beginning of the work before the consent of the Sublime Porte had been obtained. This protest did not hinder De Lesseps, though he was greatly delayed in collecting materials and laborers. The work was begun at the most difficult places on the line of the canal, and on the harbors in the Mediterranean and Red seas.

In 1862 a small channel had been cut from the Mediterranean to Lake Timsah, about fifty miles, when England, not content with opposing this project through its representatives in Constantinople, through its press and its financiers, took more effective measures to stop the work.

The concession provided that four-fifths of the laborers should be natives, furnished by the Viceroy, and paid from one and a half to two piastres a day, with rations to the value of an additional piastre, equal, in the whole, to fifteen cents a day, or one-half more than the usual wages. The concession also authorized the company to construct the Sweet-Water Canal, and granted the company large tracts of land on the line of the Sweet-Water and Suez canals, with the right to have any goods or merchandise required for the use of the canal company entered without payment of any duty, and with the right to take tolls from all vessels passing through either of these canals. England contended that this labor was corvee or forced labor; that the laborers were not properly treated, and that Said Pacha had no right to alienate any land without the consent of the Sultan. De Lesseps replied that this was the only labor by which the great works of Egypt had been executed; that the corvee had been employed with the knowledge of England, and without protest, by English contractors and the Pacha in building railroads and in constructing the Mahmudieh Canal, where one thousand laborers are reported to have perished in one day; in digging irrigating canals, and in the cultivation of cotton plantations of Said Pacha; that England was influenced, not only by a desire to stop the work on the canal, but to obtain cotton, as a cotton famine prevailed from 1862 to 1865, during the Civil war in the United States. England proved to the Pacha that by transferring the twenty thousand laborers from the canal to his cotton-plantations, a large quantity of cotton could be raised and sold at an extravagant price. This argument was too strong to be resisted; and the laborers were withdrawn with the regret that "poor De Lesseps must go to the wall."

At that time the engineer reported that with the steady labor of thirty thousand fellahs the canal could have been completed in three years. The English press was satisfied; the Times declared "that as forced labor was to cease, the canal ceased," that "the canal was almost forgotten, its building looked on as De Lesseps’s folly."

De Lesseps protested, and the French Government interfered. In 1863 Said Pacha died, and Ismail Pacha mounted the throne of Egypt. Gifted with high intelligence, and by nature a lover of progress, the new sovereign was wise enough to see that he could gain considerable advantages for his government, and at the same time assure the completion of the great canal by a prompt and considerable sacrifice, which would prevent serious complications in his relations with France. The concession had given to the company, in addition to the lands and the free entry of goods, certain municipal privileges, which seriously affected the revenues and threatened in time to create vicious entanglements in the relations between Egypt and the European Powers. Ismail seized this opportunity, and wisely agreed to submit to arbitration all questions between Egypt and the canal company, accepting, without hesitation, as arbiter, Napoleon III, Emperor of the French. This he did, well knowing that while the judgment against him would probably be heavy, it would be final, as the decision made by that arbiter would never be questioned by the company. An examination was made by a commission appointed by the Emperor, which decided that Ismail Pacha should pay the canal company for the withdrawal of fellah labor: An indemnity of 1,520,000 pounds ($7,600,000); for a cession of all rights of the company in the fresh-water canals, 400,000 pounds ($2,000,000); as compensation for tolls relinquished, 240,000 pounds ($1,200,000); as compensation for lands surrendered, 1,200,000 pounds ($6,000,000); total, 3,360,000 pounds ($16,800,000).

This was paid in 1864, and the work was resumed. Thus, a second time, the opposition of Great Britain resulted most advantageously to De Lesseps, furnishing the means for the continuation of the work, compelling the company to substitute machine for hand labor, and that which at first sight seemed to threaten destruction to the enterprise led to its success.

The Sultan’s approval was still delayed, and not until March 19, 1866, was the firman issued granting "our sovereign authorization for the execution of the canal." While the arbitration was pending there was a practical cessation of work, from the withdrawal of fellah labor; but De Lesseps was not idle—he was planning for the substitution of machine for hand labor; seventy-eight dredgers of different kinds (some with iron spouts two hundred twenty feet long), engines, locomotives, cars, tugs, and other apparatus were constructed. The channel was dredged, the sand raised, thrown into the spout, and carried along its whole length by running water, raised by a rotary pump. Other dredgers were provided with buckets drawn from endless chains; others had short spouts, and some were ordinary dredgers tended by seagoing lighters and numberless tugs; where the dredger could not work, tramways, with dirt-cars and locomotives, were used. The first cost of the machinery was between ten million and twelve million dollars, and the cost of fuel when in full operation was two hundred thousand dollars a month. The machines were more economical and rapid than the fellah labor, excavating monthly when in full operation two million cubic metres of earth, a quantity sufficient to fill Broadway [New York city] from the Battery to Union Square, as high as the second stories of the houses. The digging of the canal presented no great engineering difficulties. The canal for part of the way was simply a trench cut through the desert, which is gritty, not sandy; for another part of the way through salt lakes too shallow for navigation; the rest through hills, whose rugged outlines break the dead level and uniform monotony of the desert; the highest elevation was near Suez—sixty feet.

The canal is 100 miles long: From Port Said through Lake Menzaleh to Kantara, 27 miles; from Kantara through Lake Ballah, 3 miles, to Ismailia, 21.47 miles; from Ismailia through Lake Timsah, 3 miles, to Bitter Lakes, 15 miles; through the Bitter Lakes, 21 miles; from Bitter Lakes to Suez, 15 miles; total, 99.47 miles.

It is supposed that formerly the waters of the Red and Mediterranean seas were connected; that the Isthmus has gradually risen, leaving several great depressions—salt-lakes, or great salt-marshes. In the deepest parts of these depressions the bottom was from ten to twenty feet below the sea-level, shelving to a few inches at the margin. A channel was dredged through these lakes, when they were filled with salt water, making great reservoirs preventing currents through the canal; for, though the waters of the two seas are at the same level in calm weather, when the wind blows the waves into Port Said and out from Suez there is a difference of several feet in the level. The current then flows through the canal into these lakes, but they are large enough to prevent currents through the canal.

Ismailia, the chief city of the Isthmus, is on Lake Timsah, half way across the Isthmus, where the railway from Cairo to Suez and the Sweet-Water Canal strikes the line of the Suez Canal. The Great and Bitter lakes, forty leagues in circumference, required 440,000,000,000 gallons of water and six months to fill them.

The ancients opened a canal from the Nile to the Red Sea, but were unable to open one to the Mediterranean, for want of a harbor. A harbor was essential to the success of the scheme. De Lesseps was therefore compelled to construct "a harbor against nature," where there was no fresh water within thirty miles, neither port nor open roadstead, and only two or three feet of water, gradually deepening to twenty-five and thirty feet two miles from the shore. A sandbank from three hundred to five hundred feet wide separated the sea from Lake Menzaleh—a vast salt-marsh. over this bank the waves broke at every high sea. Land must be made, stone piers built to deep water, and, as there was no stone near, great blocks of artificial stone weighing twenty-two tons were made with cement brought from France and sand from the desert, and with these blocks piers two miles in length on the west and one mile on the east side were built out into the sea. The channel between these piers and in the harbor was dredged to a depth of twenty-seven feet, and the material used for making land. Here now stands Port Said, with a population of ten thousand, having one of the best harbors in the Mediterranean; its pier lighted with electric lights; its fresh water brought from the Nile at Cairo, one hundred sixty miles distant.

There was no fresh water nearer than the Nile, as rain rarely falls on the Isthmus. A large supply of drinking-water was required for the laborers and inhabitants of Port Said, Ismailia, and Suez and for the use of the vessels. To provide for this want, a canal eight feet deep and six feet wide was dug from the Nile at Cairo across the desert to a point near Ismailia, thence along the line of the Suez Canal to Suez, one hundred forty-nine miles, including the Ismailian branch. At Ismailia the water is pumped into reservoirs, and conducted in pipes to Port Said. It was finished to Ismailia, January, 1862, and to Suez, December, 1863. The canal between Cairo and Ismailia has since then been greatly enlarged by the Egyptian Government, and is a wide navigable canal with locks connecting the Nile at Cairo with the Red Sea. As all the rights in this canal were retroceded by De Lesseps to the Khedive, he was compelled to bear the cost of its construction, which was nominally $5,750,000, but in reality much greater, and probably $8,000,000.

In October, 1867, the first steamer went from Port Said to Ismailia. In the summer of 1869 the work grew near its completion. August 6th the Khedive struck the blow which united the waters of the Red Sea with those of the Mediterranean. In September De Lesseps sailed through in a small steamer and telegraphed:

"SUEZ, September 29, 1869.

"We left Port Said this morning, and, after an uninterrupted voyage by steamer, arrived here in fifteen hours."

The grand religious ceremonies of the inauguration took place at Port Said, November 16, 1869, beginning at about 2 P.M., in the presence of the Khedive, the Empress of the French, the Emperor of Austria, etc. During the night of the 16th, in order to be ready, the Khedive left Port Said in his yacht in advance of his royal guests, to receive them at the en trance of Lake Timsah.

The grand line of royal yachts left Port Said at 8 A.M., November 17th, the Aigle leading, with the Empress Eugenie and De Lesseps on board. That afternoon the fleet arrived in Lake Timsah, and were there received by a salute from Egyptian war-vessels which had come from Suez.

The evenings of November 17th and 18th were given up to festivities and excursions at Ismailia. At noon of the 19th the fleet left Lake Timsah, and at 5 P.M. anchored in the Bitter Lakes. During the night of the 19th the Khedive proceeded to Suez to await his guests in that harbor, and at 11.30 A.M. on the 20th the fleet came out of the canal into the head of the Red Sea. The inaugurating fleet was composed of sixty-nine vessels, bearing the flags of France, Austria, North Germany, Holland, England, Egypt, Russia, Italy, Norway, and Portugal, and representatives from all the courts of Europe and from every great newspaper in the world.

The expenditures on the Suez Canal at the time of opening, December 31, 1869, were: For construction, $58,272,000; for interest, including sinking-fund, $16,582,000; for negotiations and commissions, $2,208,600; for management, $2,836,505; for sundries, $3,266,650; total, $83,164,755.

This amount was raised from various sources: Subscriptions to 400,000 shares, at $100 per share, $40,000,000; loans of 1867 and 1865, $19,755,500; indemnity paid by Egypt, $16,800,000; sundries, $6,609,255; total, $83,164,755.

The banks of the canal were faced with stone for a portion of the distance, and this work was steadily carried on until all the banks were lined. The width at the surface of the canal varies from 190 feet, where the banks are above the general level of the desert, to 328 feet, where they are low. The width at the bottom is 72 feet; the depth in 1871 was 23 feet. It has been deepened from time to time, and is from 25 to 28 feet deep. Fourteen steamers drawing 24 1/2 feet passed through the canal in 1883. The actual time required for steaming through the canal is about nineteen hours; on account of delays, principally from vessels passing one another and because vessels are not permitted to sail by night, the average time from entering Port Said to leaving Suez is forty-eight hours. Vessels sailing in the same direction are not allowed to pass, and are required to stop at gares (or passing-stations) that vessels sailing in the other direction may pass. These gares are the sidings in this single-track road, three times the usual width of the canal, so that ships may pass on either side; with one exception they are on the east side of the canal.

The highest speed permitted is five miles and three-quarters an hour, but at this rate steamers are often obliged to use full head of steam, as the water, instead of flowing off all around the vessel, is heaped up in front of it. Wherever the channel is of uniform width, a vessel keeps its course without the use of the rudder, as the pressure is equal on both sides; but where the channel broadens on either side, the ship yields to the greater pressure, and heads directly for the opposite bank. Therefore, vessels frequently strike the banks or the bottom, and occasionally run into each other. Lighters and all needful appliances for assisting vessels are provided at short distances.

This canal, constructed not only without the aid of Great Britain, but in spite of her continued opposition, owes its success to her commerce, for four-fifths of its tolls come from British ships. No sooner was it opened than her steamers began using the canal, for a new and shorter route was opened to her empire in the East.

England desired to obtain some control in the canal, and the poverty of the Viceroy—the Khedive, since 1867—soon gave her the desired opportunity. The shares held by the Khedive, Ismail Pacha, entitled the owner to a certain control in the management, but the dividend on them was waived in 1869 for twenty-five years as the consideration for certain properties given by the Khedive to the company, subsequently purchased by him of the company on the demand of Great Britain.

The opening of the canal has produced a greater change in the commerce of the world than any other single event since the discovery of America. Formerly the commerce of the East was carried on mainly in sailing-vessels, under the English flag, around Cape of Good Hope and Cape Horn; now, in steamers through the canal. Sailing-vessels have great difficulty in sailing through the canal and the Red Sea, and so rarely use this route, while steam navigation by the canal is more economical than sailing-vessels via Cape of Good Hope; hence a large increase of steamers. The average time between London and India before the opening of the canal was ninety days, the passage fare seven hundred dollars; in 1875 it was less than thirty-six days, the passage fare three hundred forty dollars. Freights have been reduced in the same ratio with passenger fares.

The trade with the East is now by steam; and French, Russian, Austrian, and Italian vessels participate in it, and are doubling and tripling the number of their vessels, and will before long become powerful competitors with the British. The Mediterranean is no longer a closed sea, but from all its ports, and from beyond Gibraltar, all vessels bound east sail through the Suez Canal for India, China, and Australia.

The opening of the Suez Canal has not only transferred the commerce from sailing-vessels to steamers, but has also brought commerce td the maritime countries of the Mediterranean, France, Italy, and Austria. Before the Suez Canal was opened, ships very rarely sailed from these countries to the East. The commerce was all carried on under the flags of England and Holland. Now every ship to India and China passes their shores, and some steamers of the largest of the English lines start from Italy. French, Italian, and Austrian steamers were naturally drawn through the canal bearing the manufactures of their countries to the East, receiving in exchange the coffee and sugar of India, the teas and silks of China.

The East, too, has gained largely by the opening of the canal; for cheaper freights and competition have reduced the price of cotton goods, and they are now extensively used by the millions of India and China, while the labor of India and the products of that labor command higher prices. Thus action and reaction take place, and Europe and Asia are equally benefited. England foresaw the effect of the opening of the canal in developing the commerce of the Mediterranean and the competition of the Continent, and therefore was so persistent in her opposition to it. She did not anticipate the enormous development of her own commerce that would result from the facilities furnished by the canal.

Egypt, in her desire to aid the construction of the canal, agreed to furnish laborers at a stipulated price, to give liberally of her desert lands and the right to construct and use a fresh-water canal. England compelled her to withdraw the laborers and to regain the land.

For this labor and land and these rights she paid the canal company 3,360,000 pounds; the loss on the Elwady estate sold to the canal company and bought back by the Viceroy was 326,000 pounds; cost of the fresh-water canal was over 1,244,000 pounds; expenses of missions to Europe and cost of opening canal, 1,011,000 pounds; she sold her shares to Great Britain at cost, but was required to pay 5 per cent. per annum interest for twenty years on this cost, 4,000,000 pounds; total, 9,941,000 pounds ($49,705,000).

Fifty million dollars was exacted from Egypt as her contribution to the canal. Even this statement, according to the best authority, largely underestimates the cost. It does not include the loss to Egypt in impost duties, nor the vast sums paid out in interest on the sums paid in 1864, amounting, up to 1880, to not less than twenty million dollars, for which, as well as for the principal, she received only what she had previously given to the canal company. Egypt, alone of all nations, receives little, if any, benefit from the canal. The commerce of the East, which formerly paid tribute to her people as it crossed from Suez to Cairo and Alexandria, is now carried by foreign steamers without stopping, and pays tribute only to the Suez Canal. When England was at war with Egypt (1881-1885), the Suez Canal and the line of the Sweet-Water Canal afforded the surest way to invade and overcome Egypt. Arabia listened to the requests of De Lesseps, and forbore to destroy the canal or interrupt the flow of fresh water. Lord Wolseley disregarded these requests, closed the canal to all commerce, and made it the base of his line of operations.

1"As if by the irony of history" the first ship that passed through the canal flew the English flag. Within twenty years Great Britain had come to contribute more than 80 per cent. of the traffic. In 1875 the British Government bought the shares of the original capital that belonged to the Khedive Ismail Pacha. The acquisition thereby of a controlling interest in the canal was one of the conspicuous triumphs of Disraeli. In 1870 the number of vessels using the canal was 486; in 1899, 3607; receipts in 1870, about $1,031,865; in 1899, about $18,263,755.—ED.


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Chicago: Gardiner Greene Hubbard, "The Opening of the Suez Canal," The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 18 in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. Rossiter Johnson (Harrogate, TN: The National Alunmi, 1926), Original Sources, accessed September 23, 2023,

MLA: Hubbard, Gardiner Greene. "The Opening of the Suez Canal." The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 18, in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, edited by Rossiter Johnson, Harrogate, TN, The National Alunmi, 1926, Original Sources. 23 Sep. 2023.

Harvard: Hubbard, GG, 'The Opening of the Suez Canal' in The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 18. cited in 1926, The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. , The National Alunmi, Harrogate, TN. Original Sources, retrieved 23 September 2023, from