Suez Canal

Suez Canal
   A 100-mile long sea-level canal in Egypt, across the isthmus of Suez between Port Said on the Mediterranean and the Gulf of Suez at the north end of the Red Sea, opened in 1869. It was built by a French consortium led by Ferdinand de Lesseps, the then-viceroy of Egypt taking a percentage of its shares. The canal was built in the face of British opposition, both because it competed with a British-owned railway from the Nile to Suez, and because in the opinion of Lord Palmerston, it would cause numerous diplomatic complications. Transit through Egypt to India and the Far East had grown rapidly after the introduction of steamship services in the Red Sea in the 1840s; the canal led to even more traffic, avoiding the long Cape route by traveling through Egypt. Most of this traffic, given the predominance of the British merchant marine and British control of India, was British.
   In 1875, Benjamin Disraeli engineered the British purchase of the financially pressed Khedive’s shares, largely to keep complete control of the canal out of French hands. In 1882, in part in response to fears of instability on the canal’s doorstep, the British occupied Egypt, nominally a Turkish vassal state, and landed an army in the Canal Zone. The British army stayed there until 1954, notwithstanding much talk about the temporary or limited nature of the occupation. In 1914, Britain declared a protectorate over Egypt, and the Canal Zone became a large strategic base area, not merely because of the canal but also as a base from which to attack Turkish territories in the Middle East. The Suez Canal, “the swing door of empire,” came to have a key place in the British imperial imagination, a place that lasted until the divisive intervention against Nasser’s nationalization of the canal in 1956.
   See also <>; <>/Steamships.
    Farnie, D. A. East and West of Suez. Oxford: Clarendon, 1969;
    Karabell, Zachary. Parting the Waters: The Creation of the Suez Canal. New York: Random House, 2003;
    Marlowe, John. World Ditch: The Making of the Suez Canal. New York: Macmillan, 1963.

Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800–1914. 2014.

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