Tuesday, June 8, 2010

When East meets West: Personal connections to the Panama and Suez Canals

Presented to the Club by Michael A. Shirley on May 24, 2010

I suppose most of us old gentlemen, with apologies to the younger among us, can recall an event or two as Jack did in his paper a few weeks ago and on reflection realize that they were connected to momentous events in the course of history. In my case I have two whose significance I did not recognize at the time and certainly did not see how they were related to each other. I guess as children we all remember stories our father told us which never really registered. Well, one in particular comes to my mind.

My dear father, born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1895, had lost his father at the age of five to tuberculosis and his mother a few years later, and was brought up by his grandmother. She was a remarkable woman, called in Jamaica a “drogher woman,” i.e. a trader of goods overseas who travels in a ship called a drogher.

She would frequently go from Kingston to Colon, the Caribbean port in Panama, to sell beer, tobacco, toothpaste, shoes, etc. to the Jamaican labourers who were contracted to build the Canal for the French company in the 1880s. A connection between the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean was seen by all to be an excellent undertaking so obviating a long journey round the southern tip of South America.

Well, my father’s story was of going with his grandmother on one of these trips when he was 14 years of age in 1909, 100 years ago last year, and encountering a tremendous storm which necessitated sending everyone below decks. The ship or “drogher” arrived 24 hours late and he remembered every citizen in Colon lining the harbour to welcome them because they were sure all had perished.

Why were there so many Jamaicans in Colon? Well, at the end of the 19th century, white men didn’t dig holes in the ground! So eager Jamaicans were recruited. Why was it a French company? Well, if you wanted a canal dug there was only one man in the world you wanted to do it, a Frenchman named Ferdinand De Lesseps. He was the King! Through tremendous persistence, diplomacy, coercion and vision he had completed the Suez Canal in1869. The stage was set for another triumph. A French one? No, unfortunately not! But I shall return later to explain why not.

At this juncture I shall recall the second episode in which I was involved and which was a turning point in the world’s history, not that I recognized it at the time. In 1956 I was an undergraduate at Cambridge — England, not Massachusetts. Every long vacation, May to October, I was determined to travel far and wide and adventurously, partly out of curiosity and partly to outdo my undergraduate colleagues. A third of the atlas was not painted pink, i.e. British, for nothing. A good Indian friend of mine at high school and Cambridge had a father who was an agricultural adviser to the Sudanese Government. He would fly to Khartoum and I with another Indian friend would join him, flying cheaply by charter flight to Paris, hitchhiking to Marseilles, crossing the Mediterranean on a boat, sleeping on deck and travelling up the Nile on an Egyptian train from Alexandria. All plans set, all systems at go and excitement and anticipation overflowing, we had not reckoned with Colonel Nasser. He, Egypt’s ruler, nationalized the Canal. My worried mother, resisting all our assertions that we would circumvent all Egyptian nationalistic hostility, called the Foreign Office who advised against our trip. At last Egypt was master of its own canal.

That same canal that DeLesseps had built with European vision, pragmatism and will and mostly Egyptian labour and some money, mostly borrowed, which had left the government in considerable debt, was built and run by the Suez Canal Company, a French company, but whose major if not largest shareholder was British, which was ironic considering the British had never been in favour of building the Canal, had put every obstacle in the way of DeLesseps they could and had in Lord Palmerston the most formidable opponent.

The 19th century was a time when the Industrial Revolution took off particularly in England but followed by Germany and further behind by France and Italy. Mankind was on the verge of conquering the world. Nature would be harnessed for the betterment of all. Disease and ignorance would be no more. Empires were built and trading goods and manufactures became the foundation of wealth and power. The remnants of European influence in that century and into the 20th are to be seen today, the French in North and West Africa and Lebanon, the Dutch in Indonesia and the British all over the world. Germany as a result of the loss of World War I had lost their two colonies in Africa, Tanganyika (now Tanzania) and South-west Africa (now Namibia). The Spanish had never been able to mount enough military or financial power to maintain their once formidable influence in Latin America. Italy’s dalliance with colonialism had provided them with Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) and Libya. It is remarkable to look back and see how the European nations had carved up the world and imperiously set out to outdo each other. Naturally competition was intense, especially between France and Great Britain. The latter’s great strength resided in the Navy. She had come to colonial acquisitions rather late, the Netherlands, France and Spain had started earlier. Acquiring and co-opting Dutch financial expertise at the beginning of the 18th century and building a large and powerful navy, she ruled the waves.

On the other hand France had concentrated on the Mediterranean and particularly Egypt from the days when Napoleon Buonaparte in 1798 landed in Alexandria. He brought with him not just an army but a team of scholars charged with studying the country so that the French could make maximal use of its resources. Into this environment stepped De Lesseps, not immediately but 50 years later after other Frenchmen had tossed the idea of a canal about.

Those other Frenchmen were a couple named Prosper Enfantin and Henri de Saint Simeon. The latter led a group of followers called the Saint-Simonians. They believed in progress but even more they believed that the world had been sundered. Male stood apart from female, religion from science and East was cut off from West. In this duality, said Prosper Enfantin, all suffered. The West was advancing but until it was united with the East, its growth would be stunted. The only way to overcome this division and wounds was to remove the physical bridge that separated them, the land bridge of the Isthmus of Suez, all 100 miles of it. Once the canal pierced the sands and the seas were connected, the energies of East and West would flow together. The world would be made whole and civilization would blossom.

You can imagine that they were considered rather crackpots and barely escaped prison in France and needed the French consul’s protection in Egypt. De Lesseps protected them in the 1830s but 20 years later appropriated their ambition and moved on. But of course to move on required the East’s assent, acquiescence, even collaboration. And here he struck lucky, for in Muhammad Said Pasha, the ruler of Egypt, he found a willing partner.

Said was the son of Muhammad Ali, an Albanian mercenary who rose to power in Egypt in the wake of Napoleon’s defeat. Muhammad Ali was the viceroy of the Ottoman Empire, which had spread across continents into Europe, Persia and the Middle East from its inception in Turkey in 1299. Various states enjoyed different forms of autonomy. Egypt was very autonomous and the viceroy only ceremoniously recognized the Pasha in Constantinople. This state of affairs had come about because Muhammad Ali had gained seniority in the Ottoman Empire in Albania and Kosovo and in 1801, the Albanian commander of the Ottoman army was sent to re-occupy Egypt following the brief Napoleonic occupation, a campaign undertaken to advance France’s trade interests and undermine Britain’s access to India. He was second in command under his cousin.

The French withdrawal left a power vacuum in the Ottoman province. Marmaluke power had been weakened, but not destroyed, and Ottoman forces clashed with the Marmalukes for power. The Marmaluke dynasty had ruled Egypt for 600 years but under Ottoman tutelage. During this period of anarchy Muhammad Ali used his Albanian troops to play both sides, gaining power and prestige for himself. As the conflict drew on, the local populace grew weary of the power struggle and a group of prominent Egyptians demanded that he be installed as the new viceroy. He disposed of the Marmalukes by inviting them all to a ceremonial banquet and murdering every one of them there. Muhammad Ali was convinced of European superiority and Eastern backwardness and the necessity for a modernization of Egypt which he immediately set about and which was carried on by Said, his son.

One of De Lesseps’ tasks was to obtain the consent of Said to build the canal and yet acknowledge the need for permission from the Pasha in Constantinople too. He was a member of the French Diplomatic Service as his father and uncle had been before him so he had lived in several European countries being more of a citizen of nineteenth century Western Europe than of any one country. He spoke several languages. He was a member of what came to be known as “the establishment” and had access to wealth and power but his family was never in the upper tier. Whereas so many of his contemporaries were romantics and dreamers De Lesseps from the voluminous papers, correspondence and autobiographies comes across as a man of tremendous energy and ambition never in doubt. He was a Romantic in action but not in heart. He was confident to the point of arrogance. He sought fame because he thought he deserved it and he was tireless in the pursuit of it.

For most of the 1830s he lived in Cairo at a time when Muhammad Ali was challenging the Pasha, the ruler of the Ottoman Empire, even to the extent of sending an army to topple him and being on the verge of defeating him until the British interfered to send him packing. Turkey for most of the 19th century was “the sick man of Europe” used by the British to fight the Russians in the Crimean War but responsible for much of the instability in its Empire as European powers circled to take advantage. De Lesseps, now the consul, and the French were welcome in Egypt. De Lesseps capitalized on this and, after Said became viceroy, cultivated a close relationship with him feeding him dreams of power and influence through a constructed Suez Canal.

That mission accomplished, over the next few years he was constantly in action. He travelled to Great Britain to attend scores of town meetings to try to persuade the public and business leaders to look favourably on a canal and especially to counteract the British politicians fierce antagonism. And over time he achieved much, particularly when Lord Palmerston left the scene.

Several trips were made to Constantinople to try to pry the Turks away from the British, Moscow to keep the Russians on board and numerous sorties to impress bankers for the eventual raising of money. De Lesseps had one “rabbit up his sleeve.” His cousin had married Napoleon III. Eugenie was Empress of France. She was a tireless supporter of the canal, and given that the Emperor was pretty gung-ho for the glory of France and himself, he didn’t need too much encouragement.

In October 1858, 11 years before the opening of the Canal, De Lesseps sent two letters, one to the members of the press throughout Europe, the other to accredited agents of the Suez Canal Company. Four hundred thousand shares were to be offered at 500 francs each. In addition to the money, subscribers were contributing to the progress of mankind and the onward march of progress. The response was good but not overwhelming. However the stage was set to begin work on the canal.

I shan’t go into details of the construction — suffice it to say that crucially it was almost entirely at sea level, in contrast to the Panama Canal, but more of that at a later date. (I’ve handed a map around.) It entailed excavation of 100 miles, fairly straightforward but of a magnitude never attempted before.

Two or three chief engineers were appointed in the ten years of construction and new enormous machines were built. It was just as well that this mechanization occurred. because the Company ran into immense difficulties with Egyptian labour which had to be brought in from some big distances at great cost and which dried up as a result of the liberal outcry prevalent at that time. Anti-slavery was the “toast” of the era. Perhaps the most noteworthy feature was the early digging of the Sweet Water Canal which brought fresh water from the Nile that was used to irrigate large tracts of land, which became a source of conflict between the Egyptian Government and the Suez Canal Company.

On a windswept day in April 1858 the symbolic strike with a pickaxe was struck at Port Said. If they had seen into the future, De Lesseps would have pushed a button and listened to the roar of an excavating machine. With work under way, De Lesseps’ job was to continue pressure on the British, the Ottomans, Said and the Emperor. In November 1869, the Canal was opened at a great, congratulatory ceremony with all the significant personages of Europe present. It was paid for by the khedive, a new title for the viceroy indicating a diplomatic balance between Ottomans and Egypt, and just as well because the Company was out of money. In fact it had run out of money before the canal was finished and with the carrot of an important and prestigious Egypt dangled in front of him, Said’s successor had bought more shares and with these and other big public works had put Egypt in deep debt.

In 1863 Said, depressed and ill, died — to be succeeded by his nephew, Ismail. (In the Ottoman Empire the oldest surviving male succeeded to the title.) Ismail was the son of a military man, fought against the Ottomans in Syria and had gone to a military academy in France but he was not a military man. In contrast to Said he was deliberate and reserved. He was very much at home with the aristocracy in Europe. On his return to Egypt he avoided the court and built large and prosperous estates in the Nile delta. Again like many rulers of his generation he was an ardent nationalist and modernizer. He loved Egypt and wanted it to be powerful. He admired Europe and wanted to emulate it. Sadly, this required loans which put a huge strain on the budget, which was very reliant on cotton, whose price yoyoed about (not least because of the end of the American Civil War), and on top of that there was the onerous burden of paying for the 177,692 shares in the Suez Canal Company. He tried all sorts of maneuvers to reduce the Company’s influence, such as taking over the cost of the extension of the Sweet Water Canal to Suez but relieving them of their ownership of the irrigated lands it served and confirmed the obligations of his government to pay for the shares that Said had purchased. And further, he abolished the corvee, the Egyptian system for providing cheap labour.

Ferdinand De Lesseps had come too far to allow Ismail and his advisors to endanger his life’s passion. He believed the renewed opposition had one source: Great Britain. But now he was in a stronger position than he had been since the last time the British attacked. He was the head of a large company that was enmeshed in French society. The Canal was part of public life and its fate was intimately bound with French honour. After months of argument, threatened lawsuits and even the issuance of challenges to duels, De Lesseps emerged the winner because the Emperor Napoleon to whom all had appealed finally ruled that the Canal would be finished.

And so it was! Unfortunately for Ismail and Egypt the band did not go on playing. He went deeper into debt. In 1873 alone he borrowed more than 30 million British pounds, which was double the cost of the entire Suez Canal. He admittedly was completing expensive public works projects which were modernizing Egypt and increasing state revenues, but at a tremendous budgetary cost. By the mid 1870s, creditors were becoming worried. They had lent money on exorbitant terms and the interest burden was crushing. In 1875 European bankers decided he was on the brink of insolvency. They turned to his one attractive asset: the shares in the Suez Canal Company.

At first Ismail was considering selling them to French bankers. On hearing that news Disraeli, Britain’s Prime Minister, having already investigated the possibility of purchasing them, jumped at the opportunity to exclude the French. The British had come to rely on the Canal after their original opposition and were competing in a global chess game with the French in their imperial designs. With the help of the Rothchilds a loan was raised and a brilliant coup had been achieved. Britain owned 44 percent of the Company shares and was the largest shareholder. The French were not amused. Of course more debt payments became due and with no more shares to sell and no way to pay the interest due, he was forced to accept a joint Anglo-Egyptian Commission to oversee the country’s finances. His government in effect was placed in receivership and he had lost the ability to determine his own state budget.

Ismail’s rule was a lost cause. He had lost his legitimacy and his ministers turned against him. He went into exile to be replaced by his son, Tawfiq. The naked exercise of European power aroused Egyptian nationalism. Under Said and Ismail the old Turkish ruling class had been forced to share power with native Egyptians, a process occurring across Europe as the electorate was expanded. When Arabic speaking ministers and army officers made a bid for prominence they were rebuffed. Tawfiq appealed for help from the French and British but only the British sent troops, followed by a fleet which bombarded Alexandria in the summer of 1882 after an anti-European riot. They also seized control of the canal. De Lesseps denounced the seizure as a violation of the canal’s neutrality but British troops had in fact occupied the whole country. The Suez Canal had become the lifeline of the British Empire, and it was several years later an International Commission declared that the Canal should never be closed to ships of any nation by any nation, and in the interim the British established a protectorate over Egypt. No nation was going to be allowed to threaten the British Empire and after World War I she ruled Egypt more or less directly.

I think most people in this room remember or heard of the nationalization and seizure of the Canal in 1956. The original 15 percent of annual profits of the Suez Canal Company which Egypt had been issued were ceded back to it in a debt settlement. The sum ran into the millions of dollars. Grievances such as this and the wave of nationalism that was sweeping the world gave the impetus to Colonel Nasser to depose the last khedive, King Farouk, and send him into exile in 1952 and then strike out at the European powers who were in a period of decline following World War II. You remember how the British, French and Israelis colluded in an invasion and occupation of the Canal and then were humiliatingly told to withdraw by the Americans. End of story! The Egyptians now possessed their own canal.

The significances were these: One, most Brits, the government and the outside world had seen a major shift in world power. The arrogance of British imperialism was displayed when we were assured the Egyptians could not run the canal themselves without British and French pilots and administration. They were swiftly proved wrong. At the same time Russia had announced her arrival as a world power by contracting to build the Aswan Dam on the Nile snatching it away from The World Bank, a Western institution.

I think the other present day significance, looking back, is that a similar shift in world power is occurring right now with the emergence of China and the other BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India) and as Britain had to make huge adjustments to the new world order so do we now.
So you see the denial of my trip to Khartoum in the Sudan was brought about by an act which marked a major turning point in history rather than a personal vendetta by Col. Nasser against me.

I believe we can learn another lesson from this event. Europeans and now Americans do not fully realize the resentment and anger caused by the occupation of countries by their armies. Foreign troops in a country are an insult. Repeatedly one hears Afghans and Pakistanis venting their anger at our incursions and bombings. Perhaps we are learning at last but I doubt it.

Finally, I set out to include some of the history of the Panama Canal which included our hero De Lesseps at about the time the Suez Canal opened but I’ve run out of time and space and it looks like you’ll have to wait until May 2012. Please be patient and understanding. Thank you.

Photo: 1880s Suez Canal ferry photo by P. Perdis, via Flickr Creative Commons posting by blaques jacques.

1 comment:

  1. As you say, the USA pulled the rug on Britain and France over Suez. What followed was the Peace Americana in the Middle East. Has it got us any further? No. In his memoirs, Anthony Eden recalled that after the allies had achieved a bridgehead on the Suez Canal, he wanted to use it, with American support, to try to negotiate a settlement between the Arabs and Israel, but was rebuffed by Ike who refused to see him and insisted on the immediate withdrawal of Britain and France from the Canal. What followed were the Arab Israeli wars which made a settlement immensely more difficult - and so it is to this day. As Foster Dulles is said to have recognised, perhaps the US made a mistake over Suez.