The Suez Canal in Time of War

Courtesy Reuters

THE thin hundred-mile ribbon of water connecting the Mediterranean and the Red Sea, now in the limelight as an Italian military road to Ethiopia, has had a confusing history. It was dreamed of for centuries by those who coveted only a channel for trade; yet the first serious survey made of it was for purposes of war. From 1799, when Bonaparte's engineers sought to find at the Isthmus of Suez a road to India for French armies, the potential wartime uses of a canal there dominated discussions regarding its construction and its control in time of peace. As the rapidly expanding forces of the industrial revolution in the nineteenth century made the early completion of the canal more necessary, the possibilities of its misuse became the more apparent.

From the moment when the project of a canal at Suez was first heard of the keenest interest was displayed by Great Britain. She had the most to gain from such a waterway; and, owing to her paramount interests in India and the East, she also had the most to lose. Proper caution, therefore, dictated her consistent policy of hostility to all projects for an isthmian ship canal and her determination to confine all trade with the East to the safe route by way of the Cape of Good Hope -- safe because subject to control by the British Navy.

The construction of the Suez Canal thus was long postponed. Mohammed Aly Pasha, Viceroy of Egypt, who displayed a willingness in 1834 to undertake the digging of such a channel, very quickly dropped the project, having learned that such a waterway would only jeopardize his position in Egypt. Arthur Anderson, influential Managing Director of the Peninsular and Oriental Company, conveying mails and passengers to and from the Orient via the newly opened "overland route" through Egypt, approached the British Foreign Office in 1841 with a plan for an isthmian canal which would bring England closer to the East by many thousands of miles and "for all

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