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 purposes." This ingenuous argument was full of irony for Lord Palmerston, seeing that at the very moment the French were attempting to purchase or seize strategic ports along the coast of Abyssinia and in the Persian Gulf. It was in harmony with precedent, therefore, that when French promoters sought support in 1847 for a new canal project, the English Consul-General in Egypt, in full realization of his Government's power and attitude, could say "we may safely number the Suez ship-canal among the most visionary projects of the day."

But a work which promised to be of such value to the economic life of Europe refused to succumb to the prejudices of the British Cabinet; and since Englishmen were inhibited from proceeding with it, their French rivals, seeing much to gain and nothing to lose, became its natural champions. Their early efforts were countered easily; but from the accession of the Francophile Said Pasha, the opposition of Great Britain, though clever and unscrupulous, gradually diminished in effectiveness as public sentiment throughout western Europe grew in favor of the project. A preliminary concession for a Compagnie Universelle du Canal Maritime de Suez was issued by Said Pasha to Ferdinand de Lesseps in 1854, and was revised and renewed on later occasions. The provision in these documents that the proposed canal should be "open forever as a neutral passage to all ships of commerce passing from one sea to the other" did little to allay British prejudices.

The British Foreign Office, driven at last from diplomatic obstruction to public argument, presciently insisted that "the neutrality of the passage must be guaranteed by some arrangement in the nature of a treaty by the Great Powers. . . . Many questions will arise with reference to the facility to be afforded by it for the passage of troops and military stores. . . . The first effect [of the canal] would be to open a direct trade from Europe with the Red Sea, which would lead to the formation of establishments on different points along its coast, which . . . would in all probability lead to collision with the natives and the formation of permanent settlements." Other states felt little concern on these points, however, and the canal was opened to the world in 1869. The event which British statesmen had long feared was an accomplished fact. It remained to be seen what safeguards they might be able to erect for the protection of the millions of British subjects and the billions of invested capital east of Suez in times of emergency.

Neither the charters of concession nor confirmatory firmans clearly defined the nature of the new waterway. All declared the canal to be neutral and freely open to commercial vessels paying tolls, while the company statutes declared it to be open to the ships of all nations, including ships of war, both in time of peace and war. There was, however, no guarantee that these regulations would be observed, and in any event such pronouncements could not be regarded as binding in international law. The canal had been built by a private company registered in Egypt under a concession granted by the Egyptian Government and approved by the Ottoman Porte as suzerain. The first useful light on the main question troubling Great Britain came, as a matter of fact, not from international agreement, but from precedent, supplied during the Franco-German War which followed hard on the opening of the waterway. Inasmuch as neither Turkey, Egypt, nor Great Britain, the states for various reasons most concerned, saw reason to object, war vessels of both belligerents were permitted to pass in transit. Without formal agreement on this point, the principle that the canal was open to ships of war, in time of war as well as in peace, was generally accepted as established.

During the following years of peace two contrasting events now appear to have had some bearing on the international situation of the waterway. In 1873 a tonnage conference meeting at Constantinople recognized the principle of the protection of the canal by all of Europe, thus bringing to bear the body of international laws and usages already established pertaining to seas and waterways. Far more significantly, the British Government by a clever coup two years later acquired from the impecunious Khedive Ismail, about 44 percent of the outstanding shares of the Suez Canal Company. The object of this purchase was frankly stated by Disraeli in the House of Commons:

I have never recommended . . . this purchase as a financial investment . . . I do not recommend it either as a commercial speculation. . . . I . . . do recommend it to the country as a political transaction, and one which I believe is calculated to strengthen the Empire. . . . [The English people] want the Empire to be maintained, to be strengthened, they will not be alarmed even if it is increased, because they think we are getting a great hold and interest in this important part of Africa, because they believe that it secures to us a highway to our Indian Empire and our other dependencies.

That is to say, the British Government of the day was determined to be prepared, should means be lacking to secure its vast interests in the Suez Canal by international agreement, to resort to unilateral measures. The incident is instructive. During the Russo-Turkish War which followed, it was the British who assumed the chief responsibility for the protection of the canal and, despite Turkey's belligerency, secured from both warring Powers assurances that the canal would be in no way molested.

While the sanction for this action rested solely on the British resolution to protect their own interests and those of other neutrals, the situation was not comfortable. The fact that the canal had never been declared neutral and the absence of any legal authority for preventing hostilities within its precincts were disturbing. At the same time, the British Government was not ready to take the lead in effecting any international engagements relative to the canal, for it was of two minds regarding the question of neutralization. On the one hand, as Lord Granville pointed out, "We can never agree to the Suez Canal being neutralized. No British minister can agree to this sea passage being closed to us in the event of war." On the other hand, any alternative left the canal open to possible attack in the event of a Turkish war. To these problems there seemed to be but one solution: to bring Egypt under British protection and control, whereupon Egypt, at least, might safely and profitably be neutralized by international agreement.

While the revolt of Arabi Pasha supplied the occasion for the British occupation of Egypt, it was the Suez Canal which furnished the motive. This was indicated when, in 1882, British forces in the name of the Khedive seized the canal, landed troops, collected tolls and regulated canal traffic, with fine disregard of protests of the officials of the canal company. Thereafter the position of the British in Egypt, a temporarily occupied Turkish province, still more imperatively called for international agreement with regard to the status of the canal. Proposals were promptly brought forward in 1883 by the British Foreign Secretary, acting on behalf of the Khedive, in a circular note. The formula proposed in this circular assiduously avoided any suggestion of neutralizing the canal, but did in substance propose to regularize the use of the canal, in time of peace and war, by throwing open the channel to all ships of all countries, forbidding hostilities within its precincts, providing for the defense of Egypt, and leaving to the Government of Egypt the responsibility of enforcing these measures.

Response from the envious Powers was slow, but in 1885 a Paris conference, after much debate, adopted a convention based on the circular of 1883. To this, however, the British delegates promptly attached a broad reservation that the agreement should not be understood to "fetter the liberty of action of Her Majesty's Government during the occupation of Egypt." A similar draft convention containing regulations for the use of the canal in times of peace and war, and subject to the previous British reservation, was signed at Constantinople in 1888 by representatives of eight Powers. The status of the canal was generally regarded as established by this document, although it provided for neither neutralization nor internationalization in the usual meanings of those terms.

In one other respect this Suez Canal Convention presented a strange anomaly. While it placed the canal under international protection and made Egypt mandataire for the carrying out of its provisions, all the Powers, including Turkey, ratified it with the reservation that while Great Britain maintained her occupation of Egypt she might consider herself free to disregard the provisions of the Convention should she deem them incompatible with British or Egyptian interests. In the view of British statesmen and international law experts, this proviso made the Convention technically inoperative. However, before the exigencies of a great war had displayed this flaw, the inconsistency had been remedied. During the negotiations between Great Britain and France which culminated in the Anglo-French Agreement of April 8, 1904, it was arranged that, for the purpose of bringing the Convention into force, those clauses should remain in abeyance which called for annual meetings of representatives of the signatory Powers and for the chairmanship of a special Ottoman or Khedival Commissioner at meetings of agents of the signatories. The other original signatories having signified their acceptance of this change, the Convention tardily came into force. Upon the Government of Egypt still devolved the carrying out of its provisions, an arrangement eminently satisfactory to Great Britain.

The few occasions prior to the outbreak of the World War on which the Suez Canal was employed for other than normal commercial purposes produced no especially significant incidents. During the Spanish-American War the passage of Spanish war vessels through the canal en route to the Philippines impelled our Secretary of State to inquire of the British Government whether the United States, not a signatory to the Suez Canal Convention, might despatch armed vessels through the canal. The British Foreign Secretary replied that he believed no protest would be made and that there was no distinction in this regard between signatory and non-signatory Powers. Lord Salisbury did not feel obliged to add that inasmuch as the Convention was regarded as technically inoperative, owing to the British reservation and the continuation of the British occupation of Egypt, the query was superfluous. During the Russo-Japanese War armed Russian vessels freely passed through the canal in both directions. At the outbreak of the Turco-Italian War the Egyptian Government for the first time found occasion to employ some of the powers specified in the Convention of 1888. Five Turkish gun boats which failed to quit Port Said within time allotted, were boarded and disarmed by Egyptian authorities. At other times armed vessels of both belligerents employed the canal without incident.

The World War, on the contrary, because of its inclusive scope, added considerably to the body of precedents on which subsequent times might draw. Almost at the outset the international status of the canal underwent a fundamental change when Turkey elected to join the Central Powers, while Egypt was proclaimed a British protectorate. So at last arrived the emergency long imagined in which Great Britain and Turkey became hostile belligerents. However, as Britain had taken due precautions against such an eventuality in the Canal Convention as modified in 1904, she occupied the morally and legally strong position of being able to safeguard all her imperial interests under cover of the conventions signed even by her enemies. Even before Great Britain declared war on Turkey in November 1914, she was assembling troops in Egypt and along the line of the canal. After the proclamation of the Egyptian protectorate in December, all Egyptian ports became belligerent ports and the Suez Canal became de facto an Allied line of communications. On this ground the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council justified its procedure during the war with reference to German vessels seized in Egyptian waters. The Turks, on the other hand, found similar justification for their circular issued to neutrals in May 1915, in which they explained the necessity of extending their hostilities to the canal zone, since the British, in contravention of the Suez Canal Convention, were erecting fortifications along the canal, while the French were landing troops in Egypt with a view to hostile action against Ottoman territory.

Despite the obvious fact that after 1914 the Suez Canal was in every essential a British waterway, the Canal Convention continued to receive rather more than lip service from the British and Egyptian Governments. Except for the sequestration of enemy vessels suspected of hostile acts or believed to be destined for conversion into armed ships, the procedure with regard to German merchant vessels entering canal precincts in the early days of the war was that outlined in the Convention of 1888. Action taken by the Egyptian authorities in detaining some and forcing others to quit Egyptian ports was upheld by the British Government, which declared it inadmissible (October 23, 1914) that the right of free access and use of the canal could imply a right to use the waterway and its ports for an indefinite time in order to escape capture, because the use of these ports for refuge was not embraced by the Suez Canal Convention and the manifest effect of such usage would be to endanger the canal and perhaps to render it useless to other vessels. The prefatory remarks of the British Prize Court in Alexandria in the case of the German steamship Gutenfels may have been as significant as the formal decision:

There is a grim touch of humor about the present situation, seeing that the Ottoman Government, under German direction, is at this moment seeking to destroy the canal, while a German ship taken by the British Government asks in a British prize court for a release on the ground that the canal precincts are absolutely inviolable.

There is little reason to suppose that the British Government would have been at a loss to find in the Canal Convention, if not also in an appropriate Hague Convention, such authority as would have been needful at any time during the war if the interests of the British Empire or the safety of its communications had appeared to be at stake.

The treaties signed at the close of the World War as a matter of course regularized war time acts and policies. Thus by Part IV, Section VI, of the Treaty of Versailles Germany consented to the transfer to the British Government of all powers conferred upon the Sultan by the Convention of 1888 relating to the Suez Canal. Also it recognized the British protectorate in Egypt as of August 4, 1914. Similar clauses marked the treaties of St. Germain and Trianon with Austria and Hungary, and of Lausanne with Turkey. This substitution of British for Ottoman authority merely recognized a situation which had existed in most essentials since 1888 and in all since 1914. Even the creation of a nominally independent Kingdom of Egypt by a war-weary England unwilling to assume the responsibility of annexation has not altered the position of the canal in any important respect.

At no point in the negotiations leading up to the erection of the new state did the British Government consider it conceivable that Egyptian independence would require the surrender of the vast imperial interests inseparably bound up with the land of Egypt. The unilateral Declaration of February 28, 1922, therefore, necessarily contained "the following matters . . . absolutely reserved to the discretion of His Majesty's Government until such time as it may be possible . . . to conclude agreements in regard thereto: (a) The security of the communications of the British Empire in Egypt; (b) The defence of Egypt against all foreign aggression or interference, direct or indirect; (c) The protection of foreign interests in Egypt and the protection of minorities; (d) The Sudan. Pending the conclusion of such agreements, the status quo . . . shall remain intact." That is to say, the price of Egyptian independence is the relinquishment to Great Britain of such powers as would insure to her as favorable a position relative to imperial communications in particular, and other imperial interests incidentally, as possessed by her under the Protectorate. This price Egypt has been unwilling thus far to pay, and the repeated failure of attempts to arrive at treaties on these reserved points leaves the British Government in precisely the position held in 1919, when Mr. Balfour said "very shortly" in the House of Commons that "in our view the question of Egypt, the question of the Sudan, and the question of the Canal, form an organic and indissoluble whole and that neither in Egypt, nor in the Sudan, nor in connection with Egypt, is England going to give up her responsibilities."

The complex of interests and relationships indicated above is once again brought to the fore by the sudden development of an Italo-Ethiopian crisis. The apparent determination of Italy, land hungry and restless, to find a casus belli in an obscure Somaliland frontier incident involves the Suez Canal because of the problems inherent in its use for purposes of war in contravention of the Covenant of the League of Nations. The announcement of Italy's intention to effect in Ethiopia a "total solution" of her claims, which may mean the establishment of control over the entire country, adds enormously to the gravity of the situation because the vital interests of Egypt and Great Britain are also involved in such a project. To Egypt the principal threat is that of water famine. If Italy diverted the Blue Nile, which flows from Lake Tana, into land reclamations in Ethiopia, Egypt would starve. To Great Britain the danger is multiple because of her special interests in the Sudan and in Egypt as well as in the Suez Canal itself. The complicated nature of the situation is suggested by the fact that even the continued physical functioning of the canal depends on the flow of the Fresh Water Canal which issues from the Nile at Cairo. In addition, the Italian enterprise may well have upsetting effects on the native populations in the Sudan, in Egypt, and elsewhere in Africa.

Barring peaceful solution or compromise of the Ethiopian dispute, such as that suggested by the tripartite Convention of 1906 for the partition of the country into spheres of influence, the most convenient means at hand for restraining Italy would seem to be the blockading or closing of the Suez Canal. Only through the canal can Italy reach her East African territories and dispatch troops and munitions into the Ethiopian highlands. A logical method might be for the Council of the League of Nations to apply sanctions under Article XVI of the Covenant. This would doubtless enable Britain, the most willing instrument of the League, to close Suez and effectively to interrupt the Ethiopian adventure.

In the event that the League Council should be unwilling to regard the Italian undertaking as a breach of the Covenant, Great Britain would be compelled to weigh the merits of single-handed action against those of watchful waiting. There will still remain to her the rights defined in the Convention of 1888, rights which she has never surrendered and which, according to public statements by Cabinet members in recent years, she does not regard as having been superseded by the terms of the League Covenant. Italy and other principal European Powers were signatories to the 1888 Convention. In ratifying it, together with the British reservation, they accepted the principle that a state acting as sponsor for a country traversed by a ship canal is free to take such measures for the protection and use of that canal as may seem to it best. It is difficult, even under this broad principle, to point out what substantial ground might be given for stopping the movement of Italian sinews of war through Suez. But a close examination of Great Britain's attitude toward the canal since its inauguration indicates that whenever British imperial interests are in jeopardy she will find technical grounds for cutting the Suez artery (or even will dispense with grounds altogether) if such action is necessary to ward off an impending danger.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • HALFORD L. HOSKINS, Professor of History in Tufts College and Dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy; author of "British Routes to India," "European Imperialism in Africa," and other works
  • More By Halford L. Hoskins