The Suez Canal – A Worthwhile Undertaking or Just a Bottomless Pit?

A fold-out map shows the planned route of the canal.

Friedrich Szarvady: Der Suezkanal.

Leipzig, 1859.

About 12% of the world’s maritime trade passes the Suez Canal. The artificial connection between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea is one of the world’s most important waterways, a main artery of the global economy. We were reminded of this last year, when a stranded container ship blocked the canal for 6 days in March 2021, triggering a shipping traffic jam that made the world economy go down in a tailspin. It is therefore quite surprising to read that, at the time of the canal’s construction, people were not convinced that profit could be made considering the high costs of the project, they even doubted whether the canal could be completed at all. Today’s book bears witness to these doubts. It is entitled “The Suez Canal” and was published in 1859, 10 years before the canal was completed.

A Bold Dream

Let’s go back to this very year, 1859. The construction work for the canal had just started, but the British were opposed to the project, there wasn’t an official concession, and the funding wasn’t secure – so nobody knew whether it would be possible to complete the canal. Nevertheless, the project captured the attention of the entire world. The European press covered every new development in detail. Although people were in two minds about whether the project was nonsense or not, hardly anyone could resist the fascination of the monumental undertaking. Just imagine: a canal that was to bring Europe and Asia many days’ journey closer together at one fell swoop. Since the period of the ancient Egyptians, people had planned this project time and again, but it had never been carried out. So, the world was eager to know: would their generation be the one to make this ancient dream come true?

FAQ – Frequently Asked Questions

That’s what people thought about when the book “The Suez Canal” was published in Leipzig in 1859. It was written by Friedrich Szarvady, a Hungarian diplomat and journalist who lived in Paris. He reported from Paris for the Cologne Newspaper (Kölnische Zeitung), among others, and had already published several articles on the construction project. With his book about the Suez Canal, as he explains, he wanted to educate Germany about the project. Accordingly, his work dealt with questions about the canal. To answer them, he included several sources, including reports of the main person responsible for the canal construction, the French entrepreneur Ferdinand de Lesseps. There are also statements by trading companies and engineers, and Szarvady emphasised that he always cited both supporters and opponents of the project.

The reader found out about the advantages this canal would come with. According to the book, the sea route to Asia was to be shortened by about 30 days depending on the starting port and the type of ship. And a shorter journey equalled a reduction of the costs of transporting goods since, for example, less coal would have to be burnt and crew members could be paid for fewer days of service. This, in turn, would mean that exotic goods from the Far East would become much more affordable in Europe. Szarvady backed all this up with data and figures. Moreover, he thoroughly explained why the project would clearly be worthwhile for investors. And this brings us to the actual purpose of the book.

“A Passionate Partisan Writing in Favour of Lesseps’ Project”

Only at first glance does The Suez Canal appear to be a neutral textbook. The author wanted to convince his readers to invest in the construction project. Although the German public was very enthusiastic about the project, hardly anyone was prepared to subscribe to shares of de Lesseps’ Compagnie universelle du canal maritime de Suez. The majority believed that the company would be successful in the long term, however, they also believed that it would “hardly yield the necessary interest in the beginning”, as a German Egyptologist put it in a specialist publication. In other words: it was clear that Europe would benefit from the canal, but people were not convinced of the fact that the construction would be worthwhile for the investors themselves.

In addition, there was a political component to the matter. The project wasn’t of great value to the German Confederation. On the contrary: it would have been particularly profitable for others, namely for Germany’s major competitors France and Austria. As countries bordering the Mediterranean, both could expect that their trade routes to the Far East would become significantly shorter, and, in turn, the countries’ importance in the world trade was to increase. Many people in these countries invested in the canal, but hardly anyone did so in Germany. Szarvady’s book couldn’t change this either, despite a prefatory letter by de Lesseps himself, who tried hard to convince Germany with flattery. The renowned Zeitschrift für allgemeine Erdkunde (Magazine for General Geography) dismissed the book as “a passionate partisan writing in favour of Lesseps’ project”.

A Success Despite Initial Difficulties

Although de Lesseps and his supporters beat the drums for the project in all of Europe, they failed in finding enough investors to fund the construction of the canal. Instead of the desired 200 million francs, they were only able to raise about half that amount – and in the end, the construction was to cost twice as much anyway. The Egyptian viceroy had to step in and got his country into huge debt for it – the burden of debt was so large that the country went bankrupt six years after the completion of the canal and had to sell its shares to the British, which thus gained control of the canal they had felt so reluctant about in the beginning.

In fact, it took a few years until profits could be made from the fees of using the canal. Today, nobody has doubts about the profitability of the canal – the Suez Canal Authority made 5.6 billion dollars’ worth of business in 2020. An average of 51 ships passes the canal every day – except, of course, for when the container ship Ever Given blocked the passage.


Other Things You Might Be Interested in:

You can find the entire book on GoogleBooks.

Find out more about how the Ever Given jammed the Suez Canal in the New York Times.

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