WHEN THE SUEZ CANAL opened in November 1869, its French creator Ferdinand de Lesseps (1805-94) predicted that he had marked the site of a future battlefield. The first ship to traverse the waterway was French but it was followed by a British vessel, beginning a dominance of canal traffic that would last until the 1950s. As one British director on the canal company, wrote: 'it might be said that the Canal was made for ... [British shipping], as it has an incontestable preeminence upon it.' The Suez route via the Mediterranean became an imperial communications artery, plying trade between Britain and the eastern part of its empire in peace and conveying troops and military supplies in war. From the outset, British governments recognized a vital interest had been created and that their forces must be in the best position to protect it. How Britain established, maintained and finally relinquished its dominance of the Suez Canal are key elements in an equation that mirrors the rise and decline of the British Empire and Britain's claim to world power status, providing the prelude to the denouement of the Suez Crisis.
The nightmare scenario for the British was of a blocked canal, a fear that resonated across the decades. The canal section, sixty-six miles in length, was too narrow for large ships to pass which they could only do in Lake Timsah and the Great Bitter Lake. As early as 1869 the First Lord of the Admiralty alerted the Foreign Office to his fear 'that the sinking of a single ship in certain parts of the canal may prevent all communications by it for months'. Disraeli's famous purchase in 1875 of a 44 per cent holding in the Suez Canal Company crucially gave British governments, as Lord Cairns, the Lord Chancellor put it, 'a leverage we never had before' and a justification for resort to war 'to defend our own property'.
That right was exercised in 1882 with the occupation of Egypt. Historians who argue that the security of Suez was a red herring to mask British financial motives for intervention (the 'bondholders' thesis which extols the protection of investors money, including Gladstone, in the Egyptian debt) miss two key points. First, by July 1882 the Royal Navy had already virtually taken over the canal, escorting British vessels with important cargoes, such as the London-bound steamer Liguria which carried 180,000 [pounds sterling] from Australia. The P & O Steam Navigation Company also successfully exerted pressure on the Admiralty to provide gunboat escorts after it was decided to send Indian mails through Suez rather than overland. British naval dominance ensured that canal traffic was only interrupted for two days during this turbulent period. In August a naval force under Admiral Hoskins entered the canal, landing troops at Ismailia, to secure the waterway and provide a base from which to move against Ahmed Arabi's nationalist rebel force. This had emerged in reaction to Anglo-French control and sought to make Egypt truly independent. Second, the British steadfastly remained in occupation of Egypt notwithstanding innumerable pledges of withdrawal before 1914. This led the French to comment that for the British 'temporary' tended to mean 'permanent'. The defence of Suez required the military domination of Cairo, where it was feared any plots against the Canal would materialize and whence fresh water was derived via the Sweet Water Canal.
The events of 1882 raised the question of the international status of the canal. De Lesseps claimed that its neutrality was guaranteed in the original concession from the Sultan of 1866 but in 1877 Lord Derby, the British Foreign Secretary refuted this, suggesting that the Canal's neutrality was not recognized in a treaty or international agreement. The Admiralty maintained this position. Its Lord Commissioners did recognize, however, on August 8th, 1882, that
... Great Britain, being the strongest
naval power in the world, is likely to
gain rather than lose by the
maintenance of free communication
for ships of war from one part of the
world to another in time of war. …