Africa's greatest waterway is the Suez Canal. About a sixth of all the world's seaborne cargo passes through it in a normal year. Half the Suez traffic is oil from the Persian Gulf countries ( Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Persia, Iraq, etc.), which supply three-quarters of Europe's oil. A quarter of all traffic via Suez is British, and a quarter of Britain's whole trade goes that way. The map shows how much shorter the Suez route is for cargo between Europe and Asia than the 'Cape' sea route round Africa.
The 100-mile Canal was built between 1859 and 1869 by an international company based in France, in which the British government bought a major interest in 1875. After the British occupation of Egypt in 1882, the canal route served as an imperial 'life-line' to the Indian Ocean, and the protection of this life-line became a British preoccupation. In the second world war, with the Mediterranean route cut by Germany and Italy, the long sea route round Africa had to be used to bring to Egypt British troops and supplies for the Middle East campaigns, and a great military base was built up beside the Canal (9). This base was finally wound up in 1956. Immediately afterward came Egypt's expropriation of the Canal Company, whose concession, originally granted by the Turkish sultan and his viceroy in Egypt, the Khedive, would have run until 1968.
After the temporary blocking of the canal during the conflict that followed (7), traffic soon began to increase again. By 1961 five ships were passing through for every four that had used the canal in 1956, and it had been deepened from a 35-foot draught to 37 foot, permitting ships of about 50,000 tons to pass.