Rivalry at the Suez Canal


The Suez Canal from Port Said on the Mediterranean to Suez on the Red Sea, built by the French engineer Ferdinand de Lesseps, and opened in 1869, takes advantage of some lakes on its route, and for ninety miles runs through the desert as a commercial highway of the greatest importance to all nations, especially our own. By it the journey to India is very nearly halved. A great share in its control was gained when the Khedive’s shares were bought for our country [1875]. These have proved not only a good financial investment, but also a great leverage in the diplomacy necessary for maintaining a hold on Egypt…..


A cargo ship on the “commercial highway” at Tussun Curve

The importance of Egypt on the highway to India has brought it under British control which has been maintained since 1882.

Text from The World, a British school textbook by McDougall’s Educational Co. Ltd. c.1913/14.
This gives the impression that Britain supported the Canal proposal from the start. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The official position was that it would be a threat to British maritime supremacy and was “merely a device for French interference in the East”. Paranoia turned to farce after the Canal opened….

……. argument about the Suez Canal rumbled on in London, even after Disraeli’s dramatic purchase of Canal company shares. That purchase gave the British places on the Canal company’s Board of Directors but it still seemed to them that the French were using the Canal as a weapon against them…… The French had set up a Sanitary Board in Egypt, nominally meant to keep the country free of cholera. It decreed that if a ship passed through the Canal without a clean bill of health, it must not have any contact with the shore, and nobody on shore must go on board it. Yet all ships using the Canal had to be controlled by a pilot. In effect, no ship – and they were mostly British – which approached from the south could present a bill of health from every Eastern port she had called at, some of which might have had a case of cholera. British ships were told that they must have a pilot, that he must not go on the ship but go ahead of it in a tug boat, shouting his instructions. That took an unconscionable time, the Canal company charged the earth for it, and it led to frequent strandings.

The French would have taken a different view and insisted their Sanitary Board was a necessary protection. But it never got to that stage. The British Foreign Office, still hating the thought that the Canal was under French control, demanded a second canal, to be strictly British, and in 1883 it offered de Lesseps £8 million to dig it.

[Thomas] Sutherland [Managing Director of P&O] was elected Chairman of a Committee representing all the British shipping lines which used or might use the Canal, with instructions to put the scheme into effect. De Lesseps had all the cards in his hand, not least the firm offer of £8 million. But luckily Sutherland, and presumably de Lesseps too, came to see after very long discussions that there must be some more practical answer to the problems, and the rather crazy idea of a second Suez Canal parallel with the first was allowed to fall out of sight.

The Story of P&O, David Howarth and Stephen Howarth, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1986.


The P&O ship Caledonia (1894-1925) leaving Port Said.



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