In preparing the following article for the Victorian Web I have pieced together discussions from entries entitled “canals” in volume 4 and “Suez” and “Suez Canal” in volume 22. Since the Hathi Trust text version of these pages in the Britanica article was garbled — words and partial sentences from the left column mixed with the right and vice versa — I have used ABBYY OCR (optical character recognition) software to create the following transcription. In addition, I have added paragraphing far easy reading and added a cropped map from another edition of the Britanica. George P. Landow

From the 1881 The Encylopædia Britanica. Plate 36 in volume IV. Click on images to enlarge them.

Decorated initial t

he Suez Canal, one of the most remarkable engineering works of modern times, bears little resemblance to the works we have described under that name, for it has neither locks, gates, reservoirs, nor pumping-engines, nor has it, indeed, anything in common with canals, except that it affords a short route for sea-borne ships. It is, in fact, correctly speaking, an artificial strait or arm of the sea, connecting the Mediterranean and the Red Sea, from both of which it derives its water-supply; and the fact that the two seas are nearly on the same level, and the rise of tide very small, allowed this construction to be adopted.

The opening of the canal to a great extent revolutionized the main lines of international traffic. It was indeed a great achievement to reduce the distance between Western Europe and India from 11,379 to 7628 miles, equal, according to Admiral Richards and Colonel Clarke, R.E., to a saving of thirty-six days on a voyage. Moreover, it has restored to the Mediterranean countries a share in the commerce of the world such as they have not possessed since the beginning of the modern period. In doing so it has naturally caused the decay of certain stations (such as St. Helena; on the ocean highways previously in vogue.

The canal extends from Port Said on the Mediterranean to Suez on the Red Sea, and that, as shown by the section, it traverses a comparatively flat country. This route has been selected so as to take advantage of certain valleys or depressions which are called lakes, but were in fact, previous to the construction of the canal, low-lying tracts of country, at some places below the level of the Mediterranean and Red Seas. These valleys were found to be coated with a deep deposit of salt, and are described as having had all the appearance of being covered with snow, bearing evidence of their having been at one period overflowed by the sea. As will be seen from the plan, Lake Menzaleh is next to the Mediterranean, Lake Timsah about half-way across the isthmus, and the Bitter Lakes next to the Red Sea. Lake Timsah, which is about 5 miles long, and the Bitter Lakes, about 23, were quite dry before the cutting of the canal, and the water which has converted them into large inland lakes was supplied from the Red Sea and Mediterranean.

Planning and Financing the Canal

M. de Lesseps’s many years of planning and negotiation realized what were thought the dreams of commercial speculators, by carrying out the long-desired passage between the two seas. But the postponement of the scheme unquestionably favored the chances of its commercial success, for had the canal been completed even a few years earlier, comparatively few vessels would have been found to take advantage of it. Masters of sailing-vessels would not from choice have navigated the Med iterranean and encountered the passage through the canal and the tedious and difficult voyage of the Red Sea. But the introduction of ocean-going screw-steamers was an entirely new feature in navigation. Being independent of wind for their propulsion, and being admirably fitted for navigating narrow straits and passages, their rapid and general adoption by all the shipping firms in the world afforded not only a plea but a necessity for the short communication by the Mediterranean and Red Sea.

From 1849 to 1854 he [Lesseps] was occupied in maturing his project. In the latter year Mahonet Saïd Pasha became viceroy of Egypt, and sent at once for M. Lesseps to consider with him the propriety of carrying out the work. The result of this interview was, that on the 30th of November a commission was signed at Cairo, charging M. Lesseps to constitute a company named ‘The Universal Suez Canal, Company.’ In the following year, 1855, M. Lesseps, acting for the Viceroy, invited a number of gentlemen, eminent as directors of public works, as engineers, and distinguished in other ways, to form an International Commission for the purpose of considering and reporting on the practicability of the scheme. The Commission met in Egypt in December, 1855, and January, 1856, and made a careful examination of the harbors in the two seas, and of the intervening desert, and arrived at the conclusion that a ship canal was practicable between the Gulf of Pelusium in the Mediterranean and the Red Sea near Suez.

They differed, however, as to the mode in which such a canal should be constructed. Based upon an 1830 report by the English General Chesney, which mistakenly stated that the Mediterranean and Red Seas has a 30-foot difference, the three English engineering members of the Commission were of opinion that a ship canal, having its surface raised 25 feet above the sea-level, and communicating with the Bay of Pelusium at one end and the Red Sea at the other, by means of locks, and supplied with water from the Nile, was the best mode of construction. The foreign members, on the contrary, held that a canal having its bottom 27 feet below sea-level, from sea to sea, without any lock, and with harbors at each end, was the best system,-the harbors to be formed by piers and dredging out to deep water. The Commission met at Paris in June, 1856, when the views of the English engineers were rejected, and the report to the Viceroy recommended the system which has since been carried out.

Two years from the date of this report were spent in conferences and preliminary steps before M. Lesseps obtained the necessary funds for carrying out the works. About half the capital was subscribed on the Continent, by far the larger portion being taken in France, and the other half was found by the Viceroy. Further time was necessarily lost in preparation, and it was not till near the close of 1860 that the work was actually commenced.

The work thus commenced steadily proceeded until 1862, when the late Viceroy, during his visit to this country at the time of the International Exhibition, requested Sir John Hawkshaw to visit the canal and report on the condition of the works and the practicability of its being successfully completed and maintained. His Highness's instructions were that Sir John Hawkshaw should make an examination of the works quite independently of the French company and their engineers, and report the results at which he arrived. The following are given by Sir John as the objections to the work:—

  1. That the canal will become a stagnant ditch.
  2. That the canal will silt up, or that the moving sands of the Desert will fill it up.
  3. That the Bitter Lakes, through which the canal is to pass, will be filed up with salt.
  4. That the navigation of the Red Sea is dangerous and difficult.
  5. That shipping will not approach Port Said, because of the difficulties that will be met with, and the danger of that port on a lee shore.
  6. That it will be difficult, if not impracticable, to keep open the Mediterranean entrance to the canal.”

Nevertheless, Hawkshaw somewhat surprisingly concluded “there are no works on the canal presenting on their face any unusual diffitulty of execution” and “no obstacles would be met with that would prevent the work, when completed, being maintained with ease and efficiency, and without the necessity of incurring any extraordinary or unusual yearly expense.”

Building the Canal

The original concession granted extraordinary privileges to the Company. It included or contemplated the formation of a “sweet water' canal for the use of the work men engaged, and the Company were to become proprietors of all the land which could be irrigated by means of this canal. One of the conditions of the concession also was that the Viceroy should procure forced labor for the execution of the work, and soon after the commencement of operations, and for some time, the number of workmen so engaged amounted to from 25,000 to 30,000.

The Isthmus of Suez Maritime Canal: Dredges and Elevators at Work. 1869.

Saïd Pasha died between the period of Sir John Hawkshaw's examination of the country and the date of his report. He was succeeded by his brother, Ismail, the present Viceroy or Khedive, who, alarmed at the largeness and uncertainty of the grants to the Canal Company, of the proprietorship of land which could be irrigated by the sweet water canal, and anxious to retire from the obligation of finding forced labor for the construction of the works, refused to ratify or agree to the concessions granted by his brother. The whole question was then referred to the arbitration of the late Emperor of the French, who kindly undertook the task, and awarded the sum of £3,800,000 to be paid by the Viceroy to the Canal Company as indemnification for the loss they would sustain by the withdrawal of forced or native labor, for the retrocession of large grants of land, and for the abandonment of other privileges attached to the original act of concession. This money was applied to the prosecution of the works.

Left: The Isthmus of Suez Maritime Canal: The Cutting Near Chalouf. . Right: Ismailia and the Fresh Water Canal.. Both from the 1869 Illustrated London News

The loss of native labor involved very important changes in the mode of conducting the works, and occasioned at the time considerable delay. Mechanical appliances for the removal of the material, and European skilled labor, had to be substituted; these had to be recruited from different parts of Europe, and great difficulty was experienced in procuring them. The accessory canals had to be widened for the conveyance of larger dredging-machines, and additional dwellings had to be made for the accommodation of European laborers. ultimately all difficulties were overcome, and the work proceeded.

The water began to flow from the Mediterranean in February, 1869 and from the Red Sea in July, and by the beginning of October of the same year these vast tracts of country, which had formerly been parched and arid valleys, were converted into great lakes navigated by vessels of the largest class. It will be seen from the section that the surface of the ground is generally very low, the chief cuttings being at Serapeum and El Guisr, where the sandy dunes attain an elevation of about 50 to 60 feet. The channel through the lakes was excavated partly by hand labor and partly by dredging, and for a considerable portion the level of the valleys was so low as to afford sufficient depth without excavation. The only rock was met with at El Guisr, where soft gypsum occurred, removable to a considerable extent by dredging, so that the canal works presented no physical difficulty.

The whole length of the navigation is 88 geographical miles. Of this distance 66 miles are actual canal, formed by cuttings, 14 miles are made by dredging through the lakes, and 8 miles required no works, the natural depth being equal to that of the canal. Throughout its whole length the canal was intended to have a navigable depth of 26 feet for a width of 72 feet at the bottom, and to have a width at the top varying according to the character of the cuttings. At those places where the cuttings are deep, the slopes were designed to be 2 to 1, with a surface width at the water-line of about 197 feet, as shown in fig 9, which is a cross-section at El Guisr.

Cross-section of Suez Canal at El Guisr.

In the less elevated portions of the land, where the stuff is softer, the slopes are increased, giving a surface width of 325 feet. It will be understood that in the lakes the canal consists of a navigable channel of sufficient depth and breadth to admit the traffic, the surface of the water extending on either side to the edge of the lake. Fig. 10 shows a cross-section at Lake Menzaleh.

Cross-section of Suez Canal at Lake Menzaleh.

The deep channel through the lakes is marked by iron beacons on either side, 250 feet apart, and the Admiralty reporters state that “in practice it is found more difficult to keep in the centre while passing through these beacons, than it is when between the embank ments.” At every 5 or 6 miles there is a passing-place, to enable large vessels to moor for the night, or to bring up in order to allow others to pass, all these movements being regulated by telegraph from Port Said, Ismailia, or Suez.

The Isthmus of Suez Maritime Canal: Bird’s-Eye View of Entrance from the Red Sea, with New Harbour, Docks, and Town of Suez. Source: Illustrated London News. 1869.

Sale of Canal Shares to the British Government

Traffic in the canal has so greatly increased that in 1885 a vessel was considered fortunate that got through in forty-eight hours. In 1882 shipowners having expressed dissatisfaction with the condition of the service, schemes for rival canals were started,—one for a fresh-water canal from Alexandria to Cairo and thence to Suez bv wav of Tel-el-Kebir, and another for a canal from Alexandria to Mansurah and Ismailia, and then parallel to the original canal to Suez, and a third for the construction of a second Suez canal, to be finished in 1888. These proposals all fell to the ground; but at length, in 1886, it was determined to widen the existing canal so as to accommodate the increased traffic, and the works are now in progress.

Originally constructed by French capital, the Suez Canal has passed more and more into the financial ownership as well as under the political protection of England. In 1875 the British Government purchased 176,602 shares from the khedive of Egypt at the price of £3,976,582 [$19,326,188.521], or, including commission and expenses, £4,076,622 [$19,812,382.92], and exchequer bonds were issued to the value of £4,000,000 [$19,440]. [4.693-97; 22.652-53].

Shipping through the Canal, 1870-1886

Related material


“Egypt.” The Encylopædia Britanica or Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, and General Literature. Philadelphia: Maxwell Sommervile: 1891. 25 vols. Hathi Trust Digital Library online version of a copy in the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaigne Library. Web. 13 August 2020.

Last modified 18 August 2020