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Book Review 260: Between Two Seas

December 27, 2012 - Harry Eagar
BETWEEN TWO SEAS: The Creation of the Suez Canal, by Lord Kinross. 306 pages, illustrated. Morrow

The building of the Suez Canal is one of those historical events that are summed in a few paragraphs or pages in relevant histories, but whose detailed story is far more interesting and complicated than potted summaries allow for.

Lord Kinross’s history, written for the centenary in 1969, restores to a heroic position Ferdinand de Lesseps, who in American history tends to be tarnished by his later failure in Panama.

It turns out that Lesseps was one of the supreme adventurers of the adventurous 19th century, taking on and defeating two empires with one hand, subduing Bedouin robbers with the other; and all the time displaying patience, diplomatic adroitness and a higher degree of honesty and rectitude than any of his many foes.

However, he was a businessman, and in the end, under financial pressure, he, too, resorted to underhanded schemes to bring his vision to fruition.

Kinross, a knowledgeable and evenhanded writer about Ottoman subjects, is well-suited to this complex task.

Ironies abound, which he relates without making much of them, Although Lesseps was the “onlie begetter” of the canal, he could not have done it without various allies of dubious character.

Among these were successive Viceroys of Egypt, who were, ineffectually, desirous of bringing their province (which they hoped to make into their kingdom) into something akin to a modern state, though they had no real idea how to do so; Emperor Napoleon III, who at the same time he was trying to extinguish Mexican independence was doing something that might -- had the Egyptians been smarter -- have done something to protect Egypt’s; and his wife Eugenie, who used the power of the boudoir to save Lesseps more than once.

He was, in many ways, a giant of a man. Kinross lists his personal qualities as “resolution and patience, his diplomatic dexterity and practical resource, his talent for handling and inspiring associates and workers alike, his dedicated, single-minded commitment to a work of creation.” Here was a man. The day after the canal opened, when he was 64, he married a girl of 20 and she gave him a dozen children.

His opponents, many of whom have high names in (at least) Whig histories, turn out to have been full of sententious blather but in practice not nearly as high-minded as they claimed -- or as Lesseps was, most of the time.

As an engineering feat, the canal was not remarkable although it did require its French contractors to design and build new kinds of excavating machinery. As an organizational feat, it was rather more impressive. The Suez Canal Company was, on the whole, a humane and trustworthy employer, which could not be said of many of the other great private enterprises of the age of unrestrained free trade.

Kinross says, however, that the story was not about engineering but about political maneuvers, and in the obviously corrupt Ottoman and Second French empires, and the more mealy-mouthed but equally corrupt British Empire, being a political operator was a dangerous game. Lesseps was a passed master. His achievement equals that of Bismarck, but Bismarck had an army as Lesseps did not.

Britain opposed the canal, largely (a point underemphasized by Kinross) because of strategic considerations directed against Russian expansionism. (During this whole period, Russia was gobbling up Moslem khanates, which she found indigestible but which alarmed England, which was anxious about India.)

Ironically, Britain, which wanted no canal and did want Egypt preserved as part of the Ottoman Empire, ended up with the canal and in control of a technically independent Egypt.

That story is alluded to only briefly by Kinross, who in one of his few errors writes that in 1969, for the first time in its then 99-year history, it was closed (as a result of the Six-day War). In fact, during several years of World War II, while the canal was open, the Mediterranean was closed to British shipping. When it came down to it, the canal was not the threat to India that England feared up to 1876, nor the lifeline to India that it thought it was after 1876.

Opening the canal changed the geography of the world, as Kinross saw it, but technology disregarded it. For oil, the supreme maritime cargo, the route around the Cape of Good Hope became safer and more economical in the age of the supertankers.

It was, and is, a remarkable story, not less so for the fact that history proved all its backers and foes wrong on important points later on.


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