The Suez Canal and the British Conquest of Egypt

One clear signal for the start of the Scramble for Africa was the British takeover of Egypt in 1882. The imperial land grab began with the world’s most amazing engineering feat at the time, a 102-mile-canal that connected the Mediterranean Sea with the Indian Ocean through the Isthmus of Suez in Egypt. The sea level waterway would allow for much quicker travel from Europe to Asia because boats would no longer need to sail thousands of miles around Africa. The French Suez Canal Company started the project in 1859 and completed it in 1869—the same year the United States finished the transcontinental railroad (Brendon 146-7). Both of these projects showed how travel time around and through continents shrank drastically in the later industrial age. This time-space compression increased access to markets, raw materials, and cheap labor around the world.

The French designed and managed the Suez Canal project with European capital and Egyptian labor. A Frenchman, Ferdinand De Lesseps, made a favorable agreement with the Khedive of Egypt, Said Pasha, to build the canal and operate it for 99 years. The Khedive, hoping the scheme would modernize Egypt, invested money, supplied the labor, and gave up agricultural land on either side of the canal (Pakenham 77). The Khedive thought the canal brought Egypt closer to the West. “We are not now a country of Africa, but a country of Europe” (Pakenham 75). Over one million Egyptians worked on it, many as forced laborers, and thousands died. The project called for the removal of 100 million cubic feet of sand and dirt and cost twice the original estimate. The Egyptian leader had gone into deeper and deeper debt—with the help of extortionist interest rates owed to European banks—trying to modernize Egypt with costly railroads, harbors, schools, and irrigation projects. The British had been at first skeptical of the viability of the canal project. But once it proved successful, the British government jumped at the chance to buy off the Egyptian ruler’s shares in 1875 when he needed cash (Brendon 147).

An economic and political crisis between 1875-1882 led to the sudden British conquest of Egypt. After binging on debt driven modernization projects, Egypt went bankrupt in 1875 (Sayyid-Marsot 653). As the terms of the bankruptcy settlement, European bankers then took control of Egypt financially. Two thirds of the yearly revenue—mostly taxes collected from peasant farmers—would now go to paying European banks for past Egyptian debts (Sayyid-Marsot 653). The British and French controlled all Egyptian finances, railways, ports, post offices, and even the museums (James 269). Some Egyptians resented the European control of their economy and the extortion interest rates of the loans.

In 1882, the British invaded and conquered Egypt to put down a revolt of Egyptian army officers. Colonel Urabi of the Egyptian army—with support from disgruntled officers—overthrew the Khedive. Urabi dressed and looked like Arab peasants who called him “el Wahid,” meaning “the only one”. (Pakenham 125). The British, of course, were worried about the Suez Canal falling into the hands of an unfriendly power. When the British sent the navy to bombard Alexandria from the sea, Egyptian mobs rampaged and killed 50 Europeans (Pakenham 132). With the Khedive’s support, the British attacked both ends of the Suez Canal, sailed to the midpoint, and rushed to Cairo, using a new railroad to transport supplies (Sayyid-Marsot 654). Urabi surrendered. The British had an army of 31,000 while Urabi had only 16,000 poorly trained troops with old rifles and swords (UNESCO 37 and James 272). Britain now held Egypt as a virtual colony, which also gave them responsibility for territory Egypt had controlled in the south, in Sudan.

Content by Vern Cleary    Design by Stephen Pinkerton