Behind the Enduring Relevance of the Suez Canal Is the Long Shadow of European Colonialism

The political map of the world today is starkly different from that of a century ago. However, the West's consumer capitalism continues to hold the world in its thrall.

On March 23, container ship MV Ever Given ran aground and blocked the Suez Canal. During the week for it to be dislodged and refloated, the attention of the world was focused on the Suez. Within a few days of the refloating on March 29, the backlog of waiting ships had been cleared. Traffic is now back to normal and the authorities in charge can heave a sigh of relief.

But it is a truism that throughout its history, whenever the Suez is in the news, it means that the world is in trouble. Indeed, the continued importance of the Suez Canal is nothing but the long shadow of European colonialism that haunts our contemporary world.

The idea of digging a canal through the Isthmus of Suez to connect the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean worlds was given concrete form by the Frenchman Ferdinand de Lesseps who obtained a concession from the Khedive of Egypt in 1854. After a decade of work, the canal was inaugurated in 1869.

Also read: Ever Given: The Physics of Big Ships Clogging the Suez Canal

While the Suez is closely associated with the British Empire, till 1863 the British were opposed to its construction. Having established themselves in India and other parts of Asia, the British were worried that the canal would allow other European powers to challenge their maritime advantages. But with the canal becoming a reality, the British insinuated themselves into its operations by buying out the shares of the bankrupt Khedive in 1875 and eventually invading and occupying Egypt in 1882. For many decades since its opening, about three-quarters of Suez traffic had been British.

By providing direct access to Asia and the East African coastline, the Suez greatly aided European powers in their projects of colonisation. Having earlier captured the strategic port of Aden, Britain used the Suez to strengthen its military grip over India.

During this period, there was also an explosive growth of railway networks in the subcontinent. The railways, in conjunction with the efficient maritime trade through the Suez, had a transformative impact on rural India.

With such infrastructure in place, Britain could institutionalise an unequal pattern of trade whereby the fruits of Indian labour, agricultural commodities and its natural resources were easily appropriated at a fraction of their value and exported to Europe.

In the opposite direction came a steady tide of goods manufactured in Britain that flooded Indian markets. The resulting devastation of the agrarian economy can be seen in the fate of cotton in the province of Berar (in the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra).

In the 1870s, British observers noted that the railways had helped destroy Berar’s once vibrant handloom industry. Now, the region was growing cotton almost exclusively for export to European markets. They could have also noted that the Suez Canal was central to the smooth functioning of this exploitative arrangement.

Suez Canal in 1942. Photo: aussiejeff/Flickr/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Gandhi and Suez Canal

In the 20th century, one of the key figures who challenged the idea of the Empire and the attendant economic exploitation was Mohandas K. Gandhi. Born a month before its operationalisation, Gandhi had travelled through the Suez Canal en route to England in 1888 and on his return journey in 1891.

In his ‘London Diary’ of 1888, Gandhi recorded his admiration for the canal and its builder: “The construction of the Suez Canal I am not able to understand. It is indeed marvellous. I cannot think of the genius of a man who invented it.”

The Suez was indeed a great feat of engineering, but these lines were written by a callow youth of 19 who was innocent of the whole truth. If Gandhi would go on to decry the destruction of India’s agrarian economy, a process aided by the Suez, he would have been no less disapproving if he had known that the canal was built using the forced and unpaid corvée labour of tens of thousands of Egyptians.

By the time Gandhi was to travel through the Suez Canal again in 1931, en route to London for the Second Round Table conference, he was a popular anti-colonial figure and had many admirers in Egypt. The colonial offices in Delhi, Cairo and London were worried about the impact of the Mahatma in Egypt and conspired against such a visit.

On the outward journey in September 1931, it was arranged for Gandhi’s ship to spend little time at Port Said. However, some local Indians and Egyptian political figures managed to meet Gandhi and it was agreed that he would visit Egypt on his way back home. Gandhi’s transit was given wide coverage in the Egyptian press and elaborate arrangements were made to host him on his return journey in December 1931.

However, the British prevented Gandhi from visiting Egypt by an act of deceit. Gandhi was told a falsehood that the ship would not call at Port Said long enough for him to visit ashore and participate in public engagements. He was given to understand that he would be left behind in Egypt if he disembarked. With India suffering under major repression, Gandhi could not afford any delays to his return home and did not step onto Egyptian soil.

Like Gandhi, many anti-colonial leaders struggled for the political emancipation of their homelands. However, unlike him, most of them ardently wished to emulate the European model of economic development and modernisation through large-scale industrialisation.

Suez Canal after the 1950s

In the 1950s, the powerful hold of this vision can be seen in the priorities of the leaders of India and Egypt, Jawaharlal Nehru and Gamal Abdel Nasser, who had envisaged the construction of large dams in their economic plans.

In 1956, triggered by an American refusal to fund the Aswan Dam on the Nile, Nasser decided to nationalise the Suez Canal which was controlled by Britain and France. Nationalist resentment of foreign control of the canal apart, Nasser wanted to finance the construction of the dam through the substantial revenues of the Suez Canal.

Britain and France wanted to retain control over the canal and made a secret pact with Israel. Soon Israel attacked Egypt and British and French forces contrived to join the invasion. The resulting Suez crisis threatened to draw the world into a new global conflagration.

Nehru disliked Nasser’s provocative nationalisation of the Suez, but he could not countenance the return of colonisation in the form of an invasion and annexation of Egyptian territory. “This is a reversal of history,” Nehru wrote to Nasser in October 1956, “which none of us can tolerate”.

While a number of global players, including the Soviet Union, India and the United Nations, got involved, the Anglo-French conspiracy failed to garner crucial support from the US. The crisis ended with Britain’s announcement of a ceasefire and replacement of British and French troops by UN peacekeeping forces. The Suez debacle is often taken to signify the end of Britain’s imperial era and its decline as a major world power.

Smoke rises from oil tanks beside the Suez canal during the Anglo-French assault on Port Said, November 5, 1956. Photo: Fleet Air Arm official photographer, collections of the Imperial War Museums/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

In the age of colonisation, the European powers extracted commodities and labour from the tropics and also monopolised the markets of these regions in Asia and Africa. The political map of the world today is starkly different from that of a century ago. However, the West’s consumer capitalism continues to hold the world in its thrall. With the development of container shipping, the volumes of global trade have grown many folds over that in the 1950s. While the terms of trade between Western nations and erstwhile colonies have changed significantly, fundamental inequalities persist.

Also read: How a Full Moon Helped Free the Giant Container Ship From Suez Canal

The centres of industrial manufacture have moved eastward, notably to China and other East Asian nations. There, the frenetic pace of production has helped pull people out of poverty but at a great cost. Most of the consumer goods that are shipped westward through the Suez Canal are manufactured in exploitative sweatshops and inflict an enormous toll on the well-being of the labouring classes as well as the ecosystems of these Asian nations. Contemporary shipping itself consumes profligate amounts of energy, emits significant volumes of greenhouse gases and is one of the most polluting industries in the world.

Given the high volume of traffic it enjoys, the Suez Canal now earns the Egyptian government a handsome annual revenue of $5 billion. While this may suit the political elite of Cairo and provide the European consumer with cheap goods, the continued relevance of the Suez to global trade signifies an enduring problem – an economic order based on the exploitation of people and nature.

During the 1956 crisis, Gandhi’s colleague J.C. Kumarappa had argued that the canal represented a fundamentally unequal and unsustainable economic order based on long-distance trade. He titled his essay, ‘The Suez Teaches Us’. But, is the world willing to listen and learn?

Venu Madhav Govindu is working on a thematic history of Gandhi’s Sevagram years. He is on the faculty of the Department of Electrical Engineering, Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru.