Separating Continents : The Story Of Suez Canal

The opening of the Suez Canal took place in a century crowded with revolutionary changes in the shipping world. In sharp contrast to the slow pace of change and development in the preceding era, major changes occurred in almost every sector of the shipping industry in the nineteenth century.

Separating Continents : The Story Of Suez Canal

Sailor vs Steamer.

By 1869 several major developments had already taken place in the merchant shipping field; others were well under way. In Great Britain -the world's greatest shipper and shipbuilder, merchant marine developments had been rapid. The British sailing fleet increased in tonnage by 40 percent and improved in quality as well. They not only challenged but overcame the position of international leadership of American shipbuilders.

In addition to the much greater tonnage, the best steamship of 1869 was a markedly superior vessel to the best of 1850, the screw propeller replacing the paddle wheel, iron plating being used instead of wood, and the compound engine replacing the single-cylinder engine. The compound engine was ultimately to have great influence in giving the steamship a hold on the world's ocean shipping trade.

"By 1869 the steamship had made serious inroads on the traffic of the sailing ship."

Steamships had cut sharply into the North Atlantic carrying trade, leaving mainly the bulky, low-value goods for transport by sailing ship. Steamers were chartered, during the 1868- 1869 season, to deliver Indian cotton round the Cape of Good Hope to Liverpool. The daring shipowner Alfred Holt had even organized a steamship line to China by way of the Cape in 1865 and skimmed off the cream of that trade.

Federation Celebrations, 'The Russian Cruiser Cromoboi Lying at Port Melbourne Railway Pier', Melbourne, May1901
Steamships rose to prominence in late 19th century.

Even with all the advancement of steamships, the Far Eastern trade remained exclusively the preserve of the sailing ship. The Eastern seas provided a major source of employment for the sailing fleet:

"During 1868 over a million tons of sailing ships left ports of the United Kingdom destined for the Far East-a greater total tonnage than the sailing fleet that headed for the Atlantic ports of the United States and the British North American Provinces during the same year."

The sailing-ship owners engaged in trade with the Far East could view with equanimity the twenty steamships that headed for their trading area from ports in the United Kingdom in 1868. They were well aware that only a small proportion of the steamship fleet was equipped with compound engines, and that the single-cylinder marine engine was too heavy, occupied too much space, and consumed too much coal to carry freight profitably more than a few thousand miles. They knew, further, that with the whole continent of Africa to circumnavigate and with coal bunkering depots many thousands of miles apart, even ships with compound engines had to load their holds with so much coal that they were able to carry only a few hundred tons of cargo.

For steamers to compete with advantage with sailing ships in the Eastern trade, therefore, it required greater fuel economy through the improvement of the marine engine and the establishment of a shorter route, served by conveniently located and efficient coaling stations. The compound engine, called into greater use by the opening of the Suez Canal, was to fulfill the first of these requirements; the Suez Canal satisfied the second.

The Grand Opening.

The inauguration of the Suez Canal on November 17, 1869 at one stroke opened the Eastern trade for exploitation by the steamship, but conferred no compensating advantage on the sailing ship. Almost without exception, the Suez Canal was an all-steamer route. Besides the prohibitive cost of being towed the hundred miles through the canal, the sailing ship was beset with difficulties in attempting to navigate the Red Sea. As if symbolic of the futility of sailing ships attempting to use the new route, the first sailing vessel to pass through the canal, the French barque Noel, was wrecked on the very evening it left the canal, just eighty-six miles south of Suez.

The most obvious benefit conferred on steamships using the canal was the saving in distance. To reach Bombay from Liverpool required an 11,560-sea-mile trip round the Cape of Good Hope for a sailing ship; by substituting the canal route for the Cape, a steamship could save 5,777 of these nautical miles-almost exactly half. The saving in distance was less remarkable but still significant for the China traffic, from one fourth to one third, and of little consequence for the Liverpool-Melbourne route.

Map of Suez Canal

In addition to being far shorter, the Suez route had other important advantages for the steamship over the Cape route. On the Cape route, coaling places were few and expensive. Along the canal route however, the steamer could secure coal at moderate rates at Gibraltar, Malta, and Port Said. The space saved by securing coal at more frequent intervals could be used to carry a larger amount of cargo. Also, in contrast to the voyage along the long, barren coasts of Africa, the steamship owner using the canal route had the opportunity of establishing depots and agencies, setting schedules capable of being carried out exactly, and picking up and discharging cargo enroute.

The success of the steamship on the new route depended ultimately, of course, on the availability of cargo. Because of the scarcity of suitable steamers there were few difficulties on this score at the time the canal was opened. Indeed, even the impending use of the canal by steamships had the effect of seriously depressing freights to the East Indies and China via the Cape. Sailing vessels on berth found it difficult to obtain cargoes, while screw steamers had no difficulty in securing cargo at premium rates. Merchants engaged in business with the East were more than willing to pay a freight bonus to secure steamer space, convinced that the saving of time compensated for the outlay. To assure passage of their goods via the canal they frequently engaged space in canal steamers even before the ships arrived on station.

This resulted in steamship tonnage exceeding sailing tonnage by more than 200% since the opening of Suez Canal. In addition to its magnitude, the steamship demand that arose was unusual for another reason: because coal jumped in price beyond Suez, the engines of ships placed on the run had to be economical in the use of fuel. This clearly called for the compound engine.

Old cogs used long time ago on cableways Sugarloaf Mountain.
Opening of Suez Canal led to rapid technical improvement in compound engine

During the first year after the canal was opened some shipowners pulled older steamers off other routes and sent them through the canal. The ships proved to be entirely unsuited to the trade and losses resulted. It was then recognized that compound engines were a necessity; by the end of 1872 they were in exclusive demand. The canal thus served to accelerate the technical perfection of the marine engine. Had the compound engine not been available when the canal was opened, or had the canal been completed ten years earlier, scarcely one cargo-carrying steamer could have afforded to use the new route.

Rise of Great Britain

Great Britain gains its supremacy in maritime industry after the opening of Suez Canal.

Planning for the Suez Canal officially began in 1854, when a French former diplomat named Ferdinand de Lesseps negotiated an agreement with the Egyptian viceroy to form the Suez Canal Company. Since Lesseps’ proposed canal had the support of the French Emperor Napoleon III, many British statesmen considered its construction a political scheme designed to undermine their dominance of global shipping. The British ambassador to France argued that supporting the canal would be a suicidal act.

However as history have shown us, the demands for capital generated by opening of Suez Canal were enormous, and could have been met in no country other than Great Britain. It was this abundance of capital and the availability of skilled manpower and advanced techniques that turned the Suez Canal into a boon for British shipping, instead of having it threaten British maritime supremacy, as had been predicted.

The willingness and ability of British shippers and shipbuilders to make the transition from sail to steam, which the Suez Canal demanded, favored the continuation of British shipping supremacy.

The opening of the Suez Canal was of momentous importance for the brightest jewel in the British crown: India. The canal, in bringing India nearly six thousand miles closer to western Europe, vitally altered the pattern of trade relations which had previously existed.

Colorful various herbs and spices for cooking on dark background
Raw materials and foodstuffs especially spices were some of the biggest imports from India.

The opening of Suez helped to fashion the familiar late-nineteenth-century triangular trade pattern among the United Kingdom, India, and the Continental nations. By dominating the traffic of Suez, Britain was able to monopolize the markets of India, thereby providing an all-important outlet for her goods in the face of declining markets in other areas and further increasing employment for her gigantic merchant fleet. The European nations could not have expanded their purchases of the heavy, bulky, low-cost industrial raw materials and foodstuffs of India if those products had had to bear the burden of the heavy freights entailed in carrying them round the Cape. And if the rapidly industrializing nations of Europe had not greatly increased their demands for the raw materials and foodstuffs of India, India in turn could not have stepped up her purchases of the textiles and manufactured goods of the United Kingdom.