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H - 93 : Suez Canal - Dug by Coal and Steel

Updated: Apr 26

Yachts leisurely participating in the Bucket Regatta in Saint Barth in March 2022

When we spot sails this summer in the eastern Mediterranean, we know they are leisure boats. These days, commercial vessels are diesels. There are a few high-tech companies with interesting ideas for bringing sails back to maritime commerce. But most projects are still on paper and no large-scale testing has been conducted yet.

Ship Tonnage Arrival in the UK from 1865 - 1874 (Dip in 1868 is a Methodology Change)

160 years ago, there were no leisure boats but plenty of sails. 60% of commercial vessels arriving in the United Kingdom were sail boats. Only 40% were steamers. The world had not mastered the logistics of fossil fuel yet. The UK was the only country with affordable coal thanks to its efficient mining industry. A steamer’s range beyond the UK was limited. They simply could not refuel. The Royal Navy resolved the problem by bunkering large amounts of coal around the globe. But it was an expensive solution and no option for the private sector. To cross the Atlantic or travel from London to India, China and Australia, sail ships still had to be used. It was the time of the fast “Clippers”.

The Dutch Prince Albert, one of the fast Clipper Boats of the 19th Century

160 years ago in the eastern Mediterranean, there were hardly any sails though. The eastern Med had become a commercial back water that dreamt of its past glory. Until the 15th century,  most trade with Asia was routed through its ports. But when Portuguese Vasco da Gama discovered the route to India in 1498, more and more goods shipped directly around the Cape of Good Hope. By the 17th century, the Levant’s and Egypt’s ports became sleeping beauties. Rich in history. But no business to live from.

Under the Ottomans, Alexandria lost all its Business and shrank to a small Village (1780)

Coal and steel from England changed all that. In our history books, Ferdinand de Lesseps and France get the credit for the Suez canal. Whilst Lesseps was an enterprising and visionary engineer, we should also talk about the 175’000 tons of English coal used to power several hundred steam shovels and dredgers. They moved ¾ of the 75 million cubic meters of sand. These machines built the canal. The rest was done with forced labor - tens of thousands of Egyptian peasants. The British Government did not like the Suez Canal project and tried to stop it. English technology and energy however made it possible. A fascinating paper on the canal’s construction was recently re-published by the International Society for Soil Mechanics and Geotechnical Engineering. Definitely worth reading.

One of the Original Canal Profiles - The Canal was 58 meters wide and 8 meters deep. In 1994 it was widened to 250 meters and 25 meters depth

The Statue of Liberty which greets all ships arriving in New York, almost ended up in Port Said, the Mediterranean entrance to the canal. French sculptor Bartholdi proposed to decorate Port Said's piers with a statue called “Egypt bringing Light to Asia”. The female statue was inspired by the Colossus of Rhodes, 90 foot tall, clothed in peasant robes and would also serve as light tower. But there was no money left in the project which was more than twice over budget. Bartholdi had to find another buyer for his aptly renamed “Liberty enlightening the World”. He found them in New York where the full-size statue was inaugurated in 1886. His original stands on the Ile de Cygnes in Paris.

The Original Statue of Liberty, 10% of the Size, now greets Travellers arriving in Paris

The Suez Canal shortened the 10’667 miles distance between London and Mumbai by 41%. It brought commercial activity back to the eastern Mediterranean. It also was became very important for the British Empire and secured its line of communication with East Africa, India, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand . The large demand for machinery and coal for the canal's construction had a stimulating effect on Europe’s steel and coal industry. It was the time when coal and steel production in France, Belgium & Luxembourg took off. Soon thereafter, Germany followed with the development of the Ruhr und Silesia.

The Suez Canal was at the Heart of the British Empire in the 19th Century. The Empire which opposed the Canal's building, became its main Beneficiary (Map from 1886)

One of the best examples for this second leap in the industrial revolution are the seven giant bucket chain excavators invented by Alphonse Couvreux. These seven machines alone moved more than 10% of the soil. Without them, a canal 50 meters wide and 8 meters deep could never have been dredged. Bucket chain excavators are still in use today. A model of the original used in Egypt can be seen in the Musée de l’Art et de Commerce in Paris.

The canal also had a significant impact on the global shipping industry. As coal became cheaper, it was bunkered for commercial shipping too. On the way from London to Mumbai, there were coal stations in Gibraltar, Malta, Alexandria and Aden where steamers could replenish. Given the adverse wind conditions in the Med for east to west sailing and the fact that sail ships had to be towed through the canal, it is easy to see why steam suddenly became attractive. Not surprisingly, steamers won market share on the Suez Canal route. Bigger steam ships were built for this route to satisfy cargo and passenger demand, until they became big enough to cross the Atlantic. By 1880, steam was more efficient and cheaper than wind. The time of sail was over.

Parade during the Opening of the Suez Canal - most Ships are Hybrids using Sail and Steam

The Suez Canal is today remembered for its impact on geopolitics and the wars fought for its control (1916, 1942, 1956, 1973). Its biggest impact though is on Europe’s industrialisation plus the advances it triggered in engineering. Today, we are used to big structures like the Eifel Tower (1889) or the glass roofs of the Grand Palais. But they were new at the time and became only possible thanks to steel, the new construction material and coal, the energy that lifted humanity from poverty. Lots to contemplate this summer when we cross a cargo ship or another sailboat.

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