The First Suez Crisis

In 1956 the Suez Canal seemed to flow through every British drawing room and the limits of British power and influence were forcefully brought home - but it had been a different story in 1882, explains Christopher Danziger, when the first Suez Crisis brought Britain prestige and the expansion of her Empire.

Most people know something about the Suez Crisis. By that they mean, of course, the crisis of 1956, when the Egyptians nationalised the canal. But if there had not been another Suez Crisis, in 1882, then the fiasco of 1956 would not have happened. The crisis of 1882 had a very different outcome, and it was really decided by a single battle, whose centenary falls this month, and although it has never passed into popular folklore like Rorke's Drift or Omdurman, it is difficult to think of any battle fought by the British in the last quarter of the nineteenth century which was more important in the long term.

The crisis of 1882 also led to an Egyptian seizure of the Canal, which was then only thirteen years old, and officially the property of the Compagnie Universelle du Canal Maritime de Suez. As the name suggests, most of the original 400,000 shares were taken up in France. Of the rest, over a quarter were bought by the ruler of Egypt, the Khedive Ismail, and the remainder in Austria and Russia. One country which did everything in its power to thwart the Canal was Britain, who saw in it nothing but a threat to her Eastern Empire and her mastery of the seas. However, once it had been completed (four years late), no one used it more than the British. In its first ten years, 80 per cent of all the traffic which passed through the Canal was British. It had already become too important a link with India to permit anyone else to control.

In 1875, the Khedive, desperately searching for some relief from his mounting debts, sold his shares to the British government, who therefore became the largest single shareholder in the Suez Canal Company. Disraeli may have said of the Canal, 'You have it, ma'am', to Queen Victoria, but it was very far from the truth. What Disraeli had bought was about a quarter of the founders' shares, which only totalled 8m pounds of the 19m pounds eventuaIly needed to complete the canal.

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