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On this day: Suez Canal construction starts

CM 24/04/2021

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April 25 marks the 162nd anniversary of the beginning of the construction of what would become one of the world’s most strategically and commercially important waterways: Egypt’s Suez Canal.Beginning in 1859 on the shores of what would later be known as Port Said, the endeavor was sparked by a need to create a shorter trade route that would allow ships to no longer have to navigate around Africa. However, it faced mounting difficulties, most notably skepticism about the project as a whole – as well-being opposed by the British government the entire way through. In order to finance the project, the Suez Canal Company had to sell shares overseas, but it sold poorly in Britain.But thanks to the help of the Cattaui banking family and the Rothschilds, the shares were promoted throughout Europe and the French shares sold out rather quickly.The project was immense, and lasted around 10 years. Numbers vary how many people died in the process, as well as how many worked on the canal itself, with some estimating under 1,000 deaths to (according to Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser) 120,000 and some placing the number of laborers at over 1.5 million.When it finally opened in November 1869, the canal had even more hurdles to overcome, specifically poor financial straits. But its effect on global trade was near instantaneous, and even caused a major economic crisis in the UK due to changing trade routes. Eventually, Britain would properly invest in the canal, with then prime minister Benjamin Disraeli purchasing £4 million of shares in 2876. The money was obtained from the Rothschilds. As noted in the Rothschild Archive, legend says the loan was made on a gentleman’s agreement without documentation, though the funds were repaid within five months. However, this did cause Disraeli to be accused of undermining the British constitutional system as he had not had reference of Parliament’s consent when purchasing the shares.Eventually the canal’s importance grew and the UK took over. However, this changed in 1956 when Egypt’s Nasser nationalized the canal. This sparked the Suez Crisis, when the UK, France and Israel invaded Egypt. The canal continued to play an important role in regional affairs, and the ongoing barring Israel access to the canal and later blocking the Straits of Tiran being cited as one of the causes of the Six Day War in 1967.Since then, the canal remains one of the most vital waterways in the world. This importance was recently reaffirmed in March, when the massive cargo ship Ever Given ran aground in the canal and blocked off all passage, causing  a major commercial disaster. Stuck for nearly a week, the economic damage was estimated to be in the billions with the global supply line brought to a halt.

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