When Egypt became a Republic in 1952, understandably its government wanted to regain control of the Suez Canal and secure the associated financial benefits. In 1956, Egyptian President Nasser revoked concessions granted to the predominantly French and British controlled Suez Canal Company – an act that led to conflict and the subsequent nationalisation of the Canal that was the subject of an earlier blog.
The Suez Canal Company’s headquarters from which the canal was managed prior to 1956 was a building at Port Said alongside the canal itself. That building with its iconic features is shown in a painting produced by the Orient Line as a postcard (featured image). Port Said is at the northern entrance to the Suez Canal, in the far south east corner of the Mediterranean. There was a vast number of vessels that passed through the waters close to this port resulting in a demand for good communication by mail and telegraph particularly to Europe. The French and British Post Offices were pivotal in providing these services.
The passage of ships through the Suez Canal attracted a fee that was administered by the Suez Canal Company – then principally owned by the French and Egyptians. Initially the volume of traffic was well below what was expected when the canal opened in 1869 and, with a degree of mismanagement, the company became bankrupt. Great Britain recognised the advantage of maintaining the waterway as it provided a short cut to a significant number of its colonies such as India, the Far East and Australia rather than using the longer route around the Cape of Good Hope, South Africa. With this interest in mind, Britain bought a significant share in the Suez Canal Company in 1875, buying out the Egyptian shares.
As part of the purchase the British demanded a significant role in the management and security of the canal with the result that Egypt effectively became a Protectorate of the United Kingdom. The Suez Canal proved a particular advantage in controlling shipping during two World Wars in the 20th Century. Even in the 21st century, it remains a major trade route linking the Mediterranean and the Red Sea and ultimately the Indian Ocean, although its significance is no longer what it once was.
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