“Pour accomplir de grandes choses il ne suffit pas d'agir il faut rêver" - The Suez Canal

17 November 1869, the Suez Canal was inaugurated in the presence of a host of European guests with a three-day event that costed the Khedive of Egypt more than 20 million Francs.

“Pour accomplir de grandes choses il ne suffit pas d'agir il faut rêver; il ne suffit pas de calculer, il faut croire.” (To accomplish great things we must not only act, but also dream; not only plan, but also believe. Anatole France, introductory speech at a session of the French Academy, 24th December 1896, on Ferdinand de Lesseps' work on the Suez Canal.)

A contemporary German illustration showing the ships’ procession after the opening ceremony, omitting, of course, the “Newport”

In the middle of the night, with her lights doused, Commander George Nares sneaked his 145’ gunboat HMS “Newport” undetected through the crowd of ships waiting for the opening ceremony of the canal, put her right before Napoleon III’s imperial yacht “L’Aigle” and when the sun rose over the newly constructed harbour of Port Said on November 17th, the Royal Navy vessel stood in the entrance of the canal, unmovable like the Rock of Gibraltar. The French were aghast, the “Newport” was the first ship that sailed through the canal, Commander Nares was officially reprimanded and received an unofficial pat on the shoulder and a promotion to the rank of captain. Actually, the British had tried with diplomatic wire-pulling if not to stop then at least delay the construction of the canal over the previous 15 years. During the 1850s and 60s, lots of goods traffic with the East was still handled by square-rigged sailing ships, more or less unable to pass through the new waterway. The opening of the canal was an immense time-saver for steamships only and meant a quick and costly conversion of large parts of the merchant fleet was necessary. Six years later, the Disraeli government bought the majority of canal shares from the bankrupt Egyptians and the British kept the guardianship over the Canal until 1956.

HM gunboat "Newport" after she was sold to a private owner (1894), once first ship through the Suez Canal

The idea of constructing a canal connecting the Med and the Red Sea and thus East Asia was not exactly brand new when Ferdinand Lesseps dug the first piece of ground on the site of future Port Said on 25 April 1859. Various projects had been planned and initiated during the days of the Middle and the new Kingdom of Ancient Egypt more than 3,500 years before, but were never completed. That feat was accomplished by the Persian King-of-Kings Darius who ruled Egypt since 525 BCE, the late Ptolemies let the channel wither that once ran from the eastern delta at Bubastis via Wadi Tumlat to the Red Sea, Emperor Trajan put it in operation again, but the world wars fought between the Romans and the Sasanian Kings and later the Caliphate brought trade with India and China into the hands of the rulers in Ctesiphon and Bagdad and the canal was forgotten. When the sea route to India was opened by the Europeans and Mediterranean trade went belly up in the 1500s, Venetian merchants, faced with bankruptcy, at least tried to revive the idea, but it came to nothing.

The next first vessels through the Canal...

Napoleon’s expedition in 1798 had discovered remnants of the old canal among other major archaeological achievements and started a downright Egyptomania that swept through Europe and the United States and never really ebbed away throughout the century. And besides the commercial and political upheavals, the inauguration of the canal caused European interest in ancient Egypt to peak again. The most famous cultural aftereffect was Verdi’s “Aida”, though. The opera was not, however, put on stage in November 1869. Admittedly, Verdi was asked to write a hymn for the opening ceremony, but the maestro simply refused to write commissonal work. “Aida” premiered on 24 December 1871 in Cairo while “Rigoletto” was chosen to celebrate the completion of the largest construction project of the 19th century.

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