Parting the Desert

Zachary Karabell

Read September-November 2004

The contruction of the Suez Canal, accomplished in the 1860s, is one of engineering's great feats. This detailed history tells us about the people who had the idea before, the ``people skills'' of Ferdinand de Lesseps that realized the vision, tensions between Britain and France over its creation, the unraveling of the Ottoman empire as a backdrop, the interaction with the world's economy (for instance, the US Civil War's effect on cotton production had an effect on Egypt's economy), not a few quirky characters (including a Parisian sculptor whose offer to build a female Rhodes to watch over one end of the canal was spurned—so Bartholdi took his idea elsewhere and it eventually ended up in New York Harbor), and the complex economics governing the project.

Though the canal was marketed to the world as a union of East and West, a combination of French and British pressure—and some terrible Egyptian leadership—ended up with the Egyptians entirely under the thumb of the European powers, eventually losing all control over the canal whose construction they had largely funded. By explaining these processes in detail, even though events after the canal's opening take up very few pages, the book lays out a sympathetic case for Nassar's actions in 1956.

The book's strengths—competent writing, a detailed story, and a superb index—are offset by a few flaws. First, the maps are terrible (or at least reproduced too poorly in the paperback version), which makes following the story rather difficult. Second, there is a frustrating lack of technical detail about the construction, both ``what'' and ``how''. What, for instance, is a ship jetty? How did they keep portions of the canal from flooding during construction? What were the canal's dimensions relative to the ships of the era? How does the canal keep from being silted over? And so on and on. Indeed, this seems to be more than just oversight: even when, for instance, discussing the replacement of workers with steam-powered machines, Karabell is strong on personal decription but very weak on the technical aspects.

The book is also unhelpful in explaining the British reaction. We learn a great deal about Lord Palmerston's strenuous objection, and understand it in geopolitical terms. But with the British business classes so heavily independent, given their wealth and desire for more, and given the utility of the canal to the burgeoning Empire, why didn't they support the idea? Karabell gets too immersed in the words and actions of officials and forgets to give us the story of everyman. (This is true of his treatment of other countries too, but his narrowness is less detrimental elsewhere.)

The story of the Suez Canal company (which, like the East India Company, grew into a quasi-colonial entity) left me pondering the machinery of capitalism. In hindsight, it is clear from the outset that the initial capital would not suffice. But for any company, once it is in motion, to avoid losing the initial investment, the corporation and the first-round shareholders are likely to make concessions that grant sweeter terms to those providing subsequent rounds of capital. This seems to violate the principle that those incurring the greatest risk (those investing in the first round) should also reap the greatest fortune. I also wonder if there isn't a strong corporate incentive to lie about costs initially: the smaller amount seems more feasible and thereby attracts more investors, who are then locked in helplessly as costs (seemingly) baloon. Anyone?