The Time Before Suez

August 1, 2008


Before the Suez Canal opened in 1869, you had to work exceedingly hard to get from London to Bombay. You began by hopping onto a leaky, damp, smelly and crowded wooden ship with no T.V, laundry service, showers or GPS navigation. Fortunately, what your ship lacked for in amenities, it made up for by being armed to the teeth with fearsome cannons and ferocious rats, the latter more feared than the former. Your ship sailed south at walking pace, nudged along by capricious winds past the coasts of France, Portugal and Spain until it arrived at the African continent. You then followed the Western coastline of the Africa, sailing the entire length of the Atlantic Ocean all the way to the Cape of Good Hope! You lived on salted beef, pork and rock hard bread called ‘biscuit’, drank gallons of rum and occasionally some lime juice, which kept your teeth from falling out. You held your head up high, aided by your very stiff collar and the stick inserted into your posterior at birth, and you slept in a box sized room if you were rich or in hammocks stacked 3 deep if you were poor. You admired the scenery, which tended to be monotonous, read your Bible, which tended to oppressive, and consoled yourself with dreams of civilizing the natives and making your fortune – when you weren’t drunk (those who weren’t were marginally insane or religious, which is often equivalent). After weeks of this stuff and choking back the vomit from sea sickness, you began to hope that traversing the length of an entire continent by boat may perhaps be enough. But you were wrong. For when you rounded the Cape of Good Hope, your journey was only half done.

You then sailed, still at walking pace, back up the coast of Africa, albeit along the Eastern coast and over a whole new ocean, the Indian. These variations in geography, along with a goodly supply of fresh sea breeze and rum, kept you from throwing yourself overboard and ending it all (unless of course you fell or were pushed by your shipmates). You persisted with the salt pork and biscuit, now fortified with worm, weevil and rat feces, which made for a welcome and flavorful change. By now, you smelt a whole lot worse than both the food and the ship, but that was of little concern as so did everyone else. Oddly however, you never stopped to catch a few fresh fish or put in to a port to purchase some cabbages. Or take a bath. Eventually, you cut your way across the Arabian Sea and alighted at the Gateway to your Empire, where the humidity was 100%, the sun fiery and your dress of wool coat, tie and 3 layers of underwear unaltered. You alighted if you were lucky. The truly blessed survived their ordeal with a semblance of immune system intact. The rest were drowned, smashed to bits by storms, eaten by sharks, sunk by pirates, boarded by the French and Dutch raiders, poisoned by putrid meat or had their entrails shredded by fetid water. After months in perdition, it is not surprising that you took to the subsequent tasks of conquer and rule, trade and convert, with gusto.

There were other routes to the Orient of course. You could have taken the road for one. That is, if you could have talked the French, the Italians, the Austro-Hungarians, the Greeks, the Ottomans, the Arabs, the Persians and hundreds of tribes, chieftains and bandits into letting you pass through their territories unscathed. You might have got away with it if you were a civilian or merchant, but governments, however corrupt, were unwilling to permit the functionaries of a foreign power through. And never mind the deserts, rivers, plateaus, ravines, 20,000 foot mountains and wild animals that you would also have to negotiate. Even today, it would take you months just to sort out all the visa problems, let alone the bus connections and stomach bugs. But if you could somehow have traveled without undue interruption, you would have made it to Bombay in half the time it took by sea, and in substantially better health, if you didn’t have your head cut off before you got there. Not that the route was new or unused – merchants had carried black pepper, silk and countless other products over these hazards for centuries. But the cost of goods sold increased with each border crossed and reduced the profits, still fat, to be had. And with Ottomans inconsiderately parked in Constantinople, you were better off in a damp ship, because it was at least your own, and assuming your cannon could outshoot the other fellow’s, untaxed from start to finish.

There was a third option. You could have taken a ship to through the Mediterranean to Cairo, journeyed overland over Egypt to the Red Sea, and caught a ship on the other side. Much faster than going via the Cape of Good Hope and virtually no borders to cross – if you could work out the logistics. But if you could, or if your ship could magically get from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea, which in places wasn’t really far away, only 75 miles or so at its narrowest, you could cut your travel time in a third and triple your profits! For even more galling than the eternity it took for your soldiers, administrators and preachers to get to their posts was the eternity it took for your pepper and cotton to get from Madras to London and your manufactures from Manchester to Calcutta!

Finally, there was a fourth option. You could have chosen to stay at home and perhaps spared the world the travails of your imperialism. But that is a discussion for another time.

The Suez Canal, when it opened in 1869, was hence, a very big deal.

With the coming of the Canal, a ship with a shallow enough draft (the canal was a mere 28 feet deep when it first opened), could get you to India in a month! You still had to deal with the food and the rats, but at least you went without a bath for only four weeks. And to be fair, by 1869, steam power was also on its way in, salt beef on its way out. Things could only get better for you and did, with the exception of that appalling invention, the necktie, which has remained, and you were forced to wear, in 100 degree weather, no less!

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