It’s kind of what happened in the Suez Canal, where a skyscraper-sized cargo tanker still broke down on Thursday. It has basically strangled a narrow artery that sees the passage of about a tenth of all global shipping. The Dutch rescue company working to release the ship, MV Ever Given, said it would take “weeks” to pull it out of the port – an unprecedented blockade in recent years. Meanwhile, at least 150 ships trying to cross from Asia to Europe, or vice versa, are facing delays. These tankers, which transport everything from oil and cement to consumer goods and live animals, are trapped in a crowd whose drip effects could reach every corner of the planet.
“Ever Given, operated by Taiwan’s Evergreen Marine Corp., set sail for the Netherlands on Tuesday when a dust storm hit, causing strong winds and poor visibility in the 120-kilometer-long passage from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean.” my colleagues reported. “What exactly went wrong and caused the ship to run aground remains unclear. … Both officials of the Suez Canal and Evergreen Marina have blamed winds that reportedly reached up to 30 mph. But that explanation caused some doubt, considering that the ship weighs as much as 220,000 tons when it is fully loaded and built to withstand much stronger impacts. “
Whatever the case, the ship’s ordeals have begun online jokes, and social media was tickled by a seemingly unfortunate spectacle of local authorities struggling to pull such a huge vessel out of their sand track. But “the latest blockade highlights the risks facing the shipping industry as more and more vessels pass through marine congestion points, including the Suez, Panama Canal, Hormuz Strait and Malacca Strait in Southeast Asia,” reported Bloomberg News, pointing out how the capacity of container carriers on ships has doubled over the past decade.
It is also a reminder of the deep and vital history of the canal. Long before the construction of the modern canal in the 19th century, the area it passes through today was ripe for transcontinental crossing. Fernand Braudel, a great French historian of the Mediterranean, noted that, for thousands of years, “the low Suez isthmus … [had] it was flooded several times by the sea, turning Africa into an island. “
In antiquity, potentials saw the usefulness of building a maritime connection for their rowing triremes to move from the Mediterranean, or at least the Nile River, to the Red Sea. The first may have been the Egyptian pharaoh Necho II – identified by the ancient Greek chronicler Herodotus as Nekos – who began a massive canal construction project around the end of the 7th century BC. “By digging this canal, Nekos lost one hundred and twenty thousand Egyptians,” wrote Herodotus, who explained that “Nekos was stopped by opposition to the prophecy – wittily, that he was doing work for the barbarian who would come after him. “
Other “barbarians” would indeed come and apparently finish the job, including the Persian emperor Darius I and later Ptolemy from the line of Macedonian kings appointed after the death of Alexander the Great. But the Red Sea receded in the centuries after that, and the ancient canal, clogged with mud, faded in the desert. From medieval times to the end of the 18th century, conspirators, from Arab rulers through Venetian merchants to Ottoman pashas, thought or even tried to launch new canal projects, but all their attempts failed.
The idea of a modern Suez Canal gained momentum after Napoleon Bonaparte’s quixotic invasion of Egypt in 1798.. In a dream to build a fast passage to India, already a jewel in the growing British Empire, the French general sent a team of surveyors to chart the course of the canal from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea. But they wrongly concluded that the latter was 30 feet taller than the former (their altitudes are actually relatively similar) and that the canal risk of catastrophic floods in the Nile Delta.
Decades later, enterprising former French diplomat Ferdinand de Lesseps secured funding from the French government and permission from the Ottoman Kingdom in Egypt for his company the Suez Canal to begin construction of what would become the Suez Canal in 1859. The early years involved a huge human endeavor as workers removed and dredged many millions of people. cubic feet of land. By one account, more than a million Egyptian peasants were forced into the project and tens of thousands died, contracting diseases like cholera in circumstances like slave labor.
Conditions improved after the intervention of local authorities and the introduction of heavy industrial equipment. In 1869, the canal was launched with great solemnity host of the Ottoman Khediva Ismail Pasha. Six years later, with Ottoman Egypt obsessed with debt, Ismail will sell its stakes in the Suez Canal to the British government, which has gone from being a project skeptic to a major beneficiary. The opening of the channel led to the rise of European empires in Asia and Africa: Warships and steam-powered cargo vessels could skip the long voyage around the Cape of Good Hope. The cultivation of oil fields along the Persian Gulf in the early 20th century only underscored the strategic vitality of the canal for European powers.
It is appropriate then that Dramatic closure of the canal in 1956 it is now seen as one of the death rattles of that era of colonialism. Charismatic nationalist President Gamal Abdel Nasser decided to nationalize the Suez Canal company’s holdings, and Egyptian troops seized its facilities. This prompted the invasion of a joint expedition of British, French and Israeli forces in an attempt to overthrow Nasser. But it turned into humiliating debacle, with the denial of United States support and a global public opinion that turned resolutely against the British and their allies.
For others, like Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis – who happened to have empty tankers docking in Saudi ports just as the crisis hit and then charging high rates as they toured Africa for oil to the West – he cemented wealth. The canal reopened in 1957, but will be closed once again a decade later after the Arab-Israeli war. That imprisonment lasted eight years. In 1975, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat announced the resumption of shipping activities in the canal by releasing a flock of pigeons.