East of Suez


In the days of The India Road, navigation was a way to avoid carrying out massive engineering works on land, with humans and animals as the beasts of burden.

Before the steam engine was invented by Savery in 1698, land transport also relied on animals—human or otherwise. Building roads was a huge endeavor, mountains and gorges were impassable—routes were dictated by terrain; it’s no surprise that as soon as man learned to float a boat—really just a practical application of Archimedes’ principle—the path of least resistance led to the development of shipping.

The age of sail lasted almost three millennia—winds and currents eased the burden of mankind, enabling connections between continents and promoting trade, leading to the development of major cities along waterways and on the coast. In the process, navigation also led to colonial empires, the slave trade, and maritime warfare on a grand scale.

It was only when explosives and machinery helped to dig, tunnel, and blow up the obstacles to development on land, and when engines for rail and road became commercially viable, that humans considered the possibility of shortening maritime trade routes—a quick look at the world map reveals two obvious choices—Suez and Panama.

Widening of the Suez Canal—shoring works.

In the second half of the XIXth century, French diplomat Ferdinand de Lesseps set about building the two canals, both of which would make intercontinental trade substantially quicker and cheaper.

Lesseps was not able to fulfill his dream of building the Panama Canal—US president Teddy Roosevelt completed the job some decades later—and left the world an enduring palindrome: A Man, A Plan, A Canal—Panama.

The connection between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean was an old dream of the pharaohs—or rather, the ancient canal would connect the Red Sea port of as-suways to the River Nile.

Napoleon ordered the old excavations investigated and considered building a canal himself, but his engineers miscalculated the difference in water height between the Red and the Med by a whopping twenty-eight feet, and the project was scuppered.

The canal took ten years to dig and was finally completed in 1869. Even before it opened, it was a source of controversy and geopolitical strife—the Brits saw it as a threat to the India trade—presumably it didn’t help that it was built by a Frenchman.

Since then, the one hundred and twenty mile canal has been the cause of international disputes and a small war— The ditch, as sailors refer to it, has been run by Egypt since the late 1950s, but the area continues to be fraught with tension.

Landsat image of the Nile delta, which stretches from Alexandria to Port Said.

Suez is a major source of income: the Egyptian government mandates that the ‘Suez crew’ are taken on board for the passage—ships have a dedicated Suez crew room to house these ‘specialists’. The Suez crew apparently have ‘special rope skills’, and include both a dedicated pilot and an electrician who tends to a searchlight mounted on the fo’c’sle —none of them do an awful lot apart from eating, drinking, and sleeping during the eighteen hours spent aboard.

A century ago, the role of shipping in trade was of general interest—as recently as the 1970s, radio sets had a shortwave channel called Marine Band. Today, nobody cares about shipping, or even knows it exists—the irony is that it accounts for ninety percent of world trade.

Much of that takes place through oil tankers, bulk carriers, and huge container ships—the spotlight shone briefly on the latter, and on shipping in general, when the Ever Given, a mere one thousand three hundred feet in length, wedged itself across the Suez Canal last month.

The story broke on Bloomberg because the channel knew this was a major disruption to business—there was an immediate reaction in the oil markets. Mainstream broadcasters picked up one or two days later, with both CNN and the BBC running pieces about the Ever Given and its charterer, Evergreen.

Suddenly, the role of maritime transportation became clear—you never miss your water ’till your canal runs dry. It also became obvious that the Suez crew were about as useful as a steer on a heifer.

Then, silly season set in. First, QAnon claimed the Ever Given was a child trafficking ship linked to Hillary Clinton, and then some wag discovered that the vessel had drawn the shape of a gigantic phallus in the water east of Suez before entering the canal.

Giant penis track drawn by the Ever Given prior to getting stuck in the sand.

A good deal of sophomoric humor followed about the penis entering the canal—boys will be boys.

I think the most important message was missed: two well-planned attacks—blowing up a couple of ships in Suez and simultaneously in Panama, thereby blocking both waterways—would have dramatic consequences for world trade.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

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