HC Deb 17 July 1857 vol 146 cc1704-7

said, he rose to call the attention of the House to the question, Whether, in their deliberate opinion, it be conducive to the honour or the interests of this country that we should manifest and avow the existence of a jealous hostility on our part to the project of a Ship Canal through the Isthmus of Suez; or whether, on the contrary, it would not be more in accordance with the character for disinterested impartiality, which we seek to maintain, if we were to leave that subject without prejudice, to be dealt with by the natural, physical, and engineering diffi- culties which surround its execution? Though he could understand the difficulties in an engineering point of view which had been suggested, he could not understand why or how the opening of the canal, if accomplished, should he adverse to the interests of this country, or why not extremely conducive to our national advantage.


My hon. Friend has had the courtesy to give me notice of this matter, and I collect from my hon. Friend's letter that he wishes to know whether, in the answer which I gave on a former occasion as to the project to cut a canal of 300 feet wide and 30 feet deep between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea, I expressed a hasty opinion, or whether I did not display more jealousy of foreign powers than it was expedient to express, whatever foundation there might be for it. Sir, in reply, I can only say, that whatever objections I may have expressed at any time with regard to that project, I endeavoured rather to understate than to overstate. It is a plan which, in my opinion, is founded on views inconsistent with the interests of this country and at variance with its settled policy. In a political point of view, it is objectionable as regards England, especially in connection with our Indian possessions; for it is plain, that if a great canal were cut from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea, there are other naval powers with which we may have difficulties, which would have a very important start as compared with ourselves with regard to any operation that might be undertaken in the Indian Seas. Moreover, I consider it is a plan which has for its object the separation of Egypt from Turkey, which it has always been the policy of Great Britain to prevent, and which the French Government of the present day has abandoned, because that Government, acting loyally and in conjunction with the other States of Europe, by the treaty of Paris entered into an engagement to preserve the integrity and inviolability of the Turkish empire. Politically, therefore, I look upon the scheme as highly objectionable, and one which no Englishman with his eyes open would think it desirable, as regards national interests, to encourage. As regards the engineering difficulties, I am aware there is nothing which money and skill cannot overcome, except to stop the tides of the ocean and to make rivers run up to their sources. But I take leave to affirm, upon pretty good authority, that this plan cannot be accomplished, except at an expense which would preclude its being a remunerative undertaking; and I therefore think I am not much out of the way in stating this to be one of the bubble schemes which are often set on foot to induce English capitalists to embark their money upon enterprises which, in the end, will only leave them poorer, whomever else they may make richer.


said, he would not venture to enter upon the political bearings of the subject with respect to the other powers of Europe, but would confine himself merely to the engineering capabilities of the scheme. He had travelled, partly on foot, over the country to which the project applied, and had watched with great interest the progress that had been made by various parties in examining the question. He had first investigated the subject in 1847 in conjunction with M. Talabot, a French engineer, and M. Negrelli, an Austrian engineer. At the suggestion of Linant Bey, a French engineer, who had been upwards of twenty years resident in Egypt, and feeling how important was the establishment, if possible, of a communication between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean, he had qualified himself to form an opinion on the subject. It had been received on the authority of an investigation of the levels taken by the French engineers during the invasion of Egypt about 1800, that, as stated by the ancient writers, there was a difference between the levels of the Mediterranean and the Red Sea of something like thirty-two feet. It was suggested at that time that the old canal might be opened out again, and that a current might be established between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea of from two to three miles an hour, which velocity of water would not impede the communication between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea, as steam tugs might be employed, and the canal might at the same time be kept perfectly open, as the scouring power would be adequate to maintain a clear channel. He went into this scheme under the belief that that difference in level did actually exist. The examination was made by himself and the gentlemen, with whom he was associated, in 1847. They had not any idea, at that time, that if there was no difference of level, it would be practicable for a canal to be made in the first instance, or that it could be maintained afterwards. After investiga- tion, however, it was found that, instead of a difference of thirty-two feet, there was no difference of level whatever, at the period of low water, although for a period of fifty years the world had been under the impression from the published statements and levellings of M. Lepère, that a difference of thirty-two feet existed; and whilst it was supposed to exist, it was believed by professional men that a canal might be maintained, or that, as it was called, a new Bosphorus might be formed between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean. But when the difference of level was found to be nil, the engineers with whom he was associated abandoned the project altogether, and he believed justly; and one of them (Mr. P. Talabot) made an adverse Report, which was published in the Révue des deux Mondes of May, 1855. Since then he had travelled over the Isthmus to Suez, and over other parts of the Desert, and had investigated the feasibility of making a free communication between the two seas, on the supposition that they were on the same level, and on the supposition that water might be supplied from a higher level—as, for instance, from the Nile. He might, however, say, without entering into professional details, that he had arrived at the conclusion that it was—he would not say absurd, because engineers whose opinions he respected had been to the spot since, and had declared the thing to be possible; at all events, if feasible (and as the First Lord of the Treasury had said money would overcome every difficulty), yet, commercially speaking, he frankly declared it to be an impracticable scheme. What its political import might be he could not say, but as an engineer he would pronounce it to be an undesirable scheme, in a commercial point of view, and that the railway (now nearly completed) would, as far as concerned India and postal arrangements, be more expeditious, more certain, and more economical than even if there were this new Bosphorus between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean.