- Digging to India:Modernity, Imperialism, and the Suez Canal
What of this piercing of the sands?
What of this union of the seas?
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
This pot-pourri of East and West,
Pillau and potage à la bisque;—
Circassian belles whom WORTH has drest,
And Parisiennes à l'odalisque!
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
What good or ill from LESSEPS' cut
Eastward and Westward shall proceed?—"Latest—From the Sphinx," Punch, 27 Nov. 1869: 210.
The Suez Canal opened in November 1869 with a spectacle that British writers typically described as "brilliant."1 Egypt's ruler, Khedive Ismail, hosted an enormous international party at which Eugénie, empress of France, was the guest of honor. Her yacht led a flotilla of vessels in a ceremonial first passage through the canal.2 A contemporary reporter announced that "probably to the future historian the year 1869 will be memorable solely as the date of the opening of the Suez Canal" ("Visions" 490). The opening of the canal was important enough to be the first item of news that Henry Stanley claimed to have shared with Dr. Livingstone upon finding the long-lost explorer in November 1871; "Do you know," Stanley asked, "that the Suez Canal is a fact—is opened, and a regular trade carried on between Europe and India through it?" (334).3 By the time E. M. Forster was finishing A Passage to India in the early 1920s, the Suez Canal had become a clichéd metaphor for the transition point between West and East. "Somewhere about Suez," Forster's narrator observes, "there is always a social change: the arrangements of Asia weaken and those of Europe begin to be felt" (285). A brief scene set at the opposite end of the canal, in Port Said, shows that the pivotal transition takes place not in Egypt, nor in [End Page 363] the town of Suez, but rather in the passage through the Suez Canal itself: "The clean sands heaped on each side of the canal, seemed to wipe off everything that was difficult or equivocal," everything related to the East, a site the narrator describes as "the strangest experience of all" (295, 314).
The Suez Canal's transformation into an icon of cultural juxtaposition within the paradigm of empire has its roots in the many British accounts of the opening of the canal. Despite the relatively small formal English presence at the celebration, the construction and inauguration of the Suez Canal drew the attention of all manner of Victorian writers. Accounts appeared in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, a consistently Tory publication; in the Fortnightly Review, which the Wellesley Index to Victorian Periodicals describes as "a great liberal periodical" (2: 176); in the emphatically Christian Good Words; and in nonpartisan publications such as Saint Paul's and the Contemporary Review, among others. Numerous books referring to the canal and its opening also appeared during the early 1870s, some based on prior periodical reports. Amid this proliferation, no single account stood out, such that historian D. A. Farnie is perhaps correct in arguing that "the intellectual élite failed to produce a single worthy memorial of the occasion among the 245 books, articles and pamphlets published on the subject of the Canal in 1869–70" (87). Worthy memorials or not, these accounts are interesting not only for their documentary value but more importantly for what they reveal about the ways in which British intellectuals projected onto Egypt and the canal their ongoing endeavor to define modernity and to situate the modern within an unsteady international political context. Through a reading of contemporary British records of the canal's formal opening, this essay will analyze British efforts to come to terms with Egypt's newly ambiguous position between the historical and the modern, between the East and the West. These efforts demonstrate the degree to which designations of modernity both derive from and support conventions of national difference.
I will focus particularly on the reports written by William George Hamley (1815–93), a colonel in the Corps of Royal Engineers who was also a novelist and a longtime contributor to Blackwood's. Under the pseudonym "Scamper," Hamley wrote a four-part series of lengthy articles on Egypt and the...