The 150 Year Battle for the World’s Most Important Trade Route

Over the last several thousand years, trade has been one of the biggest economic and geopolitcal drivers that has determined the power of nations.

And there is one specific example that comes to mind.

There is one trade route that has single handedly created economic booms, caused deep economic recessions, was a key player in several wars, and has constantly been fought over, for nearly 150 years.

This is the battle of the worlds most important trade route.

From the 16th century to the early 19th century, the British and the French had colonised many parts of africa, India, southeast asia, Oceania, and the America’s.

During this time, trade was essential for both sending supplies to build the colonies, and also for sending resources back to their mother countries.

But both countries ran into a little bit of a problem.

Fore Example, If Britain wanted to trade with india they would have one of two options.

The first of which is that they would need to travel from London, all the way around the most southern part of africa, before crossing the indian ocean and completing the 20 000 kilometre journey to india.

The second option is that they would travel from london, around portugal, through the mediteranean, Then transport the goods by land through egypt, before loading the goods back on ships in the red sea, and the finally crossing the indian ocean.

Needless to say, both of these options were extremely inefficient, but at the time, they were the best options available.

That was until the 1830s when French Explorer, Lilant de Bellefonds conducted a survey of land around the Isthmus of Suez, which is a 125 kilometre strip of land between the mediteranean sea, and the red sea. And what he found was that the mediteranean and red sea actually lied at the same altitude… meaning that theoretically, a canal with no locks could potentially be built connecting the two bodies of water.

In 1850, French Diplomat Ferdinand de Lesseps was givern permission from the egyptian government to create a company that would be responsible for constructing the canal, and operate it for 99 years. The company raised money from a range of French, British, Egyptian, and american investors. And on April 25 1859, work on the Suez Canal began.

It took 1.5 million labourers, 100 million dollars, and 10 years to complete the project. But nonetheless on November 17, 1869, the Canal was opened under french control. Celebreations began with fireworks, a banquet, high end yachts, and world leaders all contributing to the inauguration of the canal. And this was the first time in history where ships travelled between the mediteranean sea and the red sea, without having to travel around the bottom of africa.

And this was revolutionary, as cargo ships, naval ships, and just about any sea kind of baring vessel could now cut over 8000 kilometres, and several weeks off of its travel time between europe, africa, and asia. This is when the Suez Canal became the most important trade route in the world because all of a sudden, the 3 most populated continents on the planet at the time had one single efficient trade route between one another.

And the effects of the Canal were seen almost immediatly as trade between continents increased fairly rapidly over the next several years.

But this economic effect wasn’t positive for all nations. You see, The British empire had colinized most of southern africa and its surrounding islands. These colonies economies were largely dependant upon ships that would stop at their ports, store some of their goods in british warehouses, and inject some money at local shops.

But once the Suez Canal opened, these ships stopped showing up, and the most impacted colony at the time might have been the british island of saint helena. In 1855, the island of Saint Helena saw
1,100 cargo ships stop at its ports. and Just a few decades later, only 288 ships passed through Saint Helena’s ports.

This massive reduction of ships passing through britains south african colonies helped cause one of the worst economic declines in Britains history.

This was called the Panic of 1873, and in Britain this caused a recession that lasted 6 years. In fact, this 6 year period is the longest contraction of an economy in history… even longer than the great depression of the 1930’s.

End of Transcript


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