Billeder på siden
PDF
ePub
[graphic][merged small][merged small][merged small]

HE immense advantages to the merchant-commerce of Great Britain

,

English rule in that vast peninsula which must result, were a ship-canal carried through the strip of sand, shingle, and swamp, not more at its narrowest part than about seventy-five miles in width, which separates the Mediterranean from the Red Sea, and popularly known as the Isthmus of Suez, must be apparent to the least observant person. Various plans for effecting this desirable object have been proposed, discussed, and forgotten during the last half-century, and at the first view of the matter it would seem that we are still as far off as ever from its accomplishment. But this, a little reflection will convince us, is by no means the case. Much indispensable preparatory work has during that period been successfully achieved. The chief difficulties, hinderances, and hazards previously believed to be inseparable from the voyage to Bombay or Madras by the Mediterranean and Red Sea have, by the vigilance and sagacity of the Indian and home governments, and the marvellous progress of scientific discovery and invention, been removed or overcome. That highway of the seas is now sentinelled throughout at every pass, save that immediately by Suez, which commands it; and—a matter of perhaps even greater importance—the dangers, uncertainties, and delays, formerly incidental to Red-Sea navigation, no longer exist. A few words will suffice to establish these two propositions.

On glancing at the map, the reader will perceive that there are three points or keys along the overland route, as it is called, from England to Eastern India, which command, and almost, so to speak, shut it in. These

No. 81. VOL. XI.

1

points or keys are Gibraltar, at the entrance of the Mediterranean; Malta, between Sicily and Africa; and Aden, by Bab-el-Mandeb, the Arabian Gate of Tears,' at the southern extremity of the Red Sea. Were either of these positions, Malta and Aden more especially, held by hostile forces, it is manifest that, in the event of war, this comparatively short cut to the Indian Ocean would be insecure, if not impracticable. Napoleon Bonaparte well understood this, and it was one of the chief reasons which induced him to declare to Lord Whitworth, previous to the rupture of the Peace of Amiens, that he would rather see the English in possession of the heights of Montmartre than of Malta. It was not before 1839 that the fortress of Aden, which commands the Pass of Bab-el-Mandeb, was by a lucky circumstance, as promptly as audaciously turned to account, taken possession of, and secured by the Anglo-Indian government. In the next place steam has rendered the difficult and dangerous navigation, as it was always held, of the Red Sea, not only practicable during all seasons of the year, but as safe as it is swift and certain. Before that mighty agent of both moral and physical progress had been applied to ship propulsion, it was a common saying amongst nautical men: that there were six months in the year when you could not get out, and six months in the year when you could not get into the Red Sea.' There is no doubt something of exaggeration in this saying, although in the main true enough. This long and narrow sea, 1200 miles in length, and so thickly studded with coral - reefs at varying distances from the shore as to render it imperative for vessels of any considerable burthen to keep the clear mid-channel, is swept throughout its entire extent, during the south-west monsoon in the Indian Ocean, by a north-west wind, and during the north-east monsoon by a strong southerly wind. The Red Sea lies between the 12th and 30th degrees of latitude; its main line from Suez to Bab-el-Mandeb is from N.N.W. to S.S.E.; and it is quite plain, therefore, that its navigation by sailing vessels must be always exceedingly slow, if not accommodated to these prevalent and alternating winds. The slight Arab and Egyptian vessels leave the ports of the Red Sea for India during the south-west, and return during the north-east monsoon. Those timid and unskilful sailors, creeping along between the coral-reefs and the shore, and hastily anchoring in some friendly nook, or in the lee of a sheltering highland, at the slightest sign of a gale coming on usually occupy as much time in getting from one extremity of the Arabian Gulf to the other-forty days—as the ancients did. A steamer of fair speed will sweep through in four or five days only, and at any and every season of the year; and thus one main difficulty and hinderance in this route is thoroughly surmounted. Since 1775 the time occupied in the overland journey has been greatly diminished. In that year dispatches were for the first time sent to Bombay from England by the Isthmus of Suez: the winds were favourable, and the task was accomplished in ninety days. Subsequently the distance was traversed in eighty days, and men lifted their hands in astonishment and delight at so wonderful and unexpected a result.

In 1835 a bi-monthly steam mail-service was organised and put in operation, and the British public now, every fortnight, receive letters posted in Bombay only twenty-seven or twenty-eight days previously-a great triumph, it must be admitted, and, as we doubt not, the sign and precursor

2

of others yet to come. Till the trial, however, made by the Hugh Lindsay steamer at the persevering instance of Lieutenant Waghorn-a man to whom travellers to India by the Isthmus of Suez are so much indebted -it was gravely doubted that steam-vessels could be successfully or economically employed in Red-Sea navigation, and a long land-route from Beyrout, on the coast of Syria to the Euphrates and Persian Gulf, including in its devious, but certainly to many attractive line, Balbec, Damascus, and Palmyra, “Tadmor in the Desert, was recommended for adoption in preference to the passage over the Isthmus by persons claiming to speak with knowledge and authority. Even Mr Maclaren - whose confidence in the practicability of effecting a sea-way from the Mediterranean to the Arabian Gulf was so complete and unhesitating, that he declared ‘it may be safely stated that there is not a spot in the world where a watercommunication of equal extent could be made with the same facility, and where human skill would produce so great a change with so small an effort :only ventured five-and-twenty years ago to suggest that were it found practicable to employ steam-power, Bombay might be probably reached in six weeks, the distance being 7200 miles.' When so much has already been accomplished beyond the hopes and expectations of the sanguine and confident, by the union of energy and science, it were surely mere folly to despair of ultimately breaking through the last sole obstacle which impedes the intercourse between Europe and the immense countries skirted by the Arabian and Indian seas.

And this last sole obstacle must—in the paramount interest, much less even of Great Britain than in that of India itself—be broken through. The material interests involved are, there can be no question, enormousalmost incalculable, as regards this country, now that railways and steamnavigation are beginning to open up the vast resources of the great Asian peninsula; but there are other and higher considerations than merely commercial ones, which enforce the necessity of effecting a swift passage for our ships to the Arabian Sea. It is admitted by all just and calmlyreasoning men, that England cannot, dare not, abandon the people of India whom she is slowly but surely rescuing from the impious cruelties of debasing superstitions and the demoralising influences of castes. Under any circumstances, however threatening or adverse, they must be shielded not only from themselves, but from the aggressions of other powers. And to defend effectively and promptly the coasts of India from insult and aggression, a ship-passage through the Isthmus of Suez may be one day indispensable. This is easily demonstrated. The only power which in the present age of the world would be likely to assail Great Britain in India is semi-civilised Russia, in whose councils the project may be said to be traditional. There is but one way in which she could do so with any chance of even temporary success. The land march with which we used to be menaced by certain alarmists is now generally regarded by competent authorities, who have kept in view the present state of military science and the requirements of modern armies, as a mere illusive dream; but if the Suez Isthmus continue sealed against us, the northern hordes might find a practicable, and, did war suddenly break forth, an unmolested road to Bombay or Madras. The Armenian ports on the Euphrates are virtually in the czar's power; his transports might descend that river to the Persian Gulf, and thence issuing into the Indian Ocean, strike at whatever point of the British-Indian coast they pleased, whilst the fleet that should encounter and dissipate such an armament was slowly struggling round the Cape. That this could be done is plain from the fact that the Emperor Trajan reached the Persian Gulf from the Euphrates with a fleet built in the mountains of Nisibus. True, the communication between the Persian Gulf and India would be ultimately interrupted, and the invading force in all probability. exterminated, but not till after enormous mischief had been done—an end quite sufficient to justify, according to all former experience of the ruthless policy of the northern court, any sacrifice of its mere serfs. There need, however, be no apprehension entertained that Russia would indulge in such an enterprise if the expedition issuing from the Persian Gulf were certain of encountering the steam-squadrons which, sweeping through the canal of the Isthmus, in answer to the signal that would flame along the heights of Aden, Malta, and Gibraltar, towards Great Britain, would infallibly intercept and destroy it long before the shores of India loomed upon the horizon. There is no argument so potential against war, especially with : semi-barbarous powers, as the impossibility of its being undertaken with a chance of success. And even the merely passenger-route' by Alexandria, Cairo, and the Desert to Suez, is entirely at the mercy of a foreign power — the Pacha of Egypt; and we have seen, as lately as 1840, the extremities to which certain statesmen were disposed to push matters in order to maintain & dominant and exclusive influence over the rulers of that country—a dominant and exclusive influence, valuable only as affording the means of barring the road, should an opportunity for doing so occur, between England and her giant dependency. This, it must be confessed, is by no means a satisfactory state of affairs, presenting, as it does, a weak and consequently tempting point, at which, it might be hoped, the strong man could be assailed with advantage and impunity. Neither must we forget that the western transit by Panama, which, in respect of communication with the Australasian continent, Van Diemen’s Land, New Zealand, etcetera, has far superior claims to the route by Suez, is of slight .comparative value as a ship-way to eastern Asia, the shores along the Arabian Sea and Gulf, and other adjacent countries. It is only by Suez that Bombay can be brought within less than a month's sail of Portsmouth, and that one of our improved ocean steamers will be able to reach that presidency in a space of time scarcely greater than no great while since was consumed by a coach-journey from Edinburgh to London and back again.

The object to be accomplished is the sundering of two vast continents —the forcible thrusting back of Africa from her barren, arid, obstructive embrace of Asia. There, away to the eastward of the city of Alexandriathe almost sole shred which time has spared of the wars and glories of the Macedonian conqueror-stretches towards Palestine the long, low line of sand which constitutes the northern Mediterranean shore of the hitherto baffling Isthmus. Its width from Tyneh, a village on the Mediterranean not far from the ruins of the ancient Pelusiumthe termination of the eastern, or Pelusiac branch of the Nile, now blocked up by sand—to Suez on the Red Sea, is not much more than seventy miles ; Tyneh being only about two miles north of 31° north latitude, and Suez barely a mile south of 30° north latitude. This long, low line of sand, swamp, and stones, but partially abandoned by the sea, gradually rises as it trends southward till both east and west of the Gulf of Suez-formed by the promontory upon which Mount Sinai and the lesser Horeb lift their faithlit summits to the sky--it terminates in the somewhat mountainous land which there bars out the waters of the Red Sea or Arabian Gulf. It has been conjectured that this sea once flowed into the Mediterranean, and that Africa was consequently a huge island. This is, however, very doubtful, and can only be true of a time anterior to authentic human records ; when perhaps the Delta or triangle formed by the division of the Nile above Cairo into the two great branches which issue far apart from each other, and to the eastward of Alexandria into the Mediterranean by the sufficiently wide but shallow Boghas of Rosetta and Damietta, was a mere swamp; a period when, we are told by Herodotus—the father of profane history; by the way, knowing no more of the matter, except from traditional fables, than we do—Thebes was already an imperial city. The only and imperfect connection of the two seas partially known to have existed was that by the famous

CANAL OF THE KINGS,

and

that has now been closed for upwards of a thousand years, and the very existence of which, except as a merely irrigating contrivance, certain learned antiquaries were gravely questioning, till the report of the French engineers, who accompanied Bonaparte's expedition to Egypt at the close of the eighteenth century, put an end to all cavil upon the subject. This canal partially connected, there can be no doubt, the Red Sea with the Mediterranean by means of several cuttings, connecting the most southern of the lakes or lagoons of the Isthmus, called the Bitter Lake—the Lacus Amauri of Pliny, and Crocodile Sea of the Arabs—by means of the Pelusiac arm of the Nile with the great Lake Meńzaleh on the north-west of the Isthmus, which has an outlet to the Mediterranean. The origin

progress of this canal cannot be very distinctly traced. Herodotus, and repeating him, Diodorus Siculus, ascribe its projection to Nechos, who lived about 600 B.C. Aristotle, Strabo, Pliny, on the contrary, refer its initiation to the more than half - fabulous Sesostris. Darius of Persia continued, and it is supposed finished it, although the honour of having done so is claimed by certain writers for Ptolmey the Second. Herodotus says it occupied four days to sail through, which, at twentythree miles a day—a rather fast pace for ancient navigation-would give the actual distance, as measured by M. Lepère; namely, ninety-two miles. The point of junction with the Pelusiac branch of the Nile was at the ancient Bubastis, considerably north of Cairo.

We will presently more exactly define its course, but first it may be as well to finish with its obscure and chequered history. It was restored, after having long fallen into disuse, in the second century of the Christian era, by the Emperor Adrian, who, in honour of his adopted father, named the branch of the Nile which fed it the Trajan stream or river. The wind-driven sands of the desert, assisted by the wandering Arabs, whose transit-trade, carried on by camels, dromedaries, and asses, the canal greatly interfered with, again

« ForrigeFortsæt »