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Construction of the Suez Canal, 1869
With the rise of modern Europe and the growth of industry and seaborne commerce, entrepreneurs began to think of building canals. One such initiative aimed at connecting the Red Sea with the Mediterranean Ocean directly, thus saving time either to sail around Africa or transshipping freight or passengers across the Suez Peninsula. A French enterprise took the initiative in obtaining a 99-year concession for the Canal and organizing the Suez Canal Company, mainly with European capital, to build and operate it.
The Canal was completed in 1869 under the leadership of the French promoter Ferdinand de Lesseps (he would later try unsuccessfully to build the Panama Canal). Numerous obstacles had to be overcome, one of which was the widely held conviction that the level of the Red Sea was more than 30 feet higher than that of the Mediterranean. More serious was the opposition of Great Britain, which, throughout the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, was in competition and frequently in conflict with France in the eastern Mediterranean.
The British feared the alterations in the status quo that the Canal apparently would bring. To a canal that would be subject to French or international influence, they preferred the existing communications across Egypt and the Sinai Peninsula or a railroad transshipping line. Only after its completion did the British recognize its vast strategic and economic importance to the growing empire and acquire a substantial financial interest in the enterprise.