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Stepping-Stones for the West, 1869

ON NOVEMBER 16, 1869, the sun rose over the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea and shone on the blue water. The squat buildings of Port Said, on the shore of Egypt, glowed against the clear sky. A new town, Port Said had begun to rise only ten years before from the barren plain that joins Africa to Asia.

In the man-made harbour were crowded eighty ships. Some were warships, others merchantmen, but all were strung with brightly-coloured pennants. On board were distinguished visitors, among them the emperor of Austria-Hungary, the crown prince of Prussia, the prince of Holland and ambassadors, generals, admirals from many lands. As the sun climbed higher, passengers began to appear on the decks and hundreds of other people gathered on the piers and the seawall.

At eight o’clock‚ the warships’ big guns boomed out salutes to the European monarchs‚ to the khedive’s of Egypt and to the khedive’s overlord, the sultan of Turkey. When the smoke cleared, a trim, graceful vessel came steaming toward the harbour — the French imperial yacht Aigle. Again the cannon thundered, to welcome Empress Eugénie, the wife of Napoleon III. She was the guest of honour and as her yacht glided past, the sailors on the other ships stood at attention, cheering, while music blared from several bands. The black-haired empress, standing on the Aigle’s bridge, smiled to left and right. She looked happy, proud and by the time her yacht had docked, everyone agreed she was as beautiful as she was said to be.


In the afternoon, the visitors, in uniforms, frock coats and formal gowns and Egyptians‚ who wore flowing robes, all trooped out onto the desert. There, perhaps for the first time, Christians and Moslems worshiped side by side. The Moslems were led in prayer by the ulema, or religious chief, of Egypt, the Christians by the patriarch of Jerusalem. Then the Catholic priest who was Eugénie’s confessor addressed the crowd. He thanked God for granting success to the project whose completion they were now celebrating. He thanked the empress and the other rulers present for supporting the project. Finally, he spoke of the tall, gray-haired man seated next to Engénie — Ferdinand de Lesseps. It was thirty years since de Lesseps had first suggested building a canal from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea. He had faced many difficulties in promoting his plan, including the opposition of the powerful British government, but he had refused to be discouraged and now, at last, the canal was a reality.

After sunset, fireworks blazed over Port Said, lighting up the night sky. The next morning, Eugénie and de Lesseps, on board the Aigle, led a file of ships south through the canal to the Red Sea port of Suez. The three-day trip went off smoothly, with stopovers for balls and fireworks displays and everyone was delighted with the new waterway.

The Suez Canal shortened the sea distance between Europe and Asia by thousands of miles. Before it was opened, ships going from one continent to the other had had to sail all the way around Africa; and the voyage had taken at least six weeks. Now it took only three weeks or less. Although the British had opposed the canal fearing that it would give the French too much control over trade with the Orient, they began to sail through it themselves on their way to and from India and the other British colonies on the Indian Ocean.

Ships using the canal paid tolls to the canal company and as receipts mounted, the French financiers who had backed de Lesseps began to talk about building another great interoceanic canal in the other hemisphere. It would cut across the Isthmus of Panama, which connected North America to South America. It would link the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and do away with the long sea voyage around Cape Horn, at the tip of South America. Panama, with its mountains, jungles and fever-ridden swamps, was a much more difficult place to build a canal than the flat and open Isthmus of Suez. Even the most enthusiastic promoters of the Panama canal admitted that it would take many years and huge amounts of money to complete.


Meanwhile, north of Panama, a different kind of link between oceans had been built in the United States — a transcontinental railway. On May 10, 1869, in the desert near Promontory, Utah, railway officials in top hats and frock coats had hammered down a golden spike to unite the tracks running toward it from east and west, while a crowd of workmen cheered. It was a simpler ceremony than the one which opened the Suez Canal six months later, but the event it marked was almost as important. Thanks to the new railway, people and goods could travel from one American coast to the other and to points between much faster and more safely than before.

The opening of the transcontinental railway and the Suez Canal in the same year showed how the world was changing. Although these two new links between oceans were thousands of miles apart they had been brought into being by the same force: the need of industry to reach out to distant lands for supplies and customers. Until the middle of the nineteenth century, industry had mostly been confined to the British Isles, where the Industrial Revolution had begun. At about that time, however, the Industrial Revolution spread to the other countries of northwestern Europe and to the northeastern part of the United States. By 1869, industry was thriving in these two regions, which faced each other across the Atlantic.

During the next forty-five years, industry’s ever-growing demand for supplies and customers would make the nations of the West reach farther and farther outward, by land and sea. The Suez Canal and the transcontinental railway were both steppingstones in this direction. Before long the West would dominate the whole world with its military and financial might, its advanced technology and its system of strong national governments. But, as competition among the industrial powers mounted, national rivalries would become ever sharper and more intense. In the end, these rivalries were to split the West apart and bring about a war more terrible than any the world had yet known.

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