The debate on the Suez Canal in the nineteenth century. Geopolitical food for thought

(To Filippo Del Monte)
31/03/21

The temporary blockade of the Suez Canal in recent days due to the grounding of the container ship "Ever Given" has made public opinion understand how much the existence of the canal is fundamental for world trade, a factor taken for granted and to which he did not care until he was challenged by a giant ship placed "sideways". And it was a mistake, imagine if a fleet in war gear and with air support at its disposal decided, in the event of open hostilities, to block the Suez Canal as dangerous consequences for the world and, specifically, for countries. Mediterranean could be unleashed.

When the Suez Canal was still only an ambitious project, in Italy reflections were already being made on the economic-commercial potential of such a passage, capable of returning the Mediterranean to the center of world trade, and the related politico-military risks. The geopolitical and strategic modernity of certain discussions that took place in the second half of the nineteenth century push us to re-propose, briefly, the contents, to try to stimulate a reflection on the matter.

Between the early 50s of the 1869th century and the inauguration of the Suez Canal dated XNUMX, an important debate began in Italy on the possibilities and opportunities for commercial expansion towards the markets of the Far East and Southeast Asia. 

In the Kingdom of Sardinia, the spokesmen of this request were the circles of the Chamber of Commerce of Genoa, a body that established a commission to study the effects of the opening of the Suez Canal on international trade and the infrastructural and logistical planning to be given to the city port. to face this challenge. In particular, the commission deemed necessary some modernization interventions of the port (photo), such as the construction of a new pier, a merchant dock and a dock to be used as a warehouse for goods, thus making Genoa a European level port. Likewise it was the Council of the Genoese Chamber of Commerce in 1857 that asked the Savoy government to undertake a more active naval policy by sending military ships to "show the flag" in Asian ports and to increase the prestige of the Sardinian diplomatic-consular representations. present there, both to protect merchant ships and to conduct field studies on the most profitable goods.

In the Lombard-Veneto Kingdom the initiative was taken by the Vicenza economist and statistician Fedele Lampertico (following photo) who spoke of the need to carry out works in the port of Venice such as to put it in a position to have advantages from the opening of the "new road to the Indies ". Canals had to be dug, making the railway station accessible to ships and allowing direct access to the warehouses, which had to be equipped with adequate loading and unloading facilities to speed up operations. In fact, Lampertico did not escape the importance of connecting the port to the railway network for the creation of a sort of "intermodal logistic pole" in the Veneto region, the only way to enjoy the opportunities offered by Suez, restoring the "maritime power" that in the past had characterized Venice, in particular as a "bridge" between Europe and Asia.

In 1861 the Kingdom of Italy was proclaimed and the geopolitical role that the new state nestled in the center of the Mediterranean could play was immediately evident. In 1865 the missionary Giuseppe Sapeto published the text "Italy and the Suez Canal" (Typography and Lithography of the Pellas Brothers, Perugia, 1865) intended for the national Chambers of Commerce and related to the geo-economic study of the new situation determined by the next opening of the Suez Canal. For Sapeto, Italy could have gained immediate benefits deriving from coastal navigation linked to fishing and the opening of markets in Arabia and the Horn of Africa; however, our country could have obtained the greatest advantages only if the railways had been upgraded by connecting the main ports with the hinterland and opening the Alpine passes. Only a capillary railway network would have allowed Italy to dominate Euro-Mediterranean trade as the hub of arrival and departure of goods and having as poles the port of Brindisi to the south and the five Alpine outlets to the north.

Two years later, at the time of the conclusion of the works on the Suez Canal - even if the inauguration actually took place only in 1869 - the former Minister of Agriculture, Industry and Commerce of the La Marmora II government (1864-1865) and founding member of the Compagnie universelle du canal maritime de Suez Luigi Torelli, acting as spokesperson for the requests of those who, beyond the theoretical discussions, concretely noted Italy's unpreparedness and lack of commercial competitiveness. Torelli underlined crudely but realistically that the simple cut of the isthmus of Suez, the geographical position of Italy and the considerable reduction of the route to the East would not have constituted, alone, the guarantee factors for the national economy. The exponent of the Lombard Right wrote in "The Suez Canal and Italy" (Giuseppe Civelli Plant, Milan, 1867) that the nations that would have obtained advantages from the new communication route would have been those that "will have more goods to carry in East, in exchange for those they will transport to Europe; that they will have more capital to dominate the markets; who will have more practice than those seas; which will have more relations already established with those large centers ”, in other words Great Britain and France, two political-military and economic-commercial superpowers with external projection capabilities. London could have increased travel from Suez to British India while Paris could have invested resources in teaching the Arabic language, hydrographic studies and expanding its fleet of merchant steams.

In Italy these conditions were lacking because, in essence, the absence of government inputs in this sense constituted the main limit to the development of a strategy of international projection, not only commercial but also political.

Torelli's concerns were the same as those of the Italian Geographic Society, supporters of a policy of international strengthening of the Kingdom of Italy far from "pindaric flights" and aware of the country's development needs. The former Minister of Education of the Ricasoli II Government Cesare Correnti (photo), another exponent of the Lombard Right (who in a few years, infected by "depretisismo" would have passed to the Left on secular-moderate positions), in the article " On the Isthmus of Suez and on Eastern Commerce "(in" Bulletin of the Italian Geographical Society ", issue III, 1869) he wrote that the opening of the Canal would provoke a" cosmic revolution "bringing Europe, India and China, making sure that the Mediterranean would once again become "for civil geography what it has always been for physical geography" or "the center of the habitable earth". The competition would have been ruthless and the modernization works of the port of Brindisi, begun that year, the completion of the Ancona-Brindisi-Lecce railway and the Frejus tunnel being excavated, if they had not been completed in a short time, would not have allowed to Italy to withstand the impact of foreign powers.

From Cesare Correnti's analysis, an endemic factor of weakness of Italian trade emerged: the absence of colonial possessions. With Turkey now "resigned in the hands of Christian civilization", India "English province", Niliac and Atlantic Africa "more and more European", China "overcome and now overthrown" with enormous markets opened by now diplomatic penetration now military forces of France, Great Britain and Russia, it would have been necessary to "take a seat immediately". Without well-connected infrastructures and without a colonial empire, Italy ran the risk of being squeezed between Marseille and Trieste and of being considered, for ships coming from Suez, nothing more than a geographical “stumbling block” in the middle of the Mediterranean.

Both Torelli and Correnti had certainly been influenced by the great debate opened since 1857 by the Garibaldian Nino Bixio on the importance of a policy of support and strengthening of the Italian merchant navy. According to Bixio, Italian trade could not be limited to the Mediterranean, the Black Sea, the United States and Latin America, without the flag also touching the ports of Africa and Asia. More than the lack of initiative of private individuals, this situation was determined by the absence of public resources destined to the modernization of the merchant fleet with steamships, replacing those sailing not able to successfully deal with the dangerous currents. of the Indian Ocean and, least of all, those of the Suez Canal (the same ones that the “Ever Given” was faced with), which can only be reached by steamers. From 1860 the French and British programs for the development of the new steam merchant fleets had begun, with great speed and huge funds available, and Italy was lagging behind both for political issues such as the conquest of independence, and economic ones such as backwardness of many regions, especially those of the former Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. The problem of the weakness of the merchant navy added to that of the absence of a developed diplomatic-consular network first of the Kingdom of Sardinia and of the Kingdom of Italy then in the African and Asian territories now open to the penetration of the European powers.

The merger of these two issues of strategic importance had prompted in 1863 the head of the Consulates Division at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Cristoforo Negri (former chief of staff of D'Azeglio and future president of the Italian Geographic Society from 1867 to 1872) to write a series of articles on the subject in newspapers such as "La Perseveranza" (organ of the Lombard liberal-conservatives), "Il Corriere Mercantile" (expression of the Genoese Chamber of Commerce) and "L'Op Opinion" (newspaper of the Piedmontese right) grouped each year later in the volume “The Italian grandeur. Studies, comparisons and desires ”(GB Paravia Typography, Turin, 1864). Assuming that Italian public opinion was uncertain about the possibilities of national commercial expansion, Negri (photo) wanted to "remove perplexity and delay" by inviting the political class to reflect on Italian weaknesses and solutions to overcome them. Once again it emerged that the main problem behind Italy's difficulties in opening new markets abroad was the absence of a colonial empire. Negri judged the crisis of the Ottoman Empire as irreversible and if Egypt had fallen into British hands (which then happened) together with Suez, if Tunis had fallen into French hands (another prediction came true) and if Austria-Hungary had occupied Albania, Italy would have been suffocated in its sea. This is why it was essential to send a consul to Constantinople (on the same line in the early 60s Negri had proposed to open a Royal Consulate in China but without success due to the reluctance of the Government and the lack of support from the Royal Navy) so as to be able to exert some political-commercial influence and then coordinate the creation of a branched consular network in Islamic countries subject to the Sultan of Istanbul, both along the African shores of the Red Sea. Just along the coasts of East Africa the British and the French (also using the influence of religious missionary congregations) were implementing a particularly aggressive political-economic penetration policy, just as Prussian ships since the 50s were a permanent presence in Zanzibar and Aden, a presence that would be strengthened in the following twenty years. "The east coast of Africa does not exist for us - wrote Negri - that is to say for our advantages, and the Red Sea does not exist" and it was a very truthful and also very critical judgment of the Royal Navy which did not assume a role more active to support the presence of private individuals in profitable but still risky areas.

Negri dealt with it separately with regard to trade in the Far East, where Italy, paying the price of not being present in those areas, was forced to depend on foreign intermediation with the risk - which could become a certainty if not had run for cover quickly - to see all the advantages of the opening of the Suez Canal and the "diversion" of commercial traffic to the French ports slip away.

Goods essential for the Italian markets, such as Chinese silk destined for Piedmont and Lombardy factories, did not arrive in Italy via the Strait of Gibraltar or Suez but from English and French ports, and the same was true for "colonial products" from Indie given that not only had Italy not exploited the liberalization of the markets in the British Raj of India but it had not even entered into commercial and friendship treaties with China, Siam and Japan, depriving itself of the tariff and customs advantages of the others powers and in some cases even being refused shipping in Japanese ports unless they flew the French flag.

Some of the most modern sectors of Italian colonialism, also represented by the Lombard-Piedmontese silk industry, in the following years proposed both to take a "Chinese way" to the construction of the Italian empire, and experiments such as that of private - bankruptcy - management in the colony del Benadir to overcome the political-commercial problems that emerged in the 60s. In the context of the currents of Italian colonialism, the supporters of the "Mediterranean policy" and those of the "Red Sea policy" were in agreement in supporting the importance of Italian commercial and therefore political-strategic independence in the seas.

As can be seen, some issues such as the coordinated development of logistics infrastructures, subordination in some emerging but fundamental markets, the absence of an assertive naval policy and the importance of securing an area of ​​influence are still in order today of the day for Italian military and foreign policy. With "selective globalization" these problems are exploding in a virulent way, it will be necessary to open a debate in political terms on the issue as soon as possible in order not to be left behind, once again.

Images: web