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How did Britain gain control of the Suez Canal?

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Olen Bruce eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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French diplomat Ferdinand de Lesseps convinced the Viceroy of Egypt to build the canal, which connected the Mediterranean Sea to the Indian Ocean, and a company called the Universal Company of the Suez Maritime Canal was founded in 1858. Britain originally decided not to buy shares in the company, as it did not want France to gain an upper-hand in the region. Many countries followed suit in declining to buy shares, and the Egyptians held 44% of the shares.

Construction on the canal began in 1859 and involved about 1.5 million people. It is estimated that tens of thousands of people died in the construction and that it involved the use of forced labor. When the canal opened in 1869, the majority of the ships that used it were British. The Egyptian government, hugely in debt, decided to sell its shares to Britain under Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli for £4 million in 1875. British control over the canal was critical to provide access to its oil fields in the Persian Gulf.

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pohnpei397 eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Britain gained control of the Suez Canal in two main steps. 

First, Britain took partial control of the canal in 1875.  This happened because the ruler of Egypt was in serious financial difficulties.  He owned a large bloc of shares in the canal and sold them off to take care of his debt.  This gave the British partial control of the canal, but they still did not have complete control of it because the majority of the shares were owned by the French.

Second, in 1882, Britain essentially took control of Egypt as a whole.  This time, they came at the request of the ruler of Egypt (the son of the ruler who sold the shares).  The ruler of Egypt was faced with rebellions from within the country.  He asked the British to come in and give him military help in resisting the rebellions.  Once there, the British stayed and essentially occupied Egypt.  This gave them control over the canal.

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