The Suez Canal Purchase and the making of modern Britain

The purchase of the Suez Canal by British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli was presented in contemporary press reports as a uniquely patriotic and liberal move, one that cemented the country’s place in a shifting, Europe-dominated world order.

Cartoon mocking Disraeli's foreign policy.
Cartoon mocking Disraeli's foreign policy. Credit: Chronicle / Alamy Stock Photo

The Suez Canal opened in 1869 under the ownership of French financiers and the khedive of Egypt, and connected the Mediterranean to the Red Sea. While Britain had originally objected to this feat of engineering, the canal quickly became a critical line of communication. It made the voyage from London to India only four weeks and, by 1874, four-fifths of the trade through the canal was British. In 1875 the khedive of Egypt, Isma’il Pasha, nominally a vassal of the Ottoman Sultan, found himself in financial straits, and began to seek a French loan against the security of his stake in the Suez Canal Company. When the British prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli, learned of this on 15 November he started efforts to purchase the khedive’s stock for Britain and stop it from falling almost entirely to the French. When the deal was concluded on 25 November, Disraeli had attained 44% of the shares of the company for the price of £4,000,000 – or £365,289,693.52 in today’s currency.

The transaction was extraordinary for several reasons.  First, since Parliament was not in session to approve the funds, Disraeli had had to borrow the money from Baron Lionel de Rothschild. In this, the London Rothschilds took a significant risk. As the historian Niall Ferguson has shown, they could not act in concert with other branches of the family, as per longstanding custom, in case the French side betrayed the move to the French government.

Next was the popularity of the purchase. Press coverage at the time and the work of modern historians makes clear it was a significant political success for the prime minister. The purchase was presented as a decisive declaration of British interests which also conformed to popular-held notions of British identity, including liberalism, commerce, and the possession and judicious use of strength.

Yet there was something more. Going by coverage in The Times and Punch, Disraeli’s imperial coup was popular not so much due to a centrality of empire in British identity, but what empire symbolised for Britain’s position in the world order through the power that imperial possessions gave it in relation to familiar foes nearer to home. There were plenty of issues that could have drawn focus on the deal toward empire. These include the contrast between Disraeli and the apparent imperial skepticism of his rival, Liberal leader William Gladstone, (a politico-imperial focus); what the purchase meant for the ‘Eastern Question’ and the continued decline of the Ottoman Empire, (an imperial-foreign affairs focus); and the role of the purchase in securing Britain’s route to the heart of empire (an imperial security-future focus). And while all of these were mentioned, they were treated as sideshows. Press coverage suggests the overwhelming focus was on what the purchase said about Britain and British identity. Going by coverage of this event alone, one might argue that in Britain’s popular imagination, a large part of the utility of empire rested in how it contributed to longstanding rivalries in a shifting, European-dominated world order.

The political context around Disraeli’s actions is important for understanding the move’s reception. Disraeli’s Conservatives were in competition with the Liberals of William Gladstone. Disraeli could be opportunistic. For instance, his expansion of the electoral franchise in 1867 has been considered a means to win ‘nationwide appeal.’ When Gladstone displayed a skepticism around empire, Disraeli saw the chance to align himself to both empire and British prestige. The historian Bernard Porter argues that Disraeli understood the power of symbolism and considered making references to imperial pride to draw support away from Gladstone. Disraeli was presented with the chance to prove his devotion to Britain’s empire and international position, as his ministry of 1874-1880 would be dominated by foreign affairs and in particular the political and economic instability in the Ottoman Empire.

This so-called  ‘Eastern Question’ concerned Britain’s support for Turkey, the ‘sick man of Europe,’ as a buffer against Russian expansionism. By the mid-nineteenth century it had become a permanent facet of British political debate. The issue highlighted the relationship between Britain’s empire and her European competitors and helped associate ‘imperial affairs with foreign policy’ in the public mind. Disraeli’s Britain found itself in an international climate of increasing uncertainty; the rise of new powers such as Germany and the United States, the continued decline of Turkey, and the familiar belligerency of Russia all helped to place new pressures on its far-off interests. In a reflection of Porter’s argument that domestic concerns primarily shaped people’s attitudes toward empire, this heightened competition left people increasingly concerned with Britain’s international standing, and, by extension, with imperial security.

It was this context that pushed empire further into the political spotlight. The Suez purchase was popular both as a material guarantee of empire, but also as a symbolic declaration of strength to rivals. In an important sense, the purchase was an insurance policy against the ultimate failure of Turkish power. However, Disraeli sought the purchase mainly to raise British prestige abroad and to gain the favour such a rise would provide at home.  Author Sarah Bradford argues that, overall, the public saw the purchase the way Disraeli wanted them to: ‘as a daring and dramatic assertion of British interests, a victory over scheming foreigners.’ One might tie that assessment to Porter’s argument that while others tended to understand the British almost exclusively as imperialists, the British themselves were often presented a different image: ‘a free, moderate, and peaceful nation, marked off from other nations by those qualities, and by the domestic ‘progress’ that had formed the main motif of her history for 400 years.’

The narrative of an identity defined by liberal values shaped how the British understood their empire and its role in the world. To some degree this is unsurprising. Historian Paul Kennedy argues that exceptional economic growth at home and abroad had led much of mid-Victorian society to accept that Britain’s values were near-universal; that laissez-faire economics and utilitarian government were key not just to Britain’s unique development but to international harmony. In their excellent study Arguing about Empire, Martin Thomas and Richard Toye discuss key high-level differences in rhetorical considerations over empire between Liberals and Conservatives. For ‘high-minded Liberals,’ in the end, improvement in the lot of the colonised was ‘the ultimate and only justification for an empire,’ whereas for Conservatives, improving standards of wellbeing were ‘the by-product of empire … the inevitable result of the irrepressible struggle between nations.’

Media accounts of the purchase reflect a combination of these assumptions. The Times announced the ‘somewhat startling’ transaction on 26 November 1875, reporting the British government had purchased the stock. In the same article, the newspaper immediately made the connection to Britain’s rivals and international affairs, saying the public ‘both in this and other nations’ would look to the act for its political rather than its commercial aspects, as ‘a declaration of intentions and a commencement of action upon them.’ The following day it hailed the ‘spirit and initiative’ of the government, in contrast to Gladstone who had seemed to equate foreign policy with ‘mischief-making.’

Meanwhile the satirical magazine Punch, if somewhat less overtly acclamatory, still appeared to applaud the brazen arrangement. On 4 December, 1875, it reserved a generous half-page for a political cartoon under the heading, ‘Money’s worth for the money.’ After noting that the funds had come from Baron de Rothschild, Punch made further comments in a rhyme: ‘As Our Indian door-key we mean to hold fast, / BRITANNIA’s will she has now found a way for; / On our shop-keeping instincts contempt let them cast, / But who’ll take what we’ve forked out four millions to pay for? / Such a sum if it suit John Bull’s int’rest to pay, / It clear it suits Egypt’s ‘cute Chief to receive. / Now KHEDIVE upon Rothschild may draw any day, / We must take care that nobody draws on KHEDIVE.’

Through its reference to Britain’s ‘shop-keeping instincts’ and its defiance to foreigners, the rhyme speaks to the connection between identity and foreign rivals in the wider media coverage. It concedes the purchase could lead to greater involvement in Egypt, and possible steps needed to protect the canal from foreign challengers. On 30 November The Times reported the shares ‘secured a guarantee on this chief highway to India.’ It added there was little doubt it would meet with the consent of Parliament, because no one who understood the importance of ‘keeping open our best line of communication with India will doubt the necessity for such a stroke of business as that which Mr. Disraeli’s Government has so quietly yet boldly carried through.’

How was the purchase perceived by other nations? The Times was certainly interested. On the same day, it reported there was ‘evidence of irritation, induced as much by surprise as by the character of the act itself, and traces of admiration strongly tinctured with jealousy.’ On 1 December The Times’ Prussian correspondent relayed the view of the German press, which ‘almost unanimously’ considered the purchase ‘as a resolute, clever, and natural proceeding on the part of Great Britain.’ The Paris correspondent reported on French coverage and attitudes for at least four days following the announcement. However, another article of 6 December highlights further how the purchase was understood by some: ‘The judgements of foreign nations on the purchase seems thus far not to be unfavourable; and it ought in any case to be regarded with indifference.  The moral courage of the English Government was chiefly displayed in the determination to take the risk of objection and remonstration.’

It is striking how much the popularity of Disraeli’s purchase in The Times stemmed from its bold assertion of British interests, enjoyed particularly in the face of criticism from foreign rivals. Punch also supported Disraeli’s decision partly on the grounds of defiance to Britain’s neighbours. A significant article of 11 December, 1875 entitled ‘What They (And We) Say About It’ satirised Britain’s rivals by offering imagined views from around Europe. Both amusing and assertive, the joke responses say as much about how the authors understood British identity and how it was constructed as they say about the countries they were mocking. The article also shed light on contemporary debates around international affairs and lampoons the perceived pretensions of Britain’s rivals. What was the supposed reaction of Britain’s rivals?

In France.— That is worthy of England the perfidious. That England is accustomed to the changing of coats… that an angry note should have been sent from Paris to the Court of St. James. That if this had been done England would have trembled, and the transaction would have been repudiated. That a further proof has just been given that England is merely a nation of shop-keepers.

That all Englishmen are cowards.

That all Frenchmen are heros [sic].

That in spite of everything, the incident only increases the glory of France.

In Germany.— That England may (with the kind consent of the Emperor of Germany), do what she pleases in this matter… That Germany acknowledges the judicious good feeling displayed by England in disappointing the wishes of that ex-grand nation, the French…

In Austria.— That England, as an Asiatic power, of second-rate importance, may do what she likes with Egypt… That England need fear no Austrian invasion at present. That Englishmen should be delighted to hear this piece of good news.

In Russia.— That the transaction is worthy of the Stock Exchange, and is consequently characteristic of the British nation. That, perhaps, under all the circumstances of the case, Russia will defer the annexation of India until next year…

In England.—That Englishmen are not afraid of Frenchmen, Prussians, Austrians, or Russians. That people living outside the British Empire may say and think what they please. That the purchase of the interest in the Suez Canal was carried out without the advice, much less the consent, of any foreigner. That England, if she requires full, free and unconfined control of the Canal for her own imperial purposes, has no wish or intention to exclude any other nation from the same advantages.

That England, having got a hold of the Suez Canal, and paid for it, knows how to keep it, and means to keep it, all people and potentates to the contrary notwithstanding…

Here readers will see humour along with allusions to recent events, like the Franco-Prussian war or the ‘Great Game’ over Central Asia, and the impact of these on the European system – and rivalries. In characterising what the British themselves were saying about the purchase, Punch was defiant to the point of jingoistic – while emphasising the ‘enlightened’ and ‘liberal’ qualities behind Britain’s move.

In Punch’s text we can recognise the bellicosity that, when combined with the more liberal treatment of the purchase, helped to make it so ‘British’ and popular. That the portrayal of Britain’s rivals was jingoistic was not lost on some readers. In his diary, Disraeli’s predecessor Lord Derby called the purchase ‘universally popular’ and a ‘complete political success,’ but found the outsized enthusiasm to portend a ‘strength of feeling which might under certain circumstances take the form of a cry for War.’ Excessive or not, in 1875-76 Punch’s satire placed much of the purchase’s popularity on getting one up on Britain’s European rivals.

The media coverage of the issue also highlighted perceived or desired differences between Britons and others; the ‘wise’ and ‘peaceful’ purchase reflecting views of Britain as essentially good and tolerant, with British administration meaning benefits for all. Porter argues that to find wide public acceptance, the empire had to be portrayed as conforming to domestically held British values, like liberty, tolerance, and progress. These notions were a persistent theme in The Times during its coverage of the issue. On 26 November it insisted that Britain’s purchase and its policy towards Turkey reflected simply the importance placed on India, which they ruled ‘quite as much for the good of its people as for the sake of our power.’ The perception that British rule was benevolent and liberal was important to keep imperial support at home. In the case of the canal, the expected benefits of British administration went beyond their own empire. On 30 November, The Times argued that:

Ownership of half the Suez Canal by England will be a good thing for the Suez Canal, a good thing for those who use it, a good thing for the merchants and manufacturers of every European country, a good thing for Egypt, and its Khedive, and, in all probability, for the latter’s creditors. It is in the very nature of British enterprise that its success should be for the benefit of the world.

At a Conservative meeting at the Free Town Hall in Manchester on 6 December, just before addressing the purchase, Chancellor of the Exchequer Sir Stafford Northcote posed the following to his partisan audience:

What shall I say as to connexion between our colonial and our foreign policy? What is the spirit which governs England, and which induces her thus to maintain and cling to this great empire of hers…? Is it merely a spirit of selfish aggrandisement? …No. Is it a policy of aggression? Is it a policy threatening to the peace of the world? No; it is the reverse of all this.  It is a policy entirely in accord with what I believe to be the true genius of England. It is a policy in accord with our desire to promote peace and civilization throughout the world, to carry commerce and with commerce the blessings of peace and friendship throughout the civilized globe.

He went on to repeat arguments that the purchase would secure use of the canal for all nations, not just Britain. If the ‘(Cheers.)’ and the ‘(Hear Hears.)’ that The Times included were any indication, (including the ‘(Loud Cheers.)’ then the move was as popular as was this flattering view of empire.

As Parliament began its new session in February 1876, the ratification of the purchase took centre stage. On 27 January The Times expected opposition from a few Liberals who had shown that they were ‘by no means carried away by the general popularity of the transaction.’ Punch dismissed the need for it. In ‘Punch’s Essence of Parliament’ of 19 February, it reported the prediction from which the title of this essay is taken:

Ministers are to fight the Suez Canal battle next week. Meanwhile, it may as well be scored to them in advance as a victory.  It is the duty of the Opposition to discuss and dissect; but they would be ill-advised to fight, when the buyers have the country at their back.

The £4,000,000 purchase was approved by parliament on 21 February. On 4 March Punch said: ‘Gladstone and Lowe v. Everybody Else; Spirited Policy v. Close Calculation of Per – Centages; Ratification of Suez Bargain v. Repudiation of the Same.  Such was the triple issue very decisively settled (Monday, February 21) without any division but that of the Opposition against itself.’

The confidence displayed by The Times and Punch in assessing public opinion, and the scorn with which they addressed any objections, indicate the widespread popularity of the purchase which was portrayed as a spectacular political coup. Whilst there was plenty about the purchase that could have drawn press attention toward discussions of empire, these were minor points in the larger coverage of the move. Instead the focus was on what the purchase said about Britain and Britishness, and how the country was distinct from its European rivals. Going by this coverage, this imperial move drew most of its popularity from the way Britain’s ‘liberal’ empire reinforced notions of Britain’s liberal character, and how both contributed to distinguishing the country’s position in a shifting, European-dominated world order.


Matthew Hefler