The Suez Canal and some notes on Russian maritime history

This past Saturday, the first cargo ships passed through Egypt’s second Suez Canal, ahead of the new shipping lane’s grand opening in September. The new and improved Suez Canal will allow for two-way traffic along its entire length, and will accommodate larger ships than before. Construction on the original Suez Canal in the mid-nineteenth century took ten years; the added lane has taken only one year to build.

The Suez Canal’s first opening on November 17, 1869 was a very big deal for global shipping, cutting about 4,300 miles off the voyage from South Asia to Europe. 

The Suez Canal from space, with natural colors boosted

The Suez Canal from space, with natural colors boosted

The new canal was an especially big deal, strategically and commercially, for the Russian Empire, because its location at the eastern end of the Mediterranean brought international shipping lanes much closer to Russia’s southern port of Odessa on the Black Sea. 

Imperial Russia was an enormous land empire, encompassing many of the world’s longest and mightiest rivers, but oceanic navigation in Russia has a pretty short history. The Eastern Slavs, of course, had used boats from ancient times. But a regular Russian navy was not created until Peter the Great issued an order to construct one in October 1696. 

The port of Odessa on the Black Sea 

The port of Odessa on the Black Sea 

Fast forward about a century to 1799, when Tsar Paul I created the Russian American Company, Russia’s first joint-stock company, with the goal of supporting Russia’s colonization of northwestern North America. Russian ships circumnavigated the globe for the first time in 1803-1806, under the joint leadership of Adam Johann von Krusenstern and Nikolai Rezanov. A second round-the-world voyage followed in 1814-1816, and this one furnished a great deal of important biological and ethnographic information about what is now Alaska and California. 

An eighteenth-century Russian map of the Russian Far East and North America

An eighteenth-century Russian map of the Russian Far East and North America

Tea smuggling was as huge a problem for Russia in the nineteenth century as it had been for Britain in the eighteenth, and in 1861, the Russian authorities admitted defeat and opened up the empire’s western borders to tea importation by land as well as by sea. Starting in 1865, Russian ships en route from Vladivostok to Odessa stopped in Shanghai and Canton to purchase tea. So the opening of the Suez Canal opened in 1869, coupled with the newly legalized maritime tea trade, effectively ended the solvency of the great overland caravan tea trade with China, and ushered in a new era for Russian international shipping.

The Alaska Purchase, 1867. The big guy to the right of the globe is the Russian Ambassador Baron Eduard de Stoeckl

The Alaska Purchase, 1867. The big guy to the right of the globe is the Russian Ambassador Baron Eduard de Stoeckl

In the late 1850s, strapped for cash because of the disastrous loss of the Crimean War, and fearing that it might lose its North American colonies to the British in some future conflict, the Russian Empire offered its American territories up for sale. The British weren’t interested, having just discovered massive amounts of gold in Canada, and the Americans were initially too engrossed in the Civil War to give the matter much thought. Finally, after an all-night negotiation session, on March 30, 1867, the United States agreed to buy Alaska from the Russian Empire at the low, low price of $7.2 million.

Russian shipping in the Far East continued, of course, but with its North American colonies sold to the United States, the Russian American Company fizzled out by 1881.