Skip to main content
Year
1869
Month Day
November 17

Suez Canal opens

The Suez Canal, connecting the Mediterranean and the Red seas, is inaugurated in an elaborate ceremony attended by French Empress Eugénie, wife of Napoleon III.

In 1854, Ferdinand de Lesseps, the former French consul to Cairo, secured an agreement with the Ottoman governor of Egypt to build a canal 100 miles across the Isthmus of Suez. An international team of engineers drew up a construction plan, and in 1856 the Suez Canal Company was formed and granted the right to operate the canal for 99 years after completion of the work.

Construction began in April 1859, and at first digging was done by hand with picks and shovels wielded by forced laborers. Later, European workers with dredgers and steam shovels arrived. Labor disputes and a cholera epidemic slowed construction, and the Suez Canal was not completed until 1869–four years behind schedule. On November 17, 1869, the Suez Canal was opened to navigation. Ferdinand de Lesseps would later attempt, unsuccessfully, to build a canal across the Isthmus of Panama.

When it opened, the Suez Canal was only 25 feet deep, 72 feet wide at the bottom, and 200 to 300 feet wide at the surface. Consequently, fewer than 500 ships navigated it in its first full year of operation. Major improvements began in 1876, however, and the canal soon grew into the one of the world’s most heavily traveled shipping lanes. In 1875, Great Britain became the largest shareholder in the Suez Canal Company when it bought up the stock of the new Ottoman governor of Egypt. Seven years later, in 1882, Britain invaded Egypt, beginning a long occupation of the country. The Anglo-Egyptian treaty of 1936 made Egypt virtually independent, but Britain reserved rights for the protection of the canal.

After World War II, Egypt pressed for evacuation of British troops from the Suez Canal Zone, and in July 1956 Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the canal, hoping to charge tolls that would pay for construction of a massive dam on the Nile River. In response, Israel invaded in late October, and British and French troops landed in early November, occupying the canal zone. Under pressure from the United Nations, Britain and France withdrew in December, and Israeli forces departed in March 1957. That month, Egypt took control of the canal and reopened it to commercial shipping.

Ten years later, Egypt shut down the canal again following the Six Day War and Israel’s occupation of the Sinai Peninsula. For the next eight years, the Suez Canal, which separates the Sinai from the rest of Egypt, existed as the front line between the Egyptian and Israeli armies. In 1975, Egyptian President Anwar el-Sadat reopened the Suez Canal as a gesture of peace after talks with Israel. Today, dozens of ships navigate the canal daily, carrying more than 300 million tons of goods a year.

READ MORE: What Was the Suez Crisis? 

Tags
terms:

FACT CHECK: We strive for accuracy and fairness. But if you see something that doesn't look right, click here to contact us! HISTORY reviews and updates its content regularly to ensure it is complete and accurate.

ALSO ON THIS DAY

Velvet Revolution begins in Czechoslovakia

On November 17, 1989, nine days after the fall of the Berlin Wall roughly 200 miles to the north, students gather en masse in Prague, Czechoslovakia to protest the communist regime. The demonstration sets off what will become known as the Velvet Revolution, the non-violent ...read more

Siege of Knoxville, Tennessee, begins

On November 17, 1863, Confederate General James Longstreet places the city of Knoxville, Tennessee, under siege. After two weeks and one failed attack, he abandoned the siege and rejoined General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. The Knoxville campaign began in November ...read more

Verdi’s first opera opens

Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi’s first opera, Oberto, conte di San Bonifacio, debuts in Milan. The premiere was held at La Scala, Italy’s most prestigious theater. Oberto was received favorably, and the next day the composer was commissioned by Bartolomeo Merelli, the impresario ...read more

Elizabethan Age begins

Queen Mary I, the monarch of England and Ireland since 1553, dies and is succeeded by her 25-year-old half-sister, Elizabeth. The two half-sisters, both daughters of King Henry VIII, had a stormy relationship during Mary’s five-year reign. Mary, who was brought up as a Catholic, ...read more

My Lai trial begins

The court-martial of 2nd Lt. William Calley begins. Calley, a platoon leader in Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry, 11th Infantry Brigade (Light) of the 23rd (Americal) Division, had led his men in a massacre of Vietnamese civilians, including women and children, at My ...read more

1st Cavalry unit ambushed in the Ia Drang Valley

During part of what would become known as the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley, a battalion from the 1st Cavalry Division is ambushed by the 8th Battalion of the North Vietnamese 66th Regiment. The battle started several days earlier when the 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry engaged a ...read more

TV viewers become outraged as football game is cut off to air “Heidi”

On November 17, 1968, the Oakland Raiders score two touchdowns in nine seconds to beat the New York Jets—and no one sees it, because they’re watching the movie Heidi instead. With just 65 seconds left to play, NBC switched off the game in favor of its previously scheduled ...read more

Nixon insists that he is “not a crook”

In the midst of the Watergate scandal that eventually ended his presidency, President Richard Nixon tells a group of newspaper editors gathered at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, that he is “not a crook.” Nixon made the now-famous declaration during a televised ...read more

The Kingston Trio brings folk music to the top of the U.S. pop charts

On November 17, 1958, the Kingston Trio’s “Tom Dooley” hits #1 on the Billboard pop chart. While they might not have wanted to acknowledge it, the fans of 1960s protest folk probably owed the very existence of the movement to three guys in candy-striped shirts who honed their act ...read more

“The Terminator” becomes “The Governator” of California

On November 17, 2003, the actor and former bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger is sworn in as the 38th governor of California at the State Capitol in Sacramento. Schwarzenegger, who became a major Hollywood star in the 1980s with such action movies as Conan the Barbarian and The ...read more

Thousands die in massive flood at European shores of North Sea

On November 17, 1421, a storm in the North Sea batters the European coastline. Over the next several days, approximately 10,000 people in what is now the Netherlands died in the resulting floods. The lowlands of the Netherlands near the North Sea were densely populated at the ...read more

Washington, D.C. sniper John Muhammad convicted

On November 17, 2003, ex-soldier John Muhammad is found guilty of one of a series of sniper shootings that terrorized the metropolitan Washington, D.C. area and dominated national headlines in October 2002. Police charged that Muhammad and his 17-year-old accomplice, Lee Boyd ...read more

A wealthy heiress is murdered by her son

Wealthy socialite Barbara Baekeland is stabbed to death with a kitchen knife by her 25-year-old son, Antony, in her London, England, penthouse. When police arrived at the scene, Antony was calmly placing a telephone order for Chinese food. Antony’s great-grandfather, Leo ...read more

SALT I negotiations begin

Soviet and U.S. negotiators meet in Helsinki to begin the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT). The meeting was the climax of years of discussions between the two nations concerning the means to curb the Cold War arms race.  Director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency ...read more

Articles of Confederation submitted to the states

On November 17, 1777, Congress submits the Articles of Confederation to the states for ratification. The Articles had been signed by Congress two days earlier, after 16 months of debate. Bickering over land claims between Virginia and Maryland delayed final ratification for ...read more