Posts Tagged ‘November 17’

All the Neuroses That Are Fit to Print

Posted in General, On This Day on November 17th, 2011 by Eugene Finerman – 2 Comments

November 17, 1869:  the Suez Canal is open for business.

Several years ago, I wrote an article on the construction of the Suez Canal.  In my research I read the New York Times’ coverage of the politics and theatrics that were inevitable in the engineering feat.  Even more amazing than building a hundred mile long canal through the desert is the fact that the prose style of the Times has not changed in 150 years.  The Times was unbelievably pompous back then, too.

In his account of the Canal’s opening in 1869, the reporter found the gala celebration to be a wonderful excuse to talk about himself.  (Ironically, the reporter’s name is not identified, surprising discretion for a monumental megalomaniac.)  Apparently neither the canal’s builder Ferdinand de Lesseps nor the Viceroy of Egypt had a greater challenge or higher calling than to entertain the New York Times.  I am sorry to say that the Canal got a poor review, however.  The reporter had unsatisfactory seating in the parade of boats floating down the canal; the receptions were too crowded (the Empress of France and the Austrian Emperor were served food before the Times); the fireworks were too loud and garish.    If only Peter Sellars or at least Julie Taymor had been allowed to build the Suez Canal!

I also found the Times’ report of the debate in Parliament after Disraeli’s brilliant if probably illegal coup in acquiring the ownership of the Suez Canal in 1875.  The Viceroy of Egypt had gone bankrupt and, beset by creditors, he offered his share of the Canal for a relatively paltrey 4 million British pounds.  We can speculate why Disraeli had such a gift for buying wholesale,  but he certainly appreciated a bargain and seized the opportunity.  There was a rival offer from a French business consortium, but  Disraeli was prepared to outbid it.  However, the French offered ready money while Disraeli was handicapped by British banking hours.  The Bank of England was closed for the weekend.

But Disraeli was on excellent terms with the Rothschild family.   (Do I need to explain why?)  He went that evening to the home of his friend Lionel Rothschild and asked for the money.  The banker was finishing his dinner, enjoying a dessert of muscatel grapes.  He asked Disraeli what would be the collateral for the loan.  Disraeli replied, “the British government.”  Rothschild answered, “You shall have the money in the morning.”  In fact, the Rothschild loan was on better terms than the Bank of England could have offered.  The Rothschilds offered immediate money, the same rate of interest and–at no extra cost–assumed complete responsiblity for the transfer of the funds from London to the Viceroy himself.

So Britain acquired control of the Suez Canal, and Parliament learned about it in the newspapers.  (Disraeli did have the tact to tell Queen Victoria.)  Of course, Parliament would discuss the matter after the fact, but what could it do or say?  Cancel such a brilliant feat?  Yes, it could complain about the questionable legality of the purchase; but even the opposition  had to concede that the situation did not permit time for a debate.   Nonetheless, the Liberal leader William Gladstone felt obliged to raise one issue–how was the Viceroy of Egypt going to spend that money!

Gladstone expressed his fears that the money would be used to finance Egypt’s invasion of Ethopia.  Apparently Gladstone had just seen a production of  “Aida” and confused the opera’s plot with Egypt’s foreign policy.  Egypt had indeed attempted to conquer Sudan–and was losing.  The Egyptian losses were one of the chief reasons that the Viceroy was bankrupt.  Given the fact that the Viceroy already was losing one war, he was unlikely to start another.  However, this hypothetical situation was the chief complaint that Gladstone raised against acquiring the Suez Canal.

Finding the Times  coverage of this debate, I anticipated reading a dazzling rhetorical duel between the two great rivals of British politics.  Disraeli is still renowned for his wit, and I imagined him devastating the self-righteous, humorless Gladstone.  Yet, the Times story did not quote Disraeli at all.  He must have said something; he was never known for modesty or reticence.  But here he was at his political heights, and the Times did not bother noting what he had to say.  Only Gladstone’s pontifications were printed.  Imagine a movie review of “Duck Soup” but only Margaret Dumont is mentioned.

If the Times preferred Gladstone to Disraeli, the newspaper had a liberal bias even then.


p.s.  If you would like to read the article (and how can you resist), click on this link and go to page 26.