The Suez Canal is the most important maritime route that connects Europe and Asia to transport cargo in shipping containers all over the world. It is a man-made waterway that connects the Mediterranean Sea to the Indian Ocean through the Red Sea. It is very crucial to World Trade, as it enables a more direct shipping route to Europe and Asia. The shipping container industry benefited a lot because of the Suez Canal as it could transport thousands of intermodal containers that included crucial cargo to be transported internationally.

History of the Suez Canal

The canal stretches over 120 miles and is also the world’s longest waterway which connects different bodies at diverging elevations. As there are no locks to interrupt traffic, the travel time from end comes across to almost 13-15 hours. Since its completion in 1869, the Canal has been a source for conflict for major powerful nations of the world. Almost 12% of world trade passes through the waterway each year, ranging from goods like heavy machinery, oil, to food items.

The Suez Canal was officially opened in November 1869, after 99 years of heavy construction. The history of the Suez goes back to the 17th century. The idea for a passage to connect two continents first came during the period of the Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt.

The construction of the Canal began on April 25, 1859. To build the canal, it was projected that over 2600 million cubic feet of earth had to be moved. After it was finally constructed, it was 200-300 feet wide, 72 feet wide at bottom, and 25 feet in depth. Initially, only steamships were allowed to navigate through the Canal. The sailing ships faced trouble crossing the narrow channel of the Canal, especially during the tricky winds.

After the Canal was open, Egypt faced certain financial problems with the amount of money spent on the waterway. This allowed the British government to be the largest shareholders in the Suez Canal Company in 1875. The Canal was vital to Britain as it provided a shorter route to transport cargo more conveniently. This crisis gave the reins of the Suez Canal Company to the British and French governments.

During the First World War, Britain took absolute control of the Canal and this scenario changed only after 1856.

The Suez Canal crisis of 1956

In the year 1956, the then President of Egypt, Gamal Abdel Nasser brought his troops in. He nationalized the Canal, taking away all ownership from Britain, France, and Israel. The Suez Canal Crisis took place when the Israeli armed forces invaded Egypt towards the Suez Canal. The Israelis were joined by British and French forces, which came to be known as the Cold War. This situation brought the Soviet Union into conflict with the United States of America and the United Nations.

Britain and France feared that Egypt might close the Canal for ships to sail across and transport cargo. When diplomatic efforts to settle the Crisis failed, Britain and France secretly equipped for military action to regain full control. After the war had started, Israel defeated Egypt and won control of the east bank of the Canal. The British and French forces were to follow the Israelis, but they had to withdraw which enforced a cease-fire.

Egypt had to ensure that Israel could not use the part of the Canal that they took over forcefully. It blocked the Canal using old vessels, debris, etc., and all the ships passing through the Canal got stuck.

By December, the UNO removed the UK and French troops from the Egyptian waters. By March, the Israeli forces were forced to evacuate the Canal as well.

The aftermath of the Suez Crisis

Britain and France, which were once the world superpowers, found their position weakened. The USA and the Soviet Union got the role of being the global superpowers. The fleet of 14 ships that were stuck in the Canal turned out to be disastrous for world trade. This was because the other ships had to pass through Africa in order to complete their voyages. This was an extremely time-consuming process. Those ships included shipping containers like dry van, open-top, side-door, and high cube containers.

The convoy of 14 ships that was in the wrong place at the wrong time, was trapped in the Great Bitter Lake. It was a 100 square mile waterbody in the Suez Canal. These 14 ships belonged to 8 different nations: Great Britain, West Germany, Poland, Sweden, the USA, Bulgaria, and Czechoslovakia.

In the coming weeks since the Canal was closed, there was no entry or exit allowed from Canal waters. Egypt also banned them from using radio as a means of contact. The shipping companies to whom these container vessels belonged tried everything to get permission to bring their crew home. Only after 3 months did they reach a compromise. The Egyptian government did not allow for the canal to be opened. But they did allow for the crew to be changed every few days, and duties to be interchanged.

Throughout the 8 years for which the ships were blocked, the crew on the ships did all the maintenance work. They would also start the engines after every few days so that the engines were not completely ruined. They had to ensure that the fleet was still in moving condition for when the canal reopened.

The “Yellow Fleet”

In October 1967, the “Great Bitter Lake Association” came into existence. The crews of the different ships came together to form a group to help each other during a difficult time. The various crew members used to come together and organize certain events, soccer matches, and partying. By doing this, the captains could pass a lot of idle time by helping each other as well.

This convoy of 14 unfortunate shipping vessels that got stuck in the Suez Canal facing the aftermath of the Cold War, ultimately was given the name of “Yellow Fleet”. This was due to the sand and dust that coated them as they were stuck in the Canal for 8 years.

In early 1976, the Suez Canal was once again opened for international transport. However, after being stuck in the Suez Canal for almost a decade, 12 out of the 14 ships were ruined and couldn’t be salvaged. Two German ships were capable of sailing back home to the port of Hamburg. They were carrying raw materials like wool, lead, steel, etc., and received a splendid welcome from over 30,000 spectators.

A recent situation like this happened in the year of 2021 in March as well when the Ever Given container ship, one of the biggest vessels ran aground and got stuck on the Suez Canal. To get more information about, click here to read about the Suez Canal Crisis of 2021.

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