Sir Stafford Northcote’s voyage down the new Suez Canal
A travel journal of the British politician Stafford Northcote includes a first-hand account of the opening of the Suez Canal.
Sir Stafford Henry Northcote, 1st Earl of Iddesleigh, by Edwin Longsden Long (1882) NPG 2944 © National Portrait Gallery, London
On 17 November 1869, the Suez Canal was opened for the first time and Sir Stafford Northcote, Earl of Iddesleigh and former Secretary of State for India, travelled to Port Said for the inaugural voyage. Aboard Sir George Stucley’s yacht, the Deerhound, Northcote joined the procession down the new canal on the eighteenth vessel.
Steamships passing through the Suez Canal from Cassell's History of the War in the Soudan (London, 1885) BL flickr
The opening was attended by the great and the good, including the Emperor of Austria and Queen of Holland. Following the opening ceremony, the evening of 16 November closed with a display of ‘illuminations’ and the dawn of 17 November began with a 21-gun salute!
However, the procession did not go completely to plan. The captains navigating the new canal were short of experienced pilots to guide them. The Deerhound soon received news that a vessel had run aground ahead. This put them in ‘a ticklish position, sometimes drifting on to the bank, sometimes bashing’ into the ship in front. Fortunately they were able to steer past several grounded vessels, and only briefly ‘stuck in the mud’ themselves.
On reaching Lake Timsah, the guests saw ‘a large building has been erected for a state ball, capable of accommodating 2000 or 3000 persons properly’ near the shore. The Viceroy of Egypt had also summoned ‘a host of arab chiefs from Upper Egypt to come and encamp on the long sandy beach’. Northcote praised the camp, calling it ‘by far the most interesting part of the sights which have been provided for us’.
In the evening, Northcote went ashore to attend the reception in the temporary ballroom. He did not stay long, but took the opportunity to visit ‘the supper room and got some excellent ices, and dates, sugarplums, biscuits and very fair champagne at the buffet’.
Map of the Suez Canal from Lucien Lanier, L'Afrique (Paris, 1899) BL flickr
But the aim of the trip was not champagne and dancing. On reaching Port Said, Northcote wondered at the luck of Egypt, now able to ‘boast the possession at once of the oldest and the newest of the great works of man’. And on completing his voyage he began to consider the economic impact of this new trade route:
‘What the effect of the canal may be upon commerce it is too early to speculate. Will Marseilles and Lyons fair so much by the abbreviation of the route to India as to cut out Liverpool and Manchester? Or shall we build vessels which will run through from England to Bombay?’
Cover of Northcote's travel journal – photograph by Matthew Waters
Northcote’s voyage from Falmouth to Egypt to see the new canal and back again was recorded in his travel journal which is now available to view at the British Library (Add MS 89674/1). This volume also includes a record of a second trip around the Mediterranean in 1882. It is accompanied by a second diary (Add MS 89674/2) covering two journeys to North America in 1870 and in 1871.
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography – Northcote, Stafford Henry, first Earl of Iddesleigh
Add MS 89674/1 - Journal of Stafford Northcote recording trips to Egypt and around the Mediterranean
Opening of the Suez Canal