Lesseps, The Suez Canal And Some Takeaways

Anyone could be forgiven for not having heard of Ferdinand de Lesseps — a French engineer, he was obsessed with shortening travel distances to enhance commerce, among other things.  But a case can be made that he extended British rule in India by nearly a century.  Is this a wild exaggeration?  Judge for yourself.

Whenever he observed an isthmus, he had an uncontrollable urge to dig and so he did — first at Suez, a great success, then at Panama, an unfortunate failure, defeated by a little bug — the yellow fever virus.  It was finally completed in 1914 long after he had died. 

But the Suez canal reduced travel time by weeks.  Hitherto a risky journey given the squalls around the South African Cape, and undertaken by the most intrepid of memsahibs, it had left the sahibs to enjoy the pleasures of India unfettered.  And pleasures India offered aplenty.  Bhang, charas, opium to ease the mind and nautch girls or more to complete the sahib’s comforts.  India had seduced rulers before.

In this languid state, the empire would not have lasted long and there had been one rebellion already, the well-known Indian mutiny of 1857.  No, the odds were against it.  That is until Lesseps and his canal.

The shortened journey brought a swarm of memsahibs, ending the sahibs’ leisure and pleasure.  The women soon put a stiff back in the sahibs, straightening them out and the empire which survived.

Well, it was a long time ago.  Now we have an Indian in Downing Street married to an Indian billionairess whose father founded Infosys.  As the Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi residents of Southall, Bradford or east London have said to the BBC.  It makes little difference to us; they are for the rich people.

All the same, he is of Indian heritage, and perhaps Ferdinand de Lesseps should get credit for turning the world upside down.  In India, the locals take pride in their knowledge of English even more than their native language.  In middle class homes, they still drink tea in the early evening; it is a refreshing drink between lunch and dinner which is served late.

The cultural exchange is not one way.  That can be noted immediately on  arrival in England by the proliferation of curry shops.  The signature English dish of fish and chips has lost its pride of place to chicken tikka masala as the country’s favorite fast food.  And restaurants and takeaways offering it can now be found in the remotest corners of the British Isles.

Don’t expect to meet Rishi or his wife Akshata at any of them.  Unlike Bill Clinton whose love of fast food, particularly burgers with jalapeno peppers, was legendary, the Sunaks do not publicly espouse the tastes of the common man. 

In the U.S., McDonald’s reigns supreme with 13,500 locations — 40,000 in 118 countries worldwide.  It serves 69 million people each day.  That’s like serving all of the UK or France or Italy daily.  And, this author confesses to being a huge fan of the Big Mac and also their fries. 

Dr. Arshad M. Khan
Dr. Arshad M. Khan
Dr. Arshad M. Khan is a former Professor based in the US. Educated at King's College London, OSU and The University of Chicago, he has a multidisciplinary background that has frequently informed his research. Thus he headed the analysis of an innovation survey of Norway, and his work on SMEs published in major journals has been widely cited. He has for several decades also written for the press: These articles and occasional comments have appeared in print media such as The Dallas Morning News, Dawn (Pakistan), The Fort Worth Star Telegram, The Monitor, The Wall Street Journal and others. On the internet, he has written for Antiwar.com, Asia Times, Common Dreams, Counterpunch, Countercurrents, Dissident Voice, Eurasia Review and Modern Diplomacy among many. His work has been quoted in the U.S. Congress and published in its Congressional Record.