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Volume 26, Number 5September/October 1975

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The Opening

Written by Edmund S. Whitman
Photographs courtesy of The Compagnie de Suez

Sir Frederick Arrow, a droll and delightful Englishman, decided to visit Egypt as he sat in his office in Trinity House on a humid mid-summer day of 1869, studying an elaborately hand-lettered invitation from Ismail, hereditary Khedive and Viceroy of Egypt. Would Sir Frederick be the honored guest of the Khedive during special ceremonies marking the historic opening of a canal linking the Mediterranean with the Red Sea, Europe with India, Occident with Orient? In anticipation of a favorable reply it would be the Khedive's pleasure to provide first-class accommodations, with all expenses paid, from London to Egypt and return.

Why was he being so honored, Sir Frederick may well have asked himself. And he thought he might have the answer: he was Deputy Master of Trinity House, a corporation whose objective had been, since 1514, to report to the Crown on all matters having to do with the safety and progress of navigation. Anything having to do with buoys, lighthouses, beacons or pilots was his responsibility, as well as studies on canals and channel markings. Furthermore, as a former master of a merchant ship in the East India trade, he would seem to be well qualified to make some penetrating observations about the brand-new Suez Canal. Yes, that was undoubtedly the reason, and Sir Frederick would indeed be the Khedive's honored guest.

He would also be an informal but observant chronicler of these events and the author of a delightful little pamphlet which is today tucked away in a folio in the New York Public Library. It is called Fortnight in Egypt and relates the reactions of an aimiable, humorous and possibly typical 19th-century Englishman to one of the great events of the century.

The pamphlet, however, was to come later. At the time Sir Frederick simply thought he would be expected to jot down his impressions. "I'll be expected to take along my notebook," he mused, "and that I will."

The first entries are routine. Sir Frederick made his way to Marseilles, boarded a P & O paddle steamer called The Delta, disembarked at Alexandria and began to sample what his notebook describes as "exceedingly good" living. But the tone changed as Sir Frederick plunged into the extraordinary activities which Egypt's generous Khedive had laid on to mark the opening of the great canal.

One of the events, Sir Frederick learned, was the presentation of Verdi's Rigoletto at Cairo's glittering Opera House, a substitute for Aida, which the composer had agreed to write for the opening but failed to complete on time. The Khedive, of course, was disappointed, but not nearly as much as Sir Frederick was on learning that there were two classes of invitations for the opening: one for Royalty and one for the likes of Sir Frederick.

"Below the salt, eh, Arrow?" he counseled himself. "Well so be it then." Or so he said. In fact, Sir Frederick would spend the rest of the trip, and much of his notebook, on improving his position.

On November 14th Sir Frederick was informed that he would transit the canal aboard the Egyptian vessel El Misr which, he noted after boarding, was "a large, powerful screw vessel, fitted up as a passenger vessel, but loaded with gilding and beautiful wood carving, her occupation being, about once a year, to take the Viceroy's entourage for a sniff of the briny." Sir Frederick stayed aboard El Misr until it docked at Port Said, departure point for the fleet of ships whose voyage would officially open the canal, and the meeting place for many of the crowned heads of Europe.

The inner harbour was full of vessels which were going to go through the canal ranged in 2 lines with the sterns to the banks and heads pointing to the middle and a large water space between the lines. The southernmost vessel on the port side was the Khedive's Mahrousseh, with a berth vacant south of her. North of her was the Emperor of Austria's yacht; then H. M. S. Psyche with the English Ambassador; and then came the yachts of Prussian and Dutch Royalty, and of Ambassadors of other countries and a general mixture.

It was now nearly 9 am and all eyes were turned seaward as the taper spars of the French Imperial yacht began to show up. When within easy distance she turned to the westwardslowly passing along the Austrian ships, pointed for the sternmost ship of the English line, passing slowly along them, dipping the Imperial standard as she passed the Admiral, and then round his bows between him and our vessel. Of course the usual compliments were paid; yards were manned, the men cheering as she passed; the ships dressed; the cannon thundering a royal welcome, while the strains of "Partant pour la Syrie," emerging through the noise and smoke, could be heard at intervals . . .  The Empress [Eugenie of France] standing on the bridge looking radiantly happy, and might well be proud of her reception . . . At last the yacht was moored in the vacant berth next to the Mahrousseh, the first ship ready to lead into the canal.

Sir Frederick, however, was equally interested in what was happening on shore. He devoted several pages to an amused account of the entertainment that was offered: the bears dancing clumsily to the music of the hurdy-gurdy and a magician who managed to extract up to 12 live chicks from his mouth. But he was horrified by a fire-eater who exhaled a six-foot plume of flame, a chap who gulped live scorpions and a silver-gilded acrobat who walked a tightrope with a baby lashed to either ankle. These, for a 19th-century Englishman, were a bit much.

In the meantime, he goes on, the smoke of battle from various 21-gun salutes had cleared and he returned to the waterfront, determined to make some sort of report on the number of British flags he could identify through the haze. There, amid a boatload of guests from his ship, he noticed a pompous and beribboned individual whose frock coat and distinguished hat were so obviously British that Sir Frederick decided he could hazard a comment.

"A bit difficult to pick out the Union Jack in all this smoke," he said, sidling up to this party.

"Humph!" was the reply, as the little man rose on his toes, much after the manner of a rooster crowing on a picket fence. "What you are witnessing is an extravagant and needless waste of gunpowder, much of it British! For your information we have a dozen ships out there, sloops-of-war, gunboats and ships of the line, all belching smoke. Outrageous. I can assure you, Parliament shall hear about this upon my return!"

"Your Lordship,"—Sir Frederick's voice was full of respect—"I didn't realize that a person of your rank should have been a passenger on El Misr. That is a matter that should be put to rights at once. Permit me to introduce myself, Sir Frederick Arrow of Trinity House."

"Trinity House, eh?" His companion looked at him with a minimum amount of consideration. "And what do you propose to do about it, eh?"

Sir Frederick was thinking fast and scanning the harbor diligently.

"Well, having with me a Member of Parliament ..."

"And a member of the Admiralty Committee to boot. Lord Heatherton's the name."

"And a member of the Admiralty Committee to boot, it seems to me that you and I should seek sanctuary for the canal trip on that ship right there!" And he pointed to the Psyche, a trim dispatch boat directly ahead, flying not only the Union Jack but also the Admiral's emblem.

The two lost no time in commanding a gig to take them back to El Misr where they quickly convinced the affable Master that they should be transferred to the dispatch boat Psyche.

Sir Frederick had no trouble convincing his stuffy Lordship that he, Arrow, should give the view halloo when their gig came alongside. "Beneath your dignity to shout and all that . . . ."

"Quite." The reply was crisp and affirmative.

"Ahoy!" Sir Frederick bellowed through cupped hands. "Englishmen here. Guests of the Viceroy, both. Request permission to come aboard."

"Identification," came the staccato word from the bridge.

"Lord Heatherton of the Admiralty Committee and . . . ."

His voice was drowned out before he could complete the identification. "Lower the ladder!" roared the voice from the bridge and moments later, according to a characteristic entry in his journal, he and the member of the Admiralty Committee were "back on British soil once more."

His base temporarily secured, Sir Frederick sallied forth the next day to shore, where in the rear of the pavilion which was to shelter the Empress herself he jotted down a glowing description of the official opening of the ceremonies:

Sound of cannon now heralded the arrival of the Emperor of Austria, the Prince Royal of Prussia, with Prince Louis of Hesse, Prince Henry of the Netherlands, and his fair sister, and various Ambassadors. Presently, however, appeared the most prominent of the guests in the person of the Empress, who arrived in her barge, fully manned but towed by a steam launch. When the vessel glided up to the platform everyone pressed forward as she, taking the Khedive's hand, fairly jumped out of the boat amidst loud and continuous cheers and vivas; bands playing and troops saluting; and very handsome and imperial she looked; she had a hat and feather, and, like all French women, teas bien chaussée as well as bien gantée.

Giving his arm to the Empress, the Emperor of Austria led the way, the Khedive accompanying them to the kiosk fitted up for the religious ceremony.

Crowds followed; black coats and blue, red coats and green. There were 3 kiosks; one for the exalted portion of spectatorsone for the Mohammedana third for the Christian rites.

The Mohammedan was the first, reading from a scroll in his hand. Following the Moolah, the Christian ceremony with the Patriarch of Jerusalem celebrating a grand Mass. There were the usual number of magnificently vested priests and acolytes, with here and there in the crowd, coarse brown-gowned, rope-begirt and tonsured Carmelites.

When the Almoner to the Empress, Mons. Bauer, in violet robe, made a very good address on the great changes that may be effected by the Canal, and the wonders already achieved in its construction; and with a grateful tribute to De Lesseps, whom he likened to Columbus.

For benediction there was a grand triumphal arch, and under it a large platform on which there were at least 1,000 people in every description of uniform, and blazing, except for the English, with decorations. The Khedive, who looks better out of than in uniform, was standing on a part cleared for the reception of the most distinguished guests, with Abd-el-Kadir [an Algerian leader] in his white Arab bernous, with hood drawn over his head, only partially showing his face, and M. De Lesseps standing by his side. What a contrast the men were! It was worth the journey to see the grand old Emir, with his eagle eye, coal-black beard and impassive face; a true son of Ishmael . . . De Lesseps (all honour to his name) on the other hand, personified the civilization which his energy had created; while his open, handsome face, and frank, genial manner bespoke the man whose energy and fascination are irresistible, and attracts to himself all with whom he is brought in contact. At a little distance, amongst a group of ladies, was pointed out to me his fiancée, to be his bride as soon as the fetes are finished."

It was at this juncture that Sir Frederick's eye was taken by an English naval officer in white who was standing nearby. Arrow wormed his way over and tapped him on the arm.

"Arrow here. Am I mistaken in believing that you served with me in the Monarch in East Indian waters some years ago?"

"Indeed you are not mistaken," whispered the delighted officer. "Captain Wood now of the gunboat Rapid. And no matter where you may be berthed, you are to board my ship and share my quarters!"

And thus it was that Sir Frederick made an unobtrusive transfer from the Psyche to the Rapid, where he and his former shipmate immediately began plotting ways and means of improving the British flotilla's position behind the Aigle, the imperial yacht, for the historic voyage through the canal.

There has been some confusion as to the places ships were to take. Our captain, however, was not the man to stop behind when he could get ahead and, after consulting the Admiral, made a push for his place in the first arrangement, which he very cleverly effected with the exception of being behind a great, lumbering vessel of the Messageries Imperiales, rejoicing in the appropriate name of La Peluse. She turned out to be the veritable bete noir of the squadron. It was rather good fun to see the flutter our appearance created; half-savage, half-amused looks and remarks of those who thought they ought to be ahead of us, and were trying to get out of the line.

From seven o'clock on, Arrow and the captain, telescopes in hand, kept a careful eye on the Aigle. If she decided to slip through the massive obelisks that marked the official entrance to the canal a few minutes before the appointed hour, an alert navigator with anchors aweigh might just possibly slip closer to the head of the lines.

Alas, it was not to be. At five minutes before the hour they spotted a flag-festooned Egyptian launch delivering the great Frenchman De Lesseps to the Aigle's starboard ladder. They were able to follow his movements to the bridge deck where he joined the waiting Empress.

"Not a chance," said the captain. "Eugénie's a stickler for punctuality . . . and so is De Lesseps."

Precisely at eight bells the Aigle's paddles started churning and at once the harbor exploded with cannon, sirens and whistles and the historic voyage was under way, the Aigle leading, followed by the Greif, flying the flag of the Emperor of Austria, the Prussian frigate Grille, with the Crown Prince aboard, a fourth ship flying a Swedish flag, and a huge Russian warship called Yachut, her massive tier of guns swung ominously over the Rapid's bow; the Walk, a trim Dutch gunboat with Prince Henry and Princess Sophia aboard, the Psyche and, to the annoyance of Sir Frederick and Captain Wood, La Peluse. The Rapid tried to slip into line ahead of La Peluse, Sir Frederick wrote, but could not without being rammed.

"Well, anyway," Sir Frederick said, trying to cheer up his glum shipmate, "Britain has top representation aboard the Psyche, and we're not far behind. Cheer up! Who knows what the future may hold?"

It was a prophetic remark, for shortly after La Peluse went aground and the Rapid was able to move ahead—to Sir Frederick's obvious glee.

About 2 pm we got fairly going through the canal, watching the while to see that the ships ahead kept their proper distance. The wind kept blowing us dozen, and to counteract this we had to go astern. One of the ships ahead kept straight enough but she backed too much and La Peluse had to gradually back up on the starboard side of the channel, leaving half of its width clear.

When we saw our friend shoot on the starboard side of the channel and go fast aground, we knew our chance to pass had come. Luckily La Peluse did not tail out, but as she began screwing astern to get off, as long as she did this we were obliged to stop, as well as all behind us. After some time it was found that she could only be got off by anchor, and then we prepared to pass her. Sending the Master ahead to see if there was room and water depth, Rapid slowly drew up to her and without ever touching her, went clear.

The conduct of our gallant allies, the French, belied their reputation for politeness to the last, refusing to give the least help when courteously asked to brace their yards around, and as ice came abreast, greeting us with a volley of bad language which was only stopped when an English party on board of her drowned it by cheering us.

Once we had a clear field, nothing ahead of us and nothing astern; for La Peluse effectually blocked the way for the rest by getting a little more athwart, and so we rattled along at nearly full speed.

It was evening when the Rapid dropped anchor alongside the Psyche in Ismailia but Sir Frederick scribbled on, quoting the Book of Isaiah ("The desert shall rejoice and blossom as the rose") to express his astonishment at what the Khedive had built on empty sand wastes in a matter of days. There were two hotels, five cafés, a theatre, a chapel in addition to an elaborate mosque, a hospital, a telegraph office and the stately villas and, to crown it all, the triumphal arch that graced the Quay Mehemet Ali and the Khedive's stately palace where, that evening, a great dinner would be served.

Ashore in Ismailia throngs of wildly cheering spectators streaming across the boulevard immediately engaged his interest and set him scribbling frantically again. There were, he says, dervishes, dancers, shaikhs, fellahin, women and children as well as jack tars, foreigners in mufti, a scattering of notables and, in their midst, the Empress Eugenie, in floppy hat and yellow dress, stunningly mounted on a white camel. As if that were not enough for one day, he was destined to bump into Emile Zola, Henrik Ibsen and Theophile Gautier holding literary court beside the sparkling fountain.

But it was the final entry for the day that capped his climactic day and night ashore. This was the one covering the dazzling reception in the Khedive's palace, to which he had a specific invitation.

I arrived at the Palace punctually at nine o'clock in the evening, suitably attired in dress coat and cocked hat, as the invitation clearly stipulated. At once I was herded into a vast, dusty room where I was joined by a shuffling, disorganized herd of frock coats, tall hats, uniforms, turbans and oriental dress.

He went on to report that there was a big expanse to the right, set apart from the rest of the vast chamber by massive and closely placed potted palms.

"For royalty I presume," he said to a perspiring American.

"Yep. That's where Her Majesty will feed later on, after all the other high muck-a-mucks have arrived. Most of the folks will wait here and peek in through the bushes, but not yours truly. I saw her on her camel this morning. That's enough for me. I came here tonight to eat."

"You'd better try to find a seat then," Arrow suggested. "I understand that the Khedive has given orders that only those seated shall be served."

But even as he spoke, Sir Frederick could see that every seat at every long table was occupied, with groups clustered behind each diner. At first he was horrified, but eventually hunger overcame his upbringing. Like hundreds of others he began to snatch food and drink from trays even as they were being brought to the tables. It was the start of an incredible episode in which officers with blazing decorations snatched fruits and vegetables, gentlemen seized whole roast chickens and tore the drumsticks off and those without seats reached right over bare shoulders and gold-encrusted epaulets to wrest food from the plates of those who had seats.

As the hour approached midnight, royalty began arriving and as places of vantage to watch were at a premium, Sir Frederick had to fend off encroachment from jack-booted Prussian officers. Fortunately, he reports, some ballet dancers on the marble tables nearby distracted them.

Meanwhile, to the blare of martial music, the Empress Eugenie made her entrance and took the place of honor at the center of the table magnificently arranged by Europe's most famous culinary artists. The napery was snowy, the stemware polished to perfection and scores of silver candelabra towered well over the diners, bathed in flickering candlelight.

The menu, according to a helpful waiter that Sir Frederick came across, was equal to its setting: lobster, saddle of veal, fish and turkey flanked by all sorts of galantines, one molded in the form of the imperial yacht. There were also boned woodcocks on crisp toast points, clear turtle soup served in wafer-thin bowls and embellished with croutons. Service included petits fours, a whipped cream souffle and cake pyramids whose frosted sides were garnished with almonds and green pistachio nuts. Coffee was served from gleaming urns into the tiniest and most delicate cups imaginable.

Fortunately for Sir Frederick, who was bone tired by then, Eugenie's toast was much shorter than the menu:

Thirty-five centuries ago, the waters of the Red Sea drew back at the word of Moses. Today, at the order of the sovereign of Egypt they return to their bed. Let us then raise our glasses to the two great figures involved: the man who spoke those words in the presence of the Prince of Wales when the canal dyke was breachedFerdinand de Lessepsand the one at whose order it all transpiredour most exalted and distinguished hostIsmail Pasha, Khedive of Egypt.

With that, Sir Frederick repaired to his beloved British sanctuary aboard the Rapid, and perhaps a post-midnight foray into her galley. But tired as he was, he still found time to make a last-minute entry into his journal:

The ball was fearfully crowdeda few ladies indeed. Our middies had the word that to make up for the paucity of the female element the Khedive had imported from Cairo the entire corps de ballet and ladies of the opera.

What makes one doubt the creditability of this story is that the prevailing type were exceedingly plain, while at the opera in Cairo I was struck with the good looks of the Terpsichorean troupe.

The Empress, Emperor of Austria, Khedive etc. occasionally perambulated the big room. You can imagine the crush when I tell you that an unfortunate marine was hustled up against Sa Majeste and actually trod on her robe.

She looked very regal with her diamond necklace and tiara but somehow I liked her appearance better in her morning dress.

The supper was a cautionvery good to those who got anythey wanted to be very 'pucka' and serve no one not seated; which was rather hard, there not being seats for one half. But it is dangerous work playing with hungry men and in the end we made a very substantial, if not recherché supper.

The next day an atmosphere of lethargy seemed to prevail, the aftermath, no doubt, of the Khedive's gargantuan reception. The Empress, nevertheless, managed to make it to a ceremony at which she bestowed the Grand Cross of the French Legion of Honor upon De Lesseps and not long after most of the fleet moved to the south end of the Bitter Lakes for the final leg of the trip to the Red Sea. Except to note proudly that the Rapid held its place in line, Sir Frederick wrote little that day but on Saturday, November 20, got back to work.

Last day of our progress. The clear atmosphere and glorious dawn, which threw a flood of golden light over the desert, was an augury of the success with which our journey closed.

On the western shore might be seen the long, tapering sails of the Arab boats on the sweet-water canal, while between them and the margin of the lake were visible the telegraph poles on the railway and a train puffing and smoking along; three channels of communication utilizing the greatest wonders of modern science were before us . . . .

Daylight as I write thisa general bustlesteam and smoke from funnels showed that an early start was widely contemplated.

He was interrupted by the Captain, who came in to report that the British contingent had been able to regroup en masse, thanks to the wide Bitter Lake, and would therefore accomplish the objective that the Admiral had held from the outset: to group 12 British vessels, directly aft of the Grief. It was, as Captain Woods put it, the "only way to demonstrate that Britannia rules the waves."

After that, the journal goes on, the ceremonies drew quickly to a close. The British flotilla managed, as planned, to stay together as the ships navigated the final 14 miles to the anchorage at Suez but, Sir Frederick says unhappily, not quite as triumphantly as the Admiral had expected.

The Admiral's flagship, next vessel but one to us, followed suit and the Admiral had the pleasure of bringing his flag from the Mediterranean into the Red Sea with a greater contingent than any other nation represented in the transit.

As we did not arrive until two hours after the grandees all the salutes of welcome were over.

Still, all was not lost. When the Greif, on her way to the new dock, serenaded the British fleet with Rule Britannia! the Rapid's crew came up with an idea over high tea to recruit a band and glee club from the British ships and send them on a cutter to serenade the Empress. The idea was accepted and not long after a boatload of Englishmen pulled alongside the Aigle and brought Eugénie to the rail with rousing renditions of the popular French military air Partant pour la Syrie, the stirring Marseillaise and God Save The Queen. When it was over Eugenie blew kisses to the British flotilla while her ship's company on the deck below waved and cheered.

It was, Sir Frederick wrote, a notable "finis" to a notable fortnight. There remained now only a gathering of British officers and guests aboard the Admiral's flagship. There, he writes, toasts were proposed to Queen Victoria, the Prince of Wales, Empress Eugénie, the Emperor of Austria, Ferdinand de Lesseps, the Admiral, Captain Wood and even poor, below-the-salt Sir Frederick, whose record of the ceremonies remains one of liveliest accounts of Suez ever written.

Edmund S. Whitman, a former vice president of the United Fruit Company, is the author of several books and a former columnist for the old New York World.

This article appeared on pages 4-9 of the September/October 1975 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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