The British Empire 
                                                              1815-1914

The Opening of the Suez Canal

India’s lifeline

In  1869 the Egyptian-French financed Suez Canal was opened. Little interest in  the project had been  taken by the British but when opened it was realised that it shortened by some considerable distance the journey to India. The distance  around  the Cape to Bombay was 10,450 miles but just 6,000 miles through the canal. The opening  of the canal increased the  need for Britain to remain the dominant power in the Middle East as it was  now India's lifeline.  The Middle East became henceforth a major focal point of British interest.


Britain’s dominance of Middle Eastern politics

When authority collapsed in Egypt in 1881 as a result of a military coup, Gladstone who had been very critical of imperial policies decided to occupy Egypt. From this time until the Suez crisis in 1956 Britain dominated Middle Eastern politics and when the Ottoman Empire was dismantled after WW1 Britain acquired the lion's share of its territories in the Palestine region. As oil became more and more important to the British economy so the hold on  the Middle East was intensified.


With Britain's involvement in Egypt came a responsibility for Sudan, a virtual Egyptian colony, and when Britain decided to evacuate its forces from Sudan General Gordon was selected to undertake the task. His mission and death in Sudan was to capture the public imagination and was become part of the myth of  British imperialism.


Route past the cape still important

The route  to the Cape though was  still considered important and when Lord Fisher became  First Sea Lord in  1904 he  declared that five ports controlled the whole world: Dover, Gibraltar, Alexandria, Cape Town and Singapore. The Suez Canal may have been  opened in1869 but the Cape route remained important enough for Britain to go to war  to protect her interest in the Cape in 1899.


Disraeli acquires a controlling interest in the cCanal

In 1875, Disraeli was able to buy a controlling interest in the company on behalf of the  British government for £4 million by buying the 40% allocation of the ruler of Egypt who had  gone bankrupt. The canal now became part of Britain's strategic interest.


The beginning of jingoism

The importance of the canal to Britain  was made clear in  1877 when  a Russian  army invaded the Balkans following the brutal repression of a rebellion in Bulgaria by the Turkish authorities. A British fleet, including  the most modern ship in the world, HMS Devastation, anchored in the Dardanelles and Indian troops were sent to Malta in preparation for a war between Russia and Britain.  With war fever raging in  the music halls, the song of the moment was:

We don't  want to fight, but by jingo  if we  do,

We've  got the ships; we've got the men; we've  got the money too!


An army revolt in Egypt brings interest from Britain

The stability of Egypt was crucial to British  strategic interests in the Middle East, and the ambition of  Khedive Muhammad Ali seemed to be taking  Egypt towards becoming a modern state. There had been investment in railways, cotton plantations, and irrigation as well as schools but by 1882 total debt totalled £100 million. Despite attempts by an international commission to keep the country solvent, internal dissension with international interference led to unrest and a revolt by army officers in February 1881 led by Urabi Pasha. In September 1881 he carried out a coup d'etat and made himself Minister of War with full control of the army.


The British were concerned at the possibility of an  anti-British  government. They sent an armed  ship to Alexandria but this had no  impact. A riot in Alexandria in  June 1882 was interpreted as the first step towards anarchy and Parliament demanded action. The French parliament decided against action but Gladstone's government decided that they had to  take action. The port of Alexandria was bombed and Gladstone declared that he would send an expeditionary force to restore order.


Tel-el-Kebir

During August two armies, one of 24,000 troops from India and one of 7,000 from Britain and led by Wolseley converged on Egypt. Warships occupied the canal and the military force landed on 18 August at Ismailia. Four weeks later Urabi's camp at Tel-el-Kebir was stormed and overrun enabling Wolseley to march on Cairo. Urabi was captured and banished to Ceylon.


Britain takes control of Egypt

Wolseley, embarrassed by his involvement, declared that Britain would oversee the regeneration of Egypt - to be done by a group of civil servants under  the direction of Baring, the army being  overseen by British officers. Egypt became a virtual protectorate but with power in the hands of British senior civil servants who saw it as their task to return Egypt to solvency. A British army of 5,000 men was kept in Egypt and Alexandria became the main Mediterranean base for the Royal Navy. The British eventually  recognised Egyptian independence in  1922. Egypt was never a colony in the sense that there was a British administration running the territory with a Governor and some form of representative government. The control over Egypt had been indirect and this indirect rule was strengthened although it fell short of full colony status. This marked a change in direction in British policy as territories that had previously been dominated by British influence had a more formal kind of rule substituted in order to prevent other European powers from exerting thei r own form of control in an age of European imperial aggrandisement.


The Sudan

Taking responsibility for Egypt meant that Britain took over responsibility for the Egyptian colony  of Sudan where Egyptian control was fragile.  The Sudan was considered by Britain to be of strategic importance as it controlled the waters of the Nile - essential to the Egyptian economy -and also had a coastline that bordered the seaward route to India and the Pacific.


In 1881 a  revolt had broken out in  the  Sudan led by Muhammad Ahmad, a 30 year old holy man who referred to himself as the Mahdi. His message of  spiritual rebirth appealed to the Sudanese people and so a British led Egyptian force was sent to the Sudan to deal with the revolt. The force though was defeated  in  November 1883  at Shaykan. One of the Mahdi's allies then opened  up another front at the Red Sea  port of Suakin. Gladstone's  government decided to evacuate all Egyptian forces and sent general Gordan to oversee the withdrawal.


General Gordon killed

Gordon was a popular hero whose bravery and evangelical fervour appealed to the British  public. Gordon saw himself as an agent of Providence  answerable only to God. He had a particular talent for commanding  non-European  troops as when he crushed  the Taiping rebellion  in the 1860s and when in the 1870s he  defeated Sudanese slave traders in  the Sudan.  On  arrival in Khartoum he  was  given an enthusiastic reception but he decided to ignore his instructions. He  called on  the public to repel the forces of the Mahdi rather  than withdraw from the Sudan. The Mahdi's forces besieged Khartoum and with Gordon's position becoming  ever more precarious, Gladstone eventually decided to send  a force to  relieve the siege of Khartoum.


Wolseley's advance was  cautious but an  advance column crossing the desert was brought to battle at Abu Klea where in a short battle lasting twenty minutes they suffered heavy losses with the  red square pierced but the Mahdist forces were driven off.


The relative success of the Mahdist forces in  the desert encouraged the Mahdi to storm Khartoum which was taken on 28 January with Gordon killed in the fighting. The more romantic story of Gordon  dying  on steps was the result of  unreliable sources but  because it was regarded  as a fitting end for  a Christian soldier  it was the version  that became   part of history.


The Fashoda Incident  brought Britain and France to the brink of war

The Mahdi died a few months later and the Sudan was to pose little threat to Egypt in the following  years. The Sudan and the headwaters of the Nile were to be an area competed for by Britain and France as Britain was concerned  that Egypt's agriculture might be  affected by any power controlling this area. Britain claimed the area by virtue of its position in Egypt but this was challenged by France in  1898 when the French sent a force under the command of Captain Marchand  to Fashoda  on  the shores of the Upper Nile.


Captain Marchand had crossed the African continent from Brazzaville to Fashoda  in a journey lasting 18 months. He then claimed Fashoda on behalf of France at a time when General Kitchener was in Sudan to quell an uprising. Kitchener claimed that the whole of the Sudan, including Fashoda, lay under  Britain administration. There was a stand off until Salisbury put the Royal Navy on alert and the French accepted Salisbury's demands and withdrew Marchand. France renounced all claims to the Nile valley and the area remained under British control the more so following Kitchener's defeat of Sudanese forces.


The British government had previously sanctioned the retaking of the Sudan by a force commanded by Kitchener. Kitchener advanced slowly down  the Nile using a railway that  was constructed as they went. As the force got closer to  the Khalifah's army of 60,000, British troops were sent out.


The Battle of Omdurman

The decisive battle was fought on 2 September 1898 on  a plain near  Omdurman. The Khalifah's army made a  series of frontal attacks which were beaten off with long range rifle fire, machine  guns and  artillery which together  killed 11,000 men and wounded a further  16,000. It was a massacre which showed the difference between European  armies and native forces. Many of the Khalifah's leaders were summarily shot leading to MPs in the House of Commons demanding  that Kitchener be denied his  payment of £30,000 - his reward for Omdurman.


Britain the dominant power in the Middle East

With the defeat of the Khalifah's army and the settlement with the French following the Fashoda incident Britain remained the dominant European in the region and made all the more powerful after WW1 when the Ottoman Empire collapsed. The seaward route to India and the Far East through the Mediterranean and the  Suez Canal was now well protected by a string of British territories (Gibraltar, Malta, Cyprus, Egypt and Sudan) and would remain so until threatened in WW2 by the airpower of the Axis forces.



The route to India was 5,000 miles shorter via the Suez canal

At Tel-el-Kebir British forces under the command of General Wolseley defeated the army of Urabi Pasha.

General Gordon

A British view of the Fashoda Incident

The Battle of Omdurman where 11,000 Sudanese were killed in a massacre which demonstrated the difference between European and native forces.

British influence in the Middle East grew as a result of the strategic importance of the Suez Canal.