June 18 – Evacuation Day in Egypt

Posted on June 18, 2015

When I say "British troops," I am
including troops from the "crown
colonies," including Australia.

I bet, when you got up today, you
didn't think to yourself, I wonder if I will
see a photo of a soldier playing with a
kangaroo in front of the Egyptian
pyramids...did you?
You probably know that Egypt was the site of one of the world's earliest great civilizations. Yet, Great Britain occupied and ruled over this nation, as it did so many others, starting in the late 1800s. Although Egypt was able to implement a constitution with elections and a Parliament and other trappings of democracy, Britain still wielded a lot of influence. Finally, in 1952 there was a revolution, a military overthrow of the rulers and and end to the British occupation of the country.

And when I say that the 1952 revolution ended the British occupation, I mean that it BEGAN to end it. There were still British forces there, and in 1954 Britain and Egypt signed the Anglo-Egyptian Agreement, and in that treaty Britain agreed to withdraw its forces during the next 20 months.

Finally, on June 13, 1956, the very last British soldier left territory of independent Egypt. And on this date in 1956, the Egyptians ceremoniously rose the national flag above the last freed building in Port Said. Officially and in actual fact, the British occupation was finally over.

The commemoration of this date has been widely (and, I read, joyously) celebrated, but other national holidays such as Revolution Days in both January and July and Armed Forces Day in October are more important at this point.

Why did the British occupy Egypt in the first place?

Do you remember the early days of world exploration and trading, when Europeans kept sailing and sailing (and sailing and sailing), trying to figure out how big Africa was, trying to get around Africa and to those coveted riches and spices of India, China, Japan, and the “East Indies”?

It turns out, Africa is pretty big! For centuries European ships had to travel ALL the way around this 5,000 mile (8,000 km) long continent to get to Eastern Asia. And everyone realized that they would save a lot of time and money by punching through the Isthmus of Suez, from the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea, instead of going so far around.

Canals are big-time projects that take a lot of time and money to build. A French man spearheaded the construction project; surprisingly, the British government was against construction of the canal because it would interfere with their dominance in trade with India! However, once the canal opened under French control, the first ship that traveled all the way through the canal was British! Apparently, the opening of the canal was all planned out, and the first ship to go through was supposed to be a French ship, L'Aigle, but Captain George Nares navigated the HMS Newport in total darkness, without lights, through the waiting ships, until it was in front of L'Aigle. Once there, there was no way for L'Aigle to pass the Newport (the canal basically fits only one ship at a time, although there are several spots where ships can duck into a wider bit so that two ships can pass).

So, when dawn broke on opening day, the French were really upset to see a British ship of the Royal Navy was first in line!
Because of Nares's bold AND SNEAKY
action, history books will forevermore say that,
when the Suez Canal opened in 1869,
the HMS Newport led the way.
 Of course, the British government gave Captain Nares an official scolding for doing such a stunt, but apparently in private Nares was thanked for promoting British interests.

The opening of the Suez Canal had an immediate effect of world trade, of course, effectively “shrinking” the world. Apparently British trade did suffer, as people feared it would; however, Britain gained control of the canal when one of Egypt's rulers asked Britain for help to suppress a revolt against his rule.

To learn more about the Suez Canal, check out this earlier post.

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