Italy and the Suez Canal, from the Mid-nineteenth Century to the Cold War. A Mediterranean History

Curli, Barbara
Anzahl Seiten
XXXIII, 411 S.
€ 139,09
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Lucia Carminati, Department of Archaeology, Conservation and History, University of Oslo

The tide is mounting in critical studies of Suez Canal history. New actors, topics, and chronological benchmarks are coming to the fore, and the older “if not stereotyped or even mythical” narratives of this region’s past have to make room for newcomers (p. 4). Yet the older acquaintances resist being sidelined. The “extensive, if somewhat repetitive” bibliography (p. 3) available on the canal is a cumbersome presence whose biases are difficult to dislodge altogether.1

This volume edited by Barbara Curli showcases a rich lineup of contributions and creates a space for Italian and non-Italian researchers to mingle and for those based in Italy and outside of it to come together. The twenty-one contributors took part in a conference organized by Curli herself in Turin in 2019 on the one-hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary of the canal’s opening (also attended and enjoyed – full disclaimer – by the author herself). Published in English, the book pries the horizons of Italian historiography open and creates a channel for dialogue among academic worlds that seldom speak to one another. The book is divided in six thematically and chronologically ordered sections (I. Modern Infrastructures for a Modern State: the Suez Canal and Italian Unification; II. Italian Cultures and the Canal Project; III. Colonial Spaces. Colonial Encounters; IV. Imperial Strategies in the Mediterranean, from the mid-1860s to World War II; V. Work and Migration; VI. Postwar Suez) that are followed by a theoretically provocative afterword by Frederick Cooper.

The volume takes the canal’s historic ties with Italy as its leitmotif. It does so against the backdrop of the Mediterranean that – when the canal was opened – arguably morphed from sea into a strait, a corridor, a passageway between two oceans by a stroke of the human hand (pp. 1, 11). Both the national framework and the global perspective then, as Cooper suggests, are key concepts running through this work. Italy and the Suez Canal effectively complicates both. Rather than reifying the older empire-to-nation-state narratives that have been used to describe the European eighteenth century and onwards, it shows how different characters and disparate forms of political imagination – beyond the nation and the national – animated the debates around the artificial waterway to cut Egyptian-Ottoman territory. And instead of confidently avowing the modernity of a modern canal-enabled commerce and civilization, it proves that the canal was “usable only by a select set of actors – corporations, states, individuals–” and ushered in a world of “uneven and unequal relationships” (p. 383), points that Valeska Huber and I have respectively advanced in our monographs.2 The debt owed to Huber’s ground-breaking study is duly acknowledged in both Curli’s opening remarks and Cooper’s closing ones.

One of the main strengths of Italy and the Suez Canal, and perhaps one enabled by its composite nature exactly, is the ability to embrace different scales of analysis, ranging from the local to the national, the imperial, and the global, and overall interrogating the utility to conceive them as separate.3 Angelos Dalachanis explicitly argues that “crises”, such as the long-dragging one faced by the Suez Canal Company Greek and Italian personnel he examines, “allow the historian to transcend different levels of analysis between local, regional, and global, between the micro and macro scales” (p. 313). Olga Verlato accordingly approaches schools in the canal cities as simultaneously the places inhabited by individual girls and boys, the sites of familiar strategies, and the primary fields for inter-imperial competition (p. 308). Her work shows how “mundane interactions, choices, and life trajectories” illuminate not only the history of Egypt’s education and its political, cultural, and intellectual life, but also Mediterranean migration and alleged “cosmopolitanism” (pp. 310–311). Port-cities are explored both individually and collectively, but constantly placed in broader contexts. Giovanni Cristina situates Italian port-cities at the crossroads between the centralizing Italian state and new routes in international trade (p. 66). If Kevin A. Tang offers a comparative study of several port-cities that relied on trade flows known to pass through the Suez Canal (p. 96), Giovanni Modaffari examines Trieste’s eagerness to present itself as the main gateway to the Orient (p. 145) and Luca Castiglioni explores Assab as a “little settlement” that nonetheless had an impact “on the wider socio-political and diplomatic dynamics at a regional and international level” (p. 189). Paola Schellenbaum ventures beyond national and regional studies and looks at social networks and global missionary encounters as embodiments of transnational faith solidarity (pp. 281, 291). As argued by Andreas Guidi in his study of war contraband in Egypt and the Suez Canal, where “multilayered institutions left interstices open for extraterritorial actors moving between legality and illegality” (p. 222), it is important to shift gears as we write because as “we narrow down the scale of observation, the more interdependencies and ambivalences in these relationships prevail over clear hierarchies” (p. 218).

Italy and the Suez Canal also succeeds in pointing out fresh ways to revisit the conventional geographic and chronological straits of Italian history. It suggests that we should conceive of united Italy as what emerged from a dialogue with Europe’s transnational technocracy and from the interaction between two territorialities, “that of the national space and that of the new Euro-Mediterranean spatial order” (pp. 3, 6–7). Several authors point out that, ironically and contrary to expectations, the opening of the canal eventually led to the Mediterranean’s gradual marginalization in global trade and to Italy’s diminished role (pp. 43, 59, 63, 74, 78, 90, 107–108, 390). Italy and the Suez Canal also overcomes traditional views of backwards pre-unification states versus a modern united Italy (p. 10). As highlighted by Cristina, in the mid-nineteenth century the term “Italy” could take on different meanings and did not “necessarily imply the existence of a unitary political entity” (p. 62). In this regard, the book takes on the vexed issue of “just how Italian” Alois/Luigi Negrelli, whom Curli defines as the “Italian-speaking Austrian engineer” who formulated how to cut the isthmus in the mid-1800s (pp. 1, 9), could be considered to be. Bernardo Bertolucci, in his short documentary The Canal discussed in the book (pp. 1, 375–377), hints at Negrelli when he states that the canal had been “dreamed up by a visionary Italian” (p. 6, 36). As I have argued elsewhere, most Italian literature has eagerly appropriated the Tyrolean engineer who contributed to the planning of the Canal as “Italian.”4 Hence, Cooper’s vision of Negrelli as both “imperial” and “cosmopolitan” is refreshing (p. 384).

Besides challenging Italian history’s periodization, the book also attempts to alter the conventional timeline of the Suez Canal itself: for example, Curli offers a welcome discussion on how events in the 1840s and 1850s helped frame “the whole Suez affair” (pp. 9–10). Fast forward to the mid-twentieth century, Joseph Viscomi is explicitly challenging the “fragmentary categorization of historical time in the Mediterranean” and perceptively revisits 1956 “not as the primary event in the history of Italian departures from Egypt, but rather as a conjuncture which shows departures as outcomes of extended processes” (pp. 332, 345).

At this stimulating feast of ideas, however, there is a stone guest: the Ottoman-Egyptian state. If Ottoman perspectives are treated in Giorgio Ennas’ and Andreas Guidi’s chapters, that crucially rely on Ottoman sources, Egyptian perspectives are left to the devices of single contributors but are not overall prioritized in the volume. Castiglioni mentions Egyptian imperialism in the Red Sea (p. 177). Verlato addresses the Egyptian government’s efforts to control traditional communal schools through its Ministry of Education (pp. 299, 301). Dalachanis addresses the “long-term Egyptianisation of the economy and labour market” as he simultaneously tries to show that the unemployment of foreigners also resulted from the antagonism among Egypt’s foreign communities (pp. 314, 320). Viscomi studies the conditions of possibility for Italian residents in post-war Egypt and the legal and political changes affecting them (p. 338). What Cooper writes about “the world on the far side of the Sinai Peninsula” applies here to Egypt itself: it figures as an “object of the endeavor and not a participant” (p. 384).

In sum, Italy and the Suez Canal moves between the national and the global, embraces different scales of analysis and a range of historical actors, urges for a renewal of parameters in Italy’s historiography, and includes a few Ottoman and Egypt-grounded histories. Overall, it attempts to rewrite the old diplomatic and economic histories of the Suez Canal anew by including perspectives culled from social and cultural history. This volume continues the reflection, initiated by the Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Sardinia Camillo Cavour himself in 1857, on the complicated relationships between the technical and the political spheres, as well as between rhetoric and economic reality (p. 43). Even if the book’s major concern with Italy may inflate its role out of proportion, as would seem from the statement that “Italian unification was the Euro-Mediterranean area’s greatest geopolitical transformation in centuries” (p. 2), it does avoid triumphalist accounts of Italy’s place in Mediterranean and global history. To review such a heterogeneous collective work is a challenge but a welcome chance to highlight the volume’s several merits and sketch the potential ways forward.

1 For an overview, see Lucia Carminati, Suez. A Hollow Canal in Need of Peopling. Currents and Stoppages in the Historiography, 1859–1956, in: History Compass 19, 5 (2021), pp. 1–14.
2 Valeska Huber, Channelling Mobilities. Migration and Globalisation in the Suez Canal Region and Beyond, 1869–1914, Cambridge 2013; Lucia Carminati, Seeking Bread and Fortune in Port Said, 1859–1906. Labor Mobility and the Making of the Suez Canal, Oakland 2023.
3 Christian G. De Vito, History Without Scale. The Micro-Spatial Perspective, in: Past & Present 242 (2019), pp. 348–372.
4 See Carminati, Suez.