This is the first part of The Thin Red Line, an African Arguments series focusing on dynamics around the Red Sea.
The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 transformed the Red Sea. Overnight, it turned from being a mere strip of water into a vital artery in international maritime trade. To symbolise this newfound importance, the French sculptor Frederic Bartholdi conceived a huge statue to stand at the canal’s entrance. The design, featuring a woman holding a lantern, was inspired by the monumental figures of Ancient Egypt and was to be called The Statue of Progress or Egypt Bringing Light to Asia.
The sculpture, however, was never built. Egypt had borrowed heavily from British banks to build the canal and, under nineteenth century international law, unpaid creditors were permitted to wage war and annex a country in debt. 14 years later, the British did just that and took control of the canal. Bartholdi’s plan for the statue was scrapped, though France got some revenge by donating an identical statue to the United States. It was placed in New York harbour where it became known as the Statue of Liberty.