Mr. Thayer to Mr. Seward

No. 34.]

Sir: Letters from Khartoum (of April 2) mention the arrival from the upper country of Captains Speke and Grant, the Englishmen who, about two years ago, set out on an expedition to discover the sources of the Nile, which, it is gratifying to learn, have at last been found.

Captain Speke is expected to arrive at Alexandria in a few days. The explorers started from Zanzibar, on the west coast of Africa, and, proceeding westwardly on the line of five degrees south latitude, came upon a very large lake, which they circumnavigated, and from which, it seems, the White Nile takes its rise. To this lake (which is entirely distinct from the neighboring lake, Nyanzi, already discovered) Captain Speke gave the name of Victoria. Coming down the river, he arrived about the 1st day of April at Khartoum, his party having been reduced by desertions, hostile attacks of the natives, and disease, from seventy to seventeen. It is said he reports wonderful stories of the ivory and other resources of the countries he has visited.

News comes, also, of the safety of Mr. Petherick, the English explorer, who, in the summer of 1861, went up the Nile to meet and carry assistance to Captain Speke’s party on their voyage home. Mr. Petherick, who was sent by the Royal Geographical Society principally to establish a grain supply for the expedition at Gondokora, (a place a little less than five degrees north of the equator,) had been reported to be drowned, with all his companions; but this welcome intelligence shows that he has been able to fulfil the purpose of his voyage.

Meanwhile Mr. Baker, an Englishman, is said to have left Khartoum, on an expedition of eighteen months, to explore the newly discovered lake.

It thus appears that the source of the Nile, the problem which has puzzled mankind from the earliest antiquity, has been found at a distance of over 2,500 miles from its mouth.

The English government and the Porte have lately interested themselves in regard to the Suez canal, which the former, in consequence, it is believed, of Sir Henry Bulwer’s late visit here, begins to see is really in danger of being successfully completed. The Porte objects to two things: First, to the system of forced labor; and secondly, to the surrender of lands along the bank of the canal to the company.

It says to the Viceroy, if you will abolish forced labor, we will co-operate with you in trying to complete the work, which we admit to be a work of necessity and importance to the Ottoman empire. If you will annul the concession of lands, we are willing that you should make good to the company their value in money, or some other form, although that concession was unauthorized by the Porte and ought not to have been made. We consider that such a concession involves the risk of French colonization, and the virtual establishment of an imperium in imperio. For, according to the capitulation, foreigners, settling in Ottoman territories, are exempt from local jurisdiction, and are subject solely to their own government.

To this Mr. de Lesseps, president of the company, replies by two notes, in one of which (herewith sent, marked A,) dated April 14, 1863, he argues at length that the labor of the canal is not forced, in the offensive sense of the term. The Egyptian government, he says, furnishes laborers according to the plan of compulsion employed in public works and canals since the earliest times, and without which Egypt would be a desert; but the rigors of the system are mitigated by kind treatment, the short period of toil, viz., [Page 1210] (twenty-five days for each man,) and by a sure reward, at least equal to the average wages of laborers throughout Egypt.

As for the question of surrendering lands granted by the Viceroy, he says it has been done already on the fresh-water canal from Cairo to the Wady, and that a further surrender would injure the interests of the company and of the public generally. He refers also to the appropriation of public lands in the United States to companies, in order to enable them to complete important public works, and where, as in this case, the possession is given without carrying with it the right of sovereignty.

The company, he avers, does not ask sovereignty, and all its colonies will be under local jurisdiction. He then renews the proposition formerly made to guarantee to all nations in the most conclusive manner the neutrality of the canal. These propositions are given in another note to the Porte, also dated April 14, of which I transmit a copy (marked B.)

No final action has been taken on the demands of the Porte, and the works on the canal go on as usual. But the Viceroy is occupying himself with the warm question of effecting an arrangement with the company, which will, without impairing its interests, remove the objections of the Sultan. Although there are difficulties in the way of a solution, yet there is no doubt that, in any case, the labors on the canal will continue uninterrupted.

The Sultan and Viceroy are warm supporters of the enterprise, and the only opposition it experiences relates not to the work itself, but to collateral questions of management and detail.

I have the honor to be, sir, very respectfully, your obedient servant,


Hon. William H. Seward, Secretary of State, Washington, D. C.



Note upon the contingent of laborers on the works of the Suez Canal Company.

The fertility of the soil depends in Egypt on a single fact, the existence of the Nile, whose annual floods come to refresh and fertilize the soil. Deprived of irrigation, Egypt would be nothing but a desert. It exists only by the force of the phenomenon of periodic floods, whose return is, happily, as regular as the revolution of the planets.

But the river does not itself extend its bounties beyond its shores. Hence the necessity of recourse to artificial means to manage and direct the waters in such manner as to spread them over the most distant parts of the territory; hence the need of a vast system of canalization and of embankments and dykes, the upholding of which may not be neglected a single day, without exposing part of the country to barrenness and ruin.

But it may be assumed as certain that these tracts of land requiring general and continuous attention, as well as great executive means and considerable outlay, would never be reclaimed if they were abandoned to the carelessness of individuals whose resources are, besides, too limited to suffice for the attainment of the end.

It pertains to the local administration to provide for this, and that cannot provide for it unless by temporary drafts of young laborers, who thus discharge their personal obligations to the country.

[Page 1211]

Placed on the confines of Africa and Asia, washed on one side by the Red sea, on the other by the Mediterranean, Egypt is the shortest and most direct route between the western and eastern world—the central point of the vast relations which at this day connect Europe and America with oriental Africa, the Indies, China, Oceanica.

The Egyptian government, struck with the benefits which would spread over its own territory, could it any longer delay to open to the advantage of all nations the great channel of communication which secures its moral existence just as the upholding of its inland canalization assures its material existence? Could it avoid supplying the contingents of workmen necessary to the completion of these indispensable works of public usefulness?

Its right had not been disputed by England, and it had been very severely tested at the solicitation and to the satisfaction of British agents on the work of the railroad from Alexandria to Suez, where, on the section from Cairo to Suez, especially, it may be said the rails are laid on thousands of Egyptian skeletons.

But the Egyptian government understood that the immemorial right of drafting laborers for works of public benefit must be enforced on humane conditions; and that in place of being a gratuitous duty—that is, a toll which is still levied in many European countries—it should be a source of gain to its people.

The Suez Canal Company has had the honor, by paying their laborers, by watching over their health and welfare, of inaugurating the new system of the abolition of compelled labor, which his Highness Ismail Pacha declared he would extend thenceforward to all other works in Egypt. In fact, there will be no more compelled labor, from the day when labor is everywhere justly recompensed, as it now is on the isthmus.

The convention made on this head with the Egyptian government is dated July 20, 1856, and is thus expressed:

We, Mohammed Said, Viceroy of Egypt, desiring to assure the completion of the works of the Suez canal, to provide for the good treatment of the Egyptian laborer who will be employed there, and, at the same time, to watch over the interests of the farmers, owners, and contractors of the country, have established, in concert with Mr. Ferdinand de Lesseps, as president, founder of the Universal Company of the Suez Canal, the following regulations:

Article 1. The laborers who shall be employed on the company’s works shall be supplied by the Egyptian government on the application of the engineers-in-chief, according to their need.

Art. 2. The pay granted to the workmen shall be fixed, according to the average price paid on the works of private persons, at the sum of three piasters a day, not including the rations, which shall be furnished by the company to the value of one piaster. In cases where it is sure that the laborers who ask it are able to provide themselves, the ration shall be given to them in money. The duty of supplying potable water, in abundance, for all the wants of the laborers, shall be at the charge of the company.

Art. 3. The number of laborers employed shall be determined by taking into consideration the periods of agricultural labor.

According to this convention the laborers employed by the company must earn at the rate of four piasters a day—120 piasters—say twenty francs for thirty days’ labor.

At this time, and in the ordinary condition of the ground, the contingents of laborers are paid at the rate of forty centimes the metre cubic. When [Page 1212] they receive forty centimes, they do in twenty to twenty-five days, at most, a stint of sixty cubic metres, which gives them one hundred and twenty piasters, or twenty francs.

On difficult ground the cubic metre is paid for at seventy centimes, but then the stint is reduced. In this case the laborer does not earn less than twenty francs. It sometimes happens that they earn thirty, and even forty.

As to good treatment, of which they are the objects, it has become publicly notorious. The number of sick is insignificant, and the mortality is less among the contingents of the isthmus than in the most salubrious villages in Egypt.


Translation of the concession of uncultivated lands on the isthmus to the Suez Canal Company.

By the terms of the act of concession, dated January 5, 1855:

Article 4. The canal for irrigation, appropriated to fluvial navigation, under the conditions of the programme of the international scientific commission, will have its origin in the proximity of the city of Cairo, will follow the valley (Onady) Toumilat, and will empty into Lake Tomsah.

Art. 5. The branches of the said canal, which shall be detached from it, shall empty into Lake Tomsah; from this point they shall be turned, on one side in the direction of Suez, on the other, to that of Pelusium, parallel with the great maritime canal.

Art. 10. For the construction of the canals and dependencies mentioned in the preceding articles, the Egyptian government abandons to the company without any impost or return the enjoyment of all the lands which do not belong to individuals which shall be necessary.

It likewise abandons to it the enjoyment of all the land at present uncultivated, and not belonging to individuals, which shall be irrigated and placed under cultivation by its care and at its expense, with this difference: 1st. That the lands comprised in this last category shall be exempt from any impost during ten years only from date of putting them in condition. 2d. That after this term they shall be subject during the rest of the concession to the obligations and imposts to which, under similar circumstances, lands in other provinces of Egypt shall be subjected. 3d. That the company shall after that, of itself, or through those having right, hold the enjoyment of these lands, and of the drains of water necessary for their fertilization, at the charge of paying to the Egyptian government the imposts established on the lands in like condition.

After the act of concession, the Suez Canal Company retroceded to the Egyptian government its rights and obligations on the taking of water from the fresh-water canal at Cairo, and all that part comprised between Cairo and the Wady Toumilat; but the convention which regulates this retrocession especially confirms the rights and obligations of the company over the other sections of the canal of fresh water, and over the lands which will depend upon it. The company has accorded all that it could accord without injury to the interest confided to it, and the purpose of general advantage which it proposes to attain.

If the governments see fit to notice it, it renews the propositions which its president and founder made in 1860, during his sojourn at Constantinople, [Page 1213] to the Ottoman government and the representatives of the great maritime powers.

1st. The complete neutrality of the great maritime canal from Suez to Port Said, and freedom of passage, at all times, even during war, should be proclaimed to general commerce of whatever nationality, in consideration of the payment of duties which should be alike for all. This neutrality is already consecrated in principle, in article 14 of the act of concession granted by the Viceroy of Egypt, but that act, binding only on the Viceroy and the company, it will be necessary to make it the subject of agreement between all the powers.

2d. Passage through the Suez canal shall be interdicted to vessels-of-war, unless by special authorization from the local government.

3d. The company shall be especially interdicted from erecting any work of defence, or any fortification, either at the entrance, or along the banks of the canal, or on the lands, the use and enjoyment of which it may possess on the isthmus; nor can it found colonies of cultivators who shall not be subject to the local government.

4th. Vessels passing through the canal cannot land troops on the isthmus, unless in cases of sickness, of injuries and mishaps, and on this hypothesis, it shall be necessary to obtain the authorization by the Viceroy, an authorization which shall, besides, be limited by the fortuitous circumstances which we have just indicated.

(England is the country which this regulation more particularly interests, as it is she that would most often have to claim its benefit.)

5th. The lands granted to the company cannot be utilized under the authority of the local government, unless in view of agricultural improvements; and if it should happen that the company should strengthen or aliene all or portions of its lands, it shall be held to do so in the point of view exclusively of financial interests, without exception of persons or distinctions of nationality.

In America land is used to pay the cost of vast public works. The grants of land, granted with the right of enjoyment, and not with the right of sovereignty, (which is quite another thing,) is a necessary complement of the grant, and gives to parties concerned a guarantee for profits. The use of these lands being well defined, their possession by the company will cause no umbrage to any one, whilst it will be a new source of prosperity to Egypt, and of production to the government treasury.

In 1855 the Porte caused to be written to the Viceroy of Egypt, through Kiamil Pacha, at the solicitation of the English ambassador, to ask if the grant of lands to the company was not contrary to ancient usages, and to the principles settled by Mehemet Ali.

His Highness, Mohammed Said, replied:

“The concessions of lands made to the canal company in districts to this time uncultivated, and destined to be fertilized by an inland canal drawn from the Nile, will be an advantage to Egypt, whose government should look to the increase of its prosperity and revenues; if a like example could be pursued in other provinces of the empire, where mal-administration, as well as prejudices destined to disappear, have impoverished both the people and the country, it would be needful, instead of creating obstacles, to favor those who would offer in exchange for sterile and unproductive lands to pay the usual impost, and, besides, abandon to the treasury a part of their profits.

“There is, however, nothing contrary to precedents nor to existing usages in a grant of uncultivated lands made to an anonymous Egyptian company, whose social establishment is at Alexandria, formed, as has been said, by capitalists of every country, who consequently will not bring with them the characteristics of any particular nationality.

[Page 1214]

“The Mohammedan law says, positively, ‘he who makes an unproductive tract of land productive shall have the use of it so long as he pays the taxes.’

“In what touches Mehemet Ali, he has not only allowed the benefit of this law to natives, but has extended its advantages to all foreigners who have asked him for lands that were disposable. About 1843, especially, he distributed as well to English as to other foreigners around Alexandria, and on the banks of the Mahmoudie canal up to the desert, more than 30,000 foddams of land.

“It is in great part to this measure that the enormous increase in the prosperity of Alexandria is owing; that city which scarcely reckoned 40,000 people in 1835, at this time counts more than 120,000.”

This reply was published in 1860, at Constantinople; the explanations given by the Viceroy were regarded as satisfactory. Kiamil Pacha, as well as other functionaries, were much blamed for the manner in which they had sought, through their private correspondence, to turn the Viceroy from his object.



Mr. l’Ambassadeur: You will remark, on reading article No. 1, which follows, that some years ago the Sublime Porte was seized with the question of the canal of Suez, reserving to itself to set the conditions on the other parts of the project of the contract which was submitted to it, and declared that it desired to see a previous understanding established between the two greatest maritime powers on the exterior guarantees which the opening of this important way demanded.

Until now this understanding has not taken place, and the new governor general of Egypt, his Highness Ismail Pacha, having addressed to the government of his Imperial Majesty the Sultan the official demand by letter to the Grand Vizir, of which you will find a copy annexed, marked No. 2, to regularize the position in this regard, and to give him clear and precise instructions as to what he should do and say, we found it our duty to make him know all the conditions to which the authorization of the Sublime Porte has always been subordinate, conditions which, by the order of our august master, we submit to the equitable and friendly appreciation of the august allies of his Imperial Majesty.

We thought it still more our duty to express ourselves without further delay, as we have the regret to see the works advance more and more without the previous resolution of important questions which are connected with it. It has become necessary for us, in consideration of the interests of the empire, to state frankly that it will be required to have the authorization of the sovereign of the country before this work can become realizable.

It does not enter into the thought of the Porte to desire to prevent the realization of a project which could be of general utility, but it cannot consent to it, 1st, without having the certainty of having international stipulations which would guarantee complete neutrality, as that of the Dardanelles and of the Bosphorus; 2d, only with conditions of a nature to protect and to insure the important interests which it is called to protect.

Now the actual project does not offer any of these indispensable guarantees.

Since its origin there are two facts, above all others, which have drawn [Page 1215] our most serious attention, as follows: 1st. Notwithstanding the abolition of forced labor, and the last decree of the Viceroy, establishing the same prohibition, the prefatory work is entirely effected by this system. The Egyptian administration forces twenty thousand men to abandon their families and pursuits to labor on the canal. These people are obliged to return to their homes at their own expense, and the greater part thereof have a long distance to go, without considering the loss they experience at the forced abandonment of their interests. The number of hands thus taken away from industry, agriculture, and commerce, does not limit itself solely to the twenty thousand. Whilst 20,000 are at work, 40,000 are on the route, or engaged in preparing to go there; so that 60,000 are continually removed from their firesides and occupations.

I think it superfluous to enlarge on the disastrous effects of such a system. It is very striking. The Sublime Porte sees the impossibility of sanctioning the practice of such a measure in Egypt, when it does not permit it in the other portions of the empire.

The second of these two facts, and which I express with more force, is the concession to the company of fresh-water canals the entire territory which surrounds them. According to the terms of the contract, wherever the canals in question would extend, the company would have the right to claim as its property the territory on its banks. In this manner the cities of Suez, Timsah, Port Said, and all the frontier of Syria, would naturally pass into the hands of an anonymous company, composed in a great measure of strangers, submissive to the jurisdiction of their respective countries. It then would be optional with the company to create at important points in the territory of the Ottoman empire colonies almost independent of that empire.

We do not think there exists a government which has some sense of independence and its duties which could subscribe to a transaction of this nature.

Consequently, the Sublime Porte would fail in all its duties, and lose the esteem of all its friends, and would permit a state of affairs to be established destined to lead to continual conflicts, did it not declare that that clause would never be sanctioned by it.

In recapitulation, the consent of the Sublime Porte is, and should be, indissolubly united to the previous solution of these questions following, to wit: the stipulation of the neutrality of the canal, the abolition of forced labor, the relinquishment by the company of the clause which concerns fresh-water canals, and the concession of surrounding territory. Once these three points decided, the government of his Majesty the Sultan, in union with his Highness Ismail Pacha, will hasten to take into serious consideration each of the other articles of the project of the contract.

As to the whole of the question, it only exists in a state of projection. You are aware it has never been approved by the Sublime Porte. The company itself cannot say it ignored the necessity to obtain the previous sanction of the Sublime Porte, since that article figures in the project of the contract as one of the fundamental conditions of its award. It is further known later, when M. de Lesseps asked new favors of the deceased Viceroy for the company, he engaged by contract to obtain this franchise in a term of 18 months, an engagement which has never been fulfilled.

Now the Sublime Porte addresses itself particularly, and with the greatest confidence, to its two most sincere allies, to ask them what they would have done in a similar circumstance.

Shall we permit an anonymous society to establish itself on the territory of the empire, and there to arrogate to itself rights which the Sublime Porte could not recognize, as a sequel of a promised concession of the high personage [Page 1216] who governs that territory, under the sovereignty of the Sultan, on the express condition of obtaining the confirmation of the territorial sovereign?

All that remains for us to do to give a renewed proof of the good will with which our august master is animated is, to repeat once more that, notwithstanding the infractions we have to complain of, when once the inadmissible clauses which I have pointed out preceding, shall have been withdrawn, we will be ready to examine the other dispositions of the contract without the least prejudice. According to the strictest equity, the company will not have the right to say that it has already incurred expense.

It knew that one of the principal conditions of the contract not being filled, it incurred those expenses at its own risk and peril. Notwithstanding the Sublime Porte is disposed to take into consideration private interests which find themselves engaged in this enterprise, and will endeavor, in conjunction with his Highness Ismail Pacha, to combine the necessary means to return the money which the company has expended, in case it does not desire to continue the work without the advantages which cannot be conceded to it, then the said company should naturally cede the work it has already commenced, and all the territory it considers as its property.

We should also, in the hypothesis foreseen above, when the company would renounce the prosecution of the projected work, the Sublime Porte, sincerely desirous of doing all in its power which depends on it to facilitate the communications, and always in concert with the Viceroy, would adopt the most proper measures to realize the execution.

We are certain, M. l’Ambassadeur, that the frank and loyal explanations which precede will not fail to meet the entire approbation of the cabinet of his Majesty the Emperor; consequently I wrote you to read this despatch to the minister of foreign affairs, and to leave him a copy.

Accept, &c., &c.,