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New Texts Out Now: Valeska Huber, Channelling Mobilities: Migration and Globalisation in the Suez Canal Region and Beyond

[Cover of Valeska Huber, [Cover of Valeska Huber, "Channelling Mobilities: Migration and Globalisation in the Suez Canal Region and Beyond."]

Valeska Huber, Channelling Mobilities: Migration and Globalisation in the Suez Canal Region and Beyond. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Valeska Huber (VH): The origins of this book lie in my general interest in the history of mobility, particularly as it connects to justice and equality. Does globalization—in the present day or historically—mean that everyone can move at an ever-quicker pace? I wanted to unpack this story for the period around 1900 by showing that of course not everyone travels with the same speed; instead, there are very different mobilities and many issues of regulation and “channeling“ at stake.

The Suez Canal is perfectly suited to study this abstract question. As an iconic location of the fastening networks of steamship transportation around 1900, it came to signify acceleration as well as slowdown—perhaps best visualized when the century-old caravan route between Cairo and Damascus was stopped short by the Canal and the steamships using it. Studying a location where different empires (the British, French, and Ottoman) interconnected with private companies and international organizations leads us to understand not only the perceptions and experiences of globalization, but also the attempts to regulate it.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?                

VH: This is a contribution to a new history of the Middle East in a global perspective. It addresses two important gaps in the history of globalization. As outlined above, we need to think of globalization as acceleration as well as deceleration, and how increasing mobility is perceived but also regulated. Second, Channelling Mobilities contributes to a social history of globalization that includes people and their experiences. Using Egyptian, British, and French archives, it thus contains the tales of numerous people on the move, ranging from high officials, troops, and tourists, to canal workers, coal heavers, and seamen, from camel riders and dhow skippers to Mecca pilgrims, stowaways, criminals, and many others.  

The chapters of the book follow different groups of people on the move and trace their experiences of this space, as well as the regulations they encounter. The first section explores the Canal as imperial infrastructure. Colonial officials and tourists turned the Canal into a boundary between Europe and Asia, where they reflected on their own passage between their countries of origin and the colonial world and undertook specific rites of passage, as well as frequently complaining about the slowness of transit. In travel narratives, letters, and postcards, they described the Suez Canal and the harbor town of Port Said as global localities par excellence. Soon named the Highway of Empire, the Canal also became a main military artery. Troops on their way to India or Indochina, for example, changed uniform, and empires tried to survey the global troop movements of their rivals.

As the third chapter of the book shows, the Suez Canal area was furthermore a magnet drawing workers of different kinds, and is thus perfectly suited to contribute to the thriving field of global labor history. Canal workers, coal heavers, and seamen looked for employment here and frequently went on strike.

The second section of the book looks at those forms of mobility branded “traditional” by contemporary observers, with three chapters focusing in turn on camel caravans and nomads, dhow skippers (particularly their connection with smuggling and slave trading), and Mecca pilgrims. When I researched these chapters, I discovered an interesting twist: as “traditional” and “modern” forms of mobility were juxtaposed, camel riders, dhow skippers, and Mecca pilgrims had to undergo new regulations and were often subject to international agreements and conventions. But these very mobilities also proved essential for the new control regimes, when camels were employed to patrol the Canal and dhows were used to look for possible slave traders in the Red Sea.

The final section investigates the Canal as a checkpoint: on the level of disease control, but also regarding the identification of fugitive criminals, prostitutes, and others. The Canal became a sluice gate in attempts to keep contagious diseases outside Europe, with elaborate mechanisms of passage in quarantine in order not to slow down those forms of mobility necessary for empires and their enterprises. Another form of mobility control was connected to information politics, with new international institutions created to pool intelligence on suspicious migrants. The last chapter explores these new forms of surveillance when looking at passport controls, “white slavery,” or the global hunt for fugitive criminals.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous research?       

VH: This is my first book. It originated from my interest in the global history of disease and epidemics in the second half of the nineteenth century, which connected with mobility control in salient ways. The book still contains a chapter on the Suez Canal as a barrier in disease control aiming to contain contagious disease in Asia through quarantine and other measures, thus highlighting the role of the Suez Canal as a boundary between the continents.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

VH: By addressing broader questions regarding migration regimes and globalization and a more experiential history of speed and acceleration, I hope this book will be of interest to Middle Eastern historians, but also to global historians, as well as experts and policy makers from related fields who are intrigued by issues related to space, migration, and globalization. Those interested in the making of international rules and the intersection of different empires, which entered relationships of collaboration and competition, might benefit from learning about the Suez Canal case. As an empirical study in global history, I would like to see it widely used in courses on global history and the history of globalization.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

VH: I am still interested in acceleration and the multilayered consequences of technological change, and am continuing to write on Mecca pilgrims and international health organizations. In my larger work, I have moved from steamships and transport technologies to mass media, particularly film and radio, in the context of mass education.

J: The social scientific boundaries around "Middle East," "South Asia," and "Sub-Saharan Africa" are increasingly being challenged, with journals explicitly transgressing those boundaries and scholars reviving sub-regional conceptions such as the "Sahel" or "Indian Ocean." How does your book call upon us to think about the shifting borders and to problematize these social science categories?  

VH: The question of the construction of boundaries is at the heart of this book. How did the Canal function both as a connection and as a boundary or choke point, thus  structuring global space linking and separating Europe, Asia, and Africa? This boundary function could carry different meanings, ranging from an imperial relay station to a frontier of the “civilizing mission” or a checkpoint to trace criminals and microbes. Colonial officials and troops celebrated it through rites of passage, marking the entrance into the colonial realm; for stowaways or travelers without funds, it was often a terminus from which they were sent back. Workers knew of their bargaining power, threatening to block the Canal connection when they went on strike. The Canal became fashioned as a boundary between different forms of mobility, meaning those passing rapidly, such as troops, and those deemed as dangerous and submitted to increasing controls, such as Mecca pilgrims, for example. Imperial and international actors invested in disease control attempted to keep the Canal open while turning it into a barrier against microbes by controlling some forms of mobility much more tightly than others.

These different conceptualizations of the Suez Canal as connection and boundary help us to explore boundaries not only empirically, but also on a more theoretical level that transcends the spatial domain. Channelling Mobilities shows how global history projects allow us to connect different sub-disciplines of history, such as international, imperial, and social history.

Excerpts from Channelling Mobilities: Migration and Globalisation in the Suez Canal Region and Beyond

From Introduction: Mobility and its Limits

At a time of global connections, localities matter. On several occasions in 2008 and 2010, when deep-sea cables running through the Suez Canal were damaged, the internet connections of about seventy-five million people were disrupted: these cables carry most of the data traffic between Europe and the Middle and Far East. Even in an age of digital information transfers, physical spaces of transmission play a decisive part. In an interconnected and interdependent world, hubs and chokepoints are also crucial to understanding the ebbs and flows of natural resources. One might look at the example of those large shipping companies, for instance, who have decided to redirect their oil tankers from the Suez Canal to the much longer Cape of Good Hope route because of the fear of pirate attacks near the Horn of Africa or at commentators calling attention to the Suez Canal as a weak point in the West’s oil supply, which was under threat during the upheavals of early 2011 in Egypt.

The aim of this book is to study the Suez Canal as a nodal point and lynchpin of various forms of mobility during an earlier wave of global interconnection, showing that the history of globalization can best be understood by analyzing one specific—and specifically global—locality. After its opening in 1869, the Canal developed into a thoroughfare carrying not only information and goods but also individuals and their ideas. Rapidly, the desert strip of the isthmus became an important crossroads between Europe, Asia, and Africa, where the growing passenger traffic shuttling between, for example, Great Britain and India intersected with caravan routes and the circuits of dhows in the Red Sea.

Tensions between different forms of mobility became particularly tangible where the caravan route connecting Cairo and Damascus crossed the Suez Canal: at a location where camels had for centuries been the only mode of conveyance, they now had to wait for steamers to pass before they could be shuttled across the new Canal with the help of a float—a powerful symbol of the simultaneous acceleration and deceleration that was characteristic of this global junction. Travellers admired the image of gigantic steamships crossing the desert while associating the caravans with a bygone age. The supposed “backwardness” of caravans and other traditional forms of desert mobility, however, could not be judged so easily when it came to the emerging international control regimes: during epidemics, for instance, camel guards patrolling the Canal were essential in securing the strict prohibition of contact between the Canal and the surrounding desert. In countering the dangers connected with an acceleration that was otherwise so desirable, recourse to practices deemed traditional or “backward” was thus inevitable.

The simultaneity of steamship and camel in a single location encapsulates the gap in the scholarship that the present study sets out to fill. Mobility and acceleration are conventionally seen as central processes in shaping the history of globalization. The Suez Canal appears in the literature on global history and the history of globalization as soon as the “time-space compression” starting in the second half of the nineteenth century is mentioned. In works on imperial expansion, the Suez Canal is equally present. Yet the increasingly rapid mobility which the Suez Canal came to symbolize had two sides: on the one hand a modernizing force in the eyes of western observers, on the other a force that was difficult to control and which was connected with problems such as the worldwide propagation of disease or the movement of unruly individuals or groups. The period around 1900 was neither—as often implied—an era of unhampered acceleration, nor one of hardening borders and increasing controls. Rather it was characterized by the channeling of mobility, or to be more precise, the differentiation, regulation, and bureaucratization of different kinds of movement.

The maritime shortcut of the Suez Canal is perfectly suited to this revision of global history. It has become a symbol of the “shortening” of distances around 1900 and of the triumphant version of acceleration that stressed the transformation of a desert by means of modern technology. Yet it also highlighted the dangers and anxieties connected with this same acceleration. At this very location colonial traffic and troop transportation crossed the circuits of tourists, the journeys of pilgrims to Mecca, the trajectories of nomads and caravans, the work-related movements of seamen and coal heavers and the illicit passages of stowaways, smugglers, and microbes. This kaleidoscope of movement shows how, in the context of the technological innovations of the second half of the nineteenth century, mobility became a marker of Western modernity. But it also makes clear how certain forms of mobility were increasingly regulated and stigmatized. While acceleration is often taken for granted, multiple processes of exclusion and deceleration were in fact in play.


From Chapter One: Rites de passage and Perceptions of Global Space        

Whereas, as indicated, the Canal’s opening was widely celebrated for its unification of the globe, prompting wonder at the new ease and speed of European-Asian travel, getting between the two continents remained a considerable undertaking and brought the tension between acceleration and deceleration that the Canal came to represent to the fore. Contrary to all expectations, the passage through the Canal—a symbol for the speeding up of global traffic—was often resented as being terribly slow. Prince Friedrich Wilhelm had already found it rather boring and the painter Rodier, who had written so favorably about Port Said, considered it “not very picturesque.” Most travellers, in fact, experienced disillusion and weariness during the monotonous passage, despite the striking image they were offered of ships traversing the desert. Journalist Paul Bourde placed such feelings in a direct relationship with the experience of modernity, again denying any sense of the picturesque or colossal in relation to the Suez Canal. He felt that this grandeur became apparent when reading the statistics but not when physically experiencing the Canal journey, which was contrary to all expectation mediocre and disappointing. Bourde concluded that such deception was frequent with “large modern enterprises.”

Travelling in the other direction, Bhagvat Sinh Jee, the eighteen-year-old ruler of Gondal, one of the princely states of the Bombay Presidency, was happy to arrive at Aden and the Red Sea after a long Indian Ocean crossing during which—despite all comforts and luxuries—he and his company had felt like “prisoners confined within the wooden walls of the steamer.” In line with Bourde’s observation, he was himself disappointed with the Canal: although, he admitted, it was “one of the greatest monuments of modern engineering skill” he wished he had followed some of his co-passengers and taken the overland route from Suez for some sightseeing in Cairo and Giza and then the steamer from Alexandria to Brindisi to avoid the Canal, which “awfully disgusted” him. Despite this assessment, Sinh Jee did purchase some photographs for his album while in Port Said, which, he duly noted, as many had before him, “seems to be a sort of meeting place for all nations.”

Maintaining their admiration for the Canal as a technological achievement, Indian travellers however were frequently disappointed with it as a symbol of Western civilization. The newspaper editor and social reformer, Behramji Malabari, expressed his ambivalence in an especially vivid manner:

The Suez Canal is a splendid piece of work; but the passage through it is dreadfully slow. It becomes too monotonous as we drag our way painfully along. The wild and weird-looking country beyond, on both sides, interests me more than the immense feat of engineering before me. Whilst the steamer is crawling, you more than once realize the force of the expression—“Dull as ditch water.” It is seldom, indeed, one finds that phrase so vividly illustrated as in the Suez Canal.

Implicitly, Malabari underscored the Canal’s function as not only a connection between Asia and Europe but also a new boundary between Asia and Africa—a function that many Europeans neglected. He also stressed the slowness of the passage through what was one of the major accelerators of world traffic. In his preference for the Asian and African coasts of the European Canal, Malabari furthermore appeared to view not only its technological achievement but also its uniformity as somehow symbolic of Europe and European modes of controlling both nature and large parts of the world’s population.

If the portrayals of the opening ceremony often revealed an eagerness to distinguish the “modern” Canal from “oriental” or orientalized Egypt, in the travel literature of the following decades, the Canal was not so clearly separable from images associated with Egypt. The trip from Europe to Asia, and more specifically to India, evoked adventures reaching back to Columbus and Vasco da Gama. Often, however, both the Canal, symbol of progress, and the “encounter with the Orient” were disappointing to eastward travellers.

For those who undertook the journey more than once, the Suez Canal passage quickly became a routine associated with certain standard behaviors. The Canal represented the place where people and crews changed clothing to prepare for the Red Sea’s heat: in the language of British colonials, the tweed of the homicide gave way to the light linen of the Suez-cide and the hot broth served at eleven o’clock was replaced by ice and lemons. To relieve the boredom of the Canal passage, travellers often organized fancy dress parties with accessories purchased at Port Said’s Simon Arzt department store, mentioned above.

Eventually the steamer would of course reach either the Mediterranean or the Red Sea. Only very few assessed the Canal as positively as the missionary Pyjanmohana Chaudhuri, who travelled to Britain in 1881. In contrast to the usual complaints about the Canal’s monotony, Chaudhuri revealed himself to be highly impressed by the “sight of small but beautiful telegraph- stations surrounded by romantic gardens on the sandy coast...which separates Africa from Arabia”; as a Christian missionary, he was extremely interested in the biblical heritage of the land he was viewing. Strikingly, he noted not only the heat of the Red Sea—as many European travellers did—but also the “severe cold” of the Mediterranean, which he found difficult to endure. The Mediterranean marked the arrival in a new climate zone and in a new world, as Lala Baijnath briefiy noted, referring to the roughness of the passage between Port Said and Crete: “Leaving Port Said, you leave Asia behind; you are in European waters when you enter the Mediterranean.”

Eastward travellers now complemented the depiction of the disorderliness of Port Said, despite its straight streets, and the tediousness of the Canal passage with mention of the heat in the Red Sea. With its rough landscape and the rising temperatures, the Red Sea area—besides marking the arrival in a new world and a distancing from Europe—signaled, perhaps, that nature had not quite been overcome by technology. The steamer’s European passengers and crew changed into white suits, tropical helmets and the like, and sociabilities were reconfigured. By now, acquaintance with other Europeans on board would have become easier and “sports during the day & dances at night” commenced relieving the stiffness and monotony of European etiquette. Travellers started to lose their inhibitions and sleep on deck wearing pyjamas and covering themselves only with a sheet, as some descriptions noted in detail, and a general apathy took hold. At the same time, hierarchies between European and non-European passengers remained very tangible. The Bengali Hindu reformer, P. C. Mozoomdar, travelling to Britain in 1884, was given a very bad cabin and was avoided by everyone, “like a ghost let loose from another world.” He was left to listen to conversations of the colonial officials returning home, which all too often seemed to him to be absurd distortions of the realities in his country.

The changed atmosphere in the Red Sea is reflected in the account of John Russell Young, a travelling companion of Ulysses S. Grant (the former American president had embarked on a two-year trip around the world after the end of his second term), describing at length how both the ladies and the men changed dress once past the Canal and particularly pointing out the Indian-style helmets they bought in Suez. In order to “kill time,” the men wagered on not shaving until reaching home with anyone touching a razor having to pay the others a penalty. Young also described an intense fatigue that seemed to take over in the Red Sea: he tried to read some of the large amount of literature he had brought with him (including guidebooks but also encyclopaedias, almanacs and old newspapers) and follow the study plan he had laid out for himself between the different ports of call, yet he confessed that all his “useful books” had stayed in the cabin.

The passage from east to west also came to mark a personal transition for many travellers. Once past Suez, only a few passengers actually managed to work on board, with the companions of another politician, Paul Bert, who was on his way to take up the position of general resident of the French Republic in Annam and Tonkin in 1886, definitely represented an exception, with him and his entourage working during the entire passage. However, in line with the transformative aspect of the rite de passage, some colonial travellers found the passage especially conducive to reflecting upon their lives: the British officer Sir Francis Edward Younghusband used the passage between Port Said and Bombay to write about his “purpose in life,” deciding to reform himself and to quit the Indian administration.

A plethora of travelogues illustrate the Canal as a moment of personal reflection and of transition. What is more, voyagers in both directions also voiced a view of the Canal, not as a meeting point standing for global connections, but rather as an east–west border where differences between the worlds were in fact highlighted and not overcome. As the above-cited voices make clear, the concept of the Suez Canal as a global in-between space had two principal facets: first, the harbor town of Port Said especially brought differences between its variegated and transient population to the fore; secondly, the passage through the Canal and through the Red Sea served, as suggested, as a personal rite de passage between Europe and Asia and vice versa, often coupled with experiences of deceleration markedly contrasted with (and perhaps only created by) the expectations of acceleration that came with global travel.


From Chapter Seven: Contagious Mobility and the Filtering of Disease

In 1940 the French sociologist, geographer and political scientist André Siegfried expanded on the thoughts of Joseph Arthur de Gobineau and iterated the metaphor of Suez as the border between Europe and Asia. Yet he went beyond this familiar trope by referring to the Suez Canal as Europe’s sanitary boundary and as a bulwark against the intrusion of unwanted elements, identifying a new line of defense by recalibrating the scale of globally active dangerous migrants to the dimension of microbes:

When one arrives at Suez, writes Gobineau, the domain of the strange and peculiar is no longer far distant; it is right here that the Asian atmosphere begins. Asia is the continent of mystery, but also of contamination; it is a hearth of dirt and corruption. The occident has to defend itself incessantly against this contagion, which, in the form of the great epidemic diseases, will spread quickly all over Europe unless surveillance is constant and the guards are perfectly organized.

Three factors of this “European bulwark” are particularly noteworthy and will lead us through this chapter: the development of new institutions and new scientific methods and techniques (accompanying a growing belief in science); spatial arrangements such as the passage in quarantine, lazarettos, and cordons sanitaires, which established the Canal’s central position in the surveillance system referred to by Siegfried; and the division of travellers into distinct groups that received differential treatment.

The turn of the century witnessed a growing urge among empires to collect information about travellers. One major concern was to identify disease carriers, another to identify individuals on the move, which will form the main theme of Chapter Eight. The standardization of mobility and the increasing necessity to “know about” mobile subjects also raised the question of how far (geographically speaking) a state or an empire was responsible for its citizens and subjects. Disease as a global issue par excellence serves very well to clarify further the argument regarding acceleration and deceleration. From certain areas that were traditionally labelled as disease-ridden, the emphasis was shifted to specific groups and categories. In this chapter, the three analytic threads outlined in the introduction—acceleration and deceleration, rulemaking and rulebreaking, and the classification and categorization of mobilities—are thus woven together.

As seen in the preceding chapter, pilgrims were often held responsible for wider-ranging problems. In the specific case of the pilgrimage to Mecca, but also in other contexts, the region of the Suez Canal had a particular role as a sluice gate permitting individuals, but also potentially dangerous ideas and microbes, to be filtered and identified. In line with Siegfried’s perception, the Suez Canal after 1900 became not only a space of increasingly standardized transition, but also an area where—in contrast to the wide-open oceans and seas—it was possible to install specific inspection arrangements. In the narrow waterway, one could not only passively watch ships pass by, but also actively interfere with them. Apart from being a point of connection and comparison between different mobilities, the Canal came to function as a filter or semi-permeable membrane, simultaneously serving to keep traffic flowing and controlled.

Already in the 1870s and in connection with the danger that cholera epidemics posed to Europe, the Suez Canal became not only a symbol for the growing interconnectedness but also a point which had to be controlled to keep Europe free from the cholera. The question of how to make this global crossroads secure while keeping the “lifeline of Empire” open to commercially and politically significant modes of travel was essential. The case of the Mecca pilgrims thus highlights the new speed of mass movement, which created the perception that control was crucially needed but not easily achieved.

[Excerpted from Channelling Mobilities: Migration and Globalisation in the Suez Canal Region and Beyond, by Valeska Huber, by permission of the author. © 2013 Valeska Huber. For more information, or to purchase this book, click here.]

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