Ever since the problems with the Suez canal, I've been thinking about how important canals are (and how ripe for conflict and problems they are). As I flesh out some the geopolitical situation of the fantasy world I'm designing, I realized that I was underutilizing canals. I did a little research into the history of canals in order to understand how they've impacted geopolitics in real-world history.
- The earliest canals were Mesopotamian; they moved water from the Tigris and Euphrates into the desert for irrigation, but eventually ruined the soil with too much salt.
- The Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal in eastern China is the oldest and longest canal; it was finished about 1,500 years ago and used mostly to transport grain.
- Venice is known for the way its many canals act as streets, but between low tides and lack of maintenance, they actually dried up in 2017.
- Scientists are still debating whether the canals connecting New York’s drainage regions are how sea lamprey and other fish dispersed through the region, but many canals do favor invasive species.
- More traffic travels through Kiel Canal in northern Germany annually than through the Panama and Suez Canals combined; it’s also the site of the toughest rowing race in the world.
The Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan was an artificial island surrounded by canals, which served as a very effective moat. Several large bridges connected the island to the mainland, but most people travelled by boat. They managed to build all this without arches, iron, plows, wheels, or domesticated beasts of burden, but what’s most impressive is that the chinampa system is still useful today.
Hundreds of canals were built during the ‘Golden Age’ (1750-1850). In England, for example, thousands of miles of canals were built — mostly the old-fashioned way, with men, shovels, and the occasional cow to tramp the trenches flat. The canals were lined with clay, limestone, or whatever was handy. Eventually, railroads (and later highways) replaced them, but many old canals have been repurposed as recreational waterways.
The Americas are an unbroken strip of land running from Alaska to Argentina, so of course European powers wanted to cut it in half early on. The Holy Roman Emperor sent surveyors to figure out how to cut a passage through Panama in 1534, but they thought it was impossible. In the 1880s, a French company gave it a go, but between engineering problems and tropical diseases, wound up going bankrupt — its owners were jailed due to the scandal. Over 25,000 people died to build it, but eventually, it was completed in 1914.
The Suez Canal has been central to several wars. The primary objective of WWII’s North Africa campaign was control of the Suez Canal, which was vital to securing British oil supplies — although that strategic objective was somewhat less important to the other Allies. Later, when the Suez Canal was nationalized by in 1956, the British invaded, but had to withdraw due to international condemnation.
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