Oct 052012

When the Suez Canal opened in 1869, travelers between Europe and Asia–freed from having to round the Cape of Good Horn–cut their  travel time from four months to four weeks. The poet Walt Whitman recognized the canal’s significance and wrote:

Passage to India!
Lo, soul, seest thou not God’s purpose from the first?
The earth to be spann’d, connected by network,
The races, neighbors, to marry and be given in marriage,
The oceans to be cross’d, the distant brought near,
The lands to be welded together.

Sensing the wondrous opportunities created by the canal’s opening, the enterprising Marques de Comillas of Spain acquired a number of steamships from England to establish the shipping line, Compania Transatlantica.  Among these was the 8,500 ton steamer, Isla de Mindanao (featured in the photo below), which embarked on its maiden voyage to the Philippines in 1882.

On board this maiden voyage was a Manuel Villalba, who wrote to his brother about his impressions pulling into Port Said, Egypt, at the mouth of the Suez Canal:

I look to land and barely see the huge lighthouse of Alexandria, surrounded by huge palm trees. It is ten to six and the sun, which looks like a huge balloon surrounded by a clear band, plunges to that blessed land we call homeland. You will enjoy it even more in an hour….It’s seven fifteen and now, although very faint, we begin to feel the reverberations of the lighthouse of Port Said. I can see the lighthouse well, and although it is very blurry, I see the strip of land on which sits Africa and the great port of the future. I close this letter and ….I feel calm and with great courage…. Fear not for me. God bless and long live Spain!

“The earth,” as Walt Whitman put it, is “to be spann’d, connected by network.”  The flow of travelers–as well as the exchange of the latest ideas–went in either direction, from west to east and back again. Because of the Suez Canal, young, upper class Filipinos from Asia were finally able to attend European universities. Among these was Jose Rizal, a Jesuit-educated intellectual. Seeing the Suez Canal for the first time in 1882, he wrote:

“It is not straight throughout its length; it has curves but small ones; sometimes it flows into a lake; where it is  narrowest it is believed Moses passed  though while wandering in the desert.  It crosses three lakes in its course. On both banks. which are all yellow and white; where it is a real jewel to find grass, are erected some telephone stations at regular intervals.” 

Spurred by his exposure to European notions of liberty and freedom, Rizal came to realize that the Philippines was bedeviled by a “double-faced Goliath”: corrupt Spanish friars and an oppressive Spanish colonial government. With the collaboration of other European-educated young men, Rizal became the foremost voice in a Filipino revolt against colonial Spain.

(From left: Jose Rizal, Marcelo del Pilar, and Mariano Ponce.)


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