Disraeli, Derby and the Suez Canal, 1875: Some Myths Reassessed


  • I am grateful to the two anonymous readers for their very helpful comments.


This article reconsiders Britain's Suez Canal share purchase of November 1875. By means of close consideration of high politics and utilizing a range of overlooked sources, it proposes that a number of myths have arisen. It suggests that the role of the prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli, has been exaggerated in the existing historiography, as has the resistance of his foreign secretary, the fifteenth earl of Derby. This obscures cabinet-level debates in which there was a more sophisticated assessment of – and debate about – foreign policy objectives than has hitherto been presented. Accounts of the purchase have also tended to see it as the first sign of a new policy, that of an extended British commitment in Egypt. It is suggested here that such a commitment was, rather, the unintended consequence of a pragmatic policy. Instead, the intention was quite the opposite: to control and minimize British entanglements in the east.