Chapter 8 Theory in Practice case studies

International Law


The Suez and Panama Canals

Several great canals link, and therefore integrate, the vital sea commerce of the world. Two stand out. The Suez Canal was opened in 1869, and the Panama Canal in 1914. These canals cut sailing times and saved companies and consumers vast quantities of cash, making goods ever more available to people around the world. Keeping them open consequently became an interest of many states and companies and of commerce in general worldwide. Therefore, their legal status had to be settled even before excavations began, since whoever controlled either of the canals could wield economic or strategic power by closing them, or threatening to do so.

A passage from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean was an old idea, having been attempted by the Pharaohs of ancient Egypt. The modern version began with the formation of the French Suez Canal Company by decree (firman) of the Ottoman Khedive of Egypt in 1858. Its opening in 1869 was accompanied by much ceremony and attended by some of the emperors and monarchs of Europe.

“The impetus thus given to the construction of interoceanic canals had also its counterpart in the field of legal theory” (Duff 1969). The canal’s legal status was developed by numerous resolutions, treaties and judgments at law…

“…above all by the Conventions and international Treaties concluded by the great Powers, among [them] the Constantinople Convention of 1888 and the Barcelona Conventions of 1921” (Duff 1969)

The Constantinople Convention provided that the canal may be used “in time of war as in time of peace, by every vessel of commerce or of war, without distinction of flag.” The Convention is still in force.

The company was an early example of a truly transnational affair, although most of the ownership was held in Europe, prompting comments regarding European imperialism (Duff 1969). The Khedive, to stave off bankruptcy, sold his remaining shares in the Company to the British Government in 1875, meaning no Egyptians owned shares.

Revenues went to the company until 1956, when Egypt, under the pan-Arab Nationalist Gemmal Abdel Nasser, tried to nationalize the canal company. The 1956 Suez Crisis, still often referenced as one of the most important and dangerous crises of the post-WWII period, was an attempt by the British and French to regain the canal by force. This was unsuccessful, and a few years later Egypt gained full control.

Having successfully engineered the Suez Canal, the French began construction of the Panama Canal, by negotiation with the government of Colombia, which was then, 1881, in control of the area. In 1903, however, Panama declared independence from Colombia. The issue was still in doubt when, the following year, the US simultaneously bought the partly-constructed canal, guaranteed the independence of Panama, and signed a deal with the new state under which the US would have sovereign rights over the Canal Zone in perpetuity (Clark 2017) (Lowe 2007). Having settled the international legal situation through purchase, diplomacy, and treaty, they enforced it by arms, sending ships to prevent Colombia from re-taking the area. The canal opened in 1914, under control of the US Federal Government.

Clark, G. E. (2017). “From the Panama Canal to Post-Fordism: Producing Temporary Labor Migrants Within and Beyond Agriculture in the United States (1904–2013).” Antipode 49(4): 997-1014.
Abstract In the historical study of modern American capitalism, labor unfreedom in agriculture has been conceptualized as an exception to liberal labor relations in the post-slavery polity, from debt peonage to the threat of deportation from workplaces populated by non-citizen migrants. At the same time, state-enforced labor compulsions and restrictions are increasingly part and parcel of what scholars call neoliberal exceptionalism. This article argues that agricultural and neoliberal exceptionalisms are related, by tracing the historical genealogy and juridical production of a restrictive work status, the deportable temporary labor migrant, across political economies in the modern United States, from imperial construction in the Panama Canal Zone, to agriculture, to the knowledge economy. Contrary to existing notions of temporary work visas as a new form of unfreedom in neoliberalized advanced capitalist states, I show how the threat of deportation is older and rooted in the rise of the liberal regulatory state in a post-slavery, yet persistently racial capitalist political economy. The import of understanding this history of government intervention increases as the liberal regulatory state’s coercive logics and practices intensify and circulate in agriculture and under a post-Fordist regime of accumulation, reproducing racial capitalism in the labor process.

Duff, R. E. B. (1969). 100 years of the Suez Canal. Brighton, Clifton Books.

Lowe, V. (2007). International Law, OUP Oxford.

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