The strategic role of the Red Sea for imperial communications has been evident at least since the great Indian Rebellion of 1857 – a year before construction began on the Suez Canal, a 120-mile waterway which opened a passage from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea and on to the Indian Ocean. Initially a protest by Indian soldiers against their employer, the East India Company, this anticolonial uprising took control of the old Mughal capital of Delhi and quickly spread to include peasants, artisans, and laborers. Yet appeals by British colonial administrators for reinforcements, sent from Kolkata (Calcutta) on May 18, 1857 and thenceforth conveyed by both ships and telegraphs, reached London only on June 27th – a period of 40 days. This interval was sufficient for the rebellion to sweep through much of northwestern, north and central India, and to ramify across British colonies from Ireland to New Zealand. Savage military reprisals put down the rising; and, in early 1858, the English government signed a fifty-year contract with the new Red Sea and India Telegraph Company to lay a cable to speed communications between England and its South Asian colony.
This particular subsea cable failed, but within just fifteen years repeated improvements made it feasible to send a telegram from England to India in only a few hours. And the strategic significance of the Red Sea route for imperial communications and, indeed, for imperialism more generally, had been amply demonstrated. For many decades to come, this area of the Middle East would intertwine communications, empire, colonial domination – and anticolonial resistance.
Within the wider context of the inter-imperialist conflict that engulfed the world in war in 1914, the British government was determined to extend and consolidate its occupation of territory in the Middle East. British strategy revolved around military campaigns against the Ottoman Empire and Germany, struggles with France, selective alliances with Arab peoples and, crucially, support for Zionism, a political movement seeking to colonize Palestine – a region inhabited by Christians, Jews, and (mostly) Muslims under Ottoman rule.
In affirming the artfully crafted Balfour Declaration of 1917 (named for the then British foreign secretary, Arthur Balfour), Britain declared its official support for “a national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine. This was, however, not an act of benevolence. The government understood, in the words of a contemporary British leader, that control of Palestine “gives the controller the essential strategic and economic mastery of the communications between the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean, between Asia and Africa.”
Britain lent support to the Zionist project to wrest for Britain itself informal dominance – to keep the region out of the hands of its imperial rivals, Germany and especially France. Jerusalem is separated from Port Said – the entrance to the Suez Canal – by a distance of about 170 miles by air and 475 miles by road. Palestine offered a strategic base not only for projecting force over the Suez Canal, but also for commanding trade routes and ensuring access to the vast oil wealth of what is now Iraq. Following World War I Britain gained legitimacy for its program when it was granted a mandate for administering Palestine by the League of Nations – a measure supported by the US.
For the Palestinian people, as had been forecast two decades earlier when Zionism was coalescing into a political force, all of this was predicated on violence. Palestinians repeatedly resisted large-scale Jewish colonization. And when, in 1948, Britain’s mandate ended and the state of Israel was established, the first major Arab-Israeli War at once commenced – killing and displacing tens of thousands of Palestinians. Palestinians call it the Nakba, or “catastrophe.”
Global capitalism meanwhile continued to mutate and, as the United States took over from Britain as the foremost global and regional power, the character of imperialism also changed – from a tendency to territorial occupation to control over exports of capital and the international circulation of commodities. This only added to the importance of the Red Sea communications route. Submarine cables had long been backbones for the transnational circulation of corporate information; after World War II they began to form the infrastructure of digital capitalism.