Using the figure from the Wikipedia article on the Suez Canal, around 1.5 million people worked on the construction of the canal in total. At any one time, over 30,000 people would be working on the canal project. Building the canal took up to eleven years: 1859 is given as the starting year of works on the shore near what would later be Port Said and the canal was inaugurated in 1869. If we assume the figure of 120,000 to be true, that would be not quite 11,000 deaths a year or an average of about 30 deaths a day. With figure of around 30,000 workers at any given time, this corresponds to an annual mortality rate of 364 deaths per 1000 workers.
On page 31 of his book The Suez Canal (link to archive.org), Arnold T. Wilson states:
But the allegations, made even by responsible writers, of the heavy loss of life amongst the labourers of the Canal are in no way borne out by the published statistics of the Company’s chief medical officer which give the mortality per thousand
- in 1863 as 1.40
- " 1864 " 1.36 average working staff
- " 1866 " 2.49 • • • 18,605
- " 1867 " 1.85 • • • 25,770
- " 1868 " 1.52 • • • 34,258
Being generous to the claim and taking the maximum numbers plus a security margin, I am able to arrive at a maximum of around 120 fatalities per year (assuming a mortality rate of 3 per 1000 and 40,000 working staff); using the highest figures published tops the number of fatalities at 85 and using the figure of 1868 allows us to estimate 52 fatalities in that year.
I note that only five of eleven years are quoted in the work but the numbers are so much short of the required mortality rate that there is no way Nasser’s claim is true. It would require a much hier mortality in the years left out, basically assuming significant singular events which would most certainly have been recorded.
While Wilson states a list of sources at the end of chapter III (which includes page 31 and the passage quoted above) I am unable to precisely determine if the statistics of the chief medical officer are among them or where they may be accessed.
Source: Arnold T. Wilson, The Suez Canal: Its Past, Present and Future Second edition; Oxford University Press (London, New York, Toronto); 1939.