Ferdinand de Lesseps and the Suez Canal

Ferdinand Marie, Vicomte de Lesseps (18051894)

On November 19, 1805, French diplomat and later developer of the Suez Canal Ferdinand Marie, Vicomte de Lesseps was born. The Suez Canal that was constructed under de Lessep’s supervision in 1869 joined the Mediterranean and Red Seas, substantially reducing sailing distances and times between the West and the East.

Ferdinand de Lesseps was born at Versailles, Yvelines, in 1805 into a family of French career-diplomats. His first years were spent in Italy, where his father was occupied with his consular duties. He was educated at the College of Henry IV in Paris. From the age of 18 years to 20 he was employed in the commissary department of the army. From 1825 to 1827 he acted as assistant vice-consul at Lisbon, where his uncle, Barthélemy de Lesseps, was the French chargé d’affaires. This uncle was an old companion of French explorer Jean-François de La Pérouse and the only survivor of the expedition in which La Pérouse perished.

Following the profession of his father, Ferdinand de Lesseps during his early career was posted to Tunisia and Egypt. In 1832 de Lesseps was appointed vice-consul at Alexandria. Fortunately for de Lesseps, Mehemet Ali, the viceroy of Egypt, owed his position in part to the recommendations made on his behalf to the French government by Mathieu de Lesseps, who was consul-general in Egypt when Ali was a colonel. Because of this, de Lesseps received a warm welcome from the viceroy and became good friends with his son, Said Pasha. De Lesseps became fascinated with the cultures of the Mediterranean and Middle East and the growth of western European trade. After postings to Spain and Italy, in 1849 he retired after a disagreement with the French government, and never again occupied any public office.[1]

In 1854, De Lessep’s friend Said Pasha became the new viceroy of Egypt. De Lesseps immediately returned to Egypt, where he was given a warm welcome and, soon afterwards, permission to begin work on the Suez Canal for which he had been inspired by reading about Napoleon’s abandoned plans for a canal that would allow large ships wishing to sail to the east to go directly from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea, thereby cutting out the long sea journey around Africa. On 7 November 1854 De Lesseps landed at Alexandria

A first scheme, directed by Lesseps, was immediately drawn up by the surveyors Linant Bey and Mougel Bey providing for direct communication between the Mediterranean and Red Sea, and, after being slightly modified, it was adopted by an international commission of engineers in 1856.[2] The Compagnie universelle du canal maritime de Suez was organized at the end of 1858. On 25 April 1859 the first blow of the pickaxe was given by de Lesseps at Port Said. During the following ten years, de Lesseps had to overcome the continuing opposition of the British government preventing the Sultan from approving the construction of the canal, and at one stage he even had to seek the support of his cousin, Empress Eugenie, to persuade the Emperor Napoleon III to act as arbitrator in the disputes. Finally, on 17 November 1869, the canal was officially opened by the Khedive, Ismail Pasha. Despite several futile trials, de Lesseps had failed to get also support for his project by the British governmentBritish attitudes finally changed when the canal was seen to be a success and de Lesseps was treated as a great celebrity on his subsequent visit to Britain. In 1875, the Egyptian government sold its shares in the canal and the British prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli, bought effective control of the Canal Company.

In his 74th year, de Lesseps began to plan a new canal in Panama. In 1879, an international congress was held in Paris, which chose the route for the Panama Canal and appointed de Lesseps as leader of the undertaking. However, the decision to dig a Panama Canal at sea level to avoid the use of locks, and the inability of contemporary medical science to deal with epidemics of malaria and yellow fever, doomed the project. The Panama Canal Company declared itself bankrupt in December 1888 and entered liquidation in February 1889. The failure of the project is sometimes referred to as the Panama Canal Scandal, after rumors circulated that French politicians and journalists had received bribes. A French court found de Lesseps and his son Charles guilty of mismanagement. Both were heavily fined and sentenced to imprisonment. In the event, de Lesseps did not go to jail, but his son paid for his elderly father’s misjudgements with a year in prison. De Lesseps died on 7 December 1894.

At yovisto you can learn more about the work on the Suez Canal and European politics in the 19th century in the lecture “European Imperialism and its Zenith” of Prof. Dr. Thomas W. Laqueur from University of Berkeley.

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