Ferdinand de Lesseps
November 19 1805–December 7 1894
Ferdinand Marie, vicomte de Lesseps was the maker of the Suez
Canal, which joined the Mediterranean and Red Seas for the first
time in 1869, and substantially reduced sailing distances and
times between the West and the East.
He attempted to repeat this success with an effort to build a
lockless version of the Panama Canal during the 1880s, but the
project was finally completed by the United States in 1914, once
developments in medicine had been made which combatted the
serious problems of malaria and yellow fever in the area.
The origins of de Lesseps' family are traceable back as far as
the end of the 14th century. His ancestors, it is believed, came
from Scotland, and settled at Bayonne during the region's
occupation by the English. One of his great-grandfathers was
town clerk and at the same time secretary to Queen Anne of
Neuberg, widow of Charles II of Spain, exiled to Bayonne after
the accession of Philip V. From the middle of the 18th century
the ancestors of de Lesseps followed diplomatic careers, and he
himself occupied several diplomatic posts from 1825 to 1849. His
uncle was ennobled by King Louis XVI, and his father was made a
count by Napoleon I. His father, Mathieu de Lesseps (1774-1832),
was in the consular service; his mother, Catherine de Grévigné,
was Spanish, and aunt of the countess of Montijo, mother of the
Ferdinand de Lesseps was born at Versailles in 1805.
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 viceconsul at Lisbon, where his
uncle, Barthélemy de Lesseps, was the French chargé d'affaires.
This uncle was an old companion of La Pérouse and a survivor of
the expedition in which that navigator perished.
In 1828 Ferdinand was sent as an assistant vice-consul to Tunis,
where his father was consul-general. He aided the escape of
Youssouff, pursued by the soldiers of the Bey, of whom he was
one of the officers, for violation of the seraglio law.
Youssouff acknowledged this protection given by a Frenchman by
distinguishing himself in the ranks of the French army at the
time of the conquest of Algeria. Ferdinand de Lesseps was also
entrusted by his father with missions to Marshal Count Clausel,
general-in-chief of the army of occupation in Algeria. The
marshal wrote to Mathieu de Lesseps on December 18, 1830: "I
have had the pleasure of meeting your son, who gives promise of
sustaining with great credit the name he bears."
In 1832 Ferdinand de Lesseps was appointed vice-consul at
Alexandria. While the vessel Lesseps sailed to Egypt in was in
quarantine at the Alexandrian lazaretto, M. Mimaut,
consul-general of France at Alexandria, sent him several books,
among which was the memoir written upon the Suez Canal,
according to Bonaparte's instructions, by the civil engineer
Lapré, one of the scientific members of the French expedition.
This work struck Lesseps's imagination, and gave him the idea of
constructing a canal across the African isthmus. Fortunately for
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, Lesseps received
a warm welcome from the viceroy and became good friends with his
son, Said Pasha.
In 1833 de Lesseps was sent as consul to Cairo, and soon
afterwards given the management of the consulate general at
Alexandria, a post that he held until 1837. While he was there
an epidemic of plague broke out and lasted for two years,
resulting in the deaths of more than a third of the inhabitants
of Cairo and Alexandria. During this time Lesseps went from one
city to the other and constantly displayed an admirable zeal and
an imperturbable energy. Towards the close of the year 1837 he
returned to France, and on December 21 married Mlle Agathe
Delamalle, daughter of the government prosecuting attorney at
the court of Angers. By this marriage Lesseps became the father
of five sons.
In 1839 he was appointed consul at Rotterdam, and in the
following year transferred to Málaga, the ancestral home of his
mother's family. In 1842 he was sent to Barcelona, and soon
afterwards promoted to the grade of consul general. In the
course of a bloody insurrection in Catalonia, which ended in the
bombardment of Barcelona, de Lesseps offered protection to a
number of men threatened by the fighting regardless of their
factional symapthies or nationalities. From 1848 to 1849 he was
minister of France at Madrid.
In 1849 the government of the French Republic sent him to Rome
to negotitate the return of Pope Pius IX to the Vatican. He
tried to neogotiate an agreement whereby Pope Pius could return
peacefully to the Vatican but also ensuring the continued
independence of Rome. But during negotiations, the elections in
France caused a change in the foreign policy of the government.
His course was disapproved; he was recalled and brought before
the council of state.
de Lesseps then retired from the diplomatic service, and never
afterwards occupied any public office. In 1853 he lost his wife
and daughter at a few days' interval. In 1854, the accession to
the viceroyalty of Egypt of Said Pasha gave de Lesseps a new
impulse to act upon the creation of a Suez Canal.
Said Pasha invited Lesseps to pay him a visit, and on November
7, 1854 he landed at Alexandria; on the 30th of the same month
Said Pasha signed the concession authorizing him to build the
A first scheme, indicated by him, was immediately drawn out by
two French engineers who were in the Egyptian service, MM. Louis
Maurice Adolphe Linant de Bellefonds called "Linant Bey" and
Mougel Bey. This project, differing from others that were
previously presented or that were in opposition to it, provided
for a direct communication between the Mediterranean and the Red
Sea. After being slightly modified, the plan was adopted in 1856
by an international commission of civil engineers to which it
was submitted. Encouraged by this approval, de Lesseps no longer
allowed anything to stop him. He listened to no adverse
criticism and receded before no obstacle. Neither the opposition
of Lord Palmerston, who considered the projected disturbance as
too radical not to endanger the commercial position of Great
Britain, nor the opinions entertained, in France as well as in
England, that the sea in front of Port Said was full of mud
which would obstruct the entrance to the canal, that the sands
from the desert would fill the trenches--no adverse argument, in
a word, could dishearten Lesseps.
He had the support of the emperor Napoleon III and the empress
Eugénie, and he succeeded in rousing the patriotism of the
French and obtaining by their subscriptions more than half of
the capital of two hundred millions of francs which he needed in
order to form a company. The Egyptian government subscribed for
eighty millions worth of shares.
The Compagnie universelle du canal maritime de Suez was
organized at the end of 1858. On April 25, 1859 the first blow
of the pickaxe was given by Lesseps at Port Said, and on
November 27, 1869 the canal was officially opened by the
Khedive, Ismail Pacha.
While in the interests of his canal Lesseps had resisted the
opposition of British diplomacy to an enterprise which
threatened to give to France control of the shortest route to
India, he acted loyally towards Great Britain after Lord
Beaconsfield had acquired the Suez shares belonging to the
Khedive, by frankly admitting to the board of directors of the
company three representatives of the British government. The
consolidation of interests which resulted, and which has been
developed by the addition in 1884 of seven other British
directors, chosen from among shipping merchants and business
men, has augmented, for the benefit of all concerned, the
commercial character of the enterprise.
Ferdinand de Lesseps steadily endeavoured to keep out of
politics. If in 1869 he appeared to deviate from this principle
by being a candidate at Marseille for the Corps Législatif, it
was because he yielded to the entreaties of the Imperial
government in order to strengthen its goodwill for the Suez
Canal. Once this goodwill had been shown, he bore no malice
towards those who rendered him his liberty by preferring Léon
Gambetta. He afterwards declined the other candidatures that
were offered him: for the Senate in 1876, and for the Chamber in
1877. In 1873 he became interested in a project for uniting
Europe and Asia by a railway to Bombay, with a branch to Peking.
The same year, he became a member of the French Academy of
Sciences. He subsequently encouraged Major Roudaire, who wished
to transform the Sahara desert into an inland sea.
The King of the Belgians having formed an International African
Society, Lesseps accepted the presidency of the French
committee, facilitated Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza's
explorations, and acquired stations that he subsequently
abandoned to the French government. These stations were the
starting-point of French Congo.
A statue of Ferdinand de Lesseps stands at the entrance of the
Panama Canal attempt
In May 1879 a congress of 135 delegates (including Lesseps)
assembled in the rooms of the Geographical Society at Paris,
under the presidency of Admiral de la Roncire le Noury, and
voted in favour of the creation of the Panama Canal without
locks, like the Suez Canal. de Lesseps was appointed President
of the Panama Canal Company, despite the fact that he had
reached the age of 74. It was on this occasion that Gambetta
bestowed upon him the title of "Le Grand Français." However, the
decision to construct the Panama Canal without locks, making it
an uninterrupted navigable way, doomed the project.
de Lesseps went with his youngest child to Panama to see the
planned pathway. He estimated in 1880 that the project would
take 658 million francs and eight years to complete. After two
years of surveys work on the canal began in 1882. However, in
addition to the technical difficulties, financial incompetence,
corruption and equatorial diseases resulted in the Panama Canal
Company declaring itself bankrupt in December 1888 and entering
liquidation in February 1889.
The failure of the project is sometimes referred to as the
Panama Canal Scandal, after rumours circulated that French
politicians and journalists had received bribes. By 1892 it
emerged that 150 French deputies had been bribed into voting for
the allocation financial aid to the Panama Canal Company, and in
February 1893 Lesseps, his son Charles (b. 1849), and a number
of others faced trial and were found guilty. Lesseps was ordered
to pay a fine and serve a prison sentence, but the latter was
overturned by the Cour de Cassation on the grounds that it had
been more than three years since the crime was committed.
Ultimately, in 1904 the United States bought out the assets of
the Company and resumed work.
In 1869, he married his second wife, Mlle Autard de Bragard
(daughter of a former magistrate of Mauritius) and eleven out of
his twelve children of this marriage survived him.
de Lesseps died at La Chenaie on the December 7, 1894. He was
buried in the Le Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris.
His name was used in a speech by Egyptian President Gamal Nasser
as the codeword to order the raiding of the Suez Canal Company's
offices on July 26, 1956, the first step to its nationalisation.
JACANA HOME PAGE
CLASSIC VIDEO CLIPS
JACANA ASTRONOMY SITE
JACANA PHOTO LIBRARY |
OLD MAUN PHOTO GALLERY |
MAUN PHONE DIRECTORY
FREE FONTS |
PIC OF THE DAY
GENERAL LIBRARY |
MAP LIBRARY |
HOUSE PLANS LIBRARY
MAUN E-MAIL, WEBSITE & SKYPE LIST
BOTSWANA GPS CO-ORDINATES
MAUN SAFARI WEB LINKS |
FREE SOFTWARE |
JACANA WEATHER PAGE
JACANA CROSSWORD LIBRARY |
JACANA CARTOON PAGE |
This web page was last updated on:
09 December, 2008