Lesseps, Ferdinand-Marie de

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LESSEPS, FERDINAND-MARIE DE (1805–1894), French entrepreneur.

Ferdinand-Marie de Lesseps oversaw the construction of the Suez Canal in Egypt, but failed in his attempt to build a canal across Panama. Neither an engineer nor a businessman, Lesseps employed his skills as a diplomat, as well as his boundless optimism and energy, to promote his plans.

The idea of a canal across the isthmus of Suez joining the Mediterranean with the Red Sea did not originate with Lesseps. Although an ancient canal system had existed in Egypt, the modern project for the Suez Canal first developed during Napoleon's 1798 expedition to Egypt. In the 1830s, a group of Saint-Simonians traveled to Egypt, and several, including Prosper Enfantin, returned with the dream of building a canal. Enfantin established the Suez Canal Study Group, which developed plans during the late 1840s.

Lesseps did not participate in the Saint-Simonian trip to Egypt or the Study Group, but he too wished to build a canal. The son of a diplomat, Lesseps began his career in the foreign service. Lesseps spent much of the 1830s as a consul in Egypt, where he befriended the young prince and future ruler Muhammad Said Pasha (r. 1854–1863). Lesseps's diplomatic career ended in 1849, during a political crisis in Rome, and he retired to a family farm. In 1854, Lesseps learned that Said, known for his support for innovation and desire to modernize Egypt, had become khedive. Lesseps drew upon their earlier friendship and convinced Said that building the Suez Canal would help preserve Egypt's independence from Europe and strengthen its position within the Ottoman Empire. Lesseps controversially used the Study Group's plans as the basis for his own canal project.

Lesseps guided the construction process through diplomatic and logistical difficulties. The Suez Canal Company, formed in 1858, primarily included French and Egyptian employees with Lesseps at its head. Although Lesseps held no official position in France, he managed the competing interests of the French, the British, the Egyptians, and the Ottomans in the project. He maintained control over the venture despite attempts by the Study Group and the British to gain a larger stake in the canal. French investors, generally urban middle-class professionals, purchased over half the shares financing the project, at a cost of five hundred francs apiece. Digging through sand and plateaus proved a difficult but surmountable challenge. The project initially depended on the corvée, forced manual labor of Egyptian peasants. After the death of Said in 1863, however, the new khedive, Ismail Pasha (r. 1863–1879), abolished the corvée. Arbitrator Napoleon III of France required Ismail to compensate the company for this new policy. To speed progress, Lesseps implemented mechanization.

The Suez Canal opened in 1869 with much fanfare and acclaim for Lesseps. Britain primarily benefited from the canal, because it cut in half the time of the voyage from London to Bombay. Ships traveling from Europe to Asia no longer were required to travel around Africa. In 1875, when Ismail fell into financial trouble, the British government bought out his shares in the canal. The British turned Egypt into a protectorate in 1882. Although technically remaining under Ottoman rule, Egypt served British interests.

In 1879, Lesseps formed the Universal Panama Interoceanic Canal Company, which undertook the construction of a canal across Panama (then part of Colombia), linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Lesseps financed the project by raising public loans, and construction began in 1882. However, construction in Panama faced great obstacles, including tropical diseases such as malaria, which killed thousands of workers. The large difference in the sea level of the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans necessitated the use of locks, which Lesseps recognized only too late.

The Panama Canal Company bribed French politicians to continue to support the project and encourage the sale of further shares in the company. However, the company could not overcome its technical and financial difficulties. Many small investors lost their money when the company went bankrupt in 1889. The French National Assembly charged Lesseps, his son Charles, engineer Gustave Eiffel, American con artist Cornelius Herz, and others with conspiracy and fraud. Lesseps escaped imprisonment due to his ill health. The scandal demonstrated to many critics of the French Third Republic that the government was corrupt. Anti-Semitism in France was inflamed because Herz and others involved were Jewish.

The United States bought the rights to the canal in 1903, after having backed a revolution that separated Panama from Colombia. The Panama Canal opened in 1914 and considerably shortened trading distances between the two oceans.

See alsoFrance; Great Britain; Imperialism; Trade and Economic Growth.


Fitzgerald, Percy. The Great Canal at Suez: Its Political, Engineering, and Financial History. With an Account of the Struggles of its Projector, Ferdinand de Lesseps. 2 vols. Reprint. London and New York, 1978. Includes many original documents concerning the construction of the Suez Canal.

Karabell, Zachary. Parting the Desert: The Creation of the Suez Canal. New York, 2003.

Simon, Maron J. The Panama Affair. New York, 1971

Rachel Chrastil

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