Vicomte de Lesseps

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Vicomte de Lesseps

The French diplomat Ferdinand Marie Vicomte de Lesseps (1805-1894), successfully promoted the Suez Canal and made an abortive attempt to build the Panama Canal.

Ferdinand de Lesseps was born on Nov. 19, 1805, at Versailles. After a childhood spent at Pisa—where his father was sometime consul—and then in Paris, his education at the Lycée Napoleon fitted him for entry into the French consular service. From 1825 he held posts of rising importance, usually in the Mediterranean area. In 1849 he went as minister plenipotentiary to the Mazzini Republic in Rome. The unknowing tool of duplicity from the first, he was made a political scapegoat, but he weathered this storm, as he was to ride out future crises, through his political innocence and personal integrity. He soon resigned from the foreign service.

With the accession of Mohammed Said, an old friend, as pasha of Egypt in 1854, Lesseps saw a way to realize an old ambition: the cutting of the Suez Canal from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea, an idea which was not new. In Egypt, Lesseps became Said's favorite to undertake the project and by the year's end had gained a concession to cut the isthmus. It authorized Lesseps to form the Compagnie Universelle du Canal; the concession was to last 99 years. The international repercussions surprised Lesseps, for he did not appear to realize how the canal could change the balance of power and hazard communications with the British Indian Empire.

The British government applied pressure to delay the Ottoman sultan's ratification of Said's firman, while Lesseps went on with his preparations. Skillfully meeting opposition, Lesseps floated his company with an issue of 400,000 shares in 1858. France took 207,111 shares; Said was allowed 177,642 shares. Lesseps commenced work in 1859. Said was succeeded in 1863 by Ismail Pasha, who ordered Lesseps to release the Egyptian laborers and return the land granted by Said in 1856, with the aim of stopping the work. But even greater progress was made after the timely introduction of mechanical evacuation machinery. Lesseps became a national hero when the canal was opened on Nov. 17, 1869.

In 1879 Lesseps was drawn into the Panama whirlpool. He was chairman of an international conference to determine the course of a lockless ship canal through the Isthmus of Panama. The French Panama Canal Company was formed, capital was raised, and construction began in 1880 in spite of warnings against the proposed type of construction. Lesseps neither understood the engineering and the climatic problems nor realized how his funds were being misappropriated. Work on the canal ceased in 1889. Following a scandal in France and an investigation, Lesseps and others were convicted on charges of graft. Though discharged on appeal, Lesseps had become senile and perhaps never realized he had been tried. He died on Dec. 7, 1894, at La Chânaie (Indre), France.

Further Reading

Writings on Lesseps are numerous. Charles Robert Longfield Beatty, De Lesseps of Suez: The Man and His Times (1956), is excellent. On the Suez Canal, John Marlowe, The Making of the Suez Canal (1964), offers a recent reassessment based on original work. □