Lesseps, Ferdinand Marie, Vicomte de (1805–1894)

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Lesseps, Ferdinand Marie, Vicomte de (1805–1894)

Ferdinand Marie, Vicomte de Lesseps (b. 19 November 1805; d. 7 December 1894), French statesman who organized construction of the Suez Canal in the 1860s and attempted to build a canal in Panama in the 1880s.

Born into a distinguished diplomatic family with connections in the Middle East, de Lesseps entered the foreign service in the 1820s and received a number of postings, including a seven-year tour in Egypt. While there he became acquainted with a group of development-minded engineers from France committed to material progress, Saint-Simonians, who tried to build a canal linking the Red Sea and the Mediterranean.

After his removal from the foreign service following the 1848 revolution, de Lesseps temporarily retired from public life. However, two of the connections he had made were to lead to eventual triumph: his cousin married the Emperor Napoleon III, providing access to the court, and a prince he had known became Viceroy of Egypt. De Lesseps soon parlayed these advantages into a project to build a canal at Suez modeled on the Saint Simonians' plans. For fifteen years he mesmerized Europe with his tremendous vigor and promotional talents, and he received world acclaim upon opening the canal in 1869.

Within a few years de Lesseps determined to repeat his triumph in Central America, and he devoted his energies to organizing a new company for the project. He sponsored a series of meetings to make geographical and engineering plans, but he steered that planning toward a decision he had already made: to build a sea-level canal in Panama. In 1879, ready to raise capital, he formed the Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interoceanique de Panama and acquired a concession from the Colombian government. The following year he managed to raise a vast sum of money through public subscription, a tribute to his reputation as le Grand Français. Work began in February 1881.

For eight years the French company labored heroically in Panama but accomplished only a fraction of the necessary excavation. It went bankrupt in 1889, a victim of many ills. First, de Lesseps's insistence on a sea-level canal was mistaken, given the technology and resources available. Second, from the beginning he had spread around graft and spent with such extravagance that his capital soon ran out. Third, yellow fever, malaria, smallpox, tuberculosis, and other diseases devastated the French and West Indian work forces. By now old and infirm, de Lesseps was shielded from the tremendous scandal that accompanied the crash of the Compagnie Universelle.

The French debacle eventually led to the U.S. canal project of the 1900s. The year de Lesseps died, stockholders and receivers created a new company to manage the assets and preserve the Colombian concession. The French excavations, maps, buildings, and equipment helped convince the U.S. government to build there rather than in Nicaragua.

See alsoPanama Canal .


Gerstle Mack, The Land Divided (1944).

David McCullough, The Path Between the Seas (1977).

Maron J. Simon, The Panama Affair (1971).

James M. Skinner, France and Panama (1989).

Additional Bibliography

Banville, Marc de. Canal Francés: La aventura de los franceses en Panamá. Panamá: Canal Valley, 2005.

                                    Michael L. Conniff

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Lesseps, Ferdinand Marie, Vicomte de (1805–1894)

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