Ferdinand de Lesseps was born on le 19 novembre 1805
in Versailles. De Lesseps was a French canal builder and diplomat. In 1854, Said Pasha, ruler of Egypt, invited him to start preparatory work on the Suez Canal. De Lesseps' plans provided for a canal without locks, extending from Port Said to Port Tewfik, connecting the Mediterranean Sea with the Gulf of Suez and the Red Sea. The company he organized started work on the Canal in 1859, and completed it 10 years later.
From 1825 until his resignation in 1849, he worked in the French consular and diplomatic service. He was a member of the French Academy and the Academy of Science. At 74, De Lesseps reluctantly agreed to head the French company formed to build the Panama Canal, a project for which Gustave Eiffel
designed the locks, that ended in scandal and failure for the French and was completed by the United States in 1904.
The origin of de Lesseps's family has been traced back as far as the end of the 14th century. His ancestors, it is believed, came from Scotland, and settled at Bayonne when that region was occupied 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 Ferdinand de Lesseps followed a diplomatic career, and he himself occupied with real distinction several posts in the same calling 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 Grévgne, was Spanish, and aunt of the countess of Montijo, mother of the empress Eugénie.
In 1832 Ferdinand de Lesseps was appointed vice-consul at Alexandria. To the placing in quarantine of the vessel which took him to Egypt is due the origin of his great conception of a canal across the Isthmus of Suez. In order to help him to while away the time at the 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 de Lesseps's imagination, and gave him the idea of piercing the African isthmus. This idea, moreover, was conceived in circumstances that were to prepare the way for its realization. Mehemet Ali, who was the viceroy of Egypt, owed his position, to a certain extent, to the recommendations made in his behalf to the French government by Mathieu de Lesseps, who was consul-general in Egypt when Mehemet Ali was a simple colonel. The viceroy therefore welcomed Ferdinand affectionately, while Said Pasha, Mehemet's son, began friendly relations.
In 1833 Ferdinand 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. Towards the close of the year 1837 he returned to France, and on 21 December married Mlle Agathe Delamalle, daughter of the government prosecuting attorney at the court of Angers. In 1839 he was appointed consul at Rotterdam, and in the following year transferred to Mélaga, the place of origin 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, Ferdinand de Lesseps showed the most persistent bravery. From 1848 to 1849 he was minister of France at Madrid.
In 1854, the accession to the viceroyalty of Egypt of his old friend, Said Pasha, gave a new impulse to the ideas that had haunted de Lesseps for the last twenty-two years concerning the Suez Canal.
Said Pasha invited M. de Lesseps to pay him a visit, and on le 7 novembre 1854
he landed at Alexandria; on the 30th of the same month Said Pasha signed the concession authorizing M. de Lesseps to build the Suez Canal.
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 had been 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 had been submitted. Encouraged by this approval, de Lesseps allowed nothing to stop him. He listened to no adverse criticism and receded before no obstacle. De Lesseps was undeterred by the opposition of Lord Palmerston, the British Prime Minister who considered the projected disturbance as too radical not to endanger the commercial position of Great Britain (whose Royal Navy jealously controlled the Mediterranean). Nor was de Lesseps deterred by 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 - in a word, no adverse argument could dishearten de Lesseps.
He had the support of the emperor Napoléon 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 le 25 avril 1859
the first blow of the pickaxe was given by Lesseps at Port Said, and on le 27 novembre 1869
the canal was officially opened by the Khedive, Ismail Pacha.
While in the interests of his canal de 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 (Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli) 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. The British were hugely fearful on losing control of the Mediterranean and also saw the advantage the opening of the Suez canal offered by shortening the distances between Great Britain and her colonies in India and other points in Asia. Thus it became a prime objective of the British for the French not to have exclusive control over Suez.
De Lesseps was a member of the French Academy, of the Academy of Sciences, of numerous scientific societies, Grand Cross of the Legion of Honour and of the Star of India, and had received the freedom of the City of London. He died at La Chenaie on le 7 décembre 1894
. A statue of Ferdinand de Lesseps stands at the entrance of the Suez Canal.
[Sources: World Book, Wikipedia, "Lord Beaconsfield" (biography of Benjamin Disraeli), "Gladstone" (biography of William Gladstone)]
Parting the Desert: The Creation of the Suez Canal
Lord Beaconsfield: The Life of Benjamin Disraeli