Ferdinand Marie Vicomte de Lesseps, GCSI 1805 – 1894 was the French developer 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.
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 Spain, and settled at Bayonne during the region’s occupation by the English.
One of his great grandfathers, Pierre de Lesseps (1690 – 1759), son of Bertrand Lesseps (1649 – 1708) and wife (m. 18 April 1675) Louise Fisson (1654 – 1690), 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, and married on 7 January 1715 his great grandmother Catherine Fourcade (1690 – 1760), by whom he had fourteen children, six of whom died in childhood: Dominique de Lesseps (1715 – 1794), Pierre de Lesseps (1716 – ?), Marie de Lesseps (1717 – 1722), Arnaud de Lesseps (1719 – 1726), Jean Barthelemy de Lesseps (1720 – 1795), Marcel de Lesseps (1720 – 1730), Jean-Pierre de Lesseps (1721 – 1721), Catherine de Lesseps, Gracy de Lesseps (1725 – 1791), Plaisance de Lesseps (1727 – 1735), Michel de Lesseps (1729 – 1801), married in 1769 to Florence Verdier (1739 – 1822) (parents of Louise Therese de Lesseps (1770 – 1866), married in 1788 to Mathieu Belland (1764 – 1817)), Martin de Lesseps (1730 – 1807), married to Anna Caysergues (1730 – 1823) and had issue, Jeanne de Lesseps (1733 – ?), married in 1759 to Alexandre Dubrocq, and Etiennette de Lesseps (1735 – ?), married in 1761 to Pierre Simonin.
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 Bonaparte. His father, Mathieu de Lesseps (1774 – 1832), was in the consular service; his mother, Catherine de Grevigne (1774 – 1853) was Spanish on her mother’s side, and aunt of the countess of Montijo, mother of the Empress Eugenie. She was a daughter of Henri Grevigne (1744 – ?) and wife (m. 1766) Francisca Antonia Gallegos (1751 – 1853).
Ferdinand de Lesseps was born at Versailles, Yvelines, in 1805. He had a sister, Adelaide de Lesseps (1803 – 1879), married to Jules Adolphe Edouard Tallien of Cabarrus, and two brothers, Theodore de Lesseps (1802 – 1874), married in 1828 to Antonia Denois (1802 – 1878), and Jules de Lesseps (1809 – 1887), married on 11 March 1874 to Hyacinthe Delarue.
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 vice consul at Lisbon, where his uncle, Barthelemy de Lesseps, was the French chargé d’affaires. This uncle was an old companion of Jean Francois de La Perouse 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 Bertrand Clausel, General in Chief of the army of occupation in Algeria. The marshal wrote to Mathieu de Lesseps on 18 December 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 Napoleon Bonaparte‘s instructions, by the civil engineer Lapra, 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 Mehemet 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 21 December married Mlle Agathe Delamalle (1819 – 1853), daughter of the government prosecuting attorney at the court of Angers. By this marriage Lesseps became the father of five sons: Charles Theodore de Lesseps (1838 – 1838), Charles Aime de Lesseps (1840 – 1923), Ferdinand Marie de Lesseps (1842 – 1846), Ferdinand Victor de Lesseps (1847 – 1853) and Aime Victor de Lesseps (1848 – 1896).
In 1839 he was appointed Consul at Rotterdam, and in the following year transferred to Malaga, 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 sympathies 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 negotiate the return of Pope Pius IX to the Vatican. He tried to negotiate an agreement whereby Pope Pius IX 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. He was the President at that time.
De Lesseps then retired from the diplomatic service, and never again 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.
A first scheme, initiated by de Lesseps, was immediately drawn out by two French engineers who were in the Egyptian service, 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 link 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 the engineers 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 Henry Palmerston, who considered the projected disturbance as too radical and a danger to the commercial position of Great Britain. De Lesseps was similarly not 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, and that the sands from the desert would fill the trenches – no adverse argument, in a word, could dishearten Lesseps.
With the support of Bonaparte III and the Empress Eugenie, de Lesseps succeeded in rousing the patriotism of the French and obtaining by their subscriptions more than half of the capital of two hundred million francs which he needed in order to form a company. The Egyptian government subscribed for eighty million francs worth of shares.
The Compagnie universelle du canal maritime de Suez was organized at the end of 1858. On 25 April 1859 the first blow of the pickaxe was given by Lesseps at Port Said, and on 27 November 1869 the canal was officially opened by the Khedive, Ismail Pasha.
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 endeavored 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 Leon Gambetta. Afterward, de Lesseps declined the other candidatures that were offered to 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 a stretch of the Sahara desert into an inland sea to increase rainfall in Algeria.
De Lesseps accepted the Presidency of the French committee of Leopold I Belgium‘s International African Society. From this position he 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.
From November 17, 1899 to December 23, 1956, a monumental statue of Ferdinand de Lesseps by Emmanuel Fremiet stood at the entrance of the Suez Canal.
In May 1879 a congress of 136 delegates (including de Lesseps) assembled in the rooms of the Geographical Society in Paris, under the Presidency of Admiral de la Roncire le Noury, and voted in favor of the creation of a Panama Canal, which was to be 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 Leon Gambetta bestowed upon him the title of “Le Grand Français”.
However, the decision to dig a Panama Canal at sea level to avoid the use of locks, and the inability of contemporary medical science to deal with epidemics of malaria and yellow fever 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, the technical difficulties of operating in the wet tropics dogged the project. Particularly disastrous were recurrent landslides into the excavations from the bordering water saturated hills, and the death toll from tropical diseases. In the end, insufficient capital and financial corruption ended the project. The Panama Canal Company declared itself bankrupt in December 1888 and entered liquidation in February 1889.
The failure of the project is sometimes referred to as the Panama Canal Scandal, after rumors 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 of financial aid to the Panama Canal Company, and in February 1893 de Lesseps, his son Charles (b. 1849), and a number of others faced trial and were found guilty. De Lesseps was ordered to pay a fine and serve a prison sentence, but the latter was overturned by the Cour de Cessation 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 under a revised plan.
In Paris on 25 November 1869 he married his second wife, Louise Helene Autard de Bragard (1848 – 1909), daughter of Gustave Adolphe Autard de Bragard, a former Magistrate of Mauritius, and wife Marie Louise Carcenac (1817 – 1857), daughter of Pierre Carcenac (1771 – 1819) and wife Marie Francoise Dessachis, and eleven out of his twelve children of this marriage survived him.
On 11 June 1884, Levi P Morton, the Minister of the United States to France, gave a banquet in honor of the Franco American Union and in celebration of the completion of the Statue of Liberty. Ferdinand de Lesseps, as head of the Franco American Union, formally presented the statue to the United States, saying:
This is the result of the devoted enthusiasm, the intelligence and the noblest sentiments which can inspire man. It is great in its conception, great in its execution, great in its proportions; let us hope that it will add, by its moral value, to the memories and sympathies that it is intended to perpetuate. We now transfer to you, Mr. Minister, this great statue and trust that it may forever stand the pledge of friendship between France and the Great Republic of the United States.
In October 1886, de Lesseps traveled to the United States to speak at the dedication ceremony of the Statue of Liberty, attended by Grover Cleveland.
Lesseps died at Chateau de La Chesnaye in Guilly, Vatan, Indre, on 7 December 1894. He was buried in the Pere 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 26 July 1956, the first step to its nationalization. In the course of the raid and seizure of the canal by Nasser, the colossus statue of de Lesseps at the entrance of the Suez Canal was removed from its pedestal, to symbolize the end of European ownership of the waterway. The statue now stands in a small garden of the Port Fouad shipyard.
Charles Lesseps was a homeopath in Paris in 1857.