1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Lesseps, Ferdinand de
LESSEPS, FERDINAND DE (1805–1894). French diplomatist and maker of the Suez Canal, was born at Versailles on the 19th of November 1805. The origin of his 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 the 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 Grivégnée, was Spanish, and aunt of the countess of Montijo, mother of the empress Eugénie. 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, Barthélemy de Lesseps, was the French chargé d’affaires. This uncle was an old companion of La Pérouse 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 courageously 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 Clausel, general-in-chief of the army of occupation in Algeria. The marshal wrote to Mathieu de Lesseps on the 18th of 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. 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 Lapère, 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 Pacha, Mehemet’s son, began those friendly relations that he did not forget later, when he gave him the concession for making the Suez Canal. 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. While he was there a terrible epidemic of the plague broke out and lasted for two years, carrying off more than a third of the inhabitants of Cairo and Alexandria. During this time he went from one city to the other, according as the danger was more pressing, and constantly displayed an admirable zeal and an imperturbable energy. Towards the close of the year 1837 he returned to France, and on the 21st of December married Mlle Agathe Delamalle, daughter of the government prosecuting attorney at the court of Angers. By this marriage M. de Lesseps became the father of five sons. In 1839 he was appointed consul at Rotterdam, and in the following year transferred to Malaga, 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, rescuing from death, without distinction, the men belonging to the rival factions, and protecting and sending away not only the Frenchmen who were in danger, but foreigners of all nationalities. From 1848 to 1849 he was minister of France at Madrid. In the latter year the government of the French Republic confided to him a mission to Rome at the moment when it was a question whether the expelled pope would return to the Vatican with or without bloodshed. Following his interpretation of the instructions he had received, de Lesseps began negotiations with the existing government at Rome, according to which Pius IX. should peacefully re-enter the Vatican and the independence of the Romans be assured at the same time. But while he was negotiating, the elections in France had caused a change in the foreign policy of the government. His course was disapproved; he was recalled and brought before the council of state, which blamed his conduct without giving him a chance to justify himself. Rome, attacked by the French army, was taken by assault after a month’s sanguinary siege. M. de Lesseps then retired from the diplomatic service, and never afterwards occupied any public office. In 1853 he lost his wife and daughter at a few days’ interval. Perhaps his energy would not have been sufficient to sustain him against these repeated blows of destiny if, in 1854, the accession to the viceroyalty of Egypt of his old friend, Said Pacha, had not given a new impulse to the ideas that had haunted him for the last twenty-two years concerning the Suez Canal. Said Pacha invited M. de Lesseps to pay him a visit, and on the 7th of November 1854 he landed at Alexandria; on the 30th of the same month Said Pacha signed the concession authorizing M. de Lesseps to pierce the isthmus of Suez.
A first scheme, indicated by him, was immediately drawn out by two French engineers who were in the Egyptian service, MM. 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 no longer allowed anything to stop him. He listened to no adverse criticism and receded before no obstacle. Neither the opposition of Lord Palmerston, who considered the projected disturbance as too radical not to endanger the commercial position of Great Britain, nor 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—no adverse argument, in a word, could dishearten Ferdinand de Lesseps. His faith made him believe that his adversaries were in the wrong; but how great must have been this faith, which permitted him to undertake the work at a time when mechanical appliances for the execution of such an undertaking did not exist, and when for the utilization of the proposed canal there was as yet no steam mercantile marine! Impelled by his convictions and talent, supported by the emperor Napoleon III. and the empress Eugénie, 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 company was organized at the end of 1858. On the 25th of April 1859 the first blow of the pickaxe was given by Lesseps at Port Said, and on the 17th of November 1869 the canal was officially opened by the Khedive, Ismail Pacha (see Suez Canal). 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 endeavoured to keep out of politics. If in 1869 he appeared to deviate from this principle by being a candidate at Marseilles 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 Gambetta. He afterwards declined the other candidatures that were offered 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. He subsequently encouraged Major Roudaire, who wished to transform the Sahara desert into an inland sea. The king of the Belgians having formed an International African Society, de Lesseps accepted the presidency of the French committee, facilitated M. de Brazza’s explorations, and acquired stations that he subsequently abandoned to the French government. These stations were the starting-point of French Congo. In 1879 a congress assembled in the rooms of the Geographical Society at Paris, under the presidency of Admiral de la Roncière le Noury, and voted in favour of the making of the Panama Canal. Public opinion, it may be declared, designated Ferdinand de Lesseps as the head of the enterprise. It was upon that occasion that Gambetta bestowed upon him the title of Le Grand Français. He was not a man to shirk responsibility, and notwithstanding that he had reached the age of 74, he undertook to carry out the Panama Canal project (see Panama Canal and France: History). Politics, which de Lesseps had always avoided, was his greatest enemy in this matter. The winding-up of the Panama Company having been declared in the month of December 1888, the adversaries of the French Republic, seeking for a scandal that would imperil the government, hoped to bring about the prosecution of the directors of the Panama Company. Their attacks were so vigorously made that the government was obliged, in self-defence, to have judicial proceedings taken against Ferdinand de Lesseps, his son Charles (b. 1849) and his co-workers Fontane and Cottu. Charles de Lesseps, a victim offered to the fury of the politicians, tried to divert the storm upon his head and prevent it from reaching his father. He managed to draw down upon himself alone the burden of the condemnations pronounced. One of the consequences of the persecutions of which he was the object was to oblige him to spend three years, from 1896 to 1899, in England, where his participation in the management of the Suez Canal had won for him some strong friendships, and where he was able to see the great respect in which the memory and name of his father were held by Englishmen.
Ferdinand de Lesseps died at La Chenaie on the 7th of December 1894. He had contracted a second marriage in 1869 with Mlle Autard de Bragard, daughter of a former magistrate of Mauritius; and eleven out of twelve children of this marriage survived him. M. 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. According to some accounts he was unconscious of the disastrous events that took place during the closing months of his life. Others report that, feeling himself powerless to scatter the gathered clouds, and aware of his physical feebleness, he had had the moral courage to pass in the eyes of his family, which he did not wish to afflict, as the dupe of the efforts they employed to conceal the truth from him. This last version would not be surprising if we relied upon the following portrait, sketched by a person who knew him intimately:—“Simple in his tastes, never thinking of himself, constantly preoccupied about others, supremely kind, he did not and would not recognize such a thing as evil. Of a confiding nature, he was inclined to judge others by himself. This naturally affectionate abandonment that every one felt in him had procured him profound attachments and rare devotions. He showed, while making the Suez Canal, what a gift he possessed for levying the pacific armies he conducted. He set duty above everything, had in the highest degree a reverence for honour, and placed his indomitable courage at the service of everything that was beneficial with an abnegation that nothing could tire. His marvellous physical and moral equilibrium gave him an evenness of temper which always rendered his society charming. Whatever his cares, his work or his troubles, I have never noticed in him aught but generous impulses and a love of humanity carried even to those heroic imprudences of which they alone are capable who devote themselves to the amelioration of humanity.” No doubt this eulogy requires some reservations. The striking and universal success which crowned his work on the Suez Canal gave him an absoluteness of thought which brooked no contradiction, a despotic temper before which every one must bow, and against which, when he had once taken a resolution, nothing could prevail, not even the most authoritative opposition or the most legitimate entreaties. He had resolved to construct the Panama Canal without locks, to make it an uninterrupted navigable way. All attempts to dissuade him from this resolution failed before his tenacious will. At his advanced age he went with his youngest child to Panama to see with his own eyes the field of his new enterprise. He there beheld the Culebra and the Chagres; he saw the mountain and the stream, those two greatest obstacles of nature that sought to bar his route. He paid no heed to them, but began the struggle against the Culebra and the Chagres. It was against them that was broken his invincible will, sweeping away in the defeat the work of Panama, his own fortune, his fame and almost an atom of his honour. But this atom, only grazed by calumny, has already been restored to him by posterity, for he died poor, having been the first to suffer by the disaster to his illusions. Political agitators, in order to sap the power of the Opportunist party, did not hesitate to drag in the mud one of the greatest citizens of France. But when the Panama “scandal” has been forgotten, for centuries to come the traveller in saluting the statue of Ferdinand de Lesseps at the entrance of the Suez Canal will pay homage to one of the most powerful embodiments of the creative genius of the 19th century.
See G. Barnett Smith, The Life and Enterprises of Ferdinand de Lesseps (London, 1893); and Souvenirs de quarante ans, by Ferdinand de Lesseps (trans. by C. B. Pitman). (de B.)