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Ferdinand de Lesseps (1805-1894)
Ferdinand Marie, Vicomte de Lesseps GCSI (19 November 1805 7 December 1894) was the French developer of the Suez Canal, which joined the Mediterranean and Red Seas in 1869, and substantially reduced sailing distances and times between the West and the East.
He attempted to repeat this success with an effort to build a Panama Canal at sea-level during the 1880s, but the project was devastated by epidemics of malaria and yellow fever in the area, and the projected de Lesseps Panama Canal was left uncompleted. It was eventually partially superseded by a non-sea-level canal with locks, built by the United States and completed in 1914.
Ferdinand de Lesseps was born at Versailles, Yvelines, in 1805.
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 Jean-François de La Pérouse and the only survivor of the expedition in which La Pérouse perished. Barthélemy de Lesseps had left the expedition in Kamchatka to travel to St Petersburg overland.
In 1828 de Lesseps 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. 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 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 de Lesseps was appointed vice-consul at Alexandria. While the vessel de 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 Jacques-Marie Le Père, one of the scientific members of the French expedition.
This work struck de Lesseps's imagination, and gave him the idea of constructing a canal across the African isthmus. Fortunately for de 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 Ali was a colonel. Because of this, de 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 de 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 (Garches, Hauts-de-Seine, 15 October 1819 – Paris, 13 July 1853), daughter of the government prosecuting attorney at the court of Angers. By this mariage de Lesseps became the father of five sons: Charles Théodore de Lesseps (1838–1838), Charles Aimé de Lesseps (1840–1923), Ferdinand Marie de Lesseps (1842–1846), Ferdinand Victor de Lesseps (1847–1853) and Aimé Victor de Lesseps (1848–1896).
In 1839 he was appointed consul at Rotterdam, and in the following year transferred to Málaga, 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 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.
He was created on 30 August 1851 the 334th Commander and then the 200th Grand Cross of the Order of the Tower and Sword.
De Lesseps then retired from the diplomatic service, and never again occupied any public office.
In 1853 he lost his wife and his son Ferdinand Victor 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.
Said Pasha invited de Lesseps to pay him a visit, and on 7 November 1854 he landed at Alexandria; on the 30th of the same month Said Pasha signed the concession authorizing him to build the 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 the civil engineers constituting the International Commission for the piercing of the isthmus of Suez.
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 Lord 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 could dishearten Lesseps.
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, but could not attract any substantial capital contribution from the public in England or other foreign countries. The Egyptian government thus 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 de Lesseps at Port Said. During the following ten years, de Lesseps had to overcome the continuing opposition of the British government preventing the Sultan from approving the construction of the canal and at one stage, he even had to seek the support of his cousin, Empress Eugenie to persuade the Emperor Napoleon III to act as arbitrator in the disputes.
Finally, on 17 November 1869, the canal was officially opened by the Khedive, Ismail Pasha.
While in the interests of his canal de Lesseps had resisted the opposition of British diplomacy to an enterprise which threatened to give 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.
De Lesseps steadily endeavoured 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 Léon 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 II of 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 17 November 1899 to 23 December 1956, a monumental statue of Ferdinand de Lesseps by Emmanuel Frémiet 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 favour 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 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.
In February, 1880, de Lesseps arrived in New York to raise money for the project. When he stayed at the Windsor Hotel, its staff flew the French flag in his honour. He met the American Society of Civil Engineers and the Geographic Society while touring the area. De Lesseps then went to Washington, met with President Rutherford Hayes, and testified to the House Interoceanic Canal Committee. He later went to Boston, Chicago, and several other American cities to raise interest and capital for 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 malaria and yellow fever. 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 rumours 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 (born 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 Cassation 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.
De Lesseps died at Château de La Chesnaye in Guilly, Vatan, Indre, on 7 December 1894. He was buried in Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.
1895 Obituary 
FERDINAND DE LESSEPS, Honorary Member, whose name has become indissolubly connected with the promotion, design, and construction of one of the most celebrated engineering works the world has ever possessed, was born at Versailles on the 17th of November, 1805.
His father was an active functionary of the French State, chiefly in the diplomatic service, and through his influence young Ferdinand received a free education at the College of Henry IV. in Paris.
Probably nothing could have been farther from the idea of his parents and friends than that he would achieve greatness in an engineering sphere; he started in working life, while quite a youth, in the diplomatic career, and appears to have had much varied and useful employment therein till he was nearly fifty years old. The only way in which his experience seems to have led in the direction of his after-life was being appointed Vice- Consul at Cairo, and residence in Egypt from 1831 to 1838.
During the great plague there in 1834-5, which carried off one third of the population, the heroism and devotion he showed gained for him the decoration of a Chevalier of the Legion of Honour. For similar brave services, during the bombardment of Barcelona in 1842, he was promoted to the grade of Officer, and obtained other distinctions. After a mission to Rome, in which some misunderstanding occurred, he retired into private life, residing (in a chateau formerly occupied by Agnes Sorel, the beautiful favourite of Charles VII.) at La Chesnaye, in the ancient Province of Berry, Central France.
It was only in 1864 that an event occurred conducing to the work which has made him celebrated. One morning in August of that year, while on the roof of a house he was building, in the midst of scaffolding and workmen, a newspaper was put into his hand informing him of the death of Abbas Pasha, and of the accession to the Viceroyalty, in Egypt, of his former patron and friend, Mohammed Said. In an instant the workmen and their work were forgotten, and he was taking steps to congratulate the new Viceroy, and proposing at once to go over to Egypt again.
The idea which flashed into his mind so suddenly and so powerfully, was a scheme he had formerly cherished for the improvement of the communication between Europe and India. When he was sent to Egypt in 1831, he had, according to the custom of the time, to pass quarantine at Alexandria; and in order to amuse him during his long incarceration, the Consul brought him Denon’s great work on the French Expedition into Egypt, in which he read of the various attempts that had been made to unite the waters of the Mediterranean and the Red Sea, from the time of the Pharaohs to that of Napoleon; with a report on the subject generally by the engineer of the expedition, M. Lepere.
In connexion with this subject, during his subsequent residence in the country, he was greatly struck with the history of the overland route through Egypt to India, which had been then established by the almost superhuman energy and perseverance of Lieutenant Waghorn. This worthy man had devoted the best years of his life, and all his pecuniary means, in defiance of the opposition of the authorities most interested in the object, to the establishment of this route, the great advantages of which, during the residence of de Lesseps in Egypt, were just beginning to be generally known.
De Lesseps appears to have been fascinated by the noble behaviour of Waghorn, which he considered as a model for his own guidance ; and connecting the already accomplished land-passage of the isthmus with the ancient ideas of the passage by water, he appears to have resolved to imitate the bold lieutenant in his own efforts to introduce a grander enterprise. 'No wonder,' says a biographer, 'that the projector of the water-route should speak with tender sympathy of the projector of the overland journey; and there is something touching in the picture of the future maker of the canal, watching thoughtfully, at Alexandria, the impassioned courier hurrying past him on his way while he himself was maturing his own gigantic scheme.'
Although there is no doubt that he studied the subject well while in Egypt, he does not appear to have seen his way to doing anything actively about it till after his return to France.
In 1852 he had drawn up a programme which he translated into Arabic, and through an old friend, the Dutch Consul General, he got it laid before Abbas Pasha, then Viceroy. He said :
'I must own that my scheme is still in the clouds, and I cannot conceal from myself the fact that so long as I have only myself to believe in its possibility there is no chance of getting the public to accept it. The idea is to cut a passage through the Isthmus of Suez - which has again and again been proposed since the old historical times, and perhaps for that reason has been thought impossible. I send you a Memoir,' &c., &c.
Abbas Pasha was a voluptuary, not inclined to entertain such schemes, and de Lesseps got the matter laid before the Sultan, who, however, replied it was the affair of the Viceroy. 'Under these circumstances,' said M. de Lesseps, 'I must only let my project sleep. While waiting a more favourable time, I shall take to agriculture and to the working of a model farm.' And it was in pursuance of this resolve that, two years later, he was superintending the builders at La Chesnaye, on that August morning in 1854.
From that moment he never rested till the completion of the canal. Mohammed Said had been his warm and intimate friend in his Egyptian time, and he had strong hope that the new Viceroy would interest himself in the canal scheme. The answer invited M. de Lesseps to meet the Pasha in November; and he landed on the 7th at Alexandria, where he was sumptuously received. On the 15th he unfolded his plan and answered all enquiries, after which the Pashas aid, 'I am satisfied, and I accept your scheme. We shall arrange all the details during our journey to Cairo; but understand that it is settled and you may count upon me.'
On the 25th the Viceroy called a meeting of the public functionaries and foreign Consuls at Cairo, and announced to them the project, and on the 30th the 'Concession' was formally signed.
M. de Lesseps now determined to survey the country more accurately than had yet been done, and he took with him two French engineers, Mougel Bey and Linant Bey, who had long practised in Egypt, and were well acquainted with the locality this occupied about three weeks, and the results were perfectly favourable. The successful prospects of the undertaking were now attracting notice, and M. de Lesseps began to receive offers of help from all quarters. But he quoted advice once given him by Mehemet Ali, who said, 'Always keep this in mind, my young friend; when you have any important scheme on hand, depend on yourself alone. If you have a partner, that is one too many.'
So far all appeared couleur de rose. But more gloomy prospects now began to arise. The English Consul had not joined in the general enthusiasm, and had plainly told the Viceroy that 'he was going too fast;' moreover, clouds began to lower in the direction of the Porte. M. de Lesseps knew that the English influence, if unfavourable, would be strongly exercised in the Turkish quarter, and he at once started for Constantinople, arriving there in February, 1855. His scheme was laid before the Sultan, and the impression at first seemed favourable; but this proved to be a mistake, owing, as it afterwards came out, to the opposition of England; for in June a despatch from Lord Clarendon was received disapproving of the proposal on strong grounds, partly from political motives, and partly from doubts as to its feasibility. And it is somewhat humiliating to have to record that, from this time onwards, the most formidable opposition to the construction of the Canal came from the British nation, which was afterwards chiefly to benefit by it.
M. de Lesseps determined boldly to face the enemy, and he went straight to London, where he found his worst fears realized ; for though the mercantile community encouraged him, the Government, as represented by Lord Palmerston and Lord Clarendon, was strongly inimical.
He succeeded, however, in getting, in October, an independent Commission appointed to survey the Isthmus and report on the scheme. It consisted of two distinguished English engineers, Mr. Maclean and Mr. Rendel; M. Conrad, the eminent chief of the Waterstaat in Holland; Sig. Negrelli, director of public works in Austria; and other competent persons appointed by European powers. Charles Manby (of this Institution) and Mr. Lieussou, of Paris, were appointed secretaries. On the last days of October, 1855, the Commission met in Paris, after which a deputation of them made an expedition to Egypt occupying nearly a month, the expenses, about £32,000, being paid by the Viceroy. The Commission made a preliminary Report in January, 1856, which was followed by a more complete one in June ; both were entirely favourable to the scheme, recommending, in fact, the plans which were afterwards carried out.
But in spite of this approval, objections were not wanting. In January, 1856, an article appeared in the Edinburgh Review, examining, with much pretension to technical knowledge, the whole question of the communication between the two seas, and strongly discouraging M. de Lesseps's proposal. This article was ably answered by M. Barthelemy St. Hilaire in the Revue Britannique of April in the same year.
There were many subsequent discussions, M. de Lesseps being ubiquitous in his exertions to keep up the interest in the affair. In London he was presented to the Queen, and had a long communication with Prince Albert ; the Geographical Society entertained him and listened to his explanations. He determined to get up meetings throughout Great Britain, and it is said he held thirty-two of such meetings in forty-five days, visiting almost every important town in the three kingdoms. And though his knowledge of the language was but imperfect, his energy and determination caused him to be always well received. He said, 'In spite of my jumble of English words drowned in French expressions, every one applauded, wishing to show that they followed my meaning.' His enthusiasm carried him on in this determined war with the Government, and between 1854 and 1858 he is said to have travelled 10,000 leagues every year.
He appears to have been almost superstitiously confident of ultimate success; indeed, he said that when he saw a rainbow stretching across the Isthmus it presented to his mind a future junction of the East and West, and a luminous meteor, shooting over one of the lake beds on the first day of his survey, showed him the line he should follow.
On the 7th of July, 1857, the matter came before the English Parliament, a question being put as to whether Government would use its influence with the Sultan to favour the measure. Lord Palmerston spoke strongly against the Canal, characterizing it as a 'bubble scheme.' On the 17th the debate came on again, when a more serious opposition to it appeared in opinions publicly expressed by one of the most respected English engineers, no less a personage than Robert Stephenson. This eminent man had had a good deal to do with Egypt, having been engaged by Abbas Pasha to construct the railway forming the improved overland route from Alexandria by Cairo to Suez. Before this, however, namely in 1847, he had, at the suggestion of Linant Bey, paid some attention to the Suez Canal, having investigated the subject in conjunction with M. Paulin Talabot, a French engineer, and M. Negrelli, an Austrian engineer. The French engineers who were in Egypt at the time of the invasion, about 1800, appear to have adopted and circulated an opinion of the ancient writers, that there was a difference between the levels of the Mediterranean and the Red Sea of something like 30 feet. This assertion had been challenged on physical grounds by Laplace and Fourier.
In order to determine the point the three engineers caused a careful levelling to be made, which proved that there was (as might be expected) no difference between the levels, except what was caused by the tides. Mr. Stephenson’s view was that if such a difference had existed, a current could be established, constantly running, which would keep the Canal clean; but without such a current he and his associates did not believe the canal could be made, or if made, could be kept open afterwards.
The idea was accordingly abandoned, and M. Talabot wrote, at a later time, a report recommending a different scheme.
When, therefore, on the 17th of July, 1857, the project of de Lesseps came before Parliament, Mr. Stephenson made a long speech condemnatory of it, explaining his views and frankly declaring the proposed Canal in his opinion to be an impracticable scheme.
About this time the Government appears to have thought it desirable to institute some inquiries on its own behalf, and accordingly the Admiralty sent Captain T. Spratt, C.B., to Egypt for the purpose. He wrote two reports, dated 30th January and 9th July, 1858. His conclusions were adverse to the project, and he warned the commercial interest against risking a their millions in the undertaking. He contended that the material brought to the sea by the great river Nile, would be carried eastwards by the prevailing winds and currents, and would accumulate against the piers or jetties proposed to be built to form a harbour at Port Said, and so would prevent the maintenance of a sufficient depth of water there. His reports were industriously circulated to support the inimical views of the Government, but the reasonings were strongly controverted at the time by Mougel Bey, and were afterwards entirely disproved by Mr. Hawkshaw.
After more negotiations, and constant agitation on the part of de Lesseps, continually hovering between Constantinople and London, the matter was again brought before the British Parliament.
On the 26th of March, 1858, Lord Palmerston having retired, the new Premier, Mr. Disraeli, was asked whether the British Government 'considered it desirable to persevere in its opposition to the Canal, now that all the nations of Europe favoured the scheme?. He replied that his opinion was that 'it was a most futile attempt, totally impossible to be carried out, and that, even if it were feasible, the operation of Nature would, in a short time, totally defeat the ingenuity of man.' De Lesseps had hoped that the retirement of his old avowed enemy, Lord Palmerston, would have been of service to him, but he found himself no better off than before.
The debate was resumed on the 1st of June, 1858, when Mr. Roebuck moved and Mr. Milner Gibson seconded, 'that in the opinion of this House the influence of the country ought not to be used in order to induce the Sultan to withhold his assent to this project.' This brought on an animated debate. After the mover and seconder had eloquently pleaded in support of the scheme, Mr. Robert Stephenson made another speech reiterating his former objections. He even denied that the construction of the Canal was physically possible ; and he stated, in conclusion, 'his opinion that if it was attempted at all - which he hoped it would not be, or at least not with English money - it would prove an abortive scheme, ruinous to its constructors.'
Mr. Gladstone spoke warmly in favour of the canal, and objected to English influence being exercised against it ; he supported the practicability of the plan, and exposed the political fallacies urged on the other side. Lord John Russell, Mr. Bright, and others joined in the debate, and Mr. Disraeli replied at great length; the result being that Mr. Roebuck’s motion was rejected by the large majority of 228 in a house of 290 members.
This settled the conviction in the mind of de Lesseps that he must not hope longer for the concurrence of England. He had nothing left but to go back and to do his best to brave the opposition thus manifested; and after a short tour on the Continent he arrived in Paris at the end of August 1858, with the view of formally constituting his company. By the end of the year he had got this done. It was to be a company of the French pattern known as 'Societe Anonyme,' its social seat being at Alexandria, but its legal and administrative abode in Paris. The capital was £8,000,000 sterling in 400,000 shares of £20 each, and during the construction 5 per cent. interest was to be paid on the capital subscribed. Prince Jerome Napoleon was appointed 'Protector,' the President was de Lesseps himself, and the title was 'Compagnie Universelle du Canal Maritime de Suez.'
This object being accomplished, the next effort of the promoter was actually to begin the construction of the Canal, and he now made his way to Egypt. He encountered many difficulties in the first steps of procuring possession of the land, but on the 25th of April, 1859, surrounded by a staff of 150 workmen and employees, de Lesseps gave the first blow with the pick-axe, and turned the first spadeful of earth on the beach of the Mediterranean at the proposed terminus of the Canal. Not long afterwards from 25,000 to 30,000 men were at work, and the construction of the Canal had really begun.
It is not the object of this notice to describe the Canal, or even to chronicle in any detail the progress of the construction; such information may be easily obtained from other sources. But a brief account may be useful to make more intelligible the personal narrative.
The Canal is about 100 miles long, from the south shore of the Mediterranean to the north end of the Red Sea. Between these two points there is a natural narrow line of depression or indentation, in which lie several wider and deeper depressions below the sea-level, forming the basins of lakes that have long been dry. It had therefore always been seen that this long depression would be the most natural line for a channel connecting the two seas. There are only two points along the line at which the ground rises much above the mean sea-level, namely, at El Guisr and Serapeum; the former being 59 feet and the latter 36 feet elevation.
The Canal begins near a point on the Mediterranean formerly called Pelusium, and as an entrance to it an artificial port has now been made, named Port Said in honour of the Khedive. The harbour is formed by two strong piers or breakwaters, each above a mile in length, built out into the sea with large blocks of concrete.
From Port Said the Canal is cut for about 29 miles through the shallow depression of Lake Menzaleh, and then 20 miles partly through ground flooded at the time of inundations, and partly through the low hill at El Guisr, to Lake Timsah, near which has been formed the new little half-way town of Ismailia. Then a land-cut of 12 miles through the slight rise at Serapeum brings it to the northern bank of the Bitter Lakes, which form a great basin 22 miles long and in some places about 6 miles wide. From the southern end of this basin another solid cut and a passage along the edge of a small lake, together about 18 miles, bring it to the Red Sea at Suez. There are 60 miles of passage through lakes and 40 miles cut in land.
The cross-section of the Canal has varied in different places and at different times, as, in the first instance, smaller dimensions were adopted for the heavier excavations to save first cost.
At the time of opening, the normal water-section was fixed at 72 feet wide at the bottom and 26 feet deep. For 22 miles the slopes were 2 to 1 with horizontal benchings, giving a width of 196 feet at the surface; but for the remaining 78 miles the slopes were flatter, and the benchings wider, giving a surface width of 327 feet. At intervals of 5 or 6 miles there are 'sidings,' or side-basins, to enable vessels to pass one another ; and provision was made generally for widening the Canal, when considered desirable.
In addition to the maritime undertaking it was an important part of the scheme to form a separate canal, to bring the fresh water of the Nile to the line of the operations, partly for the workmen during the construction, but chiefly for the supply of the district generally, and the consequent improvement of the territory. The ideas as to its arrangement had varied several times, but the final plan was to take the Nile water from the barrage near Cairo, conveying it to Suez and to Ismailia, whence, by pumping arrangements, ample supplies could be given wherever required, extending by pipes even to Port Said.
The Fresh-Water Supply as not properly part of the Company's permanent Works; it was done by them, but was paid for by Egyptian funds.
Resuming the brief history of the construction of the Canal, which, as stated, was begun in April 1859 - by the end of 1862 the two piers forming the entrance at Port Said had been partly built, and the excavation of the Canal had so far advanced that a water communication from the Mediterranean to Lake Timsah had been opened for boats of small draught, and many houses and workshops had been constructed. The cuttings through the hill of Serapeum gave great trouble, but were at last overcome by getting large dredgers to work at them. These were stupendous machines, and were used in such numbers that an enormous amount of material was dredged; away in very little time. Thousands of men were also at work superintended by French officers.
In July 1862, the Viceroy Mohammed Said Pasha, being in England, determined to get the benefit of further technical advice from English skilled authorities about the Canal ; and it is remarkable how many engineers or naval and military officers have reported at one time or other on the subject. The opinions of Robert Stephenson and of Captain Spratt, already mentioned, were given before the Canal was begun. Now, it being actually in progress, the Viceroy commissioned Mr. (afterwards Sir) John Hawkshaw, then President of this Institution, to visit the works and to report his opinion thereon to the Egyptian Government.
Mr. Hawkshaw accordingly went to Egypt in October, spent some time there, and presented his Report on the 3rd of February, 1863. He described accurately what had been done, and approved generally both the design and the construction. In recommendations for the future he laid great stress on the completion and perfection of the Fresh-Water Canal and its dependencies. He warned the Company of the possible existence of rock in the main line (a prophecy afterwards singularly fulfilled), and gave other useful suggestions in regard to details of the excavation. He also paid considerable attention to the question of the future permanence and maintenance of the Canal and its entrances. He noticed the objections that had so formidably arisen on this score, and discussed them thoroughly.
His most important conclusions were summed up in the two following sentences :-
'First, as regards the engineering construction, there are no works on the Canal presenting on the face any unusual difficulty of execution, and there are no contingencies, that I can conceive likely to arise, that would introduce difficulties insurmountable by engineering skill.
'Secondly, as regards the maintenance of the Canal, I am of opinion that no obstacles would be met with that would prevent the work, when completed, being maintained with ease and efficiency, and without the necessity of incurring any extraordinary or unusual yearly expenditure.'
This document, coming from such an authoritative source and being founded on such a thorough examination of the facts, had great influence on public opinion. It was translated into French and widely circulated, and was much quoted in future proceedings. De Lesseps was of course much delighted with it, and on many occasions expressed publicly his indebtedness to its Author.
The Sultan paid a visit to the work about this time, as did also an ambassador from England, and both seemed pleased with its prospects.
But, in spite of these fair anticipations, new troubles arose, of so serious a character as not only to delay the construction materially, but almost to threaten its stoppage altogether.
On the 18th of January, 1863, Mohammed Said, the old friend of M. de Lesseps, and his patron in the original projection of the Canal,died, and 'there arose up a new king over Egypt, which knew not Joseph' - Ismail Pasha. This Viceroy was not inclined to view complacently a great French company in possession of an important position in his realm; he chafed under certain pecuniary engagements to which his predecessor had bound him, and he was short of money. The sweet-water channel, passing through the heart of his kingdom, far away from the Suez Canal, was bound up with territorial privileges, which were irksome and which he wanted changed. But there was another subject that gave him the means of persecuting the Company, namely, an agitation (partly attributed to British influence) which had some time previously been set on foot, ostensibly on philanthropical grounds, for stopping the forced labour hitherto allowed. This had been threatened in 1861 and 1862; but now the Company received actual notice that the forced labour would be withdrawn - the result being that the work languished, and was indeed almost abandoned for two years. And, with a less determined spirit directing the concern, it might have turned out to be one of those hopeless abandoned follies which become wonderful in after history.
As, however, the provision of native labour had been an important article of the original agreement, the Company’s claim could not be altogether ignored, and, after much discussion, it was agreed to refer the whole matter to the arbitration of the French Emperor.
At the same time, he was asked to settle some other alterations of the former agreement in regard to matters external to the main scheme, having to do with the construction and use of the Fresh-Water Canal, and the property of the land on the line of its route. His award was given in July, 1864, and it comprised indemnities to be paid to the Company, of 38,000,000 francs for the loss of forced labour, and 46,000,000 francs for the work done and rights abandoned on the Fresh-Water Canal, in all £3,360,000.
Hitherto, through the distracting effect of the European political discussions and negotiations, chiefly fomented by English suspicions, no formal sanction of the Canal had ever been given by the Porte ; but now, after twelve years’ delay, the long-promised Firman, dated 12th of March, 1866, was dispatched to the Khedive, recognising the 'Compagnie Universelle' for the piercing of the Isthmus of Suez, and approving all the arrangements and agreements now made for the same.
In April, 1867, the subject was brought before this Institution. Many years previously, i.e., in May, 1851, a Paper by Joseph Glynn, F.R.S., M. Inst. C.E., 'On the Isthmus of Suez and the Canals of Egypt,' had been read, in which the possibility of a direct canal through the Isthmus was mentioned as having been recommended in a report by Colonel Chesney, R.A., in 1830.
The discussion on Mr. Glynn’s Paper is noteworthy as containing a long description by Mr. Robert Stephenson of his early studies of the subject.
In 1867, when the Canal was approaching completion, it happened that Colonel Sir William T. Denison, K.C.B., of the Royal Engineers, on his return from India, examined the works, and he communicated an account of them to the Institution in a Paper read on the 16th of April in that year, which gave rise to a discussion occupying two evenings. Sir William's Paper presented a good view of the works at that period, and his own opinion was favourable to the successful completion of the work, but he thought the cost of maintenance would probably be considerable.
In the discussion which followed, Mr. Abernethy (who had also examined the works) expressed a favourable view; but several other engineers repeated objections of various kinds that had been brought against the Canal, and the Astronomer Royal, Sir George Airy, mentioned several points of scientific interest connected with it.
The works were now quietly but effectually pushed on by energetic contractors, with powerful machinery and well-paid labour. On the 24th of March, 1869, the Prince and Princess of Wales, who were in Cairo, visited the Canal; and M. de Lesseps invited them to witness the ceremony of letting the waters of the Mediterranean into the huge reservoir (already a part of the Canal) of the Bitter Lakes.
The waterway being at length completed for the whole distance, though still not for its full depth, the 17th of November was appointed for the formal opening, and on the 15th there assembled at Port Said the Viceroy, with his large suite, the Empress of the French, the Emperor of Austria, the Crown Prince of Prussia, the Grand Duke Michael of Russia, the Prince of Sweden, the Crown Prince and Princess of Holland, the Prince of Hesse, Abd-el-Kader, and a host of diplomatic officers and distinguished personages from other countries, to assist in the festivities, all being received and entertained by the Egyptian Government with great splendour.
On the 16th religious benedictions were pronounced on the work by the clergy of the Roman Catholic, the Greek, the Coptic, and the Mohammedan religions, each in its own mode ; and on the 17th the formal opening of the Canal took place by the passage through it of a large number of ships, headed by the Imperial yachts, and war-ships of several nations, altogether Some forty in number; and thus the connexion between the two seas became an accomplished fact.
The Canal being now open for public traffic, it was natural that accounts of it, with opinions and criticisms by competent judges, should be published to the world.
On the 27th of December, 1869, J. F. Bateman, F.R.S., who had attended the opening, wrote a notice of the work which was afterwards printed in the Proceedings of the Royal Society (No. 116, 1870). He gave a concise history, pointing out the strong opinions that had, down to that time, been held to its disadvantage, and expressing his own favourable view. He mentioned a few matters still needed to complete it satisfactorily, and added :-
'The Canal must be regarded as a great work, more from its relation to the national and commercial interests of the world than from its engineering features. In this light it is impossible to over-estimate its importance. It will effect a total revolution in the mode of conducting the great traffic, the beneficial effects of which I believe it is difficult to realize. M. de Lesseps well deserves the respect he has created and the praises which have been bestowed. He has opened a channel of communication between the East and the West which will never again be closed.'
The English Government, now, for the first time since Captain Spratt’s unfavourable vaticinations, thought it worth while to obtain some trustworthy scientific information about the Canal.
Mr. Hawkshaw’s favourable Report seven years before had failed to convert them, and they now proceeded to make enquiries for themselves. The most proper department to undertake the new investigation was obviously the Admiralty; and on the 30th of December, 1869, they directed two very competent officers, namely Captain (now Admiral Sir George) Richards, R.N., F.R.S, the Hydrographer to the Admiralty, and Colonel (now Lt.-General Sir Andrew) Clarke, C.B., of the Royal Engineers, Director of Engineering and Architectural Works to the Admiralty, to undertake the enquiry.
Their commission was-
'To proceed to Egypt and to obtain on the spot the fullest information in their power as to the present condition of the Suez Canal and the works proposed to be carried out in connection with it, and to report to what extent the Canal may be expected to be available for the purposes of Her Majesty’s Naval Service, including the Transport Service to and from the East.'
The Commissioners reached Alexandria on the 28th of January, 1870, examined the whole works, and made their Report - a most valuable document, illustrated with many elaborate drawings - in the February following. The result of their observations is summed up in the following conclusions :-
'1. That for a certain class of vessels this great work, which must always be a monument of persevering energy and engineering skill, as it now stands is a convenient mode of passage from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea.
'2. That it will be so to a greater extent when the works contemplated, viz., the deepening of certain shallow parts, the enlargement of the gares (side refuges), and the widening and improvement of the curves, are carried out.
'3. That it is available for the transit of ships employed in the Eastern seas, with the exception of the large ironclads and other exceptionally heavy vessels.
'4. That for the present type of Indian transports it is not a desirable route.
'5 . Further, we think that the cost of maintenance will not exceed the amount estimated for it when the work was first projected.'
They then remark that, adverting to the prospects of the Canal as the grand marine highway from Europe to the East, the real drawback is its narrowness, the want of width alone preventing its being pronounced a complete success as a permanent navigable route for the largest ships from sea to sea. And they add that to increase the width would be a perfectly feasible undertaking, at a cost easily calculable.
This was no doubt a highly favourable Report, and tended to bring about the remarkable change in the attitude of the British Government towards the Canal, which was so strikingly manifested a few years later.
But even after the successful completion of his great Work, M. de Lesseps was not destined to be freed from care.
In 1871 came a financial difficulty with the Khedive as to the privileges of shareholders ; and soon afterwards there arose a much more important dispute about the tonnage duties to be charged on vessels. This was of course a vital point, affecting the remuneration of the proprietors for their outlay, and it led to a long series of most complicated discussions with many European powers, often very acrimonious, which continued many years. The British Government was actively engaged in these, and a sort of Commission seems to have been appointed, which sat towards the end of 1873, the Government being represented by an officer of the Royal Engineers, Colonel Stokes, now General Sir John Stokes, K.C.B.
While this affair was still going on, another matter turned up which interested Great Britain much more nearly and directly. Some time before, there had been vague reports that, as the financial prospects of the Company were very unpromising, it might perhaps be possible for England, with her long purse, to give them some aid, and at the same time to acquire some rights over the management of the Canal. The Government was not indisposed to entertain the idea, and it determined, as a preliminary, to get as much information as possible, as to the actual condition of the Canal. For this purpose, in January, 1874, Colonel Stokes was instructed, after his work on the Tonnage Commission was ended, to visit Egypt and make another Report on the subject. This he did at great length, and the information soon proved useful.
In April, 1874, it became known that the Khedive, who held 176,600 original shares in the Canal, wished to sell them, and Lord Derby (then Foreign Secretary under the Government of Mr. Disraeli), who saw at once that this would be a very easy way for England to acquire interest in the Canal, opened negotiations on the subject. In the course of them Colonel Stokes went again to Egypt, and finally the shares were bought for about £4,000,000, although the interest on them was mortgaged up to 1894. The purchase was ratified in 1876, the tonnage question being also settled at the same time. Although this purchase seemed merely a large commercial transaction, it was impossible to ignore its great political significance, as giving the English nation a large share in the control of the Canal; it work which had become the keystone of Mediterranean politics, and the gate of the road to the Eastern Empires of the world.
It is scarcely necessary to add that throughout all these various transactions, negotiations, and disputes, M. de Lesseps took the most active part in the Company’s interests; and whatever branch of the work had to be dealt with, whether diplomacy, finance, engineering or internal management, he was always the life and soul of the business. It was not till the purchase of the shares had finally extinguished the animosity of his old enemy, the British Government, that he could be free from worry in regard to the affairs of the Canal.
At the time of the British Expedition to Egypt in 1882 he was somewhat afraid lest it should be endangered by hostilities on its banks; but this was a false alarm, and he remained untroubled at the head of the undertaking till his death.
And it had brought him great honours. In November 1869 the French Emperor elevated him to the rank of Grand Cross of the Legion of Honour ; and in the following year he received many decorations from foreign countries. In 1870 the Geographical Society of Paris awarded him the Empress’s new prize of 10,000 francs, which he returned to aid one of their expeditions. On the 11th of July Queen Victoria created him an honorary Knight Grand Commander of the Star of India.
About the same period, when he visited England for a few weeks, he had many complimentary receptions. He was splendidly feasted at the Mansion House, and presented with the freedom of the City in a casket of Egyptian device. On the 4th of July the Duke of Sutherland gave him a grand banquet at Stafford House, when several old opponents of the Canal were present, notably Mr. Disraeli; and on the 7th a magnificent festival, attended by some of the Royal Family, was got up in his honour at the Crystal Palace.
On the 11th of May, 1880, he was elected an Honorary Member of this Institution by the unanimous recommendation of Council :
'Because of his eminent services to engineering science and practice by the conception and successful prosecution, under many difficulties, of the design of uniting the Mediterranean Sea with the Red Sea by the Suez Canal - one of the grandest and most important public work8 of modern times.'
But all former honours were thrown into the shade by his admission as one of the forty 'Immortals' of the famous French Academy of Sciences. Into this select band he was elected in 1884 to fill the chair lately occupied by M. Renri Martin, the historian, and formerly by M. Thiers. On this event he was saluted by Gambetta with the name of Le Grand Francais, a title he always retained even in his most mournful subsequent troubles.
His reception on the 23rd of April was one of the red-letter days in the history of the Academy; for such a galaxy of celebrities had rarely gathered under the cupola of the Institute.
The sponsors of the new member were Victor Hugo and Edouard Pailleron. M. Renan was in his place as Director. M. de Lesseps had to deliver an address of thanks for his election, which he did with great modesty, and M. Renan replied, in a discourse which was full of compliment to the hero, and which, it was said, had for eloquence never been excelled in the annals of the Academy.
When M. de Lesseps thus received the crowning honour of his life, he was in his 80th year. His long career had been chequered, he had had many severe trials to endure, many hard battles to fight; but in the pursuit of a high and worthy object his indomitable spirit and his splendid genius had carried him on in his victorious course till he had attained his noble purpose, and excited the admiration of the world. His sun was near the horizon, and to all human appearance it was setting in glory. It is sad to have to chronicle the almost incredible fact that the few remaining years of his life involved him in a shadow, continually darkening with deeper and deeper gloom, until his grey hairs were indeed 'brought down with sorrow to the grave.'
Alexander having conquered one world, sighed for more worlds to conquer. M. de Lesseps having artificially joined two inland seas, longed to perform the greater feat of joining two wide oceans; and in an evil hour took up the idea of piercing the isthmus that separated the Atlantic from the Pacific. There was nothing unreasonable in this idea. He had by his energy and perseverance conquered the difficulties of the Isthmus of Suez, and why might he not also conquer those of the Isthmus of Panama?
Many different schemes had been proposed from time to time, most of which have been discussed before this Institution and will be found recorded in its Proceedings. In 1875 a conference had been held at Antwerp in which M. de Lesseps, from his experience in such matters, was placed in the chair; and such favourable auguries were drawn that a larger congress was called to meet at Paris in 1879. M. de Lesseps afterwards published a long article upon it, and this appears to have been the time when he first earnestly took up the subject.
It is, for obvious reasons, unnecessary to go into details on this most painful occupation of his latest years; it must suffice to mention, as briefly as possible, some of its leading features ; and these may conveniently be extracted from the summary of the history given in the Times the day after the death of M. de Lesseps, the 8th December, 1894.
The waterway designed by M. de Lesseps was intended to connect the Atlantic ocean at Aspinwall (or Colon) with the Pacific at the capital city of Panama, the oldest existing European settlement in the whole of America. His plan was to follow the course of the railway already connecting the two cities, except in certain places, where the line of the River Chagres was to be more closely adhered to. The whole length was only 54 miles, and the two chief difficulties lay in the floods of the river and in the excavation of a long ravine, about 350 feet deep, through the Cordilleras.
In February, 1881, he had formed his company and operations were begun; but for the next six years the work was only fitfully continued, and accounts were prevalent of the enormous expenses incurred, and the serious loss of life which the climate caused among the labourers. In December, 1888, the company suspended payment; great excitement prevailed, and the matter was taken up by Government and got into the Chambers.
In April, 1891, it was attempted to found a new company, but the feeling became very bitter when it was found that out of enormous sums subscribed, large portions had been frittered away uselessly. An official enquiry followed, and in November, 1892, it was decided to take legal proceedings agains the directors.
But further investigations revealed gigantic scandals, implicating other persons, and of a nature which caused not only the Government but the whole country ;- resulting in the overthrow of a ministry, the suspicious death of an eminent personage, and the disgrace of several great men who had previously stood high in public estimation.
A series of prosecutions followed, in which many persons were found guilty and punished, M. de Lesseps and his son being each sentenced to five years’ imprisonment and the payment of a fine. The son suffered the punishment, but the father was spared the indignity, the sentence being merely communicated to his wife and concealed from her aged husband.
These sentences were considered very severe, and were thought to be dictated in some degree by political motives. The public anger was great, but few persons really believed that M. de Lesseps himself was guilty of anything more than a want of due regard for the practical difficulties, physical, economical and financial, of the Panama scheme generally.
During these humiliating proceedings he was living, aged and enfeebled, and almost insensible to what was going on around him, at his country-seat at La Chesnaye, where on that August morning in 1854 he suddenly heard of the event in Egypt which determined his life. He gradually sank away on the 7th of December, 1894, in his ninety-first year.
It will be refreshing to turn again in conclusion to the Suez Canal.
After the opening the traffic began to increase so much, that in ten or twelve years the question of greater accommodation had to be considered, and the work of deepening and widening was resolved on and gradually carried out. In 1890 the depth had been made 28 feet, and the width, in the portion from Port Said to the Bitter Lakes, was increased to 144 feet, and from them to Suez to 213 feet. The average time of passing in 1886 was thirty-six hours; in 1890 it was reduced to twenty-four hours.
The result has been a continual increase of both the number and the tonnage of the vessels. In the year 1870, 486 vessels passed through, having a tonnage of 655,000 tons. In 1890 the number was increased to 3,389 vessels with a tonnage of nearly 10,000,000 tons; and out of these, about three-fourths were British!
The total expenditure on the Canal is not easy to ascertain, but it is said that it amounted to about £20,000,000, and that the profits divided in 1890 were about a million and a half sterling, over and above 5 per cent. interest on the outlay.
Surely, with these facts on record, it behoves the British nation (as has been already well remarked) to continue to speak with honour, admiration, gratitude, and deep regret, of the illustrious deceased. They can well afford to brush aside the unhappy Panama episode, and to let the reputation of Le Grand Francais rest on the work that was always dearest to his heart, the Suez Canal.
1894 Obituary