de Lesseps, diplomat, creator
of Suez, the pioneer behind
Ferdinand de Lesseps
was born in Versailles, on November 19th 1805. His father,,
Mathieu de Lesseps, who was a diplomat, was on leave at the
On his father's side, Ferdinand's roots firmly lay in the Basque
Country, where for many generations, his family had been highly
respected, with distinguished soldiers and lawyers in the town
of Bayonne. In the 18th century, however, somewhat more adventurous
tastes appeared in the Lesseps family. Barthélemy de
Lesseps, Ferdinand's uncle, still young himself, got to know
the French explorer La Pérouse and set sail aboard the
Astrobale. After a two-year voyage, La Pérouse appointed
de Lesseps to return to France to tell the king Louis XV all
about the expedition. Barthélémy then started
a 14-month odyssey across the icy wastes of Siberia before giving
to the king the lastest news received from La Pérouse
expedition before its disappearance.
Ferdinand's father and Barthélemy's younger brother,
started rather young a diplomatic career which lead him around
the Mediterranean sea, in Morocco, Libya and Spain. In 1803
or 1804, Napoleon appointed him "Commissaire Général"
in Egypt. With an outstanding perspicacity, Mathieu, at once
realised the important role the brilliant adventurer Mehemet-Ali
could play in Egypt's government. Indeed, Mehemet-Ali would
become the real founder of the modern Egyptian State. Lesseps
supported Mehemet-Ali all along his rise to power. When Mehemet-Ali
became viceroy, Lesseps guaranteed him the support of France.
The friendship forged then was to be extremely useful to Ferdinand,
some 50 years later.
mother was born Catherine de Grivegnée and came from a family
settled in Spain, but with Flemish origin. Ferdinand often travelled
to Madrid to visit his cousin, the Countess of Montijo. He met
there the young Eugénie, who would become the Empress of France..
Ferdinand formed a close friendship with Eugénie and
on several occasions Ferdinand turned to his niece to win the
Emperor's favour. Eugenie for her part followed the advice which
her uncle lavished on her.
he was 20, at the request of his uncle Barthélemy, Ferdinand
started a diplomatic career. By his uncle's side, he became
a diplomatic attaché in the French embassy in Lisbon
for two years. He then spent a few years with his father who
was chargé d'affaires in Tunis.
1832, Ferdinand was appointed as vice-consul in Alexandria
in Egypt. By then, Mehemet Ali had already thoroughly
transformed his Country. His ambitious policy had given
the country modern institutions and Egypt was involved
in major projects with the help of European engineers
and administrators, a very large number of whom were French.
Ferdinand de Lesseps
French Vice-Consul in Alexandria
1835, he is appointed consul général in Alexandria
where he stayed for a further two years. Mehemet Ali then asked
him to educate one of his youngest sons, Mohammed Saïd,
with whom he got on particularly well.
1837, Ferdinand married Agathe Delamalle who was to die in 1853
and whom he had five children.
continued his consular career in The Netherlands and Spain.
In 1849 he was appointed to lead negotiations during the French
campaign in Rome. He became the scapegoat for the failure of
the Rome mission and his diplomatic career was over.
The creator of Suez
several years, Lesseps became a farmer. through his mother-in-law,
Mme Delamalle, had purchased a large property in the Indre district.
The manor, La Chesnaye, an old residence of Agnès Sorel, needed
renovated and the land improved. Lesseps became seriously involved
in this activity. In his spare time, he continued working on
the files he has initiated during his first stay in Egypt, between
1832 and 1837. Among them was work which had been undertaken
in the Suez isthmus, in particular a survey made by Le Père
during the Napoleonic campaign as well as complementary investigations
by a French engineer, Linant de Bellefonds. Lesseps was still
enthusiastic with a project which, at the time, was called "Canal
des Deux Mers" (Two Seas Canal). In 1852, he had even written
an report on the project which he had made translated into Arabic
and submitted to the viceroy Abbas Pacha. But this initial attempt
unfortunately came to nothing.
years later, Lesseps learned than Abbas Pacha had just died
and that one of Mehemet Ali's youngest sons had succeeded him
- Mohammed Saïd, whom he had got to know well during his
first stay in Egypt. He wrote to him at once, offering his congratulations.
By return post, Lesseps received from Said an invitation to
visit Egypt. On 7 November 1854, he disembarked in Alexandria.
he took with the viceroy the project which so gripped him.
30th November 1854, Mohamed Saïd granted "his friend
Ferdinand de Lesseps exclusive powers to form and lead an international
company to cut through the Suez isthmus and to operate a canal
between the two seas".
Mohammed Said and his friend, Ferdinand de Lesseps
three years of constant work and steps, on 15 December 1858,
set up the Compagnie Universelle du Canal Maritime de Suez.
The first ground was broken on 25th April 1859. Despite a multitude
of technical and diplomatic difficulties, the
canal was finally completed and inaugurated between 17th and
20th November 1869.
after the inauguration, in Ismaïlia, Ferdinand married
his second wife Louise-Hélène Autard de Bragard,
with whom he would have 12 children.
Ferdinand de Lesseps and his children, 1881
is elected at the Academy
of Sciences in 1873.
The pioneer of Panama
was in 1879 during a geographical conference that Lesseps, then
aged 74, became chairman of the French committee in charge of
realising an inter-oceanic canal in Central America. But this
project would not know the same success as the Suez Canal for
it came to a temporarily failure, with political and financial
foundations laid by Lesseps in Panama however were solid enough
to enable the United States to take over the project and complete
it in the early 20th century. Still today, the name Lesseps
commands much respect in Panama.
has been elected as member of Académie
Française on February 21
1884 and was welcome in this prestigious institution on April
231885, by Ernest
Renan. he had also been decorated Grand Croix de la Légion
died on 7 December 1894 in La Chesnaye. He was given national
funeral and was buried in Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris.