Engineers - Ferdinand de Lesseps (1805-1894)

in engineers •  17 days ago


Between the years of 1859 and 1914 the journey round the world by sea was shortened by several thousands of miles through the cutting of two great canals. One piercing the Isthmus of Suez, joined the Mediterranean and the Red Sea, the other through the Isthmus of Panama joined the Atlantic and the Pacific.

The idea of a canal between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean was very old. Many kings and emperors had discussed the idea and done whatever they could, through a period of over two thousand years.

The man who brought discussion of theories and plans to an end by making one of the canals a fact, was Ferdinand de Lesseps. He was born in Versailles, France in 1805. His father was a diplomat, and after leaving college he too entered the Diplomatic Service and became an officer in the French Consulate in Lisbon.

Later he spent seven years in Cairo, Egypt, as a French Consul and twice deputized the Consul General at Alexandria. During the period he came to know Mehmet Ali the ruler of Egypt, and his son who became a very close and confident friend.

From Egypt de Lesseps went to Holland, Spain and Italy on diplomatic service successively, and then retired, returned to France, and became the manager of the property of his mother-in-law.

After a time he heard that Mehmet Ali’s son Said Pasha, his friend had became the Khedive (ruler) of Egypt.

Remembering how close he was to him, de Lesseps wrote congratulating him. Said Pasha replied inviting de Lesseps to visit him at once. The Khedive had determined that the Suez Canal should be cut, and suddenly saw in de Lesseps, the man who could do it.

In 1854 de Lesseps with three French engineer’s set out to explore the Suez Isthmus. It was then an empty desert so that the four of them needed sixty camels, twenty five loaded with water, the rest with provisions, tents and surveying instruments.

De Lesseps spent five years in making his survey. He had long before decided that nothing could be done with the narrow ancient waterway built by Pharaoh Ramases about two thousand years ago. He traced an entirely new route from sea to sea before appealing for capital he required. The government of Britain was unwilling to help de Lesseps. But Britain’s opponent France and the French people rallied round him providing him with Funds.

By the end of 1858 the Universal Company of the Maritime Suez Canal was in full swing. The Capital has been estimated as £ 8,000,000 and France Contributing half the amount and the Khedive supplied the rest.


One bright day in April 1859 de Lesseps gave the first blow of the pickaxe and dropped the first spadeful of earth on to the Mediterranean beach. At that point now stands Port Said, named after the Khedive Said Pasha.

The work was colossal. Sixty dredging machines were used to carry 2,763,000 cubic yards of rubble a month. In addition to the canal itself, a water course had to be built bringing drinking water across the desert from the Nile.

At last all difficulties were overcome and the grand day of opening was fixed for 17th November 1869. Fifteen days before, a massive rock was discovered in mid-course of the canal, three yards below the water. It would be impossible for a steamer to pass the point.

“We cannot move it in two weeks” declared his assistant “The opening must be postponed. he insisted” ‘Never’ said de Lesseps. “Go to Cairo and get explosives in masses and then if we cannot blow up the rock, we will blow up ourselves.”

De Lesseps probably meant it! The rock however was blown up and on the 17th the opening ceremony took place as scheduled.

The Suez Canal was an immediate success. 486 vessels passed through it in 1870, and by 1900 the average has risen to 3500. In spite of her early opposition Britain gained more than any other country in Europe, through the canal for it added enormously to her trade with the East and to the trade of her Indian Empire.

Britain was not too slow to recognize its mistake. It joined France in offering honours to de Lesseps and gave him a magnificent reception in London in 1870. In 1875 the British Government bought the Khedive’s shares in the Suez Canal for 4 million Sterling pounds.

De Lesseps made a huge fortune. Having cut the Old World in two by one canal, he decided to halve the New World by another, and in 1881 he formed a company to pierce the Isthmus of Panama, that connected North and South Americas.

As thousands of men who went to the Panama region to carry out work there, died of yellow fever. Yet the courageous de Lesseps, French doctors, engineers, and a huge army of workers went ahead with their work slowly. Their course lay straight through the mosquito swamps. The smallest bite of a mosquito often meant yellow fever but nobody knew anything about the disease then.

De Lesseps failed in Panama. With nearly fifty thousand men and over fifty million pounds exhausted, the great de Lesseps was beaten by the unknown death. He fell seriously ill and was taken to Paris where he died in 1894 and the sickness was diagnosed as yellow fever later.


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