Today is the birthday (1805) of Ferdinand Marie, Vicomte de Lesseps GCSI,French diplomat and later director of construction of the Suez Canal, which in 1869 joined the Mediterranean and Red Seas, substantially reducing 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 1880’s, but the project was devastated by epidemics of malaria and yellow fever in the area, as well as beset by financial problems. His planned Panama Canal was never completed. Eventually, the project was bought out by the United States who changed the design to a non-sea-level canal with locks, which was completed in 1914.
Ferdinand de Lesseps was born at Versailles, Yvelines, in 1805. His first years were spent in Italy, where his father, Mathieu de Lesseps, was a consul. 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. In 1828 de Lesseps was sent as an assistant vice-consul to Tunis, where his father was consul-general. De Lesseps was 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’ 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 imperturbable energy. Towards the close of the year 1837 he returned to France, and on 21 December married Agathe Delamalle, 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.
On 30 August 1851 he was created 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 within 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, including the opposition of Lord Palmerston, Britain’s prime minister, who considered the project 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.
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 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 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.
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 President Grover Cleveland.
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
At the age of 6 in 1957 I traversed the Suez Canal aboard SS Orsova with my family, emigrating to Australia from England – a memorable experience. What I remember most is stopping at Port Said where the gilly-gilly man came on board. The gilly-gilly man was a magician whose main props were fluffy yellow baby chickens (and other people’s coins which he “borrowed” and made disappear). He arrived at the performance space in one of the lounges wearing a fez and robe. He soon had the area around him swarming with chicks which he had pulled from people’s pockets, sleeves, ears, and his mouth. He picked one of the chicks from the floor, held its beak to his ear, and announced, “chicken tell me, he broken his neck.” Then he took the body of the chicken in one hand and the head in the other and made a motion as if to twist its neck. But when he opened his hands instead of revealing the severed body and head, as I sickly expected, he showed a chick in each hand. “Two chickens” he beamed, and let them run around the deck with their mates.
Here’s Chicken Port Said. Most recipes call for simply hacking the chicken in small pieces and cooking by frying. I prefer to parboil the chicken first and then fry it to finish it off.
Chicken Port Said
6 ozs butter
2 lbs mushrooms sliced
2 lbs chicken breast cut up into 1″ pieces
6 cloves garlic crushed and diced fine
2 tbs syrian pepper (see recipe below)
1 tsp black pepper
Salt to taste
Juice from 1 lemon
Put the chicken breasts in boiling chicken stock and simmer for 10 minutes. Remove and cut into 1” pieces. Reserve (use the stock for other dishes).
Sauté the mushrooms in butter over medium heat for 3 minutes in a heavy skillet until they take on some color.
Add the chicken and sauté for 5 minutes.
Add the garlic, syrian pepper, pepper and salt. Sauté another 5 minutes.
Just before the chicken is ready to serve, add lemon juice and stir.
Serve over boiled white rice with lemon slices and chopped fresh parsley.
3 ozs whole allspice
1 oz whole black peppercorn
5 whole cloves
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon grated nutmeg
Grind the allspice, pepper, and cloves in a food processor, coffee grinder, or blender.
Add the cinnamon and nutmeg and pulse briefly to combine.
Store in a covered container.