Birthday: November 19, 1805
Died At Age: 89
Sun Sign: Scorpio
Also Known As: Ferdinand, Vicomte de Lesseps
Born in: Versailles
Famous as: Developer of Suez Canal
father: Mathieu de Lesseps
children: Charles de Lesseps
Died on: December 7, 1894
place of death: Guilly, Indre
City: Versailles, France
Founder/Co-Founder: Suez Canal Company
education: Lycée Henri-IV
Ferdinand de Lesseps was a French diplomat famous for building the Suez Canal. The canal, which joined the Mediterranean and Red Seas, considerably reduced the sailing distances and thereby the time taken to travel between Europe and East Asia. This in turn led to a dramatic surge in world trade and played an important role in increasing European colonization of Africa. Ferdinand de Lesseps was born as the son of a French Consul and hailed from a distinguished family of French career-diplomats. Following in his father’s footsteps, he too embarked on a career as a diplomat and was appointed vice-consul at Alexandria, Egypt. There he studied the survey report of the civil engineer Jacques-Marie Le Père who had accompanied Napoleon Bonaparte on his campaign in this country. Le Pere had described the details of an abandoned Suez Canal project which kindled de Lesseps’ imagination. He decided to construct a canal across the African isthmus. He could not immediately start working on this plan though years later he got the opportunity to make his dream come true. After a decade of hard work, the Suez Canal finally opened in 1869 and changed the course of international trade almost immediately. De Lesseps became a very famous man following the success of the canal and received many awards and honors for his achievements.
Childhood & Early Life
Ferdinand de Lesseps was born in Versailles, Yvelines, on 19 November 1805. His father, Mathieu de Lesseps was in the consular service while his mother Catherine de Grévigné was the daughter of Henri de Grevigné. He had one sister and two brothers.
His father worked in Italy when Ferdinand was a little boy and thus he spent his initial years there. He received his education from College of Henry IV in Paris.
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He started working when he was 18 years old. His first job was in the commissary department of the army where he worked for two years.
In 1825, he was made the assistant vice-consul at Lisbon, where his uncle, Barthélemy de Lesseps, was the French chargé d'affaires. He went to Tunis as an assistant vice-consul in 1828.
He was appointed vice-consul at Alexandria, Egypt, in 1832. The vessel he was sailing in was quarantined for some time and during this time he was sent several books by the consul-general of France at Alexandria.
One of these books was a memoir on an ancient abandoned Suez Canal written by Napoleon Bonaparte's civil engineer Jacques-Marie Le Père. De Lesseps was fascinated by this work and he came up with the idea of constructing a canal across the African isthmus.
He was assigned the responsibility of managing the consulate general at Alexandria in 1833 and worked in this position until 1837. During this time he survived an epidemic of plague which wiped out more than a third of the inhabitants of Cairo and Alexandria. He returned to France in late 1837.
He was appointed consul at Rotterdam in 1839. After being transferred to Malaga and then Barcelona, he was promoted to the grade of consul general in 1842.
In 1854, he learned that Said Pasha, an old friend of his, had been appointed to the post of Viceroy of Egypt. Retired from his diplomatic career now, de Lesseps felt that the time was right to act upon the creation of the Suez Canal.
He went to Alexandria to visit Pasha and Said Pasha signed the concession authorizing him to build the Suez Canal on 30 November 1854. He directed two French engineers in drawing up a first scheme, providing for direct link between the Mediterranean and Red Sea. The scheme was slightly modified and was adopted by an international commission of engineers in 1856.
Initially he struggled to raise enough financial capital for the project though he was finally successful in attracting financial backing from the French emperor Napoleon III and others. He also interacted with the French citizens and roused them to contribute towards the capital required. With the help of the capital raised, he founded the Universal Suez Ship Canal Company in 1858; this was the corporation that would construct the Suez Canal.
Work on the Suez Canal began in April 1859 and after ten long years, the canal was finally completed. The canal opened on 17 November 1869, inaugurated by the Empress Eugénie. The canal went on to change the course of world trade and made de Lesseps a very famous man.
In 1879, an international congress was held in Paris which voted in favor of the construction of a Panama Canal. De Lesseps, 74 years old at that time, undertook to carry out the project in spite of his advancing age. However, this project was plagued by many problems and scandals and could not be completed within his lifetime; it was eventually finished in 1914.
De Lesseps’ best known work is undoubtedly the Suez Canal which joins the Mediterranean and Red Seas. The canal reduced to a great extent the sailing distance between Europe and East Asia, drastically bringing down the travel time and costs involved. The opening of the canal led to an immediate surge in world trade and played a significant role in the European colonization of Africa.
Awards & Achievements
Ferdinand de Lesseps was honored with the Albert Medal of the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) in 1870 ‘for services rendered to Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, by the realisation of Suez Canal’.
He also received several other honors like the grand cross of the Legion of Honour and the Star of India.
Personal Life & Legacy
His first marriage was in 1837 to Mlle Agathe Delamalle, daughter of the government prosecuting attorney at the court of Angers. This union produced five children. Agathe unfortunately expired in 1853.
He tied the knot for the second time in 1869 with Mlle Louise-Hélène Autard de Bragard, the daughter of Gustave Adolphe Autard de Bragard, a former Magistrate of Mauritius. He had 12 more children from this marriage.
Ferdinand De Lesseps died at Château de La Chesnaye in Guilly, Vatan, Indre, on 7 December 1894, at the age of 89.