Ferdinand de Lesseps

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Ferdinand de Lesseps
Signature Ferdinand de Lesseps.PNG

Ferdinand Marie Vicomte de Lesseps (born November 19, 1805 in Versailles , † December 7, 1894 in La Chesnaye near Guilly , Département Indre ) was a French diplomat and entrepreneur. He is known as a successful builder of the Suez Canal (1854 / 59–1869) and then unsuccessful first builder of the Panama Canal (1879 / 81–1889).


De Lesseps came from a French diplomatic family. He spent the first years of his life in Italy , where his father Mathieu worked as a diplomat, attended the Lycée Henri IV in Paris and studied commercial law in preparation for his diplomatic career. He seems to have preferred riding lessons to lectures, at least he made an impression later in Egypt with them.

His mother, Catherine, was of Spanish descent. Ferdinand was with his cousin, the Comtesse de Montijo, where he met her daughter Eugénie , who in 1853 became the wife of Napoleon III. Became Empress of France. His uncle, Jean Baptiste Barthélemy de Lesseps , was also a diplomat.

He entered the diplomatic career in 1825 as an attaché at the consulate general in Lisbon , worked from 1827 to 1828 in the trade department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and in 1828 went to Tunis as a consulate attaché . In 1832 he was sent to Alexandria as Vice Consul . In order to shorten the quarantine period on arrival, the consul general sent him various books, including the report by Jacques-Marie Le Père , member of Napoleon's Egyptian expedition , about the explorations in the Isthmus of Suez and the possibility of building a canal. In 1833 he was appointed consul in Cairo and soon afterwards consul general in Alexandria, where he remained until 1837.

During this time he was a frequent guest in the house of Viceroy Muhammad Ali Pasha , who had been supported by de Lesseps' father in his time as Napoleon's General Commissioner in Egypt through benevolent reports to the French government in his rise to Viceroy. Lesseps influenced the upbringing of the young Muhammad Said , who later remembered it kindly when he himself had become viceroy. Lesseps also got to know Linant de Bellefonds, who had joined the Egyptian building administration, and his reports on the exploration and surveying of the Isthmus of Suez and met Thomas Waghorn , who successfully operated a new, shorter transport route via Suez with his Overland Route .

At the end of 1837 Lesseps returned to France and married Agathe Delamalle, with whom he had five children; she died of scarlet fever in 1853 with a child.

From 1838 he successively administered the consulates in Rotterdam , Málaga and Barcelona and in April 1848 was appointed Minister Plenipotentiary of the Republic of France in Madrid . He was in an extraordinary mission in response to the beginning of 1849 revolutions of 1848-49 and the Risorgimento incurred Roman Republic sent. There he tried to initiate a friendly agreement between the provisional government there and France. The French government, determined to forcibly subjugate Rome to papal rule, recalled him and he resigned from the diplomatic service.

Lesseps retired to his country estate, Manoir de la Chesnaye , where the reports by Jacques-Marie Le Père and Linant de Bellefonds came back to hand in his old files. He was so impressed by the idea of ​​the Canal des deux mers ( Canal of the Two Seas ), which was widely discussed at the time , that he even wrote a memorandum about it in 1852, had it translated into Arabic and transmitted to Abbas I , the Viceroy of the time , but without further information Consequences. In 1854 Lesseps learned that Abbas I had died and Muhammad Said had been appointed viceroy, and immediately congratulated Said Pasha, who responded with an invitation to Egypt. Lesseps arrived in Alexandria on November 7, 1854. During one of the excursions into the desert he submitted to him on November 15, 1854 a memorandum on the advantages of a canal through the isthmus. Already on November 30, 1854 Lesseps received from Said Pascha the concession to build the canal with the Compagnie universelle du canal maritime de Suez ( Suez Canal Society ) and to operate it for 99 years.

Ferdinand de Lesseps

After three years of efforts to dispel British political opposition and attract European business community to invest in the project, which brought him to the verge of bankruptcy, he called for shares in late 1858 and founded the Suez Canal Company. The groundbreaking ceremony took place on April 25, 1859. After overcoming various technical, financial and diplomatic difficulties, he was able to celebrate the opening of the canal on November 17, 1869. At the end of these three-day celebrations, he married Louise Hélène Autard de Bragard (* 1849) in Ismailia , with whom he had 12 children.

Share of the Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interocéanique de Panama dated November 29, 1880 - signed by Ferdinand de Lesseps

In 1879 he was elected Président du comité français pour le percement d'un canal interocéanique en Amérique centrale ( President of the French committee for the construction of an interoceanic canal in Central America ) and took over the construction of the Panama Canal , but failed ( the canal was later completed by the USA ).

He was awarded the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honor; by Queen Victoria he was named Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Star of India and was named Freeman of the City of London . In 1873 he became a member of the Académie des Sciences , in 1876 an honorary member ( Honorary Fellow ) of the Royal Society of Edinburgh , in 1879 a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and in 1885 a member of the Académie française . Ferdinand de Lesseps was a member of the Papal Order of Knights of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem .

It is sometimes claimed that the actual planner of the Suez Canal was the Austrian Alois Negrelli von Moldelbe , whose achievements were carefully concealed by Lesseps throughout his life. Negrelli died on October 1, 1858, before the Suez Canal Society was founded and around six months before construction work began. When planning the Suez Canal at the time, the main focus was on measuring the isthmus and finding the right route. Linant de Bellefonds and his colleague Eugène Mougel did fundamental preparatory work for both , which Lesseps also acknowledged in his books. Negrelli was in 1847 in the Société d'Études du Canal de Suez and after the granting of the concession to Lesseps in the International Commission convened by this on the piercing of the Isthmus of Suez . The suggestions he made there (relocation of the canal entrance to the west, no locks, relocation of the port from Timsahsee to the canal mouth) were taken into account in the final execution.



  • Louis Bridier: Une famille française. Les de Lesseps . Fontemoing, Paris 1900.
  • Ghislain de Diersbach: Ferdinand de Lesseps . Perrin, Paris 1998, ISBN 2-262-01234-2 .
  • Daniele Masse (Ed.): Lesseps. Le rêve de pharaons . Édition Magellan, Paris 2007, ISBN 978-2-35074-004-1 .
  • Kasimir Edschmid : Lesseps. The Panama drama . Verlag Der Greif, Wiesbaden 1947.
  • Percy Eckstein , Ferdinand von Lesseps - Triumph and Tragedy of an Optimist , Vienna Luckmann Verlag 1947
  • Pierre Gaspard-Huit: L'homme de Suez. Le roman de Ferdinand de Lesseps . Presses de la cité, Mesnil-sur-l'Estrée 1984, ISBN 978-2-258-01317-9 .
  • Kurt Miketta: The winner from Suez. The adventurous life of the Viscount de Lesseps . Bertelsmann, Gütersloh 1958.


  • Ferdinand de Lesseps is the namesake of the "Ferdinand Lesseps" grape variety, as well as schools in Barcelona and Toulouse, a square in Barcelona and a passenger ship launched in 1951 that was scrapped in 2003.


  • Ferdinand de Lesseps. The breakthrough at Suez. Docu-drama , 45 min. Production: ZDF Expedition, first broadcast: November 5, 2006
  • The man of Suez - The story of the visionary Ferdinand de Lesseps. Four-part television film (1983)

Web links

Commons : Ferdinand de Lesseps  - Collection of images, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Fellows Directory. Biographical Index: Former RSE Fellows 1783–2002. (PDF file) Royal Society of Edinburgh, accessed December 31, 2019 .
  2. Valmar Cramer: The Order of Knights from the Holy Grave , Bachem 1952, p. 87