(G3, G4, W4, Va, Vb, Vc)


De Lesseps: by the French artist Henri Meyer (1844-1899), published on the cover of the daily Parisian newspaper Le Petit Journal in December 1894. Map (Africa): licensed under Creative Commons – https://apimperialismproject.wikispaces.com. Map (Central America): licensed under Creative Commons – cambiopaisaje.wikispaces.com.Arrest: detail, from the London satirical magazine Punch, November 1892, artist unknown – Bibliothèque des Arts Decoratifs, Paris. Finlay: date and artist unknown. Map (The Americas): licensed under Creative Commons – riordan.wikia.com/wiki/Panama_Canal. Map (Northern Germany): detail, licensed under Creative Commons – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kiel_Canal.

xxxxxThe French diplomat and entrepreneur Ferdinand de Lesseps was born at Versailles into a family with a long and distinguished history in government service. After some years in Italy, where his father was serving as a diplomat, he attended the College of Henry IV in Paris and then worked as a civilian in the army department. In 1825 he entered the diplomatic service, and over the next twenty four years served in a variety of overseas locations, including Lisbon, Tunis, Alexandria, Cairo, Rotterdam, Barcelona and Madrid. He rose to senior status in the consulate service, but in 1849 his failure to negotiate the return of the Pope to the Vatican - then occupied by the republican troops of Giuseppe Mazzini - and his obvious sympathy with the Italian patriot, cost him his job. He was recalled to Paris, and was obliged to resign after receiving a public censure from the Council of State.

xxxxxIn fact his forced retirement worked to his advantage. He had long cherished the idea of constructing a canal across the Isthmus of Suez, thereby linking the Mediterranean and Red Seas and opening up a shortcut to the Far East (see map below). As early as the mid 1830s, while serving in Egypt, he had studied a plan for such a canal, put forward by one of Napoleon’s chief engineers. And for this reason he had cultivated a friendship with Said Pasha, the son of the Muhammad Ali, Turkish viceroy (or khedive) of Egypt at that time. Thus In 1854, when his friend Said Pasha was promoted to viceroy, he seized his opportunity and put forward his idea. As anticipated, he received the new khedive’s full support for such a scheme. Without delay he formed an international company to oversee the work and, with the assistance of two prominent surveyors, came up with a detailed plan. This was adopted with only slight modifications by an international commission of engineers in 1856, and the surveying began.

xxxxxAs we have seen, the actual construction of the Suez Canal commenced in 1859 (Va), and was completed ten years later. The success of this project was due in large measure to the enthusiasm and the superb organising ability of de Lesseps. He played the major part in raising the money and persuading the French government to meet more than half the capital cost. His accomplishment was universally recognised, numerous honours were showered upon him, and in France he was fêted as a national hero. However, his image at home became somewhat tarnished in 1875 when, with his assistance, the British prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli, succeeded in snapping up all of the khedive’s shares in the canal, thereby gaining for Britain a controlling interest in this vital waterway.


xxxxxThe building of the Panama Canal to link the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans in Central America was to be his next major challenge, and one which, this time, he failed to meet. When, in 1879, the International Congress of Geographical Sciences met in Paris and voted in favour of building such a canal, it is hardly surprising that they should call upon de Lesseps, the man who had successfully built the Suez Canal, to oversee the project. He was appointed president of the French company assigned to the task, and after the surveying was completed, work began in 1881.

xxxxxThe idea of cutting a waterway through the Isthmus of Panama, thereby avoiding a long sea voyage around the southern tip of South America, was not a new idea. Interest in making this short-cut dates back to the early 16th century. The explorers of Central America, notably Hernan Cortes, the Spanish conqueror of Mexico, had seen the value of such a project, and in 1523 Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, had ordered the drawing up of a feasibility study. Then in the 19th century the writings of the German scientist Alexander von Humboldt reopened the subject, and in 1819 the Spanish government went so far as to form a company to build the waterway. But the Spanish stay in South America was soon to come to an end. This idea, like all the others, came to nothing. An American survey in 1850 identified two possible routes, but it was not until the late 19th century that technology was thought to be sufficiently advanced to tackle the task, and even this proved to be somewhat optimistic.

xxxxxInitially de Lesseps proposed a sea-level route via Lake Nicaragua, to avoid the use of locks, but within a few years it had become apparent that such a scheme was not workable. Now in his mid-70s and slow to take advice, he was unfamiliar with the treacherous terrain and under estimated the physical problems to be faced. Constant landslides slowed down the work, and the excavation of the Gaillard or Culebra Cut and the need to tame the powerful Chagres River proved too big a task for a private company. In addition, the labour force was seriously depleted by outbreaks of malaria and yellow fever. (The final death toll was put at 22,000!). Reluctantly he had to abandon the sea-level route and begin work on an elevated, lock-based canal via Panama. It was at this point, as we have seen, that the French engineer Gustav Eiffel was called in to design and construct a number of huge locks for this vast undertaking. By this time, however, the project was doomed. Money was quickly running out and huge losses were accumulating. In 1889 the company went into liquidation and the shareholders lost their savings.

xxxxxThere then followed what came to be known as the Panama Canal Scandal. In 1892 an official enquiry into the direction of the company’s affairs found de Lesseps and his son Charles guilty of mismanagement and misappropriation of the company’s funds, and accused some 150 French deputés of receiving bribes in return for supporting government funds for the project. De Lesseps and his son were found guilty and sentenced to imprisonment for five years, but a few months later an appeals court reversed the decision. The government survived the scandal, but the following year there were big socialist gains. The cartoon from the London satirical magazine Punch (November 1892) reads: “The Great Frenchman”.  

xxxxxDe Lesseps was elected a member of the Académie Française in 1884, and awarded the Grand Croix de la Légion d’Honneur. He received many honours from overseas. He was presented with the Star of India, and received the freedom of the City of London. In 1886 he travelled to the United States to speak at the dedication of the Statue of Liberty. Despite the scandal that surrounded the last years of his life, his reputation has remained high in France and abroad. He died at his Château de la Chesnaye in Central France, and after a national funeral, was buried in Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.

xxxxxIn 1902 the United States bought out the assets of the French company, and the following year, by agreement with the Republic of Panama, secured a perpetual lease on the “Canal Zone, a strip five miles wide on each side of the waterway. Work was begun on a lock canal in 1906, and by clearing the area of mosquitoes (found to be the cause of malaria and yellow fever); employing a labour force of some 40,000; and using more efficient equipment, the canal was opened in the summer of 1914. By a further treaty between the United Sates and Panama in 1977, Panama took over full control of the Canal Zone in 2000.

xxxxxIncidentally, in November 1899 a monumental statue of Ferdinand de Lesseps was erected at the entrance to the Suez Canal. It was demolished by the leader of Egypt, President Gamal Nasser, when he took over the canal in 1956, but was later restored by the Friends of Ferdinand de Lesseps and now stands in a small garden at the Port Fouad shipyard. ……

xxxx…… In 1887 the French painter Paul Gauguin, one-time friend of the famous artist Van Gogh, worked as a navvy on the building of the Panama Canal, but he caught a fever and had to give up the work. ……

Xxxx…… Thexvirtual eradication of yellow fever and malaria during the American building of the Panama Canal was largely due to the findings of the Cuban physician Carlos Finlay (1833-1915) in 1881. It was then that he put forward the idea that yellow fever was carried by a particular type of mosquito. This hypothesis was confirmed some twenty years later by the Walter Reed Commission of 1900, convened by the American government, and steps were then taken to rid the construction area of mosquitoes. As a result the death rate was reduced from 176 to just six per thousand. ……

xxxxx…… Anotherxman who made a close study of the mosquito at this time was the British physician and bacteriologist Ronald Ross (1857-1932). He was born in India and served with the Indian Medical Service from 1881 to 1899. In 1894, while on leave in England, he met the Scottish physician Patrick Manson (1844-1922), and it was he who suggested that malaria was spread by the mosquito. Onxhis return to India he made a close study of the entire life circle of the malaria parasite - assisted by the Bengali scientist Kishori Mohan Bandyopadhyay - and in 1896 identified the mosquito of the genus Anopheles as being responsible for the spread of malaria. He later advised on the prevention of malaria, carrying out surveys and introducing schemes in many parts of the world. During his retirement he served as professor of tropical medicine at Liverpool, and then director of the Ross Institute of Tropical Diseases when it opened in 1926. For his work on malaria he was awarded the Nobel Prize for medicine in 1902 and was knighted in 1911. ……

Click Map to Enlarge

xxxxx……xThe Panama Canal, when completed in 1914, shortened the trip from the Atlantic to the Pacific by some 7,000 miles. It is 40 miles long (64ks), with a maximum width of 300 ft (91m) and a minimum depth of 41 ft (12m). It has six pairs of locks - from Cristobal on the Atlantic shoreline to Balboa at the Pacific end. Transit takes from 7 to 8 hours. ……

xxxxx……xThe port of Vancouver on the west coast of Canada benefited greatly from the opening of the Panama Canal. It became economically viable to export grain and timber to the American east coast and Europe, and by the 1930s it had become Canada’s major port on the Pacific coast, and the country’s third largest city.

xxxxxAnother important waterway built at this time was the Kiel Canal, which crosses the German state of Schleswig-Holstein and links the Baltic to the North Sea. Work was begun at Holtenau on the Baltic coast in 1887 and completed at Brunsbettel on the North Sea in 1895. When opened by Kaiser Wilhelm II (and named after him), it saved a voyage of about 250 nautical miles around the Danish peninsula of Jutland. It was widened between 1907 and 1914 to allow the passage of Germany’s large dreadnought battleships. Important for trade between the Baltic States and the rest of the world, it was made an international waterway by the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. It is about 60 miles (96ks) long.

xxxxxIncidentally, an earlier waterway - known as the Eider Canal because it used stretches of the Eider River - was completed in this area in 1784, but eventually it proved too narrow and too shallow and had to be replaced.


The Panama Canal

and The Kiel Canal


xxxxxThe Frenchman Ferdinand de Lesseps served as a diplomat for many years, but when he retired in 1849 he set out to fulfil his ambition - the construction of a canal to link the Mediterranean and Red Seas in order to open up a shortcut to the Far East. Having seen plans of such a scheme while serving in Egypt, he made a friend of Said Pasha, one of the sons of the Egyptian leader, and, when he came to power in 1854, gained his agreement to the idea. He drew up the plans with the help of surveyors and, as we have seen, work started on the canal in 1859 (Va). This enterprise, completed in 1869, was a real success, but later, when he was appointed to oversee the building of the Panama Canal to link the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans in Central America, the project was a total failure. Work began in 1881, but de Lesseps, insisting on a sea-level canal, underestimated the scale of the task. In addition, thousands of the work force died from yellow fever and malaria. He then decided to build an elevated lock canal, but by that time the money was running out, and the company collapsed in 1889 amid accusations of mismanagement and fraud. The American government took over the task in 1904 and completed the waterway ten years later. Despite this failure, de Lesseps is still held in high esteem in France and abroad. During his career he was elected a member of the Académie Française and awarded the Grand Croix de la Légion d’Honneur.