Thursday, October 4, 2012

Ferdinand de Lesseps and the Suez Canal

Ferdinand de Lesseps (1805-1894) was born just outside of Paris in Versailles. His father, Mathieu de Lesseps, was a diplomat. Mathieu was a close friend and strong supporter of Muhammad Ali during the latter's rise to power in Egypt.

As an adult, De Lesseps became a diplomat as his father had been. In 1832 he sailed to Egypt as a representative of the French government. He was welcomed by Muhammad Ali, the ruler of Egypt, who fondly remembered his father Mathieu. De Lesseps also became close friends with the ruler’s son Muhammad Said.

In 1832 De Lesseps read a book written by an engineer who had gone to Suez with Napoleon. From that point on he aspired to get a canal built that would link the Mediterranean and Red seas. Such a canal would allow ships to sail quickly from Europe to India by sparing them the long trip around Africa.

In 1854, when Muhammad Said became the ruler of Egypt, De Lesseps returned to Cairo. Said gave his friend permission to start a company and sell the public shares needed to pay for the construction of what would become the Suez Canal.

Port Said, named after the Egyptian ruler, was established only in 1859 with the beginning of canal’s construction. Now more than 600,000 people live there.

For the first five years of construction, the digging was done by hand. Every 30 days, 20,000 workers were needed. They were peasants who were forced to labor on the canal. With fresh water scarce but diseases like cholera common, workers experienced a ferocious rate of death. 

The finished canal was 100 miles (160 km) in length: 60 miles (96 km) through natural lakes and 40 miles (64 km) through canals. It opened in November 1869.

The canal begins at Port Said on the Mediterranean Sea and ends at the port of Suez on the Red Sea. Like Port Said, Suez was started only with the construction of the canal. Today Suez is Egypt’s most important port.

Construction of the canal bankrupted the Egyptian state. The ruler of Egypt had to sell all his shares and control of the canal passed to the powerful men in England and France who bought them.

Copyright © 2012 by Steven Farsaci.
All rights reserved. Fair use encouraged.