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Ferdinand De Lesseps

      If, as Dante sings: "There is no greater grief than in a time of misery to remember happier days," there are few persons in our time who can testify more feelingly to the truth of the poet's words than Ferdinand de Lesseps. For many years he was a bright-shining, sympathetic figure among those who lead in the van of our material progress; and the accomplishment, by his initiative and energy, of the long dream of the Suez Canal, made him the hero, not of his own nation alone, but of all the civilized world; honors were heaped upon him, and acclamations greeted him on every side. His name became a household word.

      A few years later, and all is changed. At the advanced age of eighty-eight, Ferdinand de Lesseps is in deep disgrace. Charged with the chief responsibility for the ruin brought about by the failure of another of his great enterprises--the Panama Canal--he has been condemned by the tribunal to pay a huge fine, and has only been saved from the shame of actual imprisonment by the knowledge of his judges that, in his feeble state of health, imprisonment would speedily be fatal. As at the ceremonies on the occasion of the opening of the Suez Canal, De Lesseps was compared to Columbus, the opener of a way to the new world, so we may see the close of the great discoverer's career reflected in the tragic ending of the splendid fortunes of De Lesseps.

      Ferdinand de Lesseps was the son of a French gentleman who, fifty years since, was in the Consular service of France in Egypt. He was born at Versailles in 1805, and after receiving the usual education given to youth of his class, he was early inducted into the mysteries of diplomatic life, where his father's services and influence naturally opened a way for him. In 1833, when twenty-eight, he was made consul at Cairo, and remained at that post for over ten years, during which time he laid the foundations for that knowledge of all matters connected with Egyptian affairs which was to prove so valuable to him and to the world a few years later.

      In 1842, De Lesseps was transferred from Cairo to Spain, and was made consul at Barcelona. Spain was at this time much disturbed by factional quarrels and jealousies, partly due to disputed claims to the succession to the throne, and partly to the angry rivalries of political leaders, each eager to save the country by his particular nostrum. In the dynastic struggle, Queen Christina, made regent after the death of her husband, Ferdinand VII., had been exiled to France, and General Espartero, who at first had stood for her cause, now ruled as regent in her place. In 1843, the year after the arrival of De Lesseps, the city of Barcelona, which in common with many other places had refused to support Espartero, openly revolted, and was besieged and bombarded by his forces; and in the course of the siege, which brought great misery upon the inhabitants, De Lesseps did so many humane and generous acts at great personal risk, that he was rewarded by honors from the governments of several nations whose subjects had been protected by him in his official capacity.

      It was natural that after this proof of his abilities, De Lesseps should be advanced to a still higher position, and in the spring of 1848 he was made minister to Madrid. This place he held, however, only until February, 1849, for in May of that year he was sent to Rome to patch up a peace between the popular party and the French army of occupation. This proved an unfortunate venture. De Lesseps was recalled to France in disgrace, in June of the same year, for having shown too great a sympathy for the party of Mazzini, which aimed to establish a Roman Republic.

      It may be conjectured that the disappointment of De Lesseps at this abrupt ending of his diplomatic career was not very great. He had not been drawn to the profession by natural inclination, but had inherited it, so to speak, from his father, as another man might inherit the profession of law or medicine, or as the son of a mechanic might inherit his father's trade. His ambition and tastes both led him in a different direction; he would play a more active, a more striking part in the affairs of his time.

Cutting the Canal at Panama.

      During the period of his residence in Egypt, as consul for France, he must often have heard the project of a canal across the Isthmus of Suez discussed, since the course of events was every year making the necessity of the undertaking more evident. As is well known, the idea of such a canal was not a new one: Herodotus speaks of a canal designed and partly excavated by Pharaoh Necho in the seventh century before Christ, to connect the city of Bubastis, in the Delta of the Nile, with the Red Sea. As planned, the canal was to be ten feet deep with a width sufficient for two triremes to pass abreast, and it was expected that the voyage would be accomplished in four days. After the lives of 126,000 Egyptian workmen had been sacrificed to the hardships of the undertaking, Herodotus says that Necho, alarmed at the difficulties and expense, consulted the Oracle as to what was best for him to do, and received the answer: "Thou art working for barbarians." The Egyptians, like the Greeks, considered all foreigners as barbarians, and the answer simply reflected the sentiment of the people, or of their leaders, that this vast expenditure of labor, time, and money would prove to be, after all, as much for the benefit of foreigners as for themselves. The Oracle gave a voice to national and political prejudices, such as even in our own time are continually evoked to block the wheels of great enterprises. Necho, we are told, heeded the warning of the Oracle and abandoned the enterprise, but about one hundred years later, in the time of Darius Hystaspes, work on the canal was resumed and the undertaking was completed. From time to time we find mention made of the canal by later authors, but about the end of the eighth century of our era it was finally abandoned and left to be blocked up by the sand.

      The project was revived by Napoleon I. at the time of his Egyptian expedition; but, on the report of his engineer, M. Lepere, now known to be mistaken, that the Red Sea level was thirty feet higher than that of the Mediterranean, nothing further was done; nor was it until so late as 1847 that it was again taken up and an attempt made to interest the maritime powers of Europe in the scheme; but nothing serious was accomplished.

      In truth, the idea of a canal uniting the two seas, had up to this time been largely sentimental, if we may so express it; rather connected with vast schemes of conquest than founded on the vital needs of commercial development and the material good of the people. The commerce of the Mediterranean countries with India and the remoter East had not in those earlier times reached a point where such a costly undertaking as the Suez Canal could prove remunerative; what trade there was could be sufficiently and more cheaply accommodated by the Overland machinery of caravans, while France, Spain, and England still found the route by the Cape to answer all their purposes. In fact it was more than doubtful whether sailing-vessels, by means of which trade was then chiefly carried on, or even steamers of the build then employed, could use the canal to profit. It was believed that the advantages promised by a shorter route would be counterbalanced by the delays and dangers reckoned inseparable from the navigation of so narrow a water-way.

      These objections, really of a serious nature, made it difficult to win over the business world to a practical interest in the scheme. De Lesseps had been from the start the chief mover in the enterprise, to which he had given many years of his time, and he was not a man to be discouraged by repeated failures to bring others to his own way of thinking. His long experience, besides, in the ways of diplomacy had prepared him for delays and obstructions; but the time came, at last, when his enthusiasm, his confidence in himself, and his skill in dealing with men were to bring about the realization of his hopes.

      Five years, from 1849 to 1854, had been occupied by De Lesseps in negotiations with governments and bankers, but it was not until 1854 that the event occurred which insured the success of his great undertaking. In that year, Mahomet Said Pasha became Viceroy of Egypt, and no sooner was he seated than he sent for De Lesseps to consult with him as to the possibility of carrying out the project of the canal. In November of the same year, a commission was signed at Cairo by the Viceroy charging De Lesseps with the formation of a company to be named the United Suez Canal Company, with a capital of two hundred million francs, afterward raised to three hundred million. From this time the affairs of the canal went on with comparative smoothness, and by 1858 the money necessary for the work had been pledged; one-half the loan was placed on the continent, chiefly in Paris, the other half was taken by the Viceroy.

      Actual work on the canal was begun in 1858 and such rapid progress was made that it was completed in the autumn of 1869, and opened to the commerce of the world with magnificent ceremonies, lasting for several days. Religious ceremonies, in which priests of the Catholic Church, the Greek Church, and the Moslem faith united, were followed by a naval parade representing the European powers and the United States, and the whole concluded with a brilliant series of fetes and entertainments at Cairo. As the originator of the canal, De Lesseps, was a Frenchman, and as France had been the chief promoter of the enterprise, the place of honor at these ceremonies was naturally given to the Empress Eugenie, who went to Cairo as the representative of the French nation; while to De Lesseps, as naturally, was given the next place, a position which he filled with equal dignity and modesty, winning "golden opinions from all sorts of people."

      The Suez Canal, though a vast and important undertaking, presented almost no engineering difficulties to be overcome. At Port Said, the Mediterranean entrance to the canal, two great piers, to serve as breakwaters, were built of artificial stone, projecting into the sea; the western, a distance of 6,940 feet, the eastern 6,020 feet, and enclosing an area of 450 acres; thus providing a safe and commodious harbor. At Suez, the Red Sea terminus of the canal, a less formidable defense was needed; but the necessary docks and buildings called for a considerable outlay.

      From Port Said to Suez the land is almost a dead level; the few sand-dunes that break the monotonous uniformity of the isthmus nowhere reach a greater height than fifty or sixty feet. Along the middle line of the isthmus there was a series of depressions; some shallow, and others, the bottoms of which were lower than the level of the sea. Although these depressions were at all times dry, yet they were called "lakes," and as such figure on the maps, where we read the names "Lake Timsah," "The Bitter Lakes" and others. They were found to be thickly incrusted with salt on the bottom and sides, indicating that at one time they had been filled with sea-water; it is indeed must probable that the whole isthmus was at a very remote period entirely submerged. In the construction of the canal these depressions were made to play a very important part. The line of the canal was carried directly through them; the shallower were brought to a sufficient depth by dredging; the deeper were simply filled with water and required nothing more for safe navigation than an indication of the channel by buoys. Thus, in the whole length of the canal, reckoned at 88 geographical miles, there are 66 miles of actual digging; 14 miles of dredging through the lakes; and 8 miles, where neither digging nor dredging was required.

      Water began to flow from the Mediterranean into the canal in February, 1869, and from the Red Sea in July of the same year; and by October, the lakes, and the canal in its whole length, were filled with water navigable by vessels of the highest class. The water-way thus obtained has a width at the surface varying from 197 feet at deep cuttings, to 225 feet at lower ground. The sides slope to a width at the bottom of 72 feet, and an average depth of 26 feet is secured along the whole course. As the water is at one level from sea to sea, the canal is without obstruction of any kind. No locks, dams, or water-gates are required, and vessels enter the canal from either end and pursue their journey without interruption or detention.

      So great, however, was the eagerness of trade to take advantage of the new route, that the volume of traffic increased within a very short time after the opening of the canal to such an extent as to cause serious delays in the transit, and a number of schemes were brought forward for building other canals by which the two seas might be united. In the end, all these plans were abandoned, and it was decided to widen the canal sufficiently to enable it to meet the increased demand upon its carrying capacity. It may not be without interest to note the growth of traffic in the canal by a few figures. From 486 ships which passed through in 1870, the number rose to 3,100 in 1886; while the receipts increased from $1,031,875 in 1870, to $11,541,090 in 1886. The canal, when completed, was found to have cost twenty million pounds sterling, a sum far in advance of the original estimate, but made necessary by the addition of several important items of expenditure that were not foreseen. One of these was the substitution of paid labor for the forced labor promised by the Pasha, but which was made impossible by public clamor. The Egyptian ruler discovered that he was not living in the times of the pyramid-building Pharaohs, when men were made beasts-of-burden. Another item not provided for was the necessity of supplying the 30,000 workmen employed on the canal with fresh water. For this purpose, a branch canal had to be dug, by which water could be brought from the Nile.

      The enterprise thus brought to a happy ending, has already proved of great service to the world. It must be looked upon not merely as a benefit to commerce, but as one of the many powerful agents now at work binding the nations closer together. It is indissolubly connected with the name of De Lesseps, and had he been contented with the fortune and the reputation gained by his work in forwarding the canal, few names would have shone brighter in the list of those who have helped on man's material well-being. But in an evil hour he was persuaded to lend his support to the Panama Canal scheme, and along with the ruined fortunes and ruined reputations sunk in that abyss, the name and fortune of De Lesseps and his family have suffered irretrievable blight.

      The Panama Canal was not first proposed in our day; the scheme is as old as the discovery of the isthmus. "The early navigators," says J. C. Rodrigues, "could not help noticing how near to each other were the two oceans, and how comparatively easy would be (they thought) the cutting of a canal through that narrow strip of land between them. The celebrated Portuguese navigator Antonio Galvaeo, as early as 1550, wrote an essay on the subject wherein he suggested four different lines, one of which was through the Lake of Nicaragua, and another by the Isthmus of Panama." England, in 1779, was the first to make an attempt to control the river and lake communications, but her forces sent under Nelson to begin the work were driven away by the terrible fever that has thus far been the best defence of the isthmus from attack. Various schemes were entertained by other nations, but, although the United States kept a jealous eye upon its own interests in the enterprise, it was not until the discovery of gold in California that it saw a vital reason for insisting upon its paramount claims, and the outbreak of the Civil War, with its threats of European intervention, made an easier communication with the rising States of the Pacific Coast seem an absolute necessity. But we moved slowly and with vacillating steps. We were divided in opinion as to the best route to take, as to the sort of canal that was desirable, as to the advisability of building any canal. When the war was over, the rapid increase of railroad communication with the Pacific Coast made public opinion still more indifferent to the enterprise. Meanwhile the French had started with great energy a scheme for a canal at Panama, and De Lesseps had been induced to lend his name to the scheme, and to take an active part in carrying it out. For this purpose he visited the United States and used his best diplomatic arts to induce our Government to unite with him in his plans. But he could do nothing on this side the water and returned to France to fight the battle alone. There the interest in the scheme, artificially excited by speculators and still further aided by the efforts of De Lesseps and his friends, increased to such an extent as to swamp all considerations of prudence. The name of De Lesseps, consecrated by the brilliant success of Suez, proved to be a powerful charm. Thousands and tens of thousands of people in the cities and in the country put the hard-earned savings of years into the venture; senators, deputies, men of high social rank in public life, shamelessly sold their votes and their voices to secure the moral aid and the money of the state to aid their gambling enterprise, and the newspaper press of Paris, at all times venal, betrayed for bribes the trust that was reposed in it.

      Such a state of things could not last forever. The end, long prophesied, came at last; the exposure was complete, and the whole stupendous scheme of fraud was unmasked. Something might have been saved from the wreck had the canal itself been a real thing so far as it had gone, a practical enterprise, sure in time to pay its investors and serve the public. But it was found that everything connected with the construction of the canal had been grossly misrepresented; the estimates of expense; the reports of the engineering difficulties to be overcome; the dangers from the climate; the bills of mortality; everything, in short, was enveloped in a cloud of lies. So great was the shock to public confidence that followed this exposure, that for a time the Republic itself seemed in danger of overthrow. The eyes of the world were fixed upon De Lesseps and his son Charles as the chief authors of the mischief, and when the crisis was passed, and the smoke of the upheaval had passed away, the Panama Canal was seen to be a ruined enterprise, and buried deep underneath it was the once-honored name of Ferdinand De Lesseps.

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