Modern history


The Hero

How dull it is to pause, to make an end,

To rust unburnish’d not to shine in use!



Independence, his vital source of strength, he often remarked, had come late in life to Vicomte Ferdinand de Lesseps. The charm, the pervasive, indomitable, world-famous de Lesseps charm that had carried him so very far, had been there right along, born in him, a family streak, it was said, like the zest for adventure and the good looks. From the very start of his career at Lisbon he had made a strong impression. Older observers likened him to his father and to his celebrated uncle, Barthélemy de Lesseps. Friends of both sexes were gathered effortlessly. “Ferdinand encounters friends everywhere,” his first wife had written from the post at Málaga. “He is loved with true affection . . . . It is wonderful to have a husband so liked by everyone.” And a little later on: “Ferdinand is so good, so amiable, he spreads life and gaiety everywhere.”

He was gifted, passionate; he loved books, music, horses, his work, his children, his graceful, witty first wife, his stunning second wife, and occasionally, if we are to believe one admiring French biographer, the wives of others. But independence had not come until he was past forty, thrust upon him unexpectedly by forces not of his own making.

In the summer of 1870, when he stood on the flower-banked platform within the great Crystal Palace, beaming as the boys from the Lambeth Industrial Schools waved their “Egyptian Salute,” Ferdinand de Lesseps was sixty-four years old, very nearly as old as the century. He had been born on November 19, 1805, the year of Austerlitz, in a beige-colored stone house with white shutters that still stands in the town of Versailles. Less than fifty yards from the house, through an iron gate at the end of the Rue de la Paroisse, were the gardens of the Versailles Palace, the great Neptune Basin with its spectacular fountains, and just beyond that, within a mile or so, the Grand Canal of Versailles, which once, in the time of Louis XIV, had been alive with brightly painted gondolas and had been the setting for mock naval battles staged by actual ships of the line.

His family was long distinguished in the French diplomatic service. The men were esteemed as “lovers of progress and movement”; they were cultivated, athletic, fond of extravagant living, and immensely attractive to women. A great-uncle, Dominique de Lesseps, had been ennobled for his services to the state a hundred years before Ferdinand’s birth. Grandfather Martin de Lesseps had been French consul general to the court of Catherine the Great, and Ferdinand’s father, Comte Mathieu de Lesseps, had been an accomplished Napoleonic diplomat, a friend of Talleyrand’s. In Egypt, at the time of the British occupation, or shortly before Ferdinand was born, the vivacious Mathieu de Lesseps had worked miracles for Franco-Egyptian relations, and in 1818, when young Ferdinand was entering the Lycée Napoleon, Mathieu had been posted to the United States. Some sixty years later, at the unveiling of the Statue of Liberty in New York, Ferdinand would tell how his father had negotiated the first commercial treaty between France and the United States.

Barthélemy de Lesseps, the famous uncle, had been able to speak three languages by the time he was ten. While still in his twenties, he had sailed on the final expedition of the navigator La Pérouse, around Cape Horn to California and, at length, to Petropavlovsk, in Kamchatka. From there, in 1787, on orders from La Pérouse, all alone and with winter approaching, he had set out to find his way home to France. A year later, dressed as a Kamchatkan, he was presented to Louis XVI at Versailles, having traveled the entire distance across Siberia to St. Petersburg, mostly by dog sled, then on to Paris. He was a national hero overnight and in his subsequent diplomatic career—first under the Monarchy, then under the Empire, finally under the Restoration—he distinguished himself repeatedly, surviving three years of imprisonment in Turkey and the retreat of the Grande Armée from Moscow. So throughout his boyhood Ferdinand had been nourished on tales of valiant endurance, of heroic quests and heroic triumphs at the far ends of the world.

His mother was Catherine de Grivignée, whose French father had settled in Spain, prospered in the wine business, and married a Spanish girl of good family. His mother had lived her entire life in Spain until her marriage; Spanish was her first language and she was very Spanish in temperament, as Ferdinand would recall. He had grown up speaking Spanish as well as he did French, all of which would be offered later in explanation for the special allure of Panama, “a country made to seduce him.”

There was never an overabundance of money in the family, appearances to the contrary. His mother’s jewels had been pawned privately at least once to meet family expenses and his father had died all but bankrupt. Nor did Ferdinand attain great wealth. Like his father, he married well; like his father, he always lived in grand style. But the reputed de Lesseps fortune was a fiction.

Whether as a youth he ever envisioned a life other than the diplomatic service is impossible to say. But at age nineteen, having studied a little law, he was appointed élève-consul to his uncle, then the French ambassador to Lisbon. He served in Tunis afterward, with his father, until 1832, the year of his father’s death; then came a Biblical seven years in Egypt, where being the son of Mathieu de Lesseps was a decided advantage. Later came Rotterdam, Málaga, and Barcelona. In 1848, at age forty-three, he was made minister to Madrid.

It was work he naturally enjoyed and he did it well. He was efficient; he was gallant. He sat a horse beautifully. He was a crack shot and a great favorite among sportsmen. (“These healthful occupations,” wrote one high-Victorian biographer, “contributed largely to the promotion of that robust health and that iron constitution, thanks to which he was able to bear, without even feeling them, the innumerable fatigues, labors, and voyages in all parts of the world.”)

Though of less than average height, he was handsomely formed. He had a fine head of thick black hair, a good chin, a flashing smile that people would remember. The eyes were dark and active. The mustache had still to make its appearance.

His wife, the former Agathe Delamalle, bore him five sons, only two of whom would live to maturity, and she appears to have been another important asset to his career. A French officer described her as “this young woman with the clear gaze, witty, decided . . .” “Diamonds glittered everywhere,” reads another account from the time, a description of a ball she gave at Barcelona. “Madame de Lesseps received the guests with perfect grace. Her toilette was ravishing, and she wore it with that marvelous air of which onlyParisiennes have the secret. Let us add that the affection which everyone bears her did not a little to increase the charm of this magnificent soirée, which lasted until dawn.”

His interest in canal building began supposedly in Egypt in the early 1830’s with the arrival of the Saint-Simonians, about twenty Frenchmen, many of them civil engineers, who were led by an improbable figure named Prosper Enfantin. They had come, they announced, to dig a Suez canal, a work of profound religious meaning.

Their messiah was the late Claude Henri de Rouvroy, the Comte de Saint-Simon, who had fought under Lafayette at Yorktown, then, back in France, founded his own radical philosophy aimed toward a new global order. It was he who wrote, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his work.” Private property and nationalism were to be things of the past. The leadership of mankind was to be entrusted to an elite class of artists, scientists, and industrialists. Mainly the good society was to be attained through ennobling, regenerative work. The world was to be saved—from poverty, from war—through immense public improvements, networks of highways, railroads, and two great ship canals through the Isthmus of Suez and the Isthmus of Panama.

Prosper Enfantin had taken up the banner after the death of the Master, calling himself Le Père, “one half of the Couple of Revelation.” The other half, he said, was a divine female who had still to make herself recognized. A “church” was established on the Rue Monsigny in Paris; lavish receptions were staged to welcome the female messiah, candidates for the honor being received in Father Enfantin’s ornate bedchamber. Further, at a private estate near Paris, he founded an all-male colony for the faithful, where the prescribed habit, an outfit designed by the artist Raymond Bonheur, was a long, flowing tunic, blue-violet in color, tight-fitting white trousers, scarlet vest, and an enormous sash of richly embroidered silk. Enfantin, a big, bearded man, had the words “Le Père”embroidered across the front of his blouse. When he was taken to court for his advocacy of free love, he appeared in Hessian boots and a velvet cloak trimmed with ermine. Asked to defend his behavior, he stood motionless and silent, then explained that he wished the court to have a quiet moment to reflect on his beauty.

But for all this he had a decisive intelligence. He had been an excellent student at the École Polytechnique, the ultimate in French scientific training. He was a financier of importance and converts to the creed included eminent financiers, respected business people, journalists, many of the ablest civil engineers in France.

Enfantin had judged Suez to be an easier undertaking than Panama. He was further inspired by a premonition that his female counterpart waited for him somewhere in the ancient cradle of civilization. So after serving a brief prison term, he had sailed for Egypt, and it was de Lesseps who persuaded the ruling viceroy of Egypt, Mohammed Ali, not to throw him out of the country. De Lesseps may also have provided Enfantin with financial assistance. At any rate, Enfantin and his engineers went into the Suez desert.

After four years, more than half of them had died of cholera and little of practical value had been accomplished. Nonetheless, the prospect of a Suez canal was being talked about in Europe with seriousness at last, as a result of Enfantin’s proselytizing, and young de Lesseps, if not exactly a complete convert to Saint-Simonianism, had been uplifted by ideas that were to last a lifetime. “Do not forget that to accomplish great things you must have enthusiasm,” Enfantin had said, repeating the deathbed exhortation of the Master.

There was, however, to be no immediate deviation from the progress of a model career, and by any reasonable standard of evaluation, nobody could possibly have prophesied the future the young diplomat had in store. What heights he personally aspired to can only be guessed at. Probably they were of the predictable kind.

• •

Viewed in retrospect, de Lesseps’ life stands out as one of the most extraordinary of the nineteenth century, even without the Panama venture. That he of all men of his time should have been the one to make “the miracle” happen at Suez is in itself miraculous. Suddenly there he was. Known after 1869 as “The Great Engineer,” he was no such thing. He had no technical background, no experience in finance. His skills as an administrator were modest. Routine of any kind bored him quickly.

The great turning point, the traumatic personal watershed from which so much history was to flow, came in 1849. That it happened that particular year, the year of the gold rush, when Panama emerged from the shadows once again, seems a play of fate that not even a novelist of his day might have risked.

A French expeditionary force sent to subdue Mazzini’s newborn Roman republic and restore papal rule had been unexpectedly thrown back at Rome by Garibaldi. De Lesseps, then in Paris, was told he was to leave at once to resolve the crisis. “Guided by circumstances,” he was to please all parties and achieve a peaceful accommodation. With all eyes on him he had shown the incredible stamina and single mindedness he could summon—and especially if all eyes were on him. Convinced that he could succeed, he very nearly had, and apparently quite blind to the fact that he was being used by his own government merely as a means to gain time. A temporary cease-fire was agreed to. But then French reinforcements arrived; Louis Napoleon, the new “Prince-President” of France, gave the order and the French army attacked.

Summarily recalled, de Lesseps was publicly reprimanded before the Assembly for exceeding his instructions. When Rome fell to the French army, he was left with no choice but to resign. The gossip was that the strain of the mission had been too much, that he had temporarily departed from his senses.

So at age forty-three he was without the career his background and natural gifts had so ideally suited him for, and to which he had given himself so wholeheartedly. The future was a blank page. He was in debt. Public disgrace was something he had never experienced. Yet outwardly he remained the man he had always been, jaunty, confident, up at dawn, busy all day. With his wife and three young sons he moved into a flat on the Rue Richepanse and for the next five years divided his time between Paris and a country estate in central France, an ancient, towered château in the province of Berri that had once belonged to Agnès Sorel, mistress of Charles VII. Known as La Chesnaye, it had been purchased at de Lesseps’ urging by his mother-in-law, Madame Delamalle, who had recently come into a sizable inheritance. The estate was located near the little village of Vatan on an open plain, mostly wheat country and extremely good land, with a great belt of forest a few miles to the south. His ambition was to create a model farm and he plunged into the role of country gentleman.

To occupy his mind he returned to the old interest in an Egyptian canal, reading everything he could lay his hands on. He was in touch again with Prosper Enfantin, for whom the Egyptian dream still burned. Enfantin generously supplied studies and papers from his files in the belief that he and de Lesseps could join forces. De Lesseps, however, had no such intention. His destiny henceforth, he had decided, would be in his own hands. Once, years before in Egypt, Mohammed Ali had advised, “My dear Lesseps . . . when you have something important to do, if there are two of you, you have one too many.”

France, meantime, had been wrenched by still another bloody political turn. The improbable Prince-President sprang a coup d’état, made himself dictator, and proclaimed the birth of the Second Empire. As Emperor Napoleon III, he would take France into a new age of progress, he said. “We have immense territories to cultivate, roads to open, harbors to deepen, canals to dig, rivers to make navigable, railroads to complete.” The Saint-Simonians were among his strongest supporters.

He established a brilliant court at the Tuileries, and on a bright winter morning at Notre Dame, he married the spectacular Eugénie de Montijo, who was half Spanish, half Scottish, something of an adventuress, and a distant cousin of Ferdinand de Lesseps’. (His mother and her grandmother were sisters.) Young enough to be the daughter of her cousin Fernando, as she called him in Spanish, she had always looked to him for advice. Especially in her new responsibilities would she welcome his views, she wrote the week before the wedding.

A few months afterward, in the spring of 1853, Agathe Delamalle de Lesseps died of scarlet fever and a son, his father’s namesake, died of the same cause. De Lesseps took refuge at La Chesnaye, pouring himself into routine projects and his canal studies. Life, he wrote to his oldest son, Charles, demanded courage, resignation, and trust in Providence. Charles, a bright, attentive boy of twelve, a student in Paris, had become a particular source of pride.

Then quite out of the blue came the news that Egypt’s ruling viceroy had been murdered by two slaves. De Lesseps was on a scaffold working with some stonemasons on the old house when the postman appeared in the courtyard with the Paris mail. “The workmen passed my letters and papers from hand to hand. Imagine my astonishment when I read of the death of Abbas-Pasha . . . I hurried down, and at once wrote to the new Viceroy to congratulate him. . . .” The new viceroy was Mohammed Said, whom de Lesseps had befriended years before when Mohammed Said was a fat, unattractive, and friendless little boy.

Mohammed Said, for whom de Lesseps was to name Port Said, had since become a walleyed mountain of a man, a great eater and drinker and jovial teller of “French stories,” a ruler who liked to have his pashas wade through gunpowder carrying lighted candles to test their nerve. More important, he was known for his generous impulses and so de Lesseps wasted no time in getting to Egypt. By way of welcome, Said arranged to go on maneuvers in the Western Desert with an army of ten thousand men. They were joined by Bedouin tribesmen and a military band. It was the sort of show de Lesseps adored. He traveled in style—his own private tent, mahogany furniture, quilted silk bedding, ice for his drinking water.

In the pages of his journal one senses a sudden exhilaration, a tremendous feeling of release and adventure.

He joined Said at his desert command post outside Alexandria on November 13, 1854. Both were in top spirits. Said expressed a singular desire to commence his regime with some great enterprise. Did Ferdinand have any ideas? But de Lesseps said nothing of the canal; he was waiting for a sign, as he explained later.

At night he searched the desert sky. Before dawn he was up and out of doors and the day was spent galloping miles over the desert on a magnificent Arabian steed. But the following morning, he knew the moment had come. He was standing at the opening to his tent, wrapped in a red dressing gown, looking and feeling for all the world like an Arab sheik. The description that follows is from his journal:

The sun’s rays were already lighting up the eastern horizon; in the west it was still dark and cloudy. Suddenly I saw a vivid-colored rainbow stretching across the sky from east to west. I must admit that I felt my heart beat violently, for . . . this token of a covenant . . . seemed to presage that the moment had come for the consummation of the Union between East and West. . . .

Before breakfast, but with everyone watching, he mounted his horse and went sailing over a high wall, a bit of imprudence, he calls it in the journal, but one “which afterward caused the Viceroy’s entourage to give the necessary approval to my scheme. The generals with whom I shared breakfast congratulated me and remarked that my boldness had greatly increased their opinion of me.”

And thus was launched the great Suez Canal. He broached the subject to Said at the close of day. Said asked a few questions, then declared the matter settled. His staff was summoned to hear the news.

Nothing had been said about cost. That de Lesseps had no experience faintly related to such an undertaking, that he represented no powerful organization, no combination of interests, that he had neither rank nor office nor any entrée to financial sources, seems not to have concerned either of them.

• •

For the next fifteen years he was everywhere at once—Egypt, London, Constantinople, Paris—coaxing, flattering, convincing monarchs and newspaper editors, issuing endless reports, driving the work forward in the desert, watching over every detail, frequently overruling his technical advisers, defying the European bankers, and facing the scorn of the English prime minister, Palmerston, who called him a swindler and a fool and who saw the canal as nothing more than a cheap French grab for power in the Mediterranean.

The engineer Stephenson, builder of the Britannia Bridge, member of Parliament, rose from a bench in Commons to pronounce the scheme preposterous. De Lesseps, whose English was terrible and whose experience as a builder had begun and ended with the restoration work at La Chesnaye, hung a French flag from his hotel window on Piccadilly, and went traveling across England giving more than eighty speeches in a month. “They never achieve anything who do not believe in success,” he loved to say.

When the Rothschilds wanted 5 percent for handling the initial stock subscription, he said he would hire an office and raise the money himself. “You will not succeed,” said Baron de Rothschild, an old friend. “We shall see,” de Lesseps had answered.

Approximately half the money had come from France (from twenty-five thousand small investors), the rest from Mohammed Said. When Said died, in 1863, his replacement, Khedive Ismail, was even more beneficent, so much so that by 1869 he had nearly put Egypt into bankruptcy. In the final stages it had been the colossal steam dredges designed by French engineers that made the difference. Nor can the repeated influence of the empress, her faith in her brilliant cousin, be discounted. Yet de Lesseps remained the driving spirit, and in truth he was something new under the sun; he had no historical counterpart. What he was—what he became—was the entrepreneur extraordinaire, with all the requisite traits for the role: nerve, persistence, dynamic energy, a talent for propaganda, a capacity for deception, imagination. He was a bit of an actor and as shrewd and silky a diplomat as anyone of his time.

He had no interest in making money, as he professed. “I am going to accomplish something without expediency, without personal gain,” he once wrote in his quick, sure, upward-sloping hand. “That, thank God, is what has up to now kept my sight clear and my course away from the rocks.” At any time he could have sold his precious concession and realized a fortune, but this he never did; his driving ambition throughout was to build the canal, “pour le bien de l’humanité.”

“He persevered, you see,” a grandson would recall. “He was a very stubborn man.” Jules Verne called it “the genius of will.” But de Lesseps spoke of patience. “I wait with patience,” he wrote to a correspondent in the final year of the work, “patience which I assure you requires more force of character than does action.”

On the morning of the Grand Opening, November 17, 1869, tens of thousands of people lining both banks of the canal saw him ride by. Radiant with health, his hair turned nearly white by now, he stood beside the empress on the deck of the imperial yacht,Aigle.She was wearing a big straw hat and waving a white handkerchief.

Khedive Ismail had spared no expense on the inaugural ceremonies. Six thousand invitations were sent, offering to pay all travel and hotel expenses. A Cairo opera house had been built for the occasion and Verdi had been commissioned to write a spectacular new work, Aïda.1 Five hundred cooks and a thousand waiters were imported from Europe. At Lake Timsah, halfway down the canal, a whole town, Ismailia, had been created, trees planted, hotels put up, a palace built.

Behind Aigle steamed an Austrian frigate carrying Emperor Franz Josef, who was turned out in scarlet trousers, white tunic, and a cocked hat with a green feather. There were two Austrian corvettes, five British ironclads, a Russian sloop of war, several French steamers—fifty ships in all. “There was a real Egyptian sky,” Eugénie would remember, “a light of enchantment, a dreamlike resplendence. . . .”

For the next eight months, until the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War, he was Europe’s reigning hero. The empress presented the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honor. The emperor hailed his perseverance and genius. He was cause for dozens of banquets in Paris. His name was constantly in the papers, his face in the illustrated magazines. And the fact that he had also become a bridegroom added immeasurably to his hold on the public imagination.

A small, private ceremony had been performed at Ismailia a few days after the opening of the canal. The bride was a stunning French girl of twenty, with large, dark eyes and great spirit, Louise Hélène Autard de Bragard, the daughter of an old and wealthy friend of de Lesseps’ and of a magnificent mother who, in her own youth, had been the inspiration for a sonnet by Baudelaire. She had been raised on the island of Mauritius, in the Indian Ocean, where her family, Huguenots, owned large plantations. According to the traditional story, it was love at first sight when she and de Lesseps met at one of Eugénie’s “Mondays.” By this second marriage he was to produce no fewer than twelve children—six sons, six daughters—which in some circles was considered a more notable accomplishment than the canal.

Palmerston was in his grave. In London, a few days after the great Crystal Palace reception, Prime Minister Gladstone informed the hero of Suez that Her Majesty had bestowed upon him the Grand Cross of the Star of India.

Few men had ever been so vindicated or extolled while they lived.


The first skirmish of the war, “La Débâcle” that overcame France with such appalling fury in 1870, was fought on August 4, the day Ferdinand de Lesseps returned from London, and the outcome, despite French heroism, was plain almost immediately. Napoleon III was suddenly aged and so ill he could barely sit a horse; yet he insisted on commanding an army in the field. An American observer, General Sheridan, wrote of the “marvelous mind” of Moltke and called the German infantry “as fine as I ever saw.” The steel guns from the Krupp Works had twice the range of the French bronze pieces.

Within two weeks the main French army was penned in at Metz. On September 2, at Sedan, Napoleon III and 100,000 of his troops surrendered. It was the most stunning, humiliating defeat in French history. The Second Empire collapsed instantly. Sunday, September 4, Léon Gambetta climbed out onto a window sill at the Hotel de Ville to proclaim to a Paris mob the birth of the Third French Republic. The empress, with the help of Ferdinand de Lesseps, escaped from the Tuileries and rushed to the home of her American dentist, a Dr. Evans, who got her to the Normandy coast and arranged for a yacht that carried her to asylum in England.

The war ended with the capitulation of Paris in January, after a siege of four months, during which the beleaguered citizens ate pet cats and elephants from the Paris zoo. The French dead were three times the German casualties, and by the peace terms France lost the rich, industrial provinces of Alsace and Lorraine. Further, Bismarck demanded an indemnity of 5,000,000,000 francs–$1,000,000,000–enough, he thought, to keep France crippled and subservient for another generation. And as a final humiliation, the despised German troops with their spiked helmets were to be permitted to parade down the Champs Élysées.

Then, with the return of spring, the tragedy was compounded. While a German army of occupation stood idly by, a vicious civil war raged; the savage days of the Commune became a bloodier time even than the infamous Terror.

Yet the Third Republic survived and the sudden resurgence of France after the war was as astonishing as her defeat. It was as if Sedan had released a vital inner resource. Everywhere people doubled their efforts, fired by a spirit of revanche. It was to be a revenge won on battlefields of “peace and progress”—for the while, anyway. In Paris the rubble was carted off and the new government carried on with the grandiose construction programs of Napoleon III and Baron Haussmann. Coal and iron production increased even without Alsace and Lorraine. Money was plentiful, furthermore, for capitalizing new enterprises, for foreign investments. Amazingly, the German indemnity was paid off in full by 1873, two years ahead of schedule. The days of grandeur were not past; France would be herself again.

For his own part Ferdinand de Lesseps was no more interested in retirement than he had been twenty years earlier. Inspirited by his new marriage and constant public attention, he was openly casting about for new worlds to conquer. He had been untarnished by the war; he was among the few. People spoke of him as the living embodiment of French vitality and the century’s “splendid optimism.” “We have had a lot of other men who have done things perhaps more remarkable and who have been less popular,” a grandson would remember, “but that’s the way he was.” Once, on Bastille Day, when he was on his way to the station to take the train to his country place, a cheering crowd stopped his carriage, unhitched the horses, and pulled the carriage the rest of the way to the station. Gambetta called him Le Grand Français—The Great Frenchman, The Great Patriot—and the name was picked up by everyone.

He kept in excellent physical condition. He exercised regularly—fencing, riding—and with the zest of a man half his age. He looked at least ten to fifteen years younger than he was. An admiring American of the day described him as “a small man, French in detail, with . . . what is called a magnetic presence.” A reporter for the New York Herald provided this description:

He bears his years with ease and grace, showing no sign of age in his movements, which are quick and frequent, though never jerky . . . . His hair is almost white. His eyes are black, large, restless, and fringed by heavy lashes over which are shaggy eyebrows. His face is tanned . . . and ruddy with the evidence of perfect health. A mustache is the only one hirsute adornment on his face. It is small, iron-gray, bristling and has an aggressive look. In stature he is a little below medium height. His bearing is erect, his manner suave, courteous and polished.

Come winter he was usually off to Egypt with his wife and children, and wherever they went she attracted still more attention for him. “Her form is the admiration of every dressmaker in the French capital,” reported the Paris correspondent of the ChicagoNews,“and a tight fitting dress sets off her elegant figure to the greatest advantage.” They were seen riding in the Bois, at balls at the Élysée, where the stately Marshal MacMahon, president of the Republic, and his lady led “the decorous waltz” past flower-wreathed panels that still bore the imperial initials of “N” and “E.”

They entertained often and grandly at a new apartment on the Rue Saint Florentin, a home with “every elegance”—Persian rugs, walls of family photographs and paintings in heavy gilt frames, a pair of tremendous elephant tusks in one antechamber, in another a display of his decorations. Presently, with her money, a larger, more impressive residence was purchased, a five-story private mansion, or hótel particulier, on the chic new Avenue Montaigne, where, as at La Chesnaye, the custom was never-ending hospitality. There were always ten to twelve people at dinner, always some old Suez comrade or distant kinsman or other stopping over for the night and staying a week or six months.

As chairman and president of the Suez Canal Company, he remained for thousands of shareholders the charmed guardian of their fortunes, which kept gaining steadily as the value of the stock grew ever greater. He thrived on the public role expected of him, rising to all occasions—banquets, newspaper interviews—with exuberant renditions of his adventures in the desert, or, increasingly, with talk of some vast new scheme in the wind. He talked of building a railroad to join Paris with Moscow, Peking, and Bombay. He had an astonishing plan to create an inland sea in the Sahara by breaking through a low-lying ridge on Tunisia’s Gulf of Gabès and flooding a depression the size of Spain.

Interestingly, when a special commission of engineers was appointed to appraise this particular scheme, his absolute faith in it was not enough. Among the members was Sadi Carnot, a future president of France, who would recall de Lesseps’ performance years later. “We had no difficulty in showing him that the whole thing was a pure chimera. He seemed very much astonished, and we saw that we had not convinced him. Take it from me that as a certainty he would have spent millions upon millions to create his sea, and that with the best faith in the world.”

It was said that he could command money as no one else alive, and encouragement came from every quarter. Victor Hugo urged that he “astonish the world by the great deeds that can be won without a war!”

• •

A forum for de Lesseps’ interests, now a favorite gathering place for those most intrigued by his future plans, was the Société de Géographie de Paris, where Humboldt had once been a reigning light. Geography, since the war, had become something of a national cause. Among men of position it had also become extremely fashionable. It was said that ignorance of the world beyond her borders had put France in an inferior position commercially, that it had contributed to her disgraceful performance in the late war. Geographical societies sprouted in the provinces. Geography was made mandatory in the schools. Membership in the Paris society increased four times, and Vice Admiral Clement Baron de La Roncière-Le Noury, president of the society, wrote of “this ardor for geography” as one of the characteristics of the epoch. When the first serialized chapters of Around the World in Eighty Days appeared in Le Temps in 1872, Paris correspondents for foreign papers cabled their contents to home offices as though filing major news stories. Nothing else had ever made the geographical arrangement of the planet quite so clear or so interesting in human terms. An extravagant stage production of the novel opened in Paris, complete with live snakes and elephants, and between acts audiences jammed the theater lobby to watch an attendant mark Phileas Fogg’s progress on a huge world map.

Jules Verne, strictly an armchair adventurer, worked in a tower study in his home at Amiens, but came often to Paris to attend meetings of the Société de Géographie and to do his research in its library. When he was made Chevalier of the Legion of Honor, it was on the nomination of Ferdinand de Lesseps, and the sight of two such men at Société functions, talking, shaking hands with admirers, was in itself a measure of the organization’s standing.

It was at an international congress held under the auspices of the Société the summer of 1875 that de Lesseps made his first public declaration of interest in an interoceanic canal. The meetings opened at the Louvre, in conjunction with a huge geographical exhibition, the first of its kind, that took Paris by storm. Crowds ranged from ten to twelve thousand people a day.

Two issues must be resolved, he said. First was the best route; second was the type of canal to be built, whether at sea level (à niveau was the French expression) or whether a canal with locks. Several French explorers who had been to Darien spoke on their experiences and presented proposals. Joseph E. Nourse, of the United States Naval Observatory, reported on the recent American expeditions to Nicaragua and Panama. But de Lesseps was the center of attention, and when he declared that the canal through the American Isthmus must be à niveau and sans écluses (without locks), it seemed that side of the problem had been settled.

Events began to gather momentum. Aided by the Rothschilds, England suddenly acquired financial control of the Suez Canal, and de Lesseps, while still head of the company, with offices in Paris, found his influence substantially undercut. The beloved enterprise, the pride of France, had become the lifeline of the British Empire.

Then before winter was out came the decision of President Grant’s Interoceanic Canal Commission. Having weighed the results of its surveys in Central America, the commission had decided in favor of Nicaragua. The decision was unanimous. Panama received little more than passing mention.

Within weeks it was announced that the Société de Géographie would sponsor a great international congress for the purpose of evaluating the scientific considerations at stake in building a Central American canal. The American efforts had been insufficient, it was stated.


Whether Ferdinand de Lesseps was merely an adornment for the Türr Syndicate or a willing confederate or its guiding spirit were to become questions of much debate. In some accounts he would be portrayed as the victim of forces beyond his control. “Inevitably the whirlpool began to draw Ferdinand nearer and nearer its vortex,” reads one interpretation of events surrounding the origins of the Panama venture, and he is pictured struggling valiantly against the current. To a great many contemporary American observers he would appear more the innocent dupe of furtive schemers—“insidious influences,” as one of the New York papers said—who were placing the old hero out in front of the French people like a goat before sheep.

Had things turned out differently, however, it is unlikely that the galvanizing leadership of the effort would ever have been attributed to anybody other than Ferdinand de Lesseps, which, from the available evidence, not to mention the man’s very nature, appears to have been the truth of the matter. As he himself once remarked to an American reporter, “Either I am the head or I refuse to act at all.”

The newly formed Türr Syndicate was quite small but made up of such “well-selected” figures as to command immediate attention and confidence. Its better-known stockholders included Senator Émile Littré, author of the great French dictionary, and Octave Feuillet, the novelist. (Littré declared that the five thousand francs he put in represented the first financial investment of his life.) There were General Claude Davout, Charles Cousin, of the Chemin de Fer du Nord, the Saint-Simonian financier Isaac Periere, and Jules Bourdon, who was curator of the Opéra. Dr. Henri Bionne, an official of the Société de Géographie, was an authority on international finance, a former lieutenant commander in the French Navy, who had degrees in both medicine and law. Dr. Cornelius Herz, a newcomer to Paris and an American, was a physician and entrepreneur who claimed a personal friendship with Thomas Edison.

The syndicate’s formal title was the Société Civile Internationale du Canal Interocéanique de Darien. It had a capital of 300,000 francs represented by some sixty shares and de Lesseps was neither a shareholder nor an officer. The leadership and the bulk of the stock were in the hands of three directors. The most conspicuous of these was General Istvan Türr, a Hungarian who had covered himself with glory in Sicily as Garibaldi’s second in command and who for a time had been employed by King Victor Emmanuel II for diplomatic missions. With his long, elegant figure, his long, handsome face and spectacular Victor Emmanuel mustache—it must have been the largest mustache in all Paris in the 1870’s—Istvan Türr had become something of a celebrity, the sort of personage people pointed out on the boulevards. His social connections included Le Grand Français.

The second man was the financier Baron Jacques de Reinach, a short, stout, affable man about town, known for his political pull and his voracious interest in young women. Like Türr, he was foreign-born, but a German and a Jew, as would be made much of later. He had founded the Paris banking firm of Kohn, de Reinach et Compagnie and had become rich speculating in French railroads and selling military supplies to the French government. His dealings had been subject to some question, although as yet nothing serious had come of it.

Most important of the three was Lieutenant Wyse, Lieutenant Lucien Napoleon-Bonaparte Wyse, who was the illegitimate son of the first Napoleon’s niece Princess Laetitia. Temporarily on leave from the French Navy, Wyse was twenty-nine years old. He did not look much like a Bonaparte. Tall and slender, he had an open, friendly face with a high forehead, blue eyes, and full beard. His mother, a sensational woman who had been known in every capital in Europe, was the daughter of Napoleon’s wayward brother Lucien Bonaparte, Prince of Canino. Her early marriage to Sir Thomas Wyse, an Irish diplomat, had failed, but was never dissolved legally, and by the time Lieutenant Wyse was born, nineteen years had passed since she and her husband had even seen each other. Two illegitimate daughters had also resulted, magnificent-looking women, very much like their mother, one of whom married Istvan Türr (which made Türr and Wyse brothers-in-law). The other, known as Madame Rattazzi, was a literary figure of sorts and one of the most dazzling and publicized figures of the day. The father of the sisters was an English Army officer who had pulled Princess Laetitia from a pond in St. James’s Park after she had attempted a public and rather ridiculous suicide at the time her marriage was breaking up. But the identity of the young lieutenant’s father was never divulged, though naturally there was speculation on the subject and especially when the Panama venture commenced. The money he put into the syndicate had come from his wife, a wealthy Englishwoman.

It was Wyse who went to see de Lesseps and in the early stages de Lesseps appears to have found him a young man much after his own heart. Wyse would also be the sole member of the syndicate to subject himself to any physical danger or hardship.2

• •

The initial plan announced by the Société de Géographie was for a series of definitive explorations and surveys, a binational, wholly nonpartisan effort, with the world’s leading scientific societies participating. But all such talk ceased the moment the Türr Syndicate made itself available, offering to handle everything. Permission to conduct explorations within Colombian territory was secured by sending an intermediary to Bogotá, and six months later, in early November 1876, an expedition of seventeen men sailed on the steamer Lafayette, flagship of the French West Indies line. Lieutenant Wyse was in command, assisted by another French naval officer, Lieutenant Armand Réclus, and their orders were to find and survey a canal route, but to confine their activities to Darien, east of the railroad, since the Colombian government had forbidden any intrusion along the railroad’s right of way. In other words they were to look only in that area wherein the syndicate had a legal right to carry on its business, which was scarcely the broad-range perspective embodied in the Société’s original proposal.

The party was gone six months, two of which were spent at sea. Everyone suffered from malaria, two men died in the jungle, a third died during the voyage home. Wyse returned thin and drawn and covered with tiny scars from insect bites. He was thoroughly discouraged and made little effort to hide it. Though they had managed to cross the divide, the terrain, the punishing heat, the rains, had defeated them. The best he could recommend—and purely by guesswork—was a Darien canal with a tunnel as much as nine miles in length.

De Lesseps was wholly dissatisfied. How instrumental he had been in planning the expedition, if at all, is not apparent. His role was supposedly that of an arbiter only. He was the head of the Société’s Committee of Initiative.

At any rate, having heard the young officer’s report, he declared it as good as worthless. He would agree only to a canal at sea level—no locks, no tunnels. Furthermore, he now knew where to build the canal. As he would remark later to a New York newspaperman, “I told Messrs. Wyse and Réclus when they made their report that there could be no other route than that of the railroad. ‘If you come back with a favorable report on a sea-level canal on that route I shall favor it.’ ”

So Wyse and Réclus sailed again, accompanied by many of the same men who had been on the first expedition. And this time things went differently. Considering how much was to hang on their efforts, how much would be risked on the so-called Wyse Survey at Panama, it is interesting to see just how their time was occupied.

Landing at Colón and crossing to Panama City, Wyse assembled the necessary provisions and sailed for the Pacific shores of San Blas, where his efforts appear to have been half-hearted. Indeed, it is puzzling why he bothered at all, knowing de Lesseps’ attitude. In three weeks, certain that no canal could be built at San Blas without a tunnel, Wyse ordered everybody back to Panama City.

Lieutenant Réclus was told to explore the Panama route, keeping to the line of the railroad, and since this was in violation of the agreement secured earlier, Wyse decided to go himself to Bogotá. Time suddenly was of the essence. On the first of April the president of Colombia, Aquileo Parra, would be retiring from office and President Parra was known to favor the Wyse-Türr enterprise.

Lieutenant Réclus, meantime, began an informal reconnaissance of the Pacific slope a few miles east of the railroad, assisted by a young Panamanian engineer, Pedro Sosa. It was, as Réclus himself noted in his diary, “not an exploration in the true sense of the word.” It was more of a walk, a ride on the railroad even. Sosa became ill within a week. Then Réclus too was stricken with an excruciating earache, and so he called the whole thing off. On April 20, they were back in Panama City and ten days later, with no word from Wyse, Réclus sailed for France.

And that was the sum total of the Wyse Survey. The exploration of the Panama route that was “not an exploration” had occupied all of two weeks, four days. Wyse had played no part in it and in fact no survey had resulted.

By contrast, the American expedition of three years before had remained two and a half months in Panama and virtually all that time had been spent in the field. The Americans, more than a hundred in number, had run a line of levels from ocean to ocean, explored the Chagres watershed, and prepared maps, charts, and statistical tables. And the Government Printing Office in Washington had made most of these findings, except for the maps and plans, available in a document of several hundred pages, a document Wyse would be perfectly happy to rely upon. Such borrowing would pose no conflict presumably, since the material had been published in the spirit of open exchange of scientific information and the Americans had already rejected the Panama route.

• •

It was well afterward, when he was safely back in Paris, that Wyse wrote of his mission to Bogotá, then one of the most inaccessible cities on the face of the earth. From Panama City to Bogotá was normally a journey of three, even four weeks, though the distance on a straight line was only about five hundred miles. Moreover, it was a vastly different world from Panama that one found on arrival—a gray stone city set on a tableland at 8,600 feet and hemmed in by two of the three tremendous ranges of the Andes that divide Colombia like giant fingers; a mild damp climate that seldom varies, skies often clouded; a solemn, impoverished populace clothed in black; a proud ruling class of bankers, scholars, poets, who spoke the most perfect Castilian to be heard in Latin America.

Because the Darien wilderness stood between Panama and the rest of Colombia, Panama was as removed as if it were an island, and Colombia could be reached only by sea, either by the Caribbean or the Pacific. One sailed first either to Barranquilla or to Buenaventura. The journey from Barranquilla to Bogotá involved a four-hundred-mile trip by river steamer up the Magdalena to a point called Honda, then another hundred miles over the mountains by horse or wagon. There were no railroads.

The other way, by Buenaventura, the route Wyse took, was shorter but considerably more arduous, covering nearly four hundred miles. Wyse went by horseback, traveling with one companion, a French lawyer, Louis Verbrugghe, the two of them in serapes and big Panama hats. The general direction, as Wyse wrote, was “perpendiculaire.”

They reached Bogotá in just eleven days, during which they sometimes spent twenty-four hours in the saddle. They arrived unshaven, their clothes torn and filthy. Wyse was missing one spur and had broken the other so that it clanked disconcertingly as they walked along the streets. Hotels turned them away because of their appearance, as Wyse would tell the story. But the following morning, March 13, bathed, shaved, looking most presentable, Wyse met with Eustorgio Salgar, Secretary of Foreign Relations. On March 14 he saw President Parra, who was especially “well disposed” toward his proposition.

The newspapers in Bogotá, all closely tied to the party in power, the Liberals, took little notice of Wyse’s presence in the capital. That the visit was one of the utmost importance to the future of Colombia, that Wyse was there in fact to settle the basic contract to build a Panama canal, a contract that could mean a world of difference to Colombia for centuries to come, or more immediately help solve the country’s dire financial troubles, was in no way suggested. Possibly someone somewhere along the line had decided that a better bargain might be driven with the young man by playing down his importance.

On March 15, or just three days after his arrival, Wyse presented a draft of a contract. Everything was going as smoothly as could be hoped for. Five days later, having made only minor modifications, Salgar and Wyse fixed their signatures to the document, and three days after that, on March 23, 1878, President Parra, who had exactly one week left in office, did the same. Confirmation by the Colombian Senate took longer, but by mid-May, the concession at last in his pocket, Wyse was on his way back to Panama, going this time by steamer down the Magdalena.

At Panama City he learned from Pedro Sosa of the little that Sosa and Réclus had accomplished, yet took no time to do anything more. Rather, he wound up his affairs in the least time possible, sold off the supplies left over from the expeditions, made Sosa a gift of the surveying instruments, and departed. He seems to have felt obliged only to see Nicaragua—to travel the route the Americans had settled on—and it was another journey in record time. He crossed from San Juan del Norte, going by steamer up the San Juan, then over the lake. The Americans had “much simplified” his task, he was to report. In fact, their Nicaragua Expedition had been their largest and most extensive. To plot their canal line they had had to chop a path nearly the length of the entire valley, or more than twice the distance across Panama, and much of the time the men had worked in swamps in water up to their shoulders. Their survey was an accomplishment Wyse especially could appreciate. He himself paused only long enough to pick up a few rock samples.

From Nicaragua he went to Washington, but by way of San Francisco, another odd side of the story, since he could so easily have returned to Colón, taken a steamer to New York, and saved himself several thousand miles. The impression is that he wanted to appraise financial interest in San Francisco, the American city that stood to gain the most from the canal. But possibly he wanted only to take the transcontinental railroad, to ride like Phileas Fogg the “uninterrupted metal ribbon.” Whatever his reasons, he can be pictured flying along in a Union Pacific parlor car, observing “the varied landscape” as Fogg had, checking his watch at the Great Salt Lake, or taking some air during the stop at Green River Station.

At the Navy Department in Washington he was received by Commander Edward P. Lull and A. G. (Aniceto Garcia) Menocal, authors of both the Nicaragua and Panama surveys. Lull had had overall command; Menocal, a Cuban by birth, had been foremost of the civilian engineers assigned by Admiral Ammen “to place the results of the work beyond the reach of criticism.”

The conversation was cordial and for Wyse perfectly fruitless. The Americans showed great interest in his travels, and Wyse, who spoke excellent English, made much of their pioneering efforts in the jungle. But it was their maps and plans that Wyse had come for and he was politely told that these were not available, that the department “did not feel disposed” to grant his request. He asked if he might pay his respects to Admiral Ammen, but Admiral Ammen, he was told, was not available.

So it was with the Bogotá contract only—the famous Wyse Concession—that Wyse sailed from New York; no survey of his own, not even a map of Panama other than one made by the railroad twenty-five years before. For the moment, however, the concession was enough. That its cash value could be phenomenal went without saying.

The agreement was this:

The United States of Colombia granted the Société Civile—the Türr Syndicate—the exclusive privilege, good for ninety-nine years, to construct a canal across the Isthmus of Panama. As a guarantee of their good faith, the grantees were obligated to deposit 750,000 francs in a London bank no later than 1882. It was required that surveys be made by an international commission of competent engineers, for which three years were allowed, and the grantees were permitted two additional years in which to organize a canal company, and then twelve years to build the canal.

Colombia in turn was to get 5 percent of the gross revenue from the canal for twenty-five years, 6 percent for the next twenty-five years, 7 percent for the next twenty-five years, and 8 percent for the final years of the concession. The minimum payment, however, was never to be less than $250,000, which was the same as Colombia’s share in the earnings of the Panama Railroad.

Colombia conceded to the company, without charge, 500,000 hectares (1,235,500 acres) of public lands, in addition to a belt of land 200 meters (219 yards) wide on each side of the canal. The terminal ports and the canal itself were declared neutral for all time. At the end of ninety-nine years the canal would revert to Colombia.

Further conditions were stipulated, but the crucial ones were these:

The concession could be transferred (i.e., sold) to other individuals or financial syndicates, but under no circumstances could it be sold to a foreign government. It was left to the grantees to negotiate “some amicable agreement” with the Panama Railroad concerning its rights and privileges.

• •

Once reunited in Paris, Wyse and Réclus quickly put together a plan to present to de Lesseps. It was for a sea-level canal following the line of the Panama Railroad and again they resorted to a tunnel as the essential feature. De Lesseps voiced no objections to any of it. Nor did he register any serious dissatisfaction with Wyse’s so-called survey. The one dissenting voice at this stage was that of a young Hungarian engineer named Bela Gerster, who had served with Wyse on both expeditions and who pointedly refused to sign Wyse’s final report. Gerster prepared his own minority report, but when he took it to a number of French newspapers none were interested in printing it.

• •

Some loose ends had to be attended to before de Lesseps could convene his canal congress. He had to have a guarantee that the Americans would attend—their presence was essential to the prestige of the affair—and he needed a commitment from the Panama Railroad Company that there would be no problem over the “amicable agreement” required by the Wyse Concession. Actually, he wanted to buy the railroad. So back Wyse sailed once more, early in 1879, arriving at New York, where he saw the president of the Panama Railroad Company, a clever Wall Street speculator named Trenor W. Park. Standing up to greet Wyse, Park looked no larger than a twelve-year-old boy, but he had come as far as he had in the business world by making the most of every advantageous position, and at the moment he was in an extremely advantageous position, as he and Wyse both appreciated. The details of the Bogotá contract had become public knowledge by now, and if an amicable understanding could not be reached with Trenor Park, the major stockholder in the railroad, then obviously the contract was worthless.

It was within Park’s power to decide whether Wyse or de Lesseps need go a step further with their plans.

Park was “not altogether reluctant” to sell the railroad. His price, he told Wyse, was $200 a share, or twice its market value at the moment. Park, it was understood, owned fifteen thousand shares.

In Washington next, Wyse not only succeeded in seeing Admiral Ammen, but was presented to the Secretary of State, William Evarts, and later to President Hayes, who expressed great interest in the forthcoming Paris congress. Evarts, however, seemed as suspicious as Palmerston had been about Suez. The ill-fated attempt by Napoleon III to make Maximilian emperor of Mexico had left Evarts, like many Americans, extremely uneasy about France and her aspirations in the Western Hemisphere and anything but trustful of anyone with the name Bonaparte, even so amiable a Bonaparte as Lieutenant Wyse. So it was a difficult interview.

At length Evarts agreed that the United States should participate in the congress but only Ammen and A. G. Menocal would be permitted to go as authorized delegates. They could join in the technical discussions—to “communicate such scientific, geographical, mathematical, or other information . . . as is desired or deemed important”—but they were to have no official powers or diplomatic function, no say concerning the canal policy of the United States.

• •

Shortly afterward in Paris, sometime in the early spring of 1879, just before the opening of the congress, Charles de Lesseps met with his father in the office of Dr. Henri Bionne, one of the most respected figures in the Türr Syndicate.

At age thirty-eight, Charles was nearly bald, and with his dark brows and thick dark beard, he looked a good deal older than he was. Like his father, he was a man of great pride and natural courtesy. He was also a capable administrator and this, plus a good deal of common sense and a capacity for hard work, had won him wide admiration at Suez, where he had served as his father’s principal aide. He was intelligent, rather than brilliant, careful, considerate, but with none of his father’s glamour or his need for public acclaim. Charles was a chess player.

The demands on him at Suez had been heavy. His only child, “Little Ferdinand,” had died in infancy of cholera at Ismailia in 1865. Still, he idolized his father no less than ever and remained his good right arm in numerous ways. Charles, as would be said later, was above all a devoted son. More, he was a son who knew his devotion was returned in full.

Charles was strongly opposed to the Panama venture and had been from the day Lieutenant Wyse first came to La Chesnaye to present his plan. To Charles the whole scheme was a kind of madness.

The account we have of the scene in Bionne’s office is Charles’s own, provided years later in a private memoir.

“What do you wish to find at Panama?” he asked his father. “Money? You will not bother about money at Panama any more than you did at Suez. Glory? You’ve had enough glory. Why not leave that to someone else? All of us who have worked at your side are entitled to a rest. Certainly the Panama project is grandiose . . . but consider the risks those who direct it will run! You succeeded at Suez by a miracle. Should not one be satisfied with accomplishing one miracle in a lifetime?”

Then, not waiting for a reply, he added: “If you decide to proceed with this, if nothing will stop you . . . if you want me to assist you, then gladly I will take whatever comes. I shall not complain no matter what happens. All that I am I owe to you; what you have given me, you have the right to take away.”

Ferdinand de Lesseps replied that he had already made up his mind. What he did not say, what perhaps he was unable to admit to himself just yet, was the extent to which his trust in Charles had influenced that decision.

1 The opera was not ready in time, so the performance was put off until 1871.

2 In examining the relationship that developed between Wyse and de Lesseps, their kinship of purpose, the shared sense of adventure, the almost father-son spirit, the question inevitably arises: Might de Lesseps have been the unknown father? There is, however, nothing in the available record to suggest this was so. About all we can safely assume is that for a young man of such background, with his paternity in doubt and his aspirations so high, de Lesseps must have been an appealing figure and one to which he might very naturally wish to attach himself.

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