He attempted to repeat this success with an effort to build a lockless version of the Panama Canal during the 1880s, but the project was finally completed by the United States in 1914, once developments in medicine had been made which combatted the serious problems of malaria and yellow fever in the area.
The origins of de Lesseps' family are traceable back as far as the end of the 14th century. His ancestors, it is believed, came from Scotland, and settled at Bayonne during the region's occupation by the English. One of his great-grandfathers was town clerk and at the same time secretary to Queen Anne of Neuberg, widow of Charles II of Spain, exiled to Bayonne after the accession of Philip V. From the middle of the 18th century the ancestors of de Lesseps followed diplomatic careers, and he himself occupied several diplomatic posts from 1825 to 1849. His uncle was ennobled by King Louis XVI, and his father was made a count by Napoleon I. His father, Mathieu de Lesseps (1774-1832), was in the consular service; his mother, Catherine de Grévigné, was Spanish, and aunt of the countess of Montijo, mother of the empress Eugénie.
Ferdinand de Lesseps was born at Versailles in 1805.
His first years were spent in Italy, where his father was occupied with his consular duties. He was educated at the College of Henry IV in Paris. From the age of 18 years to 20 he was employed in the commissary department of the army. From 1825 to 1827 he acted as assistant viceconsul at Lisbon, where his uncle, Barthélemy de Lesseps, was the French chargé d'affaires. This uncle was an old companion of La Pérouse and a survivor of the expedition in which that navigator perished.
In 1832 Ferdinand de Lesseps was appointed vice-consul at Alexandria. While the vessel Lesseps sailed to Egypt in was in quarantine at the Alexandrian lazaretto, M. Mimaut, consul-general of France at Alexandria, sent him several books, among which was the memoir written upon the Suez Canal, according to Bonaparte's instructions, by the civil engineer Lapré, one of the scientific members of the French expedition.
This work struck Lesseps's imagination, and gave him the idea of constructing a canal across the African isthmus. Fortunately for Lesseps, Mehemet Ali, the viceroy of Egypt, owed his position in part to the recommendations made on his behalf to the French government by Mathieu de Lesseps, who was consul-general in Egypt when Ali was a colonel. Because of this, Lesseps received a warm welcome from the viceroy and became good friends with his son, Said Pasha.
In 1833 de Lesseps was sent as consul to Cairo, and soon afterwards given the management of the consulate general at Alexandria, a post that he held until 1837. While he was there an epidemic of plague broke out and lasted for two years, resulting in the deaths of more than a third of the inhabitants of Cairo and Alexandria. During this time Lesseps went from one city to the other and constantly displayed an admirable zeal and an imperturbable energy. Towards the close of the year 1837 he returned to France, and on December 21 married Mlle Agathe Delamalle, daughter of the government prosecuting attorney at the court of Angers. By this marriage Lesseps became the father of five sons.
In 1839 he was appointed consul at Rotterdam, and in the following year transferred to Málaga, the ancestral home of his mother's family. In 1842 he was sent to Barcelona, and soon afterwards promoted to the grade of consul general. In the course of a bloody insurrection in Catalonia, which ended in the bombardment of Barcelona, de Lesseps offered protection to a number of men threatened by the fighting regardless of their factional symapthies or nationalities. From 1848 to 1849 he was minister of France at Madrid.
In 1849 the government of the French Republic sent him to Rome to negotiate the return of Pope Pius IX to the Vatican. He tried to negotiate an agreement whereby Pope Pius could return peacefully to the Vatican but also ensuring the continued independence of Rome. But during negotiations, the elections in France caused a change in the foreign policy of the government. His course was disapproved; he was recalled and brought before the council of state.
de Lesseps then retired from the diplomatic service, and never afterwards occupied any public office. In 1853 he lost his wife and daughter at a few days' interval. In 1854, the accession to the viceroyalty of Egypt of Said Pasha gave de Lesseps a new impulse to act upon the creation of a Suez Canal.
A first scheme, indicated by him, was immediately drawn out by two French engineers who were in the Egyptian service, MM. Louis Maurice Adolphe Linant de Bellefonds called "Linant Bey" and Mougel Bey. This project, differing from others that were previously presented or that were in opposition to it, provided for a direct communication between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. After being slightly modified, the plan was adopted in 1856 by an international commission of civil engineers to which it was submitted. Encouraged by this approval, de Lesseps no longer allowed anything to stop him. He listened to no adverse criticism and receded before no obstacle. Neither the opposition of Lord Palmerston, who considered the projected disturbance as too radical not to endanger the commercial position of Great Britain, nor the opinions entertained, in France as well as in England, that the sea in front of Port Said was full of mud which would obstruct the entrance to the canal, that the sands from the desert would fill the trenches--no adverse argument, in a word, could dishearten Lesseps.
He had the support of the emperor Napoleon III and the empress Eugénie, and he succeeded in rousing the patriotism of the French and obtaining by their subscriptions more than half of the capital of two hundred millions of francs which he needed in order to form a company. The Egyptian government subscribed for eighty millions worth of shares.
The Compagnie universelle du canal maritime de Suez was organized at the end of 1858. On April 25, 1859 the first blow of the pickaxe was given by Lesseps at Port Said, and on November 27, 1869 the canal was officially opened by the Khedive, Ismail Pacha.
While in the interests of his canal Lesseps had resisted the opposition of British diplomacy to an enterprise which threatened to give to France control of the shortest route to India, he acted loyally towards Great Britain after Lord Beaconsfield had acquired the Suez shares belonging to the Khedive, by frankly admitting to the board of directors of the company three representatives of the British government. The consolidation of interests which resulted, and which has been developed by the addition in 1884 of seven other British directors, chosen from among shipping merchants and business men, has augmented, for the benefit of all concerned, the commercial character of the enterprise.
Ferdinand de Lesseps steadily endeavoured to keep out of politics. If in 1869 he appeared to deviate from this principle by being a candidate at Marseille for the Corps Législatif, it was because he yielded to the entreaties of the Imperial government in order to strengthen its goodwill for the Suez Canal. Once this goodwill had been shown, he bore no malice towards those who rendered him his liberty by preferring Léon Gambetta. He afterwards declined the other candidatures that were offered him: for the Senate in 1876, and for the Chamber in 1877. In 1873 he became interested in a project for uniting Europe and Asia by a railway to Bombay, with a branch to Peking. The same year, he became a member of the French Academy of Sciences. He subsequently encouraged Major Roudaire, who wished to transform a stretch of the Sahara desert into an inland sea to increase rainfall in Algeria.
The King of the Belgians having formed an International African Society, Lesseps accepted the presidency of the French committee, facilitated Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza's explorations, and acquired stations that he subsequently abandoned to the French government. These stations were the starting-point of French Congo.
A statue of Ferdinand de Lesseps stands at the entrance of the Suez Canal.
De Lesseps went with his youngest child to Panama to see the planned pathway. He estimated in 1880 that the project would take 658 million francs and eight years to complete. After two years of surveys, work on the canal began in 1882. However, the technical difficulties of operating in the wet tropics dogged the project. Particularly disastrous were recurrent landslides into the excavations from the bordering water-saturated hills, and the death toll from tropical diseases. In the end, insufficient capital and financial corruption ended the project. The Panama Canal Company declared itself bankrupt in December 1888 and entered liquidation in February 1889.
The failure of the project is sometimes referred to as the Panama Canal Scandal, after rumours circulated that French politicians and journalists had received bribes. By 1892 it emerged that 150 French deputies had been bribed into voting for the allocation of financial aid to the Panama Canal Company, and in February 1893 de Lesseps, his son Charles (b. 1849), and a number of others faced trial and were found guilty. De Lesseps was ordered to pay a fine and serve a prison sentence, but the latter was overturned by the Cour de Cassation on the grounds that it had been more than three years since the crime was committed. Ultimately, in 1904 the United States bought out the assets of the Company and resumed work under a revised plan.
In 1869, he married his second wife, Mlle Louise Helene Autard de Bragard (daughter of a former magistrate of Mauritius) and eleven out of his twelve children of this marriage survived him.
On June 11, 1884, Levi P. Morton, the Minister of the United States to France, gave a banquet in honor of the Franco-American Union and in celebration of the completion of the Statue of Liberty. Ferdinand de Lesseps, as head of the Franco-American Union, formally presented the statue to the United States, saying:
This is the result of the devoted enthusiasm, the intelligence and the noblest sentiments which can inspire man. It is great in its conception, great in its execution, great in its proportions; let us hope that it will add, by its moral value, to the memories and sympathies that it is intended to perpetuate. We now transfer to you, Mr. Minister, this great statue and trust that it may forever stand the pledge of friendship between France and the Great Republic of the United States.
His name is used as a name for a great engineer in the Civilization 4 game.