The Second Empire

By Octave Aubry; Arthur Livingston | Go to book overview

CHAPTER XXXI
The Suez Canal

IN THOSE DAYS THAT WERE SO GLOOMY FOR THE EMPIRE, A BURST OF glory suddenly tinged the gables of the ancient Tuileries. The Suez Canal opened on the 16th of November, 1869.

The Canal had been a difficult enterprise and it was pushed to completion only through the constant encouragement of Napoleon III, and in advance of him, really, of the Empress. The effects were to be incalculable. The cutting of the Isthmus of Suez was to transform world economy, change the map of the whole globe, and stand in history as one of the major events of the nineteenth century.

In the heyday of ancient Egypt Rameses II had dug a canal connecting the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. The Arab invasion wiped it out. A thousand years rolled by. Then Leibnitz suggested to Louis XIV that he restore the cut. The Great King had all his eyes on Europe and did not listen. Bonaparte was in Egypt in 1799 and at that time returned to the idea. In company with Monge and Berthollet he visited such traces of the old canal as were still visible near Suez. Lepère, the engineer, even drew up plans, which the General's sudden return to France relegated to a dusty oblivion.

In 1833 a number of Saint-Simonians made a timid effort. They had just gone bankrupt when young Ferdinand de Lesseps arrived in Cairo as consul for France. Lesseps was a Frenchman of the South, cousin to Sefiora de Montijo and the future Empress. He was adroit, agile of mind and body, full of life, gaiety, imagination. A great dancer, he was also an accomplished horseman. His deeds of prowess dazzled the Arabs. Let a pestilence break out in Egypt and there he would be, racing from one pest-house to another and organizing a sanitary campaign. Mehemet-Ali, the Khedive, and his son, Saïd, thought of Lesseps as an intimate friend and righthand man.

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