Ferdinand de Lesseps.

Recollections of forty years online

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VOL. I."


The Mission to Rome

Episodes of 1848 at Paris and Madrid . . .119

Rome — Suez — Panama 129


The Origin of the Suez Canal 152


ONE of the greatest of Komart Emperors, when
lying upon his death-bed at York, said, " Omnia
feci, nihil expedit." And yet, when asked for the
watchword of the night, with his dying breath he
gave it: " Laboremus." M. de Lesseps, in the course
of his long and honoured career, has made the watch-
word of the dying Emperor his rule of life ; but he is
not likely, when his last hour comes, to " look on all
the works his hands have wrought and on the labour
that he has laboured to do," and find them " vanity
and vexation of spirit." For what else was the ex-
clamation of the Koman Emperor but a paraphrase of
the Preacher's sermon upon the vanity of all human
effort and human enjoyment? In a spiritual sense
all this is true enough, no doubt, but the labour of a
life mainly devoted to the furtherance of works cal-
culated to benefit others rather than oneself, and to
add to the general sum of the welfare of humanity, is
not assuredly wasted.


How active and how beneficent a life that of M. cle
Lesseps has been we most of us know already, though
to posterity it must be left to assign the proper place
which his name will occupy among the worthies of the
nineteenth century. In the meanwhile, the glimpses
of the domestic and personal side of his life and
character which M. de Lesseps allows us to catch in
these volumes cannot fail to be interesting, and some
of us may, perhaps, be selfish enough to regret that
he has not gone more into detail with regard to this
part of his life, even if, to do so, he had been com-
pelled to abridge the account of his diplomatic mis-
sion to Rome in 1849 and to omit one or two chapters,
such as those upon "Steam" and upon the "Origin
and Functions of Consuls," which are of a more
general and technical character. I imagine, however,
that M. de Lesseps, feeling himself the repository of
many secrets, has deemed it best to reserve for some
future time the numberless anecdotes which he could,
if he were so disposed, relate about the celebrities of
every nationality and every profession with whom he
has been in contact for upwards of half a century.
]>ut the reader of these two volumes will find an
abundance of interesting information relating first of all
to M. de Lesseps' s diplomatic missions to Madrid and
Rome, and secondly to the preliminary survey of the
Isthmus of Suez, and the intricate negotiations which
preceded the actual making of the Canal. As regards
the mission to Rome, with which M. de Lesseps com-


mences his "Kecollections," I have, while omitting
some of the official despatches, the translation of which
is not required in order to put the reader in possession
of M. de Lesseps's own version of this incident in his
career, heen careful not to attempt anything like a
precis of what he says, and this for personal reasons.
Having for many years enjoyed the friendship of the
late M. Drouyn de Lhuys, who, as Foreign Minister
in ] 849, entrusted M. de Lesseps with this mission to
Eome, I had often heard him speak of it and of the
circumstances connected with it. His view was, I
need hardly say, diametrically opposite to that ex-
pressed here by M. de Lesseps, and I have, therefore,
left the latter to tell the story in his own words. I
have, however, taken it upon myself to omit two
chapters altogether, one being a treatise upon the
French Revolution of 1848 by Don Balmes, a Spanish
writer, and the other a criticism by M. de Lesseps
himself of this author's writings. French readers
may possibly be curious to know, even at this remote
date, what a Spanish writer has to say about the most
deplorable and senseless of the many revolutions
which have occurred in their country, but foreigners
can scarcely be expected to feel any interest in what
is, after all, but the individual expression of opinion
by a writer of whom they know nothing upon a sub-
ject which has passed quite out of their memory.

To English readers the most interesting, but in
some ways the most humiliating, part of the book will


be that in which M. de Lesseps tells at considerable
length the story of how, in face of the stubborn and
unreasoning opposition of Lord Palmerston and other
English Ministers, he carried through his project of
making the Suez Canal. The unflagging energy, the
indomitable perseverance, the never -failing good-
humour with which he met all difficulties and fought
against every kind of obstacle, convey a lesson which
ought not to be thrown away upon the half-hearted
and upon those who are always ready to take no for
an answer. But there is another lesson to be learnt
from the story which M. de Lesseps relates with such
merciless precision. Lord Palmerston opposed the
making of the Suez Canal upon four grounds : first,
because it was impracticable, as he had learnt from
Mr. Eobert Stephenson, the engineer, who had not
surveyed more than a small part of the isthmus;
secondly, because, even granting that it could be
made, it would never pay; thirdly, because it was
detrimental to English interests; and fourthly, be-
cause it would impair the integrity of the Turkish
Empire, and render Egypt virtually independent of
the Porte. As M. de Lesseps points out, the two
first objections had no force so far as England was
concerned until he came to ask the Government to
subsidise the undertaking ; while as to the third, he
triumphantly points out that while the English
Government is denying the right of the Viceroy of
Egypt to make the Canal through the isthmus without


the Sultan's firman, it is urging him to complete the
railway from the Mediterranean to the Ked Sea with-
out waiting for any such authorisation. M. de
Lesseps reminds his readers, too, that England was
very glad to use the route through Egypt tor sending
troops to the relief of India during the mutiny, and
he is not less successful in showing that the cutting
of the canal could not of itself affect the relations of
Egypt to its Suzerain. He shows how, step by step,
one country after another rallied to his cause, and
how, even in England, public opinion came round to
him, the series of meetings which he held throughout
the kingdom being unanimous in favour of the
scheme. Lord Palmerston, however, remained ob-
durate, and the English ambassadors at Constanti-
nople — first Lord Stratford de Redcliffe, and then
Sir Henry Bulwer — moved heaven and earth to quash
the project. But M. de Lesseps, who in this instance
at all events showed himself a consummate diplomatist,
not only enlisted the active sympathies of several in-
fluential persons, such as the Empress of the French,
but removed, one by one, the obstacles from his path,
and, as we know, brought his work to a triumphant
conclusion. Well, I would say that when we come to
consider the objections and arguments which are at
the present time being urged against other great
engineering projects intended to facilitate communi-
cation between different parts of the globe, one cannot
fail to be struck by their close similarity to those


with which M. de Lesseps was met thirty years ago
when about to commence the Suez Canal. We are told
now that the Panama Canal — in which, as my readers
will all be aware, he is the guiding and controlling
spirit — can never be completed, not at least for a sum
which is, practically speaking, obtainable ; and that the
Channel Tunnel between France and England, if not
as impracticable from an engineering and financial
point of view, would be as detrimental to the interests
of England as Lord Palmerston declared the Suez
Canal to be. I do not profess of myself to have suffi-
cient knowledge to speak with authority upon either
of these subjects, though, of course, it can only be in
joke that people talk about the military risk which the
making of a submarine tunnel would involve. But
when one finds how the self- same arguments which
retarded, but did not prevent, the cutting of the Suez
Canal — all of them falsified in the event — are being
served up again by the adversaries of these two pro-
jects it is impossible to avoid feeling that a little more
prudence, a little more self-restraint, a little less self-
confidence would not be out of place. Those who de-
clare that the Panama Canal never can be made, and
that the Channel Tunnel never ought to be made, may
be justified by the result, and the arguments which in
the case of the Suez Canal were so utterly falsified
may in these instances prove sound. But, to borrow
a famous phrase, one would be sorry to be " as cock-
sure of anything as they are of everything," and M.


de Lesseps will have increased the debt which the
friends of progress and of civilisation owe to him if,
by writing the history of his great work in Egypt, he
shall have inculcated npon some of us the danger of
speaking too dogmatically upon subjects of which our
knowledge is necessarily imperfect, and in most cases
second or even third-hand.

C. B. Pitman.

October, 1887.





WHEN the Austrian army was hanging upon the
frontiers of Piedmont, the French National
Assembly, using its right of initiative, called upon
the Ministry to assume a resolute attitude, and autho-
rised it, should such a step be deemed in the best
interests of France, to occupy temporarily some part
of the Italian peninsula. A few days after this had
been voted, the news of the reverse sustained by the
Piedmontese army at Novara reached Paris. The
President of the Council laid before the Assembly,
upon the 16th of April, 1849, an estimate of £48,000
for the extraordinary expenses which the maintenance
of the expeditionary force for three months in the
Mediterranean would, it was estimated, entail. The
credit was voted, and a force was sent to occupy Civita
VOL. i. b


Veccliia under the command of General Oudinot, but
the Eoman Assembly and the Triumvirate declined
to receive what they regarded as a hostile force, and
ordered the commander at Civita Yecchia to resist to
the last extremity. Their order came too late, how-
ever, the French troops having already disembarked
and entered upon a joint occupation of the place with
the Italian troops. General Oudinot, finding that his
entry into Eome would meet with a determined resist-
ance, then decreed sterner measures at Civita Yecchia,
placing it in a state of siege and disarming the
garrison. The prefect of the town having protested
against these measures, was cast into prison, and
General Oudinot, being anxious to bring matters to
a. head, marched on Eome, before the walls of which
he arrived at the end of April. The result of the
combat on the 30th, in which the Eoman population
spontaneously took so active a part, is well known,
and I was able to see for myself that out of every ten
Italians whose wounds were being seen to in the
hospitals at least eight were natives of Eome. The
news of this combat created profound emotion in Paris.
The National Assembly, composed of nine hundred
members, was very indignant, and showed an inclina-
tion not only to upset the Ministry, but to put the
Prince President of the Eepublic upon his trial for
treason. The Committee appointed to report upon
the situation proposed a resolution calling upon the
Government "to take without delay such steps as


may be necessary to prevent the Italian expedition
from, being any longer kept from carrying out the aim
assigned to it." The Minister of Foreign Affairs (M.
Drouyn cle Lhuys) cast all the blame for what had
occurred upon General Oudinot, who, he asserted, had
received no instructions to attack the Roman Eepublic.
The resolution of the Committee was, however, carried
by a majority of 338 to 241, and though this was to a
great extent a vote of want of confidence, the Ministry
did not resign, but appointed a diplomatic agent, whose
mission M. Odilon Barrot, the President of the
Council, explained as follows at the sitting of the
Assembly on the 9 th of May : —

" I assure you that as long as I am in office French
arms shall never be used for the restoration of abuses.
It is with this feeling, in order to learn from trust-
worthy agents the real truth, and also in order to
convey to those concerned the faithful and precise
expression of the intentions of the Assembly and of
the Government in regard to the aim and object of
this expedition, that the Government has decided to
despatch a man who enjoys our full confidence, whom
we have put to the test in very trying circumstances,
and who has always served the cause of liberty and
humanity. M. de Lesseps, to give you his name, has
been sent, and we have specially instructed him to
place himself in immediate communication with the
Government and to keep us informed day by day of
whatever may happen. We have further im-

b 2


pressed upon him that he is to employ his utmost
influence so that our intervention may secure genuine
and real guarantees of liberty for the Soman

I should have said that the Minister of Foreign
Affairs had sent for me on the morning of the 8th,
after the day and night sitting of the Assembly, at
both of which I had been present, and had asked me
if I was disposed to undertake a very important
mission for which the Ministry, at the Cabinet Council
just held, had selected me.

I replied that, as I had been deemed worthy of so
high a mark of confidence, I felt it my duty frankly
to declare that if the Government had not, at the out-
set, been animated by an open and resolute policy, it
would have been much better not to have compromised
us by sending an expedition to Civita Yecchia. How-
ever, I added, the point now is to repair the mischief
done by the affair of April 30th and not to fall into
the same blunder again. I also said that I should be
ready to start in two hours if necessary, and I pro-
mised to leave no stone unturned to arrive at the aim
indicated in the vote of the previous day. M. Drouyn
do Lhuys congratulated me upon my readiness, and
added that the manner in which I expressed myself
went far to show that the Government had made a
judicious selection. While I was with him he sent
for the chief clerk of the political department, M. de
Yicl-Castel, and requested him to draw up instructions


which would leave me such, latitude and initiative
that my political action would not he hampered either
by the general entrusted with the military operations
or by orders which would clash with unforeseen events
that might have occurred since the 30th of April. He
also advised me to get several copies of the Moniteur
(then the French official journal, which contained the
reports of the debates in the Assembly) and hand over
one to General Oudinot as soon as I arrived, being of
opinion that it was upon the decision of the Chamber
that we should base our course of action.

The text of these instructions was as follows : —

" The events which have marked the first steps of the
French expedition sent to Civita Yecchia being calcu-
lated to complicate a question which at first seemed a
very simple one, the Government has come to the con-
clusion that it is advisable to appoint, in addition to
the military commander of the forces despatched to
Italy, a diplomatic agent, who, devoting himself ex-
clusively to the negotiations and relations to be
established with the Eoman authorities and inhabitants,
will be able to give these grave matters the close
attention and anxious care which they require. Your
tried zeal, your experience, and the conciliatory dis-
position which you have more than once displayed in
the course of your career, have induced the Govern-
ment to select you for this delicate mission. I have
explained to you the present state of the question


upon the solution of which you are about to enter.
The object which we have in view is at once to deliver
the States of the Church from the anarchy which pre-
vails in them, and to ensure that the re-establish-
ment of a regular power is not darkened, not to say
imperilled, in future by reactionary fury. Any step
which, in presence of the intervention exercised by
other Powers animated by less moderate views, will
give more scope to our special and direct influence,
will naturally make the object which I have pointed
out to you more easy of attainment. You will there-
fore concentrate all your efforts upon bringing about
such a result with as little delay as possible ; but in
the efforts which you will make towards this end,
there are two risks to be guarded against, as I will
point out to you. You must be careful to avoid
allowing the men at present invested with power in
the Eoman States to suppose that we regard them as
a regular Government, for that would give them a
moral force in which they are at present lacking. It
will be desirable, in the partial arrangements which
you may conclude with them, to avoid using any ex-
pression or making any stipulation which may be
likely to excite the susceptibilities of the Holy See or
of the Gaeta conference, which is only too ready to
assume that we are inclined to attach no value to the
authority and interests of the Court of Eome. Upon
the ground on which you will be standing, and with
the men with whom you will have to deal, the ques-


tion of form is almost as important as that of principle.
These are the only instructions which I can give yon,
for, in order to render them more precise and more
detailed, it would be necessary to have before me
information, not yet forthcoming, of what has hap-
pened in the Eoman States during the last few days.
Your upright and enlightened judgment will inspire
you according to circumstances. But in any case you
will confer with MM. d'Harcourt and de Eayneval
in reference to all matters which do not call for an
immediate solution. It will be superfluous for me to
engage you to maintain close and confidential rela-
tions with General Oudinot, this being absolutely
essential to the success of the enterprise which you
are called to work out in common.

" Drouyn de Lhuys."

M. Drouyn de Lhuys himself read me these in-
structions, and, dwelling at the first passage which
authorised me " to devote myself exclusively to the
negotiations and the relations to be established with
the Eoman authorities and inhabitants," he pointed
out to me that this left me a very large share of
authority independent of the general in command.
He dwelt also upon the final paragraph which left
me full latitude in presence of unforeseen difficulties
or incidents.

With regard to the passage relating to concerting
with MM. d'Harcourt and de Eayneval, I pointed


out that such a concert was impossible, as their
mission and mine had a quite different, not to say
contrary, principle. The answer was: " Simply send
them duplicates of your despatches."

I was still with him when a message from the
Prince President summoned me to the Elysee, where
I had already been in the morning ; and M. Drouyn
de Lhuys asked me to come and let him know what
passed between us.

The Prince told me that he had carefully considered
the object of my mission, and that one point, about
which he was afraid that he had not spoken to me,
gave him great concern. This was the attitude of
our troops in the event of an armed intervention of
the Austrians and Neapolitans, whose action must at
all costs be prevented from being brought into com-
mon with ours. He gave me, in connection with
this, a letter for General Oudinot, and asked to see
my instructions, which he thought rather ambiguous,
and not sufficiently explicit. He informed mo that
he intended sending to Eome General Yaillant, who
would be instructed to come to an understanding
with me, and who would replace General Oudinot
if the latter did not hit it off with us, or assume
command of the engineering operations if the siege
of Eome should be renewed. He added that I should
do well, if the opportunity occurred, to call attention
to the fact that in 1831 he had already taken part
against the Temporal Power when he was before


Eome in the company of his elder brother, who died
during the insurrection.

Upon returning to see M. Drotiyn de Lhuys, I was
careful not to confide this matter to him, nor did I
make any use of it while in Eome, so as not to
excite public feeling unnecessarily. But when I
repeated to him the Prince's observation about a
foreign intervention in the Eoman States, he asked
me how I interpreted the expression ; 'at all costs"
as applied to preventing anything like a common
action with the Austrians and Neapolitans. I told
him that it was for him to settle that with the Pre-
sident and write to me ; but that, until I heard further,
I should interpret it in the widest sense. M. Drouyn
de Lhuys's salon being then full of visitors, as it was
his regular reception-day, I took leave of him and
was soon travelling in a post-chaise to Toulon, where
telegraphic orders had been sent for a man-of-war to
be got ready for me, upon which M. Drouyn de Lhuys
had given leave for Signor Accursi, a friend of
Mazzini and Minister for Home Affairs of the Eoman
Eepublic, also to travel. M. Drouyn de Lhuys had
suggested that Signor Accursi should accompany
me to Toulon ; but I pointed out that this might be

Before embarking I received two despatches from
the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for MM. d'llarcourt
and de Eayneval and for myself, which I give in
their entirety.


" The Minister of Foreign Affairs to MM. de Rayneval

and d' 'Ilarconrt.

"Paris, May 9, 1849.

" What pains us even more deeply than the mis-
trust which is still shown us at Gaeta, but which
time will eventually dissipate, is the nature of the
influences which evidently prevail in the councils
of the Holy See. The nearer we seem to the denoue-
ment, the more clearly come out dangerous propen-
sities which are for the moment disguised beneath
more or less specious pretexts. In order to avoid
making any set declaration as to the intentions of
the Holy Father, his advisers say how inconvenient
it would be for them to have his hands tied. There
might be something in this objection if it were
necessary to settle in detail the basis of a fresh
regime; but when all we ask is what course it is
intended to follow, once the authority of the Holy
See is re-established, it is hard to understand why
the Holy See should wrap itself in impenetrable
silence, unless there is a hidden resolve to return
simply to all the abuses of the ancient regime.

"We are told that there are certain reactionary
tendencies among the populations which must be
treated tenderly, and of which we have not taken
sufficient account. If these tendencies had the great
force which is attributed to them, would it not be
advisable to assume without delay an attitude which
would at some future time place the Holy See in a


position to combat them ? Is it supposed, moreover,
that there is no need to reassure that numerous por-
tion of the Eoman population which, while detesting
the rule of anarchy, dreads almost as much the
return of one who has left so melancholy a mark
upon the reign of Gregory XYI. ; of a regime which
at the death of that Pontiff had rendered a change
of that system absolutely necessary, and which, by
provoking a vigorous reaction, has done far more to
bring about the misfortunes of these recent times
than the hurried introduction of certain reforms

Online LibraryFerdinand de LessepsRecollections of forty years → online text (page 1 of 38)