Memorandum by de Lesseps
Ferdinand de Lesseps, Opening of the Suez Isthmus. Report and official documents, Henri Plon, Paris, 1855.


    The linking of the Mediterranean and Red seas by a navigable canal is a project which, because of its usefulness, has caught the attention of all the great men who have ruled or passed through Egypt: Sesostris, Alexander, Caesar, the Arab conqueror Amru, Napoleon I and Mohammed-Ali.

    This canal, connected with the Nile, was in existence during Antiquity for an initial period of one hundred years until the middle of the ninth century before the Hegira, and for a second period of 445 years from the reign of Alexander's earliest successors until about the fourth century before the Hegira, and finally for a third period of 130 years following the Arab conquest.

    On his arrival in Egypt, Napoleon assigned a commission of engineers the task of investigating the possibility of reopening this ancient shipping route. He received an answer in the affirmative, and when the scholar M. Le Père submitted the commission's report to him as he was set to leave for France, he said, "This is no small matter, and it is not I who shall be able to accomplish it, however the Turkish government will perhaps one day win glory and a place in history by carrying out this project".

    The moment has come to fulfil Napoleon's prediction. The task of opening up the Suez isthmus is surely destined, more than any other, to contribute to the preservation of the Ottoman empire and to show those who not so long ago were announcing its decline and collapse that it is still leading a fruitful existence, and that it is still capable of writing an outstanding chapter in the history of the world's civilization.

    Why have the governments and peoples of the West joined forces to keep Constantinople in the hands of the Sultan, and how is it that he who sought to threaten this state of affairs was confronted by the armed opposition of Europe? Because the passage between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea is of such importance that the European power which became master of it would become master of all the rest, upsetting a balance which it is in the interests of the whole world to preserve.

    Whether one establishes a similar and even more important position in some other part of the Ottoman empire, or whether one makes Egypt into the world's trade route by opening up the Suez isthmus, an identical deadlock situation would arise, since, as far as the new passage is concerned, the great European powers would regard guaranteeing its neutrality as essential, out of fear of seeing one of their number seize it one day.

    Fifty years ago, M. Le Père requested 10,000 workers, a time allowance of four years and 30 to 40 million Francs to build the Suez Canal. He favoured the possibility of digging directly from the isthmus towards the Mediterranean.

    M. Paulin Talabot, one of the three renowned engineers selected ten years ago for the research company on the canal linking the two seas, opted for the indirect route from Alexandria to Suez, taking advantage of the dam to cross the Nile. He estimated the total cost at 130 million for the canal and 20 million for the port and roadstead at Suez.

    M. Linant-Bey, who has been competently running canal building projects in Egypt for the last thirty years, and who has devoted his life to the study on the ground of the question of a canal between the two seas, and whose opinion therefore merits serious consideration, proposed cutting an almost straight line through the isthmus across its narrowest part, and building a large inland harbour in the basin occupied by Lake Timsah. In this way the passage between Port Said and Suez, linking the Mediterranean and the Red Sea, would be made accessible to even the largest craft.

    General of the Engineers Gallice-Bey, creator and manager of the fortifications at Alexandria, for his part presented to Mohammed-Ali a project for digging a direct opening through the isthmus, in line with the plan drawn up by M. Linant-Bey. M. Mougel-Bey, director of the construction of the Nile dam and chief engineer of the civil engineering department, also discussed the possibility and potential benefits of opening up the Suez isthmus with Mohammed-Ali. In 1840, at the request of M. le comte de Walewski, on assignment in Egypt at the time, he was put in charge of taking preliminary steps; however, the subsequent serious turn of events meant that these were never followed up.

    A detailed examination will establish which of these plans is the most appropriate, but once the project has been declared viable, all that remains to be done is to make the choice. The various processes to be executed, however difficult they might be, hold no more fears for modern know-how. There is no longer any question whether or not they will be successfully completed; it is a question of funds, which the spirit of enterprise and partnership cannot fail to resolve, if the forseeable resulting profits are in keeping with the cost.

    It is easy to illustrate that the cost of the Suez Canal, taking the most expensive estimate, is not out of proportion with the usefulness and profitability of this major piece of work, which would cut the distance between the East Indies and the main countries of Europe and America by more than half. This result is illustrated in the following table, drawn up by Professor of Geology, M. Cordier.

(in leagues)

via the Suez Canal
via the Atlantic

Constantinople Lieues
Le Havre
Saint Petersburg
New York
New Orleans

    Such statistics render discussion useless; they reveal that every nation in Europe and even the United States of America share an equal interest in the opening of the Suez Canal, and also in maintaining the strict and inviolable neutrality of this passage.

    Said Pasha is already aware that there is no undertaking which could match that which I am proposing to him in magnitude and usefulness of its results. What a magnificent claim to fame for his reign! What an inexhausible source of wealth for Egypt! The names of the Egyptian rulers who built the pyramids, those useless monuments to human pride, have sunk into obscurity. The name of the prince who opened the great Suez shipping canal will be praised for centuries to come, for all posterity.

    The pilgrimage to Mecca ensured for all time and made easy for every Muslim; a huge impetus given to steam traffic and long-distance voyages; the countries on the shores of the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf, the east coast of Africa, India, the kingdom of Siam, Cochin-China, Japan, the vast empire of China with its no fewer than 300 million inhabitants, the Philippine islands, Australia and that vast archipelago which is increasingly becoming the destination of emigrants from Old Europe, all brought nearer to the Mediterranean basin and the north of Europe by almost 3,000 leagues - these are the immediate effects which will follow on from the opening of the Suez isthmus.

    Calculations show that shipping from Europe and America via the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Horn can involve an annual displacement of 6 million (metric) tonnes and that on only half this tonnage world trade would make a profit of 150 million Francs per year by sending its ships via the Arabian Gulf. Doubtless the Suez Canal would lead to a considerable increase in tonnage but, counting only 3 million tonnes, an additional annual income of 30 million Francs would be generated by levying a duty of 10 Francs per tonne, a tax which might be reduced in proportion to the increase in shipping.

    Having briefly indicated the financial advantages of the project, let us now turn to its general political advantages, which we believe to be equally indisputable.

    Everything which results in some degree of expansion for world trade, industry and shipping is of particular advantage to England, the power which cannot be rivalled by the rest for the importance of its navy, its manufacturing output and its trade relations.

    A deplorable prejudice, based on the political antagonism which has unfortunately existed for so long between France and England, is all that has been needed to substantiate the opinion that the opening of the Suez Canal, in the interests of civilization and the general good, might harm those of Great Britain. The alliance of the two peoples at the forefront of civilization, an alliance which has already demonstrated the feasibility of solutions regarded until now as impossible by primitive traditions, would make it possible, among many other benefits, to study this vast question of the Suez Canal with impartiality, to get a precise idea of its influence on nations' prosperity, and to present as heresy the belief that a project designed to reduce by half the distance between the west and the east of the globe should not be acceptable to Great Britain, ruler of Gibraltar, Malta, the Ionian islands, Aden, important settlements on the east coast of Africa, India, Singapore and Australia.

    England, as much as if not more so than France, has to be in favour of opening up this 30-league tongue of land which any man preoccupied with questions of civilization and progress cannot see on a map without feeling a violent desire to be rid of the only obstacle placed by Providence in the way of the world's main trade route.

    The railway from Alexandria to Suez is not enough in itself. It will only take on true significance and generate a steady income once it has become an auxiliary route to the Suez shipping canal. There is no question about the necessity of the railway line, which will be of great service to travellers and which England justifiably seeks to complete, but it will no longer be the financial responsibility of the Egyptian government.

    Germany will be equally appreciative of the efforts to open up the isthmus with a canal, as this will complement unhindered river transport along the Danube and the clearing of a passage through the Sulina delta.

    Advantages for Austria will include the increase in importance of Trieste and Venice, openings created for products from the Empire and the kingdom of Hungary, which will be more easily exported once the project for a canal linking the Danube and the Black Sea has been realised.

    The opening of the Suez Canal will more than satisfy Russian national ambitions towards the Orient. The tsar's inherited task of civilizing the numerous peoples over whom he arbitrates would be a challenge for the most high-minded ambitions. The new openings which will be created peaceably for Russian trade and expansion will be worth more to the country than a policy of conquest and exclusive rule which no nation can adopt successfully nowadays.

    The United States of America, whose relations with Indochina have strengthened enormously in the last few years, Spain with the Philippines, Holland with Java, Sumatra and Borneo, the cities which once flourished along the Italian coast, the ports of Greece, in short all nations will be eager to share in a project which will increase their wealth or generate new riches. I can assure His Highness Mohammed Said Pasha of the active and energetic cooperation towards the success of this project of enlightened men from every country.

Camp de Maréa (Libyan desert), 15 November 1854.