The first Blow of the Pickaxe.
Extract from Monde Illustré, n°111, mai 1859

The beginning of the construction work on the canal through the Suez isthmus

A pickaxe has just been swung in Africa, and the sound of it hitting the ground (hidden at the time by a cannon blast) will resound the world over. This blow inaugurated the construction of one of the greatest works of civil engineering of the 19th century and of which M. de Lesseps has been the prime mover, in other words, the digging of the Suez Canal.

The first blow of the pickaxe
(Le Monde illustré)
And from this act - one of the boldest plans ever conceived by humankind - there are to be many advantages. Not least the fact that ships will be spared the long and perilous voyages through the treacherous Southern seas to the Pacific ocean or the Indian Ocean. Now Japan, China, the great Asian archipelago, Australia and India are all attached to Europe by a direct line.

What limits can now be set to man’s power? Water and fire have given him boundless capabilities. Mankind’s thought flies to the ground faster than lightning, where it outstrips the winds in speed. Distance is no more. Great chasms have been dug into the flanks of the earth, water has flowed in, bringing with it fruitfulness. The desert is no more. No more do the ages hold secrets for mankind. Man has penetrated the granite and limestone which was laid down centuries before man every wlked the planet.

Man here disposes of the mass of the earth as if he were the owner, changing his house to suit his interests, his ease, his taste. Isthmuses are cut, seas are joined and continents separated rather in the way that fences are moved or walls are knocked down.

It was on 25 April that the ceremony reproduced in our engraving took place. M. de Lesseps work left the world of speculation and theory to become reality. The commission from the Compagnie universelle du canal de Suez, with M. de Lesseps as its president, camped for five days between Lake Menzaleh and the Mediterranean, on the tip of a beach where the maritime canal is to enter the isthmus. The marking posts placed in the sand on this side of the desert where Port-Saïd will have its jetties and its harbours show where the work will begin.

The Company commission ­ Mssrs Mongel-bey, chief engineer for Egyptian bridges and roads, director of the work, De Mountant and Laroche, engineers of bridges and roads, Larvasse, hydrographical engineer for the navy, Aubert chief doctor, Hardon, site manager and 150 other employees ­ arrived at 7 o’clock in the morning. The local fellahs were already there.

After having unfurled an Egyptian flag over the site, M. de Lesseps took the pickaxe handed to him by the site manager and addressed those assembled as follows:

    «In the name of the Compagnie universelle du canal de Suez and by virtue of the decisions taken by that company´s board of directors, I shall strike the first blow opening the East up to the commerce and the civilisation of the West. We are all here today with the same feeling of dedication to the interests of the Company and those of its august creator and benefactor, the Prince Mohammed-Said.»
    The exploration which we have just undertaken gives the certainty that the enterprise which we are beginning here today will not only be a work of progress but will also bring great profit to those who build it.»

And amidst scenes of great jubilation, M. de Lesseps, then the members of the commission and the engineers, began to dig the trench for the canal.

    «Each of you» said M. de Lesseps later to the Egyptian workmen grouped around him, «will give your first blow, just as we have just done. Remember that you are not mere shifting earth, you are bringing prosperity to both your families and to this beautiful land!»
    Honour to Effendi Mohammed-Said Pasha! Long life to him!»

The digging of the Suez Canal had begun.

It was this imposing scene which our engraving reproduces in its grandeur and its simplicity.

There in the desert, human civilisation has begun one of its most remarkable miracles ­ the nomads of these sandy wastes, with their tales of oases and tents, seem to themselves to be present at the fulfillment of the dreams. The arab tribes of this part of the desert ­ shown in our engraving crouching down in wonder on the platform of the Alexandria station in Suez to see the iron horses thunder through ­ seem to be no less in enthusiatic about the announcement of the changes which the canal will bring about.

    «As the old men often say The spirit of Allah, which left into the West, has returned.»


Fulgence Gigard.