The archive’s contents are as follows (5 pieces):
1. Jules GIRETTE (Alexandria) to Albert ROSTAND (Marseille), December 18, 1854. Manuscript letter, 4 pp. quarto on ‘Services Maritimes des Messageries Nationales Paquebots Poste Français / Agence de Alexandrie’ letterhead, signed (Very Good, old folds, light stains, a couple small old reapairs).
This fascinating, gossipy letter is one of the first detailed pieces of correspondence written from Egypt to Europe that breaks the news of Sa’id Pasha’s formal approval of Ferdinand de Lesseps’s proposal to build the Suez Canal, a message communicated between two major stakeholders in the canal project. It features a wealth of fascinating ‘insider’s information’, some of it sourced from Lesseps himself.
The author of the letter, Jules Girette (d. 1895) was then the Managing Director of the Alexandria office of the ‘Services Maritimes des Messageries Nationales Paquebots Poste Français’ (founded in 1851), a large private mail and package delivery company, and eventually one of the greatest beneficiaries of the Suez Canal. Girette spent virtually his entire career working for the Services, and rose to become its president in 1893.
The recipient, Albert Rostand (1818-91) was a prominent Marseille banker and one of the founders of the Services Maritimes. During the time of this letter he served as the Managing Director of the Services Maritimes’ head office in Marseille.
This valuable letter, rich in content, starts out with Girrette mentioning that he had met Lesseps only few days before in Cairo. From him he gained some fascinating insights into the announcement of the approval of the Suez Canal. He the goes to give a detailed account of how the news was received by the various Western consul generals, during a meeting they convened in Cairo. At the event the news that Said Pasha had approved Lesseps’s canal bid was announced. The great majority of the diplomats expressed unreserved enthusiasm and support for the project, and Lesseps was said to be holding court in Cairo like “true prince” in mansion full of servants, admired by all.
The only exception to the euphoria was the response of the British delegation, which seemed jealous and bitter that the French had beat them to the punch to control the world’s greatest geopolitical mega-project. The letter reveals that one of the main reasons why Britain lost the canal race to France was that Sa’id Pasha “detested” Charles Murray, the British Consul General. On other hand he was a great friend of Gabriel Raymond Sabatier, the French consul.
Girette then goes on to discuss how Sa’id Pasha was well disposed towards the Services Maritimes company and was enthusiastic about building new communications routes into the interior that would aid commerce. He continues by giving details on Lesseps’s plan to build the Canal; it was proposed to take 6 years to complete, would cost 2 million Francs, and would be designed by Linant de Bellefonds. Money would be raised from named bankers in European capitals.
Girette notes that he is including copies of Lesseps’s proposal to build the canal, as well as a copy of Said Pasha’s response approving the canal project (See 2 and 3 following).
2. Ferdinand de LESSEPS. “A son Altesse Mohamed-Said.” Letter from Lesseps addressed to Mohamed Sa’id Pasha, Camp de Maréa (near Alexandria, Egypt), November 15, 1854. Manuscript, 6 pp. quarto, marked “Copie”.
This is a contemporary copy of Lesseps’s ground-breaking letter to the Egyptian Viceroy Mohamed Sa’id Pasha requesting the right to be given the concession to build the Suez Canal. The letter is
rich in content, including technical specifications on the project. It was enclosed in the above letter from Girette to Rostand.
For full text of letter, please see link:
3. MOHAMED SA’ID Pasha. “Traduction de Firman.” Manuscript, 4 pp. quarto, marked “Copie”, stamped and dated December 15, 1854.
This is a contemporary manuscript copy of the translation (into French from the original Arabic) of the Egyptian Viceroy Mohamed Sa’id Pasha’s reply to Ferdinand de Lesseps’ above proposal, hereby official granting the Lesseps enterprise the right to build the Suez Canal. It was likewise enclosed in the above letter from Girette to Rostand.
4. Ferdinand de LESSEPS (La Chenaie, France) “Monsieur Le Maire”, September 14, 1854. Manuscript letter, 3 pp. octavo, signed (Very Good, old horizontal centrefold, small abrasion in lower-left corner).
This is a manuscript letter written and signed by Ferdinand de Lesseps, from his country home in La Chenaie, France, addressed to an unidentified recipient referred to only as Monsieur Le Maire” (The Mayor). It concerns some of the latest correspondence received by Lesseps.
5. Charles Aimé de LESSEPS (on behalf of Ferdinand de Lesseps) to Monsieur Farinand (Lille), May 24, 1872. Manuscript letter, 1 p. quarto on ‘Compagnie Universelle du Canal Maritime de Suez’ letterhead, signed (Very Good, old folds).
This is a perfunctory letter written by Charles Aimé Marie de Lesseps (1840 – 1923), the son of Ferdinand de Lesseps, and a principal in his father’s firm, addressed to a Monsieur Farinand of Lille.
The Suez Canal: Nexus between East and West Building a canal across the Isthmus of Suez, connecting the Mediterranean (Atlantic / Western) World with the Indian Ocean (Eastern World) had been one of the great ambitions of the modern era. Since the 16th Century, trade with Asia had become one of Europe’s greatest sources of wealth; however, the rounding of Africa was a horrendous ordeal, 7,000 kilometres (4,300 mi) longer than a supposed shortcut through the Suez.
Curiously, the Ancient Egyptians and Persians had succeeded in building shallow canals connecting the Mediterranean with the Red Sea through the Suez Isthmus, but these channels had long silted up, and subsequent climate change (mainly desertification / weaker rainy seasons) had made the replication of similar canals impossible. While the Venetians considered building a canal across the Suez Isthmus in 16th Century and Napoleon Bonaparte seriously investigated creating a canal at the end of the 18th Century, neither of these ventures got off the ground, due to political and technical obstacles.
The notion of the building a Trans-Suez Canal was revived in the 1830s. However, Britain, the dominant foreign influence in Egypt (then an autonomous part of the Ottoman Empire) opposed the building of a canal. Whitehall feared that such a route would threaten its stranglehold over Indian maritime trade and was especially reticent to allow the construction of such a canal across foreign territory. Instead, Britain backed the construction of trans-Egyptian railway lines carrying interoceanic freight (lines that they could supposedly control, or shut down, if necessary). This position would later seem ironic, as the British Empire would be by far and away the greatest beneficiary of the Suez Canal.
From 1848, France contested Britain’s influence in Egypt, and Mohamed Sa’id Pasha (1822-63), who became the ruler of the country in 1854, greatly preferred the Gallic side. To Whitehall’s astonishment, that same year he granted a concession to build the Suez Canal to Ferdinand de Lesseps (1805-94), a charismatic impresario and diplomat who had served as a French consul in Egypt for many years. Lesseps proved to be a stellar organizer, and quickly corralled immense financial and technical resources, founding the Compagnie universelle du Canal Maritime de Suez.
The project broke ground in 1859, and for the first few years it relied upon corvée labour, with 30,000 workers toiling along the isthmus at only one time (amazingly over the decade of the canal’s construction over 1.5 million different people laboured on the project at various times!). The use of mass forced labour was highly controversial, even in Egypt, especially as thousands of workers died of diseases and accidents. The British, who still adamantly opposed the project, successfully fomented a workers’ rebellion that for a while placed the project in lethal jeopardy. However, Lesseps and his expert team persevered, finding the funds to pay workers, while their technical mastery of the project was on the avant-garde of engineering.
The canal was completed and officially opened for business on November 17, 1869. As shown on the map, it had a length of 164 km (102 miles) and was uniformly 8 metres (26 feet) deep, sufficient for the drafts of most vessels. Notably, the canal was to be open to the shipping of all nations, as an early example of an international condominium. While the project cost thousands of lives and was two times over budget, Lesseps’ achievement was globally hailed as total success, as many were awestruck by the reality of joining the two oceans.
The Suez Canal immediately had a transformative impact upon global trade, as shipping between Asia and Europe grew exponentially. European manufactured products became sufficiently cheap to flood the Asian markets, while less expensive Asian commodities swelled into Western markets.
There were also great political ramifications, as European powers were now able to quickly move troops to buttress their positions in their Eastern colonies.
In a broader sense, the Suez Canal was also the lynchpin of the global transportation revolution that occurred in 1869-1870. Prior to that time, circumnavigating the globe took the better part of a year – at best. However, in May 1869, the first transcontinental railway crossing North America, the Central Pacific Railroad, was completed, cutting travel time between San Francisco to New York to 8 days (instead of several weeks). The opening of the Suez Canal followed in November 1869. In March 1870, the first railway traversing the Indian Subcontinent opened, connecting Bombay to Calcutta (avoiding the long sea voyage around India). For the first time, travelling vast distances across continents could be accomplished with relative speed and comfort, with transformative economic, social and political implications. The new reality inspired Jules Verne to write his classic Around the World in Eighty Days (1873).
Ironically, Britain, who had adamantly opposed the creation of the Suez Canal turned out to be its greatest beneficiary. Almost immediately, British-Asian trading firms saw a huge spike in business, while Whitehall was able to tighten its control over India. Britain gained a minority interest in the canal in 1875, before assuming majority control in 1882 (when Egypt became a British protectorate).
The Canal continued to be British dominated until 1956, when Egyptian President Abdel Gamal Nasser famously seized the canal during the ‘Suez Crisis’. The Suez Canal has since been greatly enlarged such that it can now handle ‘Super Max’ tanker ships. In recent times, over 18,000 vessels traverse the canal annually, such that the Suez retains its place as one of the World’s great commercial arteries.