Vicomte Ferdinand Marie de Lesseps was born on November 19, 1805. He was the developer of the Suez canal that joined the Mediterranean and Red Seas. A diplomat and the son of a diplomat, he tackled the Suez project after his retirement from public life. It was no light undertaking: the engineering obstacles included the silting-up of the harbor with mud and the filling of the construction trenches with sand due to the nearby desert; the diplomatic obstacles included opposition from Britain, who feared that the canal would upset the balance of power in the region.
De Lesseps, however, was indomitable. He even persuaded ordinary French citizens to buy half of the shares needed to build the project; the rest of the money was provided by the Egyptian government. The project took ten years and opened on November 17, 1869, just two days before de Lesseps 64th birthday. He tried, unsuccessfully, to repeat his feat with the Panama Canal. This attempt ended in disaster and scandal with de Lesseps accused of financial misconduct and no canal. The Americans eventually finished this project.
In 1884, de Lesseps was chosen to present the Statue of Libertyto the United States on behalf of France. He was made a member of the Académie Française. He died at the great age of 89 on December 7, 1894 and is buried at the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris.
Today’s expression, faire quelque chose contre vents et marées (fair kelkuh shows contruh vahn ay maray) literally means “to do something against winds and tides.” We’d say to stick with a project “against all odds” or “come hell and high water.” That’s what de Lessups did in the Suez. It makes me wonder if that’s what went wrong with the Panama project.