— Ferdinand de Lesseps was not a mall of great intellectual calibre. He originated no new idea ; he was not even an engineer ; he was simply a promoter, though a promoter of the first order, and his services as such terminated in 1869 with the opening of the Suez Canal. All that he did afterwards either might have been done by anybody else, or should not have been done at all. Nevertheless he was a remarkable man, and as an eye-witness of the rise and fall of the Panama Canal Company I shall not soon forget that thick-set, corpulent figure, the piercing eye and ample forehead redeeming a flabby face, those snowy locks, that confident tone, that persuasive voice. In a crowd you would have singled him out, and have asked who he was. I was present, in 1879, at the so-called Congress of Engineers and Geographers, — a transparent farce got up to ratify a foregone conclusion, — at which the Panama scheme was launched ; as also at the successive meetings of the company till its collapse in 18S8.
Death, especially when preceded by three years of senility and by a conviction for fraud without possibility of self-defense, almost disarms criticism, yet psychology cannot afford to overlook a man memorable for a splendid success and a monster failure. It is, moreover, but fair to the French to testify that they did not follow Lesseps with the infatuation excited one hundred and sixty years earlier by Law in Paris, and by the South Sea Company in London. No, the scheme dragged from the very outset, all the more so as this time there was no Anglophobe stimulus, and as America simply adopted a cold neutrality. The first subscription fell through, for Lesseps, presumingtoo much on the halo of Suez, had offered no bonuses to financiers or journalists. On a second attempt, liberally subsidizing both, the subscription was not much more than covered, though the prospectus led people to think that the work was actually contracted for at 812.5,000,000, a figure arbitrarily adopted by Lesseps as beinga trifle over the Suez outlay of 8120,000,000, albeit even at the Congress the Panama advocates had estimated the cost at 6200,000.000. He emphatically declared that the canal would be easier to make and keep up than Suez, and he talked glibly of “ disemboweling the Cordilleras up to their summits ” as cheaper and better than tunneling through them. When 860,000,000 had been subscribed, he started for the isthmus, which as yet he had never seen ; and he returned with glowing reports of the geniality of a climate which had permitted him to camp out for weeks, while the Paris newspapers went into (well-paid-for) raptures on the juvenility of the wonderful septuagenarian.
The work then commenced, and the climate speedily vindicated its old reputation by levying blackmail on European lives ; as for the mortality among the navvies, it passed unnoticed. The $60,000,000 was soon exhausted, for an eighth of it had gone in preliminary expenses, — that is to say, in bonuses to promoters, sanctioned by the shareholders at their first meeting without explanation or objection ; and the shares, according to a common French practice, bore interest from date of issue, without waiting for the completion of the canal. A loan of $60,000,000, which should have sufficed for that completion, was likewise absorbed, and loan followed loan at steadily increasing rates of interest ; but the estimate of traffic increased as regularly as the outlay, and the shareholders were assured that as both had been alike underrated, their prospects were unaffected. But in spite of enormous commissions to bankers and lavish payments to journalists, a profound secret at the time, the French public were becoming distrustful, and lottery prizes were used to bait the fish-hook. Yet Lesseps, to all appearance, was as confident as ever. He paid two more visits to the isthmus, on the first of which he was deluded, as has since been divulged, by a spurt of activity, while on the second he succeeded in satisfying foreign delegates as well as himself that great progress had been made. He protested that the canal would be finished by 1889, and he even threatened to prosecute those who, on the faith of American newspapers, asserted that the work had scarcely been more than begun. Little could now be done in Paris — but this was not known at the time — beyond giving hush-money to unscrupulous financiers, and gambling by the company in its own shares to keep up quotations ; but the provinces were almost stormed into taking the debentures. This was the period at which Lesseps went the round of the large towns, accompanied by one of his youngest children, whom he installed on the platform, and to whom he pointed as he appealed to the audience whether he was likely to put his investments for his large family into a rotten concern. This hit never failed to draw down the house. Once, at least, moreover, a telegram from Paris reached him at the very close of the meeting, to announce that the loan had been already covered, whereupon there was a rush of subscribers who discerned a chance of selling out immediately at a premium. Next morning they discovered that they had misunderstood the telegram, and that the subscription lagged. In Paris, too, Lesseps would be waited upon by an interviewer. After discussing things in general he would press a button, and his secretary would appear. “ Have I any engagement to-night ? ” “ Yes, you have to start for Bordeaux, for a meeting there tomorrow.” “ Then telephone to my wife to have dinner punctually at seven, that I may catch the train at nine.” The chat was then resumed. Presently Lesseps would pull out his watch. “Excuse my breaking off the conversation, but I am due at the Academy of Sciences at four o’clock to hear a long paper by M. Bertrand.” The interviewer — whether he was in the secret or not who shall say ? — went back to his office and wrote a glowing account of an octogenarian (for Lesseps was eighty in 1885) who, just before starting on an allnight journey, spent a couple of hours at the Academy, as a sandwich between a day’s desk-work and dinner, who after a night in the cars was to address a great meeting, and who was to spend a second night on the railroad in returning to Paris. This also was the period when a young American in Paris would be offered $500 a year if he would merely promise to sing some doggerel verses in praise of Panama at social gatherings of American residents, and when another American would be offered double that sum to write up Panama in transatlantic journals. Lesseps had not the active support of the French government, as in the case of Suez, when the Empress Eugénie showed herself a true cousin by her stanch support ; but though two cabinet ministers — one of them died before the exposure, the other is now expiating his offense — demanded bribes for their consent to lottery loans, he was sent to Berlin in 1887, to invest the French ambassador with the Legion of Honor, and was thus enabled, almost indeed invited, to attempt a Panama propaganda in Germany.
As the its volume of debt increased, the interest ate up nearly all that was left by bribery and puffing, and a lottery loan, even baited by bimonthly prizes of $100,000,000 in lieu of interest, was only half taken up, albeit the drawings were guaranteed by an investment in French rentes, which left but a small margin for the canal and its vampires. When that margin was absorbed and when a fresh loan failed, bankruptcy became inevitable. Yet to the last Lesseps had had it all his own way at the annual meetings, though, outside, sandwichmen distributed violent pamphlets, and sometimes got to fisticuffs with faithful and indignant shareholders. The crushing articles of M. Paul Leroy-Beaulieu, though of unimpeachable sincerity, also passed unheeded. Lesseps had at the last gasp accepted the system of locks, though originally he had admitted that if there were to be locks Nicaragua was better than Panama. Even when the crash came, he was so blind to the hopelessness of the situation that he applied to Parliament for a three months’ postponement of payments. But Parliament, seeing the true state of affairs, declined to intervene, and the firmness of the United states government precluded the French republic from throwing good money after bad by taking over the canal. For several years the aggrieved investors, whose $400,000,000 had disappeared, cherished the hope of a revival of the enterprise. At last a handful of them demanded a prosecution. I need not dwell on the disclosures which ensued, or the suicide of an alleged blackmailer, or the flight of others, the details of how money had been squandered on venal statesmen, fraudulent contractors, and insatiable journalists ; on the imprisonment of Lesseps’s son for “ lobbying ; ” on the collapse of the main charge through lapse of time. Of all or nearly all this Lesseps was happily unconscious.
He certainly intended to complete the canal. How far and how long he was himself deceived, or how far his Oriental experience led him to make misstatements, on the theory of the end justifying the means, no outsider can tell. Fluent talkers often end by being their own dupes. Lesseps’s success, moreover, at Suez, after so many difficulties, had evidently made him confident that at Panama he should “ pull through Somehow,” and his vanity had been adroitly exploited by men who enticed him into a scheme in which, having pocketed their commission, they did not themselves embark. It is sad to think of the genial old man being waylaid by humble shareholders whose provision for old age had disappeared, and who reproached him with his reiterated exhortations to stick to their shares ; sadder still to think of the loss of his mental faculties, perhaps occasioned or hastened by the mortification of having brought about the greatest financial fiasco of the century. It is pleasanter to think of him as president of the Geographical Society, as Academician, as driving in the Bois de Boulogne with his young wife and eleven children, or galloping on horseback down the avenue, a tribe of daughters, with hair streaming in the wind, in his train. This was one of the picturesque sights of Paris. Alas that it should have been followed by failure and ignominy !