Ferdinand de Lesseps was born on 19 November 1805 into a family of French career-diplomats. He went into the same profession, and during his early career was posted to Tunisia and Egypt. In Egypt, he became friends with Said Pasha, son of the viceroy. De Lesseps became fascinated with the cultures of the Mediterranean and Middle East and the growth of western European trade. After postings to Spain and Italy, in 1849 he retired after a disagreement with the French government. In 1854, his friend Said Pasha became the new viceroy of Egypt. De Lesseps immediately returned to Egypt, where he was given a warm welcome and, soon afterwards, permission to begin work on the Suez Canal. De Lesseps had been inspired by reading about Napoleon's abandoned plans for a canal that would allow large ships wishing to sail to the east to go directly from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea, thereby cutting out the long sea journey around Africa.
De Lesseps' scheme was backed by an international commission of engineers, but failed to win the support of the British government, despite de Lesseps making a number of trips to London. He persevered and eventually attracted financial backing from the French emperor Napoleon III and others. De Lesseps was no engineer - his achievement lay in organising the necessary political and financial backing, and providing the technical support necessary for such a huge project. Construction began in April 1859, and the Suez Canal was opened in November 1869. British attitudes changed when the canal was seen to be a success and de Lesseps was treated as a great celebrity on his subsequent visit to Britain. In 1875, the Egyptian government sold its shares in the canal and the British prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli, bought effective control of the Canal Company.
In his 74th year, de Lesseps began to plan a new canal in Panama. In 1879, an international congress was held in Paris, which chose the route for the Panama Canal and appointed de Lesseps as leader of the undertaking. Work began in 1881, but the canal proved much more complicated to build than the Suez Canal. After eight years, little progress appeared to have been made (it was eventually finished in 1914). A French court found de Lesseps and his son Charles guilty of mismanagement. Both were heavily fined and sentenced to imprisonment. In the event, de Lesseps did not go to jail, but his son paid for his elderly father's misjudgements with a year in prison. De Lesseps died on 7 December 1894.