Ferdinand de Lesseps is known to history as the man who pushed through the construction of the Suez Canal in the 1860s. Later (from 1880 onward) he led an attempt to dig a canal through Panama, but the project failed due to technical problems and the deaths of workers from malaria and other tropical maladies.

Something not generally known about Lesseps’ career is his involvement in a French scheme to dig a canal across the Isthmus of Kra in southern Thailand (then Siam,) roughly concurrently with the digging in Panama. The British were generally opposed to the French leading such a project, not least because it would have impinged on their sphere of influence on the Malay peninsula, and King Chulalongkorn tended to follow British guidance in such matters. However, the idea had other influential backers in the Siamese government.

Here is what Bas Terwiel’s ‘Thailand’s Political History’ (pp. 192-3) has to say about the involvement of de Lesseps:

In June 1882 the pressure upon the Siamese government was intensified by the arrival of Francois Deloncle, employed by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who offered the Siamese the services of the famous Ferdinand de Lesseps. Eventually the Siamese government decided to allow the French to make a survey of the terrain where the canal was planned. To prevent international rivalry, the project was handled by the international Suez Canal Company, and the British government agreed not to offer opposition to the concession so long as British subjects and British vessels would enjoy the same rights as those granted to any other nation. The survey began in January 1883, but its findings were of such a nature that they effectively put an end to the French proposal.

Two questions:

  1. How close did the French actually come to succeeding at getting the project underway? It seems to me that if de Lesseps hadn’t already had his hands full in Panama, his influence and ability to find funding might have made it a reality. As it is, he doesn’t seem to have actually visited Siam (although in 1884 he did receive a decoration from the king.) Any information about how realistic the idea of involving de Lesseps was would be useful here.

  2. There were no hills to surmount in the digging of the Suez Canal, so de Lesseps could build it without locks. This was a major cause of the failure of the Panama canal project, as landslides resulted when they tried to dig through the hills to create a canal at sea level. While the Kra Isthmus dig would have been shorter (44 km vs 77 km for the current Panama Canal,) the hills there are slightly higher. Malaria might also have been a problem, had the project gone ahead. So, did the concurrent project in Panama (which it seems was only shut down in the late 1880s) influence the technical survey undertaken by the French? When did it become clear that the methods used to dig the Suez Canal were not applicable in areas with a change in elevation?

  • 1
    If they never even got started, the answer must be "not very close"
    – Oldcat
    Commented Aug 28, 2014 at 1:41

1 Answer 1


tl; dr

How close did the French actually come to succeeding at getting the project underway?

The project never came close to getting underway. The route chosen for the survey proved to be unsuitable for a number of reasons, and this, together with British political objections, ensured that France would never be awarded a concession to build the canal.

So, did the concurrent project in Panama ... influence the technical survey undertaken by the French?

It seems not. The main issues seems to have been the nature of the geology, the problems involved in disposing of the 84 million cubic yards of rock that would need to be excavated, and the natural silting observed in the bays where the proposed canal would terminate.

When did it become clear that the methods used to dig the Suez Canal were not applicable in areas with a change in elevation?

Reading the report by Captain A.J. Loftus (see below), it is apparent that the survey team were aware of the fact that the methods used in the construction of the Suez Canal would not be appropriate from the very start.

The French Government Survey

The French Government Survey was led by Lieutenant Paul Bellion, and ran from January to April 1883. We have a record of that survey in Notes of a Journey Across The Isthmus of Kra, made with the French Government Survey Expedition by Captain A.J. Loftus.

Abandoning the Project

We know that by the end of 1883 the scheme had been abandoned. Will Newman, the British Acting Consul-General wrote to the Foreign Secretary, Earl Granville, stating the French Kra Canal Scheme had been entirely abandoned (Clarence Ngui Yew Kit: Kra Canal (1824-1910): The Elusive Dream, 2012).

"... Kergaradec said the route, which has been surveyed by Captain Bellion is believed to be even more impractical than the route suggested by De Loncle. In February 1884, the probable cost of the French Kra Canal is estimated at not less than 500 million francs, and that the scheme has been abandoned. As an act of courtesy, the report of the Kra Canal survey was still presented to Chulalongkorn despite the French abandoning the scheme (CO 273/131/5504 Foreign Office to Under Secretary of Colonial Office, 2 April, 1884)"

In fact, it seems that the idea of a French canal being constructed across the Isthmus of Kra was effectively killed off even earlier:

"While the earlier French attempts failed, the French did not give up their dream of getting a Kra Canal concession. According to dispatch by the Earl of Rosebery to Captain Jones, dated 19 August 1893, a local media reported the French Envoy in Bangkok, Myre de Villers applied to the Siamese Government for a concession to construct a ship canal across the Kra Peninsula. However, the likelihood of such a concession seems unlikely as Chulalongkorn positively declined the matter in 1886. Instead, Roseberry told Captain Jones to verbally inform Chulalongkorn on the objections of the British Government in the Malay Peninsula on the Kra Canal project (FO 422/36/186 No. 307 The Earl of Roseberry to Captain Jones, 19 August 1893)."

  • ibid.

So it appears that the unsuitability of the route surveyed by the French government (Captain Loftus' report makes for interesting reading in this regard), combined with the political objections raised by the British, meant that the project never actually started. France was never awarded a concession to build the canal.

There was an attempt to revive the project in 1886 when Francois Deloncle, claiming to be acting on behalf of De Lesseps, approached the Siamese Government but:

"Apparently, the Siamese Government was offended by Deloncle’s threatening tone, and not long later, Deloncle finally abandoned his Kra Canal project and sold his surveys and exploration rights to W.H. Read a Singapore businessman."

  • ibid.

Cited Sources in the UK National Archives

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