The Good Side And The Bad Side Of A Statue At Port Said

Statue of Ferdinand de Lesseps in a garden at Port Said Shipyard
Statue of Ferdinand de Lesseps in a garden at Port Said Shipyard

As you’ve probably already guessed, I am quite fond of old stuff. Especially when it has some relation to dredging. Last post on Omar’s graduation1 not only brought back my memories on the interesting lectures by professor de Koning2, it also rekindled my inspiration to write about something that I have up my sleeve for a long time already. Although, due to the current global turmoil3, the message that I want to convey has been drastically altered. It turns out to be more of an opinion than an informative perspective on the history of the Suez Canal.

It was in the early years of my career, that I was building dredge ‘10th of Ramadan’ for the Suez Canal Authority4. We designed the dredge and prepared the components at Damen Dredging Equipment5, but the actual construction took place at Port Said Shipyard6, a subsidiary of the client. I’ve spent many hours roaming over the yard to locate components that were sent there and we needed them to inspect or install. On one of those excursions, I encountered the statue of Ferdinand de Lesseps.

Ferdinand De Lesseps was an interesting figure7, who owed his success to being the right person at the right time at the right place. In his earlier career, during a quarantine period in 1832 in Alexandria, he received a book that discussed Napoleons ideas about connecting the Mediterranean with the Red Sea8. Captivated by this idea, he was able to use his connections and positions to get the concession to dig the canal as we know it in 1859. In honour of this achievement a impressive statue was placed at the beginning of the Canal at the Port Said side after the opening in 1869.

As it happened in those days, the Compagnie Universelle du Canal Maritime de Suez, claimed the canal and all involved land and business for the French government. All revenue from the Canal ended up in France and not in the country that had worked so hard for the Canal. This has been a great disappointment for Egypt. When Nasser declared the Suez Canal a national property in 1956, the statue was removed as a gesture that Egypt was independent and no European country had any business ruling it as a colony. In a careful act of historical awareness, the statue was not destroyed, but placed at the Port Side Shipyard to be taken care of until the future would find an appropriate purpose. There it is kept in honour by a select group of craftsmen, who depend for their subsistence on his legacy.

Statue of Ferdinand de Lesseps at the entrance of the Suez Canal (Credit: Google)
Statue of Ferdinand de Lesseps at the entrance of the Suez Canal (Credit: Google)

In 1956 it was not so much vandalism by the people that the statue was removed from public space.7 It was a statement by a public conscious government with history awareness that prevented further harm from mindless destruction. Now, over half a century later, we see more acts of iconoclasm to historical statues, and then in a so called civilized world… A lot of historical figures were children of their own time. And for sure, those times were not very civilized in hindsight. OK, I am history aware and enjoyed my history lessons. There I had to learn that the raids of the barbarians on Rome, the Crusades to occupied Jerusalem and the iconoclasm in our own Reformation era were to be condemned. So, imagine when a lot of historical figures were removed from the street by emotional destruction, would later generations not condemn us in turn? What I would find even worse, is that future generations would not be aware of the dark side of those old ages as there are no statues to remind them to it. Maybe we can reintroduce a penalty for those ‘heroes’ from their own days: ‘the pillory’9. Just as with all sentences, the penalty can only awarded by the government, or an appointed committee, not the public. If that fails, store them under the custody of people who take good care of them without reverence. And at least let the pedestal remain to remind people of their history. ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’ (George Santayana)10

Possible implementation of a statue with a pillory sign?
Possible implementation of a statue with a pillory sign?

References

  1. Graduation Omar Karam: Rock Cutting The Egyptian Way, Discover Dredging
  2. Boundary Conditions for the use of Dredging Equipment, Lecture notes i82 A+B, prof. J. de Koning
  3. Violence and controversies during the George Floyd protests, Wikipedia
  4. The Ancient History of the Cutter Suction Dredge ‘10th of Ramadan’, Discover Dredging
  5. DTC – Think Global, Act Local, Damen Shipyards
  6. Port Sid Shipyard, Suez Canal authority
  7. Ferdinand de Lesseps, Wikipedia
  8. Mémoire sur la communication de la mer des Indes à la Méditerranée par la mer Rouge et l’isthme de Soueys (p.352), Google
  9. Pillory, Wikipedia
  10. George Santayana, Wikiquote

See also