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In 1854 and 1856 Ferdinand de Lesseps obtained a concession from Sa'id Pasha, the Khedive of Egypt and Sudan, to create a company to construct a canal open to ships of all nations. The company was to operate the canal for 99 years from its opening. De Lesseps had used his friendly relationship with Sa'id, which he had developed while he was a French diplomat in the 1830s.
As stipulated in the concessions, de Lesseps convened the International Commission for the piercing of the isthmus of Suez consisting of 13 experts from seven countries, among them John Robinson McClean, to examine the plans developed by Linant de Bellefonds, and to advise on the feasibility of and the best route for the canal.
After surveys and analyses in Egypt and discussions in Paris on various aspects of the canal, the commission produced a unanimous report in December 1856 containing a detailed description of the canal complete with plans and profiles.
The Suez Canal Company came into being on 15 December 1858 and work started on the shore of the future Port Said on 25 April 1859.
The excavation took some 10 years using forced labour of Egyptian workers. Some sources estimate that over 30,000 people were working on the canal at any given period, that more than 1.5 million people from various countries were employed, and that thousands of labourers died.
The canal opened under French control on 17 November 1869. Although numerous technical, political, and financial problems had been overcome, the final cost was more than double the original estimate.
After the opening, the Suez Canal Company was in financial difficulties. The remaining works were completed only in 1871, and traffic was below expectations in the first two years.