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The collapse of the Panama Canal scheme, on which Gauguin himself had worked as a labourer, was the worst financial scandal to hit France for centuries. Austria too was rocked by scandal, when the Crown Prince committed suicide with his lover. And in London, dock workers made history with a famous strike for wages of sixpence an hour.
For the Vicomte Ferdinand Marie de Lesseps promoter of the Suez Canal, diplomat, entrepreneur and a distinguished member of the French establishment 1889 was a disastrous year. His latest scheme, to build a sea-level canal across the Isthmus of Panama from the Atlantic to the Pacific, had collapsed around his ears. In February, the Panama Canal Company revealed debts of more than £60,000,000 and an official investigation exposed a vast scandal.
To keep the work going at all, it had been essential to find more money, and such was De Lesseps' reputation that thousands of small investor’s cab drivers, shop-keepers, and peasants had poured their savings into the venture. But the problems continued to grow. Despite the importance of the enterprise for French prestige, the government refused any financial support until December 1888, when an issue of lottery bonds was finally authorized. And when these proved undersubscribed, the company had no choice but to go bankrupt in February 1889. It was the greatest financial disaster in France for 200 years.
The government tried to hush up the scandal, but eventually De Lesseps and some of his associates were put on trial. The enquiry revealed that financial control of the company was exercised by two Jews with dubious reputations but high political connections. These revelations caused the government grave embarrassment and fuelled the flames of anti-serenities in France. De Lesseps was arrested, convicted of misappropriating funds, and sentenced to five years in jail. But in the event, his punishment was restricted to public humiliation as the verdict was later quashed.
The same year the doomed Habsburg Empire of Austria and Hungary was also rocked by scandal. Crown Prince Rudolph, heir to Emperor Franz Joseph, shot himself through the head with a revolver on 29 January at Mayerling, a shooting lodge in the wooded hills some 20 miles from Vienna. Next to his body was found that of 17-year-old Baroness Marie Vetsera, the niece of a rich Levantine banker and a ravishing 'oriental' beauty. It was a suicide pact. But what was the motive?
Rumours of a family conflict were rife throughout Europe. The Prince, though a dreamer, was known to be at odds with his father's policy of appeasing Russia, their powerful neighbor. Moreover, Rudolph's marriage to Stephanie, daughter of Leopold II of Belgium, was not a success. It had been arranged by the Emperor and Rudolph took refuge in drink, drugs and love affairs.
The Prince wrote farewell letters to his wife and mother, but not a word to his father. Their contents have never been revealed, but it seems that Rudolph was mentally unbalanced, seized by a romantic vision of death. 1-le probably felt himself to be a failure, unable to translate his vision into political action when he saw his father's character and policy leading the Empire to disaster.
But 1889 saw triumphs as well as tragedies. Gustave Eiffel, who designed the locks for the Panama Canal, had his greatest success on 31 March when he saw his 1,000 foot cast-iron tower inaugurated in Paris. The tower cost some £240,000 to build and weighed 7,000 tons. A spiral iron staircase of 1,600 steps ran up the centre of the tower, but most visitors found this too vertigo-inducing and preferred to take the lift, which took seven minutes to reach the summit.
The Eiffel Tower was to prove the principal attraction of the Paris International Exhibition opened by the President of the Republic, Sadi Carnot, on 6 May. The Exhibition ran until 6 November, displaying the industrial and commercial wealth of France, and attracted 2,500,000 visitors. But 1889 was also the centenary of the French Revolution and the spirit of rebellion was aroused. When the President left his official residence at the Elysee Palace to drive by carriage to the Palace of Versailles, a disaffected, anti-Republican storekeeper named M. Perrin fired a revolver at him. But the cartridges were blank and the President was able to proceed to Versailles unharmed.
In London, political events were less flamboyant, but their influence was longer-lasting. In August and September, Ben Tillet led the London Dockers in their famous strike to demand 'the docker's tanner' a wage of just 6d an hour. The docker’s leaders were skilful in stirring up popular opinion and £4,500 was raised by general subscription. By the end of the year, their union numbered 30,000 members: evidence of the now rapid growth of unionism among semi-skilled and unskilled workers.
Not far from the docks, in the East End streets around Whitechapel, 'Jack the Ripper' continued his grisly business. In July the body of a woman called Mackenzie was found brutally murdered and, at dawn on 10 September, a policeman found a mutilated female torso under a railway arch in Whitechapel. In December, the year ended in triumph for the explorer Henry Morton Stanley who finally reached Zanzibar. But for Charles Parnell, the hero of Irish nationalism, 1889 ended in despair. He was cited in divorce proceedings by Captain O'Shea, the husband of his mistress Katherine. In Catholic Ireland, the disgrace finished Parnell's career, and the campaign for Irish Home Rule lost its most valuable leader.
Writer – Marshall Cavendish