Saint-Malo's seafaring heritage

Saint-Malo's seafaring heritage

  • Published in Travel

Brittany's most popular holiday destination, the walled port city of Saint-Malo was once the haunt of privateers and early transatlantic explorers.

Saint Malo, the jewel of Brittany's Emerald CoastLocated in the north east of Brittany, Saint-Malo is considered to be the country's most beautiful city. Rich in seafaring heritage, the city's sober granite fortresses and awesome architecture were erected over centuries of flourishing business in maritime trading, privateering and transatlantic exploration.

Saint-Malo is the jewel of the so-called Emerald Coast (Côte d’Emeraude) tourist region, which boasts a number of outstanding natural and historical sites. The region is also internationally known for its oysters and seafood experience, and the city claims to have the highest concentration of seafood restaurants in Europe.

The City of Privateers

Saint-Malo is still known as Cité Corsaire, the French for "City of Privateers", as the city was one of Europe's main centres of privateering activity for over five centuries.

Often confused with Piracy, privateering was actually a legal enterprise regulated under state licence. A privateer was a private warship authorised by a national government to attack and rob enemy ships during wartime.

Those gentlemen from Saint Malo: Privateer and businessman Robert SurcoufSaint-Malo's privateers started working for the French Crown during the 15th century, doing business at the cost of English and Dutch merchant vessels.

The privateering enterprise brought significant wealth to Saint-Malo as most of the profits from the sale of captured cargoes stayed in the local economy. Luxury mansions and military defences were built and the city started asserting its autonomy in dealings with the Breton and French rulers.

Known as "King of Privateers", Captain Robert Surcouf is known as Saint-Malo's most famous privateer. Renowned for his gallantry and chivalry, Surcouf is credited with the capture of 47 foreign ships between 1787 and 1801.

Such was the prestige of Saint-Malo's privateers that some were headhunted by the French Crown. Examples of that were 18th century privateer René Duguay-Trouin, who was given the job of Lieutenant-General of the Naval Armies of the King of France, and François-Auguste Magon, who became a director of the French East India Company. Magon's house, known as La Demeure de Corsaire (The Privateer's House) is open to the public with exhibits related to the history of privateering in Saint-Malo.

From privateering to transatlantic discoveries

As Europe discovered the New World towards the end of the 15th century, Saint-Malo rapidly saw a new business opportunity. Merchant ship owners started to commission vessels to the Americas, Eastern Indies, Africa and China, and the city enjoyed prodigious prosperity between the 16th and 18th centuries.

Saint Malo's Jacques Cartier, discoverer of CanadaCredited as the discoverer of Canada, Jacques Cartier is Saint-Malo's most famous explorer. Between 1534 to 1542, Cartier opened the Newfoundland route, sailed the Saint Lawrence River visiting the sites of Montreal and Québec, and took possession of the territory in the name of the king of France. Malouin is still today a common family name in the French-speaking Québec province of Canada.

Malouin sailors also explored the Southern Hemisphere, leaving a few reminders of their discoveries. In the Falkands archipelago, Beauchene Island was named after Jacques Gouin de Beauchêne, the Malouin explorer who sailed through Cape Horn in 1701. The Falklands themselves were originally called Malouines after their first settlers from Saint-Malo, which gave rise to the Spanish name Islas Malvinas.

Saint Malo has regular ferry services to England and the Channel Islands. Photo © Brittany Ferries
Still making waves: Saint-Malo has regular ferry services to England and the Channel Islands. Photo © Britanny Ferries

The privateer fortress: a city of granite

The Chateau, Saint Malo - Photo © ECPAdNow linked to the mainland by three causeways, the original city of Saint-Malo was actually just the old walled island at the mouth of the river Rance. The surrounding districts of Saint-Servan and Paramé were only merged with Saint-Malo in 1967.

The most visited place in Brittany, the old privateer fortress has lovely narrow streets that are perfect for wandering and exploring. The seafront wall and promenade linking Saint-Malo and Paramé provides excellent views over the town and its bay.

The old city's granite ramparts were built in the Middle Ages, with additional towers and bastions built from the 14th to the 18th century.

Solidor Tower, Saint MaloThe château, built in the 15th century by the Dukes of Brittany, is now used as city hall and Saint-Malo's History Museum, which holds an interesting exhibition about the town's seafaring heritage.

Tour Solidor, a 14th century tower built in Saint-Servan by Jean IV Duke of Brittany to control access to Saint-Malo, is now a maritime museum with a large collection on the Breton voyages around Cape Horn.

Saint Malo's military importance

Fort Petit Be, Saint Malo.Strongly defended by its ramparts and towers, Saint-Malo's privateer fortress was strategically located facing the English Channel.

The city's defences were dramatically increased in the 17th and 18th centuries with the erection of seaward forts Fort National, Fort Harbour, Fort de la Conchée, Fort Petit Bé, Fort Pointe de la Varde, and Fort Cézembre. Some of those forts are open to the public.

As a highly strategic outpost on the English channel, Saint-Malo was occupied by Nazi Germany during World War 2. The nazis built hundreds of bunkers and pillboxes all over the coast, particularly on the isle of Cézembre, which became the most bombed area on the French territory.

Saint-Malo was so severely bombed in the war that a 80% of the city was destroyed. It took over a decade to rebuild Saint-Malo like it was, listed buildings being sometimes reassembled stone by stone. A museum about Saint-Malo during WW2 can be found at the former German headquarters in Saint-Servan.

Islets of Grand Bé and Petit Bé

A few hundred meters from the walls of Saint-Malo, both islets can be reached on foot at low tide from the nearby Bon-Secours beach.

Islets of Grand Bé and Petit Bé, Saint Malo, BrittanyPetit Bé is home to one of the forts built in the 17th century to protect the city of Saint-Malo from naval attacks, now a listed building open to the public.

On Grand Bé are the remains of another fort and the grave of Saint-Malo's François-René de Chateaubriand, the writer, olitician and diplomat who is considered to be the father of French Romanticism and model for a generation of Romantic writers in France and abroad.

One of Brittany’s historical provinces

Saint-Malo was named after a Welsh monk called Maclou, who established his bishopric there in the 6th century. Up until the French Revolution, the city was the capital of one of Brittany's nine Pays or ancient Breton provinces.

Erected in the 12th century, Saint-Vincent cathedral was the seat of the former Diocese of Saint-Malo. Great Malouins such as explorer Jacques Cartier and privateer René Duguay-Trouin are buried there. Partially destroyed during WW2, the cathedral returned to its former glory after almost three decades of reconstruction works.

Rance Tidal Power Station, Saint Malo, BrittanySaint-Malo's other popular tourist attractions

The Great Aquarium: One of Europe's major aquariums, it houses 11,000 marine animals from 600 different species. It is Brittany's second most popular tourist attraction with 360,000 visitors per year.

Rance Tidal Power Station: Located on the estuary of the Rance river, on the D168 highway between Dinard and Saint-Malo, the world's largest tidal power station in terms of installed capacity is one of Brittany's most popular tourist spots with 200,000 visitors per year.

Do you want to know more?
Saint Malo's Tourist Board official website
The official site of the Breton Tourist Board provides information on travel, tours, accommodation...

How to get there:

By Sea: Saint-Malo has ferry services to England and the Channel Islands.

By Air: Ryanair flies to Dinard-Pleurtuit-Saint-Malo Airport. As an alternative, Rennes Saint-Jacques airport is within reasonable range.

By Rail: French railway company SNCF operates regular services to other Breton cities, as well as a high speed trains to Paris.

Celtic Countries is the online magazine for people who enjoy the Celtic nations, their natural splendour, culture, and lifestyles.

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