A picturesque town with dramatic tides and walls that tell stories of war and pirates. Saint Malo should be on everyone’s list to visit when they come to Brittany. If you’re coming from the UK you can get a ferry directly to this port town. Not only is it pretty with sandy beaches and a fortified old town, but Saint Malo also tells many stories. Rich in history because of its location, in this article I’m going to delve into some of those tales of exploration, discovery, destruction and renovation.
The Corsairs of Saint Malo
You may be surprised to learn that Saint Malo has a history of swashbuckling pirates! Known as the Corsairs these pirates were actually in the employ of the king. While there was definitely some illegal pirate activity along the coast of Brittany. The Corsairs were authorised to attack ships and take their goods in times of war.
This began in the Middle Ages as a way of combatting the economic hardship of war. France was in an almost permanent state of conflict so this career became very profitable. In Brittany, being a Corsair was passed down through generations of proud Breton families and brought a lot of wealth to Saint Malo in particular.
An igniting factor for this history of pirates and privateering was that in 1144 the bishop of St Malo, Jean de Châtillon gave the town the status of right to asylum. This encouraged all sorts of thieves and outlaws to move there.
In the 17th and 18th centuries the corsairs roamed far from Brittany. Bringing back goods and wealth from the East Indies and South America. If you walk along the ramparts of St Malo, you will see statues of its two most renowned corsairs. René Duguay-Trouin and Robert Surcouf.
René Duguay-Trouin (1673 – 1736)
Born into a family of ship owners, René was destined to become a Corsair. But his father originally wanted him to become a priest. However, as a youth René was kicked out of school in Rennes for chasing girls and his angry mother sent him to sea at the age of 16.
By the age of 18 René was the captain of his own ship. During his career as a corsair he captured more than 300 merchant ships and 16 warships from the English and the Dutch. King Louis XIV honoured René’s exploits by appointing him Lieutenant General of the Navy.
During the War of Spanish Succession, René set off for Brazil with 12 ships and 6,000 men. Rio de Janeiro was considered to be impregnable but after an 11 day battle René captured the city. Securing a loot of an estimated 4 million pounds and a shipment of African slaves.
He had one of the most successful careers in the history of the corsairs. And somehow he managed all that while suffering from the lifelong affliction of sea sickness!
Robert Surcouf (1773 – 1827)
Known as the ‘King of Corsairs’ Robert’s was actually a distant cousin of René Duguay-Trouin.
He spent most of his career in India capturing and sinking British ships. Including the Triton warship of the British East India Trading Company.
The story goes that his small ship and a crew of merely 19 men came upon the Triton warship with 26 guns and 150 men on bord. As they drew closer, they hoisted a union jack and instead of slowly passing alongside the larger ship, the crew sprang into action and attacked. Surprised and unprepared most of the crew on the Titon were forced below deck and they were secured there by Robert and his men.
A captured English captain said to Robert that a British naval officer fought for honour and not monetary gain, Surcouf responded, “one fights for what one does not possess”.
It is stories like these that have secured Robert Surcouf as a corsair legend.
It must be noted that although he is seen as a corsair hero and defender against the British, Robert also took part in the slave trade. He made much of his fortune taking slaves from the Horn of Africa and Madagascar to work on plantations on French islands in the Indian Ocean.
He returned to Saint Malo towards the end of his life and settled down with his family. Trading again in slaves and fish in Newfoundland until his death.
Departing Saint Malo for Canada
Saint Malo was the birthplace of the French explorer Jacques Cartier.
Upon hearing of the successes of the Spanish and Portuguese explorers, King Francis I of France wanted his very own expedition to go and explore the New World. He chose Jacques Cartier to lead this venture.
In 1534 he set off from Saint Malo with 2 ships and 61 men and they made the crossing to Newfoundland in 20 days. Looking for a passage to Asia they continued around the west coast of Newfoundland and across to the Gaspé peninsular. Although they didn’t find a passage to india, they did bump into friendly Mimac natives who traded furs with them.
On his second voyage across the Atlantic, Cartier discovered what is now Quebec. Here he was greeted by the Donnaconna, chief of the Huron natives. Some of the Huron acted as guides for Cartier and his men. These guides referred to the area as “Kanata”, meaning village or settlement. And the mispronunciation of this word by the explorers is how Canada got is name!
Although Cartier is celebrated and credited with the discovery of Canada there are documented crossings by Breton fisherman as far back as 1497. These fishermen ventured out far beyond the coast of France and found that Newfoundland and Labrador had rich stocks of Cod. A small number of these fishermen settled permanently, creating the earliest francophone colonies of newfoundland. But most worked seasonally, heading out across the Atlantic during the summer months and returning home for the winter.
World War II
Saint Malo played a large part in the second world war. A well defended port town that sits right on the English Channel. The German occupiers settled in Saint Malo for four years and built many bunkers all along the coast. Many of which you can still see to this day.
The allies of course crossed into France via the Normandy beaches on D-Day the 6th June 1944. By August they had crossed into Brittany with the intention to capture Saint Malo and use the port to land supplies. Designated as a fortress under the German Atlantic Wall program, this was not going to be an easy battle for the allies.
Bombing began on the 6th of August and one of the first casualties was the cathedral’s spire. In the days after as the allies advanced to victory, 80% of the historic port town was destroyed.
380 men from Saint Malo were imprisoned by the Germans in the Fort National for the duration of the battle. The Fort sits across from the walled city and is accessible at low tide.
An eye witness account:
Despite the terrible destruction, nothing was going to stop the people of Saint Malo rom rebuilding their beloved city. At first destruction was so great that a plan to raise the town and rebuild from scratch was considered. But the city authorities decided that the mammoth task of restoring the walled city to its former glory was a more important symbol of hope and perseverance. After sorting through 500,000 cubic metres of rubble, the first stone of new St Malo was laid at n° 9 rue d’Estrées on 26th January 1947.
Walking around the ramparts or through the narrow streets of the intra-muros (walled city) today, you wouldn’t know that it was built between 1947 and 1972. It is a feat of architecture that the city was so restored and one that is appreciated by the swathes of tourists that visit every year.