St Malo

Bonjour !

This newsletter is dedicated to St Malo, a coastal fortified city in Brittany, that is the birthplace of many famous and fearsome corsairs.

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Aerial view of the city of St Malo

St Malo, City of Corsairs

Located in the north of Brittany, St Malo was named after Father MacLaw, a Welsh monk and bishop who fled Wales to Brittany in 538. This 44-acre fortified city became very famous in 1590 when its inhabitants declared it an independent republic! Their motto was “Neither French nor Breton, but a Corsair am I”. This status did not last more than four years but that was long enough for St Malo’s residents to earn a strong reputation as rebels. In the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, St Malo acquired considerable wealth, not only from its maritime trade between the Americas and Europe but also, and mainly, from the very lucrative ventures of its corsairs. The trade generated by the “Newfoundlanders”, those fleets that set off to fish for cod in Newfoundland (east coast of Canada), accounted for some of St Malo’s prosperity and glory. However, its most profitable business, without a doubt, came from capturing merchant English and Dutch vessels with the King of France’s blessing!

Who discovered Canada?

In 1532, the French King Francois I visited the Mont St Michel pilgrimage site. On his way back, he asked Jacques Cartier who was from St Malo to find a northern route to Asia through North America. The brave captain thus discovered the St Lawrence River and the eastern coast of Canada, but the severe winter forced him to drop anchor at a place now called Montreal. He made 3 more trips back and forth, each time bringing with him more and more French immigrants whose descendants, five centuries later, are now the “French cousins from America”.

The harbor of St Malo

Were they Corsairs or Pirates?

The high seas were lawless zones making a passage on international waters treacherous. France and England were constantly fighting each other, and sometimes Holland and Spain as well. Each country’s king encouraged private ship owners to equip their boats with cannons and go after enemy foreign vessels. Corsairs were not really pirates in that they did need a permit, signed by the king himself. This “Lettre de course” (“Privateering Letter”) was a formal authorization to carry out their business under very strict regulations. For instance, the booty had to be divided into thirds: one share for the king, one for the ship owner and one for the crew. These were simply acts of war performed by civilians under the king’s control. On the other hand, true pirates attacked any merchant boat regardless of its nationality and for their personal profit only. When captured, captains of pirate ships were hanged from the yardarms, without a trial.

What Are the Sights of St Malo?

St Malo is France’s largest marina, and it is only one hour’s drive from Mont St Michel. First, you can take a walk along the top of this corsair city’s ramparts. You should count on about two hours to go around the fortress and enjoy the splendid view of the Emerald Coast. At low tide, you can reach the National Fort by foot and admire the harbor. You can then walk down the cobblestone streets to reach the cathedral, or just stop at a “crêperie” restaurant to enjoy a delicious crepe with a cup of apple cider from Brittany. In this fortress city of many legends, each street and each stone is a testament to its glorious past. This is one visit that will surely linger on in your memory!

A Pirate’s picture

Robert Surcouf, the Most Famous Corsair

Robert Surcouf was born in 1773. When he was 13 years old, he played hooky to become a sailor. By 22, he was already captain of a corsair ship. Robert’s fame dates back to August 1795, when he attacked a convoy of 3 English merchant vessels that were hauling a rice cargo. He forced them to surrender, and on his way back he encountered the “Triton”, an English warship carrying 150 men and 26 cannons. Having only 60 sailors and 4 cannons of his own, he asked his crew to hide and then feigned being the only one on board. Saint Malo When the two boats were close enough, Surcouf ordered the attack, boarded the enemy ship and took control of it. In 1800, as captain of “La Confiance”, he captured the “Kent”, a British East Indian Company ship. Although this vessel was more heavily armed with 437 sailors and 26 cannons aboard, to his 160 men and 18 canons, Surcouf succeeded in capturing her after a long hand-to-hand combat. The “Kent” was brought back to Port-Louis where all her goods were sold. By the time Surcouf returned to St Malo, he had been decorated with the “Legion of Honor” by Emperor Napoleon I and had more than 2 million francs in his safe. Quite enough to retire at 36 years old!

How Were Sick Seamen Treated? …when they were at sea for months at a time?

Beginning in 1681, a royal decree required that captains and ship owners of any vessel with more than 20 sailors bring on board a doctor and a medicine case with a detailed inventory of mandatory drugs. The King of France did indeed know how to take care of his subjects!

Who Was the Most Famous Inhabitant of St Malo?

Francois-Rene de Chateaubriand was born in St Malo in 1768 and lived there his first 9 years. He spent a year in Ohio and traveled down the Mississippi River, then became Secretary of Foreign Affairs back in France. Every French student is familiar with Chateaubriant as he was, above all, a famous French author.

The « Route du Rhum » and the Quebec-St Malo Transatlantic Races

Nowadays, St Malo is also known for welcoming sailing enthusiasts who naturally converge there. Its port hosts the start or finish of prestigious open ocean sailing races, such as the Route du Rhum or the Quebec-St Malo Transat that occur every four years. Since its 1978 inception, the Route du Rhum remains a solo transatlantic Odyssey across a distance of 3,000 statute miles, from St Malo to Pointe-a-Pitre in Guadeloupe. There is only one man on board, at the helm and on the look-out, to perform the duties of skipper and sailor. In 1990… surprise! Florence Arthaud became the first woman ever to win this race after only 14 days at sea. This feat required a lot of endurance: the competitor can barely afford the time to sleep during the 2 or 3 weeks it takes to finish the race… The Quebec-St Malo Transat, on the other hand, is a team race. It goes from East to West with a finish in the port of St Malo. This is a particularly perilous undertaking because of the risk of colliding with south-drifting icebergs soon after entering the St Lawrence seaway. Each staging of the race sets new records for distance covered in 24 hours. The next winner will have to cover more than 535 statute miles in that period of time!