I walk these cobble stone streets that wind their way amongst the low rise buildings that make up this city by and of the sea. The streets are packed, mostly race fans who have flocked here to see the start of the Route du Rhum, but even the crowds can’t distract my eye from the beauty that is this jewel. Saint Malo is a post card of an ancient walled city, maybe the prettiest of its sort in a country and coast line that is chock-a-block full of breath taking towns, villages and cities.
The oldest settlements on this site date back to the Gauls in the 1stcentury BC, who quickly lost control of the territory to the Romans. Strategically located at the mouth of the Rance River, an important access point to the fertile and rich interior, the Romans built what was to become the first fortification in an effort to protect their inland farms from northern raiders.
After the Bretons famously shook off Roman rule, the town was reestablished as a monastery by Saint Aaron and Saint Brendan early in the 6thcentury AD. They named their new town after a Welshman by the name of “Mac Low” who happened to be a follower of Saint Brendan and ultimately sainted himself. “Mac Low” ultimately became “Malo” and thus a city was named.
The Irish Saint Brendan is also known as the Navigator, apropos for a man who founded a monastery on, and of, the sea. He led a legendary quest in approximately 500 AD to find the “Blessed Island”, an adventure documented in the medieval version of Outside Magazine known as the “Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis”. You need to know your Latin, but it is a gripping bed time read. The journey apparently took Saint Brendan 14 months, and was done on a type of boat known as currachs, made out of hides tanned in oak bark, softened with butter and stretched over a wooden frame. His discovery was referred to as “St. Brendan’s Island”, and at least some believe Iceland or even North America to have been his actual destination.
The trio of saints who founded Saint Malo were part of a much wider cross-Channel migration of people from what is now Wales and the southwestern reaches of Great Britain over to the French peninsula that the Romans referred to as Armorica. This concentration of British colonists led to this area becoming known as Brittany in the fifth or sixth century AD. The same migration may have also embedded in the local DNA a fierce independence and the scratch to back it up with violence when needed. First the Romans, then the English, then the French, the Dutch, the English again… Bretons have had many the donnybrook through history. And if the Breton’s were fiercely independent, the residents of Saint Malo were even more so. One city motto was “Neither Breton, nor French, but from Saint Malo am I!”and the local residents known as Malouins were known for their skill at sea and in a fight. They only bent the knee to King Charles VI of France from 1395 to 1415 based on each parties’ mutual commercial benefit, then spent the 16thcentury fighting the Duchy of Brittany for independence. They then only bent the knee to King Henry the IV of France in the late 1500s when he agreed to become a Catholic.
The Malouins used those skills not only for fishing and other legitimate maritime activities, but also with the more lucrative pursuits including smuggling and piracy and by the 12thcentury, the local sailors had begun to establish a fearsome reputation for being corsairs, or pirates. When in 1144 the local Catholic bishop granted the town of Saint Malo the status of “rights of asylum”, a fresh round of thieves and miscreants (sailors all) made the citadel and its port their home base and built a reputation that led to Saint Malo to be known as the Cité Corsaire.
In the 17thand 18thcentury, piracy became a tool of statecraft to be used by rulers from all of the European countries as a means to weaken their opponents and fill their coffers. In this period the corsairs of Saint Malo sailed under official license from the King of France and roamed the seas preying on English, Dutch, Portuguese and Spanish shipping. They were so effective at their job that an examination of Lloyds List for one seven year stretch late in the 18thcentury shows that British losses to the corsairs exceeded the value of the cargo that made it home. The corsair’s prizes were returned to Saint Malo and sold, with King receiving a healthy portion as tribute but the majority coming back to be split between the ship’s captain and crew. This bounty flowed for 700 years, with corsairs sailing under the protection of the King’s privateering commission all the way to 1815.
Not all goods that flowed through the port of Saint Malo came from the end of a gun or sword. The Malouins were also accomplished explorers and traders, and led French efforts to discover and exploit the new World. Ships from Saint Malo fished the St. Georges bank off North America and Jacques Cartier in his travels from 1534 to 1542 started the trade between St. Malo and Newfoundland and in the process claimed and named Canada for France. Other ships from Saint Malo first explored and then settled the French claims in the Caribbean and some made it as far south as the Southern Ocean where Louis Antoine de Bougainville established the first settlement on the “Iles Malouines”, named for its settlers, in 1764. He later sold his claim to the Spanish for 700,000 francs, or what would be about $80 mm in inflation adjusted USD. Not bad profit for a few years of work. The Spanish twisted the French name “Malouines” into the “Malvinas”, and hostilities broke out between Spain and Britain in 1770, culminating in 1832 when Britain asserted claim over all of what they called the Falkland Islands.
Notably, de Bougainville went on to further adventures and when he arrived in Saint Malo in March of 1769 after an epic journey he became the first Frenchman to complete a circumnavigation of the world. He was certainly not the last, and his 2 and half year journey with 330 men was most recently surpassed by Francis Joyon who made it around with seven men in 40 days and 23 hours in January of 2017.
The riches from commerce, both noble and ruthless, fueled the growth of Saint Malo as a great city and the Moulins incorporated the town as a free commune in 1308. The riches also paid for the development of the walled city that we know to this day. Saint Malo’s importance as a port city, surrounded by those that would sometimes be enemies, led the city to develop into a coastal fortress early in its history. The earliest remaining fortification is the Petit Donjon, dating from the 14thcentury, which was followed by additional fortifications built in the mid 1400s under the direction of Francois II. Three centuries of fortifications culminated in the massive construction efforts of Simeon Garangeau following the plans of King Louis XIV’s military architect Sebastien Le Prestre de Vauban (thankfully known by the shorter “Vauban”) who in a 4 year stretch built the three forts located just off shore of the city, and rebuilt the ramparts that circle the city to this day. These efforts paid dividends when in 1693 the city repelled an attack by combined British and Dutch forces who had been making merry all along the French coast. Meanwhile the sailors made rich by piracy and trade built opulent houses, known as malouinieres after their owners. 60 of these houses still exist today.
Saint Malo survived relatively unscathed through most of the Second World War, but during the battle to liberate it in 1944 the Allies failed to realize that the German presence was largely concentrated outside of the city walls, and inside the walls were only 100 German troops manning just 2 anti aircraft guns. Ignorant of the minimal forces they were faced with and reluctant in losing men in an assault on the walled city, the Allies relied on bombardment instead, including the use of napalm for the first time in history. Over 80 percent of the city and port were destroyed.
When the war ended and reconstruction began, Saint Malo could easily have followed the path used in Le Harve where the historical character of the city was lost when the city was rebuilt in concrete after the Brutalist style. Instead, the civic leaders of Saint Malo committed to rebuilding the city in its original style, and in its original granite. The few half-timbered properties that survived the fires, including Chateaubriand’s birth place, were preserved. Other buildings and even the walls of the city where rebuilt to the original plans, stone by stone. The result is something that is rare, even on a continent that values its history. Saint Malo is a jewel, an inter muros that is looks and feels much as it would have to a corsair of the 18thcentury. Even if the Route du Rhum fleet tied up at its walls more closely resemble space craft in their technology and capabilities, they follow in the wake of the adventurers who have sailed from Saint Malo for centuries and carry the spirit of the Corsairs with them.