Saint Malo, France: The city of corsairs

November 26, 1693

The sea is rough. The upcoming tide brings waves that crash into the beach which is not accessible anymore. It is night and the watchdogs have just been released from their cages, eager to fiercely eat anything alive on the shores of Saint Malo. All the inhabitants stay safe within the city walls, where no villains can get into after sunset. The wind is picking up, and with the rising of the moon, the tension is present as we see about 30 Anglo-Dutch vessels anchored in our bay.  Our city and its impressive wealth acquired by its ship-owners trading with India and the Americas is a precious jewel for our enemies who just can’t measure up to our unbeatable sailors at sea. But will they succeed destroying our city? The sound of exploding gunfire makes it shake to its core.

May 2016

I am standing on the hornet’s nest, the Bidouane Tower that 323 years ago was filled with gunpowder making it a target for the English and Dutch navies. The ship that was to blow itself up close to the tower to cause the most devastating damages to the rich city had drifted away and exploded killing only one cat. Standing on its walled citadel, I overlook the white sandy beaches on which towels of sunbathers form a colourful patchwork. The tide is low, opening the path to Grand Be, an island on which the famous romantic French writer Chateaubriand is buried.

Saint Malo forged some of the best sailors: behind me, the bronze sculpture of Jacques Cartier, the discoverer of Canada whom left from its shores, as well as Jacques Gouin de Beauchène before he discovered the Falkland Islands, or the famous corsair Robert Surcouf. Beyond making the reputation of the city, they also made its wealth.

From the 16th to the 18th century, these corsairs were extremely feared. The Lettre de Course, a precious document signed by the king of France made them legal pirates*. Commissioned to attack vessels of enemies of the kingdom during war times, they made a fortune and contributed greatly to the royal revenue by taking ownership of the precious cargos and ransoming defeated sailors and ships. Ship-owners got the majority of the share, building Malouines, massive but stark mansions, filled with treasures.

Unfortunately, as a strategic harbour, Saint Malo was badly damaged by American bombings during the Second World War. Thankfully, the whole city has been renovated and the old city enclosed within its fortified walls remains a jewel to visit and to learn more about these adventurers at sea.

Marcella van Alphen

* Unlike pirates, corsairs were to operate only at war and according to a military code of war, causing massive financial damages but respecting the lives and belongings of the defeated sailors.

Travel tips:

  • Refer to the website of the tourist information office to choose your points of interests in and around this magnificent town.
  • To get the GPS-powered version of this article in GPSmyCity, click on this link!
  • The brass buttons with an ermine pave the way to discover the historical city: just follow them! The ermines symbolizes purity and loyalty, and is the allegorical animal of the Dukes of Brittany.
  • Discover the treasures and listen to the adventurous tales of a corsair in a historical corsair’s house at the Demeure de Corsaire (pictures of the corsair’s house in this article were shot there).
  • The Grand Aquarium of Saint Malo is educative and interactive, making it an excellent way of discovering the underwater world and a perfect afternoon out with children.
  • Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area (tutorial)!



One thought on “Saint Malo, France: The city of corsairs

  1. Pingback: Photo of the day: sunset from Saint Malo, France | Best regards from far,

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