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June 15, 2005


Wile E. Delaplaine

Ermines, Mastiffs, and the Faithful Corsairs of Saint-Malo – Part One

The walled medieval city of St Malo intrigues in so many ways: its location and makeup, its fascinating history, its celebrities, its notorious corsairs. Much of this can be summed up by its emblems and mottos over the centuries.

Built on a granite rock which juts out into the English Channel, St. Malo would be an island fortress but for the sandbar, which for centuries used to be its only connection to the Brittany mainland of France.

At the rock’s perimeter, at sea’s edge, was constructed a mighty granite wall and rampart. Within these walls, built over the centuries are approximately 37 acres of city with a granite cathedral at its center.

Bombed by the allies to smithereens in WWII (due to a translation error so the residents claim), some 80% of the town within the walls was destroyed, leaving only the thick granite ramparts virtually unscathed. The Malouins, as they call themselves, completely reconstructed the city as it was before the war. It is one of the few places in Europe to have done so.

Today the cathedral stands in pristine condition, as do the ramparts, the centuries-old connected homes, shops, and the granite block streets. The only evidence of the wartime destruction is visible upon close inspection; the reconstructed granite blocks are better aligned and at times of a different hue.

Even with the classic trimmings of today's trendy, touristy French city, with countless cafes, creperies (crepe shops), and boutiques, you can still sense the power and intrigue of this fortress city, which owes its name to a 6th century Celtic monk.

To understand a bit more of the intrigue, consider the tides of the region which are mind-bogglingly enormous. Twice a day there is an average tidal difference of 35 feet. For several hours and twice a day, the ocean level is 10 feet up these walls, with surf crashing even higher, carving over the years only a thin sandbar attachment to the mainland. And also twice a day the sea is off in the distance leaving the city walls surrounded by wet sand and mud. The tidal effect in conjunction with the impressive ramparts made attacking this fortress city enormously difficult.

The people have always been renowned for their sailing, and it was the Malouin, Jacques Cartier, who discovered the St. Lawrence and claimed Canada for the French in 1534.

But St. Malo owes its infamous reputation and its incredible wealth of that time to the wild success of its fleet of corsairs. These buccaneers were granted royal warrant to intercept and pillage passing vessels by the French king when France was at war with one of the other powers, an almost constant state of affairs during the last millennium. These licenses became widely popular under the reign of the Sun King, Louis 14th. They were in fact common among all European nations.

The warrants carried complicated rules beginning with the basic condition: only one ship could be attacked per license. They were very exact about distributing loot: 1/5 to the king, 1/10th to the admiralty, 2/3rd to the corsair owner, and the 3 or 4 percent remaining split between the captain and crew.

And, if the attacking mercenary failed in its attack? That little piece of paper with the king’s seal, always locked very securely in the ship’s lock box, was to be presented to the vanquishers and would prevent, in theory, the captain and crew from being hanged; it said they were technically not pirates but paramilitary agents of the throne.

During the Nine Years War of 1688-1697, the corsairs of St. Malo took 4000 English boats. William of Orange was so incensed that he sent an armada to destroy the town. He ordered concocted "the infernal machine,” a ship packed with explosives that were supposed to blow a hole in the fortress wall. The floating bomb, along with the overall English campaign, turned out a complete disaster. The "infernal machine" caught fire too far out. According to Malouin legend, the only casualty was a dead cat found the next morning atop the ramparts.

This fascinating travel story continues tomorrow.

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