Last modified: 2005-02-26 by ivan sache
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by Arnaud Leroy
The municipality of Port-Louis (3,000 inhabitants, Port-Louisiens) is located in southern Brittany. The city is built around a citadel and surrounded with city walls. It was the port of call of the first Compagnie des Indes but was later replaced by the newly built neighbouring city of Lorient.
Port-Louis is located on a peninsula limited by the river Blavet on west and the river of Etel on east. The peninsula is a granitic spur, with a sandy coast on the ocean and a muddy harbour. Access to the spur at high tide is dangerous because of the submerged rocks and the muddy banks. A local adage said:
Au hâvre du Blavet, bien fol est qui s'y met.
(You must be crazy to moor in the Blavet harbour.)
However, Port-Louis watches a narrow bottleneck to a wide harbour
protected from strong winds by the island of Groix and the peninsula of
Gèvres. Deep water channels link the harbour to the estuaries of the
rivers Scorff and Blavet. Port-Louis is the only port between Brest and Nantes that can be reached whatever the weather and the draft of the ship, provided its captain has skills for navigation. Most of the
rivers in the region are small, but the Blavet is a big river
which allows communication with the interior of Brittany.
Therefore, the geography of Port-Louis explained why it was a strategic, fortified place.
Several remains of the Neolithic period have been found in the
surroundings of Port-Louis, for instance the dolmen of Goërem, dated
2480 BC with radiocarbon.
In the Celtic times, the region of Port-Louis belonged to the tribe of Venetes. Some historians claimed that the battle won by Julius Caesar over the Venetes in 56 BC took part in the Blavet harbour. It is indeed probable that the granitic spur of Port-Louis had been fortified by the Venetes. The description of the fortification given by Caesar in his rendition of the conquest of Gaul matches the harbour of Blavet, but there are other places in southern Brittany which equally match Caesar's description.
Brittany was occupied by the Romans for five centuries after the submission of the Venetes. The region of Port-Louis was organized as a civitas, with Darioritum (Vannes) as its capital city, and divided into pagi. At that time, Port-Louis might have been the port called Vindana Portus by the Alexandrian Greek geographer Claudius Ptolemeus (100-170), or the city of Blabia or Blavia, mentioned in the Notices Dignitatis in the IIIrd century. The main Roman way in southern Brittany linking Portus Namnetum (Nantes) to Civitas Aquilonia (Quimper) had a secondary branch to Blavia. Until the XVIIth century, the main access to Port-Louis was named Grand Chemin (the Big Way), a name often given to Roman or at least very ancient ways.
There were close links between Brittany and Britain during the Roman
era, as reported for instance by the historian Tacitus (55-120). During
the Vth-VIth century, the Bretons, then in Britain, were threatened by
the Picts and the Scots coming from the north and the Saxons coming
from the east. Several Bretons emigrated to northern and western
Brittany. Entire clans, often guided by a religious leader (for
instance St. Piran, St. Malo, St. Gunthiern, St. Caradec, St. Gwenhaël and St. Phélan) settled in Brittany where they mixed with a closely related local population.
The different calns settled in different places and reconstituted the organisation they had set up in Britain: the Domnonii formed the Domnonea in the north, the Cornovi formed the new Cornwall (Kernev), whereas the chief Waroch conquered the last Roman enclave around Vannes and found the Bro-Waroch (Waroch's country), later renamed Bro-Ereg.
In the Middle-Ages, Port-Louis was called Port-Blavet or simply Blavet,
for instance on the cartularium (collection of charts) of Redon (871).
The very same name of Blavet was also used on Catalan portolans from
In Breton, Blavet is Blahouëh, from plat, flat, wide, and gouëh, brook. Therefore, Blavet means wide brook, which it is compared with the other rivers of the region.
Canon Falc'houn believes that Blahouëh was directly derived from Blavia. However, de la Sauvagère, who built the Big Powder Magazine in 1750, believed that Blavia had nothing to do with Balvet but refered to the city of Blaye, located near Bordeaux.
In the upper Middle-Ages, most cities were built on a spur or at the
far end of an estuary. Port-Louis had two powerful neighbours,
Hennebont and Pont-Scorff.
Hennebont (Hen pont, the old bridge), was built at the far end of the estuary of Blavet to watch the two banks of the river and both the coast and the interior of the country. A fortified post built in the VIth century was destroyed in 1250 by Duke Jean I de Brittany, who replaced it by walls enclosing the part of the city located on the left bank of the Blavet. Until the French Revolution, Hennebont was one of the main fortified cities in Brittany and the seat of a sénéchaussée (administrative division) after the incorporation of Brittany to France.
Pont-Scorff was built as a "bridge-city" at the far end of the estuary of Scorff, absorbing the former parish of Lesbin (Lez Albin, St. Aubin's yard). Pont-Scorff was the main center of the regional commerce. The royal justice was exerted in Hennebont, whereas the local justice was exerted by the lords of Rohan-Guéméné in Pont-Scorff.
Blavet (Port-Louis) was the outpost maritime of those two cities. It was made of two parishs located on the two sides of the narrow isthmus made of the rocky spur. In the north, Locpéran was located on the harbour of Blavet, whereas, in the south, Locmalo was located on the "small sea" of Gèvres. The harbour of Blavet was a small fishing and commerce port. At the end of the XIIIth century, Duke of Brittany Jean II set up a fleet of galées (vessels with sails and rows) in the harbour.
In the XIVth century, Blavet was involved in the War of Succession of
Brittany. In 1342, 120 vessels carrying 2,000 soldats, commanded by
Amaury de Clisson and Gautier de Manny, sailed up the river Blavet. The
fleet was sent by King of England Edward III in order to help Jeanne de
Montfort, who was besieged in Hennebont by Charles de Blois. In 1347,
Charles was captured by the English in La Roche-Derrien and jailed.
Bertrand du Guesclin left Blavet in 1351 for England, where he would be
hostage to replace Charles de Blois, temporarily released in order to
collect his ransom and marry his daughter.
Short before the incorporation of Brittany to France, Duke François II planned to revamp and fortify the port of Blavet, but he died without having achieved his project.
In 1573, the inhabitants of Blavet took the party of the King of France
against the Huguenots, and sent a fleet to help the royal navy during
the siege of La Rochelle. The royal troops were commanded by the Duke
d'Anjou. When he was crowned king of France as Henri III, he rewarded
the Blavetins by granting them the privilège du papegaut. In 1582,
Henri III appointed his brother-in-law, the Duke de Mercoeur, Governor
of Brittany. After the murder of Henri III in 1589, the pretender to
the throne of France was the Huguenot Henri de Navarre (crowned King of
France as Henri IV the same year). The ultra-Catholic party of the Holy
League rejected any non-Catholic pretender and several Catholic
pretenders showed up. King Philip II of Spain claimed for infant Isabel
the throne of France and the Duchy of Brittany, saying she was the
grand-daughter of King of France Henri II, himself grand-son of Duchess Anne of Brittany.
Jérôme d'Arradon, commander of the fortified city of Hennebont, attempted to persuade the Blavetins to join the Holy League, to no avail. The Blavetins welcomed the lord of Coëtcourson, a supporter of Henri IV. Mercoeur besieged Blavet, but could not break the defense line set up on the isthmus. Vessels landed soldiers in the city, which was eventually caught. All the inhabitants were slaughtered, the carnage being remembered by the gwerz (traditional Breton lament) of Lopéran. Mercoeur burned down the city and offered it to his Spanish allies.
The Spaniards immediatly understood the strategic interest of Blavet
and sent there 6,000 soldiers commanded by Don Juan de Aguila. The
remains of the fortifications were revamped and a new fort was built to
replace the citadel. The fort was named fuerte del Aguila (Eagle's
The Spanish occupation lasted from 1590 to 1598. In the meantime, Henri IV progressively won the leaders of the Holy League over to his cause, either by force or negociation. Henri IV ordered Marshal de Brissac to get rid of the Spanish enclave in 1598. However, the peace of Vervins was signed between France and Spain on 2 May 1598 and the Spaniards withdrew from Blavet. Mercoeur eventually submitted to Henri IV, who married his natural son César de Vendôme with Françoise de Lorraine, Mercoeur's daughter. Mercoeur transfered his charge of Governor of Brittany to César, on the King's behalf.
Henri IV suppressed the Eagle's fort. He was murdered in 1610 and
succeded by his young son Louis XIII, aged 9. Marie de Medicis was
appointed Regent and the nobles of the Kingdom revolted once again, led
by César de Vendôme and his brother Alexandre. In 1614, César
entranched himseff in the remains of the citadel of Blavet and
organized the resistance. The two brothers were arrested in 1616 and
jailed in the fort of Vincennes upon Marie de Medicis' order. In May
1617, Louis XIII exiled his mother in the castle of Blois and started
his personal reign.
On 17 July 1618, Louis XIII ordered the reconstruction of the citadel of Blavet and the fortification of the city, which was given the new name of Le Port-Louis. The only remains of the ancient citadel were the donjon and two bastions. From 1618 to 1621, François de Cossé-Brissac rebuilt the citadel. The demilune was added by Richelieu in 1636. However, Richelieu decided that the Arsenal would be set up in Brest and not in Port-Louis. After Louis XIII and Richelieu's death, the nobles revolted once again through the movement known as Fronde, but Duke de la Meilleraye achieved the fortification system from 1649 to 1653.
Port-Louis received municipal statutes and sent representatives to the States of Brittany.
The Compagnie de Madagascar was founded in Port-Louis by La
Meilleraye in 1654. Ten years later, Colbert transformed it in the
Compagnie des Indes Orientales. Other companies, such as the
Compagnie du Sénégal and the Compagnie de la Chine et des Mers du
Sud were also founded in Port-Louis. All of them were merged into the
Nouvelle Compagnie des Indes in 1719.
In 1666, the shipyards of the Compagnie des Indes were built at the mouth of the river Scorff and the new city of l'Orient (now Lorient) was built, which progressively replaced Port-Louis as the main colonial port.
However, the directors and captains of the Compagnie kept their residences in Port-Louis. In 1690, Port-Louis became the capital city of a department of the Royal Navy and a military hospital was built. Louis XIV's wars contributed to the ruin of the Compagnie des Indes but were very favourable to corsairs. Famous corsairs from St. Malo, such as Duguay-Trouin, had a residence in Port-Louis. Corsairs who fully owned their vessel were called bourgeois de navire; some of their houses in Port-Louis have been preserved.
From 1783 to 1786, during the American War of Independence, seven paquebots (packet-boats) transported mail between Port-Louis and New York. The peace treaty signed in 1783 was
shipped for ratification by the Courrier de l'Europe. In 1784, the
Courrier de Port-Louis sunk off Long Island. Lafayette took the
Courrier de New York in June 1784 for a friendly visit to Washington.
During the French Revolution, the inhabitants of Port-Louis proposed to use the ancient name of Blavet for the city. The Convention stated on 24 October 1792 that Port-Louis would be renamed Port-Liberté. The fortified city was surrounded by villages favorable to the Chouans, the local counter-revolutionaries, and its fortifications were increased. Port-Louis remained very isolated and suffered from starvation.
In 1797, the Compagnie des Indes was suppressed and the Navy eventually abandoned Port-Louis for Lorient.
During the First Empire, the inhabitants of Port-Liberté attempted to have their city renamed Port-Napoléon, as did their neighbours of Pontivy (Napoléonville) and la Roche-sur-Yon (Napoléon-Vendée). However, the Emperor suggested them to take back the name of Port-Louis, which was officialized only in 1814 by Louis XVIII.
Sea bathing was promoted in Port-Louis by Queen Marie-Amélie under the
July monarchy. The beach was called Les Grands Sables. Fishing and
canning industry were also developed. A fish market (criée) was built
in Locmalo in 1889.
After the First World War, the fishers of Port-Louis abandoned sardine for tuna, but suffered from a strong competition with Lorient, where a new fishing port was built in 1927. The maritime hospital was transfered to Lorient in 1937.
At the end of the Second World War, the liberation of the pocket of Lorient was extremely difficult and the Germans shot 99 hostages in the citadel of Port-Louis.
Port-Louis is the birth city of two famous sailors, Crozet and Surville.
Julien-Marie Crozet (1728-1782) started his career aged 11 as apprentice-pilot on the Maurepas. After several missions for the Compagnie des Indes and several battles against English vessels, Crozet was appointed commander of L'Eléphant in 1753.
In October 1771, Crozet was appointed first mate of the Mascarin, commanded by Marc Joseph Marion du Fresne. With the Marquis de Castries, the Mascarin had to discover new austral lands, on Louis XV's behalf. The expedition discovered several islands. On 24 January, Crozet landed on an island he named Ile de la Possession. The sailors took possession of the island on the king's behalf. They enclosed an official pergamon in a bottle placed on the top of a pyramid built with big stones. The island is known today as Crozet Island and still a French possession. On 6 March, the vessels moored in the Marion bay, off the Land of Van Diemen (today Tasmania). On 3 May, they reached Port-Marion in New Zealand. The explorators were friendly welcomed by the Maoris but the friendship did not last for long. Marion was killed on 12 June as well as several sailors the next day. On 11 July 1772, after having burned several villages, the captains decided to leave the area, called France Australe. They ignored that both Cook and Surville had found New Zealand two years before. After a complicated navigation via the Mariannas islands, Guam, the Philippines and Ile-de-France (Reunion), Crozet eventually came back to Port-Louis on 7 May 1773.
On 7 December 1774, Crozet, commanding the Ajax, met James Cook in Capetown and gave him his maps of the southern lands. In his diary, Cook acknowledged Crozet's spirit of discovery. It was said that this was Crozet's last trip and that he died at sea in 1780, but Crozet more probably died in Paris in 1782.
Jean-François de Surville (1717-1770) started his career aged 10 on the
ships of the Compagnie des Indes. After several missions for and several battles against English vessels, Surville was appointed commander of the Centaure and then of the
64-cannon Fortune in 1759.
In 1767, Surville was appointed Vice-Governor of Pondichéry and King's Commissioner for the reincorporation of the French establishments in India. The Governors of Pondichéry and Chandernagor ordered him to capture an island located in the southern seas, 700 leagues from Peru, and probably under English rule. After having called in Sumatra, Malacca and the Philippines, Surville reached on 13 October 1769 the Ile de la Première Vue and moored in Port-Praslin, named after the Minister of Navy. The island was part of the Solomon archipelago. Surville found several other islands and reached New Zealand on 17 December, a few times after James Cook had discovered Double Bay. Surville was still searching for the southern island but scurry forced him to sail to Peru. Off Chilca, Surville embarked in a small boat with two sailors in order to get help. The boat sunk and the three sailors drowned.
Source: Website of the Centre d'animation historique du pays de Port-Louis.
Ivan Sache, 8 July 2004
The municipal flag of Port-Louis is a banner of the municipal arms, which are:
D'azur à l'ancre d'argent surmontée de trois fleurs de lys d'or
Azure an anchor argent in chief three fleurs de lys or.The symbolics of these arms is straightforward.
Ivan Sache, 8 July 2004