The Corsairs of St Malo

and the "Woman Corsairs"!




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The Corsairs


PirateThe Corsairs although "swashbuckling" pirates actually worked for the King of France attacking the ships of France’s enemies without fear of being hanged from the highest mast as they were granted a licence - La “Lettre de Marque” otherwise known as "Lettre de course" hence the name Corsair.  This letter was an official document necessary to legalise their activities.  This document gave them the status of a war prisoner should they be captured. 


The Corsair was ordered to attack only his sovereign enemies, respecting “generally” the “neutrals” and always his own fellow citizens.  If he did not respect this rule, he was then treated as a pirate and hanged. The Corsairs' activities also provided the King with revenue as the licence required them to hand over a part of their booty to him.  


The “pirate” activities started in the middle ages; the main goals really being to compensate for the economic problems in war periods. The ship owners did not  accept that the war was an obstacle to their trade.  Jean de Châtillon, a bishop, in 1144,  gave the town of  St Malo the status of rights of asylum which encouraged all manner of thieves and rogues to move there.  Their motto was   "Neither Breton, nor French, but from Saint Malo am I!".


St Malo however, progressed commercially and socially and in 1308 the town was made into a free commune to encourage the commercial activities of craftsmen as well as merchants and ship owners. This did not really work out and later in 1395 the town became a free port.  This situation continued until 1688.


The activities of the Corsairs were so profitable that the Marine Minister used this in his strategy to make money.  Moreover, the King used to take one quarter and even one third of the booty.  The Corsairs’ activities weakened France’s enemies; indeed, the English trade losses were very important from 1688 until 1717. 


The relationship between the Corsairs and the State changed depending on who was leader. The rules became stricter and State control  more and more present.  At the end of the 18th century, the “course” started to decline until its legal death in 1856. The "course" disappeared in France along with the Empire in 1815, but was only made official in 1856 during a meeting in Paris where every nation was present apart from Spain, Mexico and the United States.


Famous Corsairs


Robert Surcouf was the last well known Corsair of the city.  Born in St-Malo in 1773, his father was a ship owner and his mother the daughter of a Captain.  Ship’s boy at 13 and Captain Corsair at 22 years old, he then - very much against his licence - for several years attacked the “Compagnie Française des Indes” ships. In the end Robert Surcouf became a ship owner himself and died in St Malo in 1827. There is a statue of him for all to see.


René Trouin, born in St-Malo in 1673, and the son of a rich ship owner took a fleet of 64 ships and was honoured in 1709 for capturing more than 300 merchant ships and 20 war ships.   

Neither Breton, nor French, but from Saint Malo am I!"......

St Malo was considered the capital of the Corsairs although it was strongly rivalled by Granville in Normandy.


Not Corsairs but Patriots, two women, in particular, supported Brittany rather than France and fought for independence. In the 1300's Jeanne de Montfort, Duchesse of Bretagne helped her husband fight the King of France.  She was  nicknamed “The Flame” and sailed in the English Channel plundering French ships, fighting with the English for Brittany’s independence.  


Another woman , Jeanne de Clisson, was known as “The Lioness of Brittany”


Julienne David, a native of Saint Mars a town close to Nantes managed to be taken on as crew on the boat “La Jeune Agathe” at the end of XVIII century, under the name of “Jacques David”.  As the time she was only nineteen and cleverly disguised herself as a boy.  Her deceit  was quickly discovered once the ship put to sea and Julienne was ordered to wear women’s clothing and not to interfere with the sailors’ work.  This did not deter her and she managed to be taken on board  ship in Paimboeuf, again disguised as a boy. 


However she was captured by the English and imprisoned on an English pontoon.  Eventually one of her companions denounced her and her secret was discovered.    Once back on shore in France, Julienne carried on dressing like a man and worked as cab renter, stableman, gardener and driver.