How I rediscovered the history of the port of Bordeaux

In the Chartrons district of Bordeaux, a private museum offers a journey through centuries. Discover what I learned about the History of the city.
The Museum of Maritime History of Bordeaux, in the Chartrons district

When I walk on the quays of Bordeaux, I often wonder how the place looked like 300 years ago. Therefore, when I heard about the Museum of Maritime History of Bordeaux, I fancied visiting it.

I went to this place located in a small street of the Chartrons neighbourhood, hoping to learn unknown stories of the Bordeaux history. Moreover, going there is a way to better know the city where I grew up. My curiosity guides me.

The port through the figures who shaped it

When I enter the small museum which fits into one deep room, I see large posters at the entrance. They introduce the site and make me dive into the subject. I learn that the private museum brings collections belonging to Bordeaux families together. Its goal: sharing the maritime, harbour and fluvial past of the “Port of the Moon” to better understand and grasp its present. Plus, the text says that the owners emphasized the people who played a central role in the development of Bordeaux harbour.

In the whole room, I only see two visitors who are about to leave. A young woman sat behind a desk welcome the people. With a smile, she tells me the story of the museum created by passionate people. I admire and am grateful to these people for passing on the history of their town. Then, she suggests an historic visit along the quays of Bordeaux with the help of an online guide. I save this idea for later. Finally, she advises me to read all the detailed texts that I’m about to see. I deduce that this museum is not a place to wander and admire visual content.

I hear no other sound than the noise of my slow steps. I move forward while admiring the blonde stone walls that are some common in Bordeaux. I find it comforting and warm.

My attention is drawn to a large map of the city during the Gallo-Roman period. Fires next to the river, on the Quinconces square, jump out at me. They must have been the lighthouses of that time. I also notice a temple and an amphitheatre which must be the Palais Gallien, still visible today. I learn that few information exist about Bordeaux under Roman rule. Only one thing is certain: the temple existed.

I walk surrounded by showcases containing many small and old objects as well as postes full with text. On one of them, a portrait of Eleanor of Aquitaine catches my eye. I come closer to read the text next to the face of the former queen of France.

Eleanor of Aquitaine, behind the world’s first maritime code

At the end of the 12th century, she had the Rôles d’Oléron drawn up, a compendium of maritime law that became a standard reference. It’s named after an island off the coast of Charente, not far from Bordeaux. It was applied on a large part of the Atlantic coast. It gives me and idea of the importance of the region’s commercial activity at that time, as well as the power of Eleanor of Aquitaine.

Then, I make a four-centuries jump in time in front of a text about the construction of the Cordouan lighthouse.

Michel de Montaigne and the Cordouan lighthouse

A few years ago, I visited this monument only reachable by boat, from Royan or Le Verdon-sur-Mer. This beautiful lighthouse made of blonde stone is impressive, especially as it’s over 400 years old. It’s the oldest inhabited lighthouse in France. I learn that the philosopher Michel de Montaigne, who was Bordeaux mayor during the 16th century, approved its construction.

A model of gabarre, a flat-bottomed boat, draws my attention. It served as a mean of transport for goods, particularly on the Garonne river.

I arrive in a less dense area but where there are many kakemonos displaying posters. I dive into the content, starting by reading a text that explains how the Dutch dominated the city’s maritime trade in the 17th century, especially for wine. Then, I see a poster dedicated to privateers.

“Pirates in the service of the king of France

At the end of the 17th century, Louis the 14th revives commerce raiding. The aim is to attack merchant vessels of enemy nations. He relies on privateers, coming from Bordeaux for instance.

À la fin du XVIIe siècle, Louis XIV relance la guerre navale de course. Il s’appuie pour cela sur des corsaires, originaires notamment de Bordeaux. Leur mission était d’attaquer les navires de nations ennemies, et en particulier le trafic marchand. In 120 years, there have been around 1,000 Gironde privateers. The names of the most famous of them are before my eyes.

I see in front of me numerous kakemonos waiting to be read. I accelerate and pass by the ones that I’m less interested in before reaching the area about the golden age of the city, the 18th century. I notice a map with arrows of colour illustrating triangular commerce.

Bordeaux, a slave trading port

Between the 17th and the 19th century, trade with colonies, especially Antilles, made Bordeaux France’s leading port. From 1740, the city intensifies its involvement in the triangular commerce. Between 1672 and 1837, the Bordeaux slave trade accounted for 480 identified shipments. It represented a small part – about 5% – of the port’s activity. However, the city indirectly benefited from slavery, through the trade of colonial goods, which were often produced by slaves.

Suddenly, I notice the portrait of a man with a white powdered wig. It’s La Fayette, a marquis who left twice, first from Blaye and then from Bordeaux, to fight alongside the colonies in the American War of Independence.

Then, I notice the delicate face of Montesquieu. I read a book from Alain Juppé about his life. On its main cover, there is the same portrait. I remember that the philosopher of the Enlightenment supported the abolition of slavery.

I move forward while wondering which content to choose. Then several small portraits of the members of the same family catch my eyes. On the text next to them, a word evokes history and exoticism: Cochinchine.

Denis frères : Bordelais in Saigon

With interest, I deep dive into the text. At the middle of the 19th century, Étienne Denis, a sailor from the Bordeaux region, travelled the seas of the globe. He then became a shipowner and created trade posts in Brazil and Peru. In 1859, the French colonisation of Cochinchine, a region of what is today south Vietnam, starts. Étienne Denis builds a sailing ship, La Mouette, which sets sail from Bordeaux in 1862 with two of his four sons on board. The goal: trade colonial goods in the new French colony. They arrive in Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, where they found Maison Denis Frères, a trading office to organize the import and export of goods between Cochinchine and Europe. In 1882, the Denis brothers build a rice mill facility in Saigon to store rice.

Looking up, I see a picture from the middle of the 19th century of La Mouette in Saigon harbour. It must be one of the first photo taken in the city. Right above it there is a drawing that depicts the company headquarter. While admiring the elegant colonial style building standing behind a line of trees, I think about the French Concession in Shanghai. This neighbourhood was under French administration in the second half of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century.

In the Museum of Maritime History of Bordeaux: presentation of Maison Denis Frères

Next to it, I see the name “Balguerie-Stuttenberg” – a famous street of Bordeaux. I come closer to the text introducing this man. Pierre Balguerie was a rich trader, shipowner, and banker from Bordeaux who married the daughter of a Hamburg merchant based in Bordeaux. Hence the German-sounding name “Stuttenberg”! He added his wife’s name to his own. No doubt a very progressive practice at that time.

Further on there is a display case where there are many marine navigation instruments. In particular, I see a golden sextant. I immediately think of Stefan Zweig’s biography of Magellan. When he set out on his expedition, the Portuguese navigator didn’t know where the strait that bears his name was. Before arriving there, he had to grope his way through places where no Westerner had ever been. What’s more, he didn’t use a GPS to find his way, but small instruments similar to the ones I’m looking right now.

The posters display many figures and facts about the harbour activity during the golden age of the Port of the Moon. One of them strikes me: it was the 2nd most important commercial port in the World, after London, in the 18th century. Several paintings from that time depict numerous ships anchored in front of what are today cafés, bars, and shops. The quays must have been teeming with sailors, dockers, and traders. Small boats would unload goods from the vessels.

Still no visitor in sight in the museum. After turning at the back of the room, I notice, hung on a wall, photos of steaming boats. As I come closer, I notice that they have a metal shell. They illustrate the evolution of shipbuilding during the 19th century.

Pictures of ships in the Museum of Maritime History of Bordeaux

A man played a central role in this industry in Bordeaux: Lucien Arman. A text about the shipbuilder teaches me that he sold warships to several foreign nations. Again, I think that the prosperity of the city was founded on ambitious entrepreneurs. Another thought comes to my mind: the shipyards disappeared in Bordeaux.

Then, I notice a fascinating photo that must date from the 1950s. Merchant ships are facing cranes in the middle of the Bordeaux port. This setting matches how I imagine the quays before their transformation, in the early 2000s. However, I had no idea that such imposing ships would stand opposite the elegant 18th-century facades.

Suddenly, I see the entrance door in front of me. There is a display case to my right and posters to my left. I move forward until a presentation on cod fishing. For several decades, until the 1950s, Bordeaux was France’s leading cod fishing port. The fish, caught off the coast of Newfoundland in Canada, arrived in the Bacalan district. It was then dried, mainly in Bègles, next to Bordeaux.

I’m at the entrance again, feeling informed but not exhausted. I spent two hours in the museum that exudes the passion of its founders.

It’s still daylight and the sun is shining. Good conditions for the historical walk along the quays recommended by the person at the reception desk.

Traces of the maritime past

Map of an historical walk along the quays of Bordeaux

After going out, I look for the first step of the itinerary on the map of the website of the historical walk. It’s far away from where I am. Therefore, I decide to walk in the opposite direction, starting by the Bassins à flot.

I thus go up on my bike and head off down a long street that crosses the Chartrons. There, I see modern buildings next to the Bassins à flot. I’m surprised that this site is on the list of places symbolic of Bordeaux’s maritime and port history, because it evokes modernity. Indeed, it has been undergoing a profound transformation for over 10 years. Even if, in my mind, monuments from the 17th, 18th, and 19th century are more interesting, I’m curious to know more about the history of the basins.

I stop on a dock next to a Bassin à flot and take my phone. The water is sparkling under the sun. After the construction of the pont de pierre – Stone Bridge – the ships couldn’t go far into the harbour. As a result, port activity moved further downriver, to the Bassins à flot, which were built in the second half of the 19th century and early 20th century. The boats unloaded their good there. The cranes and rails I see around the Bassins remind me of this past. Unfortunately, the area’s dynamism didn’t last long: from the beginning of the 1930s, the decline of the district’s industrial and port activity began.

I scan the well-designed basins and imagine the efforts required to dig them out with the means of the time. The boats moored here today are pleasure yachts and vessels housing restaurants and nightclubs.

This district doesn’t have the ancient charm of the quays in the centre of Bordeaux, but I like to walk here. First, because it’s away from the city bustle, and also because I like the quietness of the water. Plus, I enjoy the look of some buildings and the atmosphere of renewal.

The Bassins à flot and in the background the submarine base in Bordeaux

I also admire the submarine base behind the docks. The appearance of this enormous grey structure is pretty much the same as when it was built during the Second World War. Then I look at the clock and decide to head back the other way. My next stop, Hangar 14, awaits me.

So I make my way to the quays, where I ride at reduced speed along the edge of a wooden railing. The sunlit river has a silvery sheen, like an ice rink leading to an unknown destination. In the distance, it bends majestically. I can see the tall trees of Parc aux Angéliques blocking my view of the right bank. Their thick green foliage adds a touch of greenery that’s all too rare in the city. After threading my way through the pedestrians strolling along the quays, I catch sight of Hangar 14. This off-white, recumbent quadrilateral is elegant.

The shed replaced the former hall of Delmas-Vieljeux company. I learn that it used to welcome travelers before they boarded intercontinental liners. On the façade facing the Garonne, I admire the false cut-outs – metal staircases bordered by wire netting – reminiscent of boarding. I imagine wealthy travelers descending these stairs in the 1930s.

Stairs of the Hangar 14 in Bordeaux: a step of the historical walk along the quays

This stroll along the quays completes the museum. The visit I did before gave me many points of reference and context. This elements are useful to understand the monuments around me. Plus, unlike the museum, that contains of lot of text content, the guide of walk has concise explanations. It’s enjoyable.

While looking at my phone, I head right in the long street, the cours de la Martinique. It’s part of the urbanization program of Haussmann, prefect of the Gironde in the second half of the 19th century. There, I watch the wide facade of a mysterious building, linked to the rum trade. This beverage contributed to the development of the port, where sugar cane was imported. The city even had multiple rum factories until the 1950s. The building in front of me must be one of them.

Then, on the quays again, I admire the old facades on my right. Even though I’m used to them, I like to take the time to watch them. The elegant buildings form a superb architectural unity all along the quays. No wonder they’re part of the UNESCO World Heritage area.

I’m now on the wide pavement. Like every Sunday, many people take a walk. I avoid them while looking for two “Deutch Houses” presented on the website. Have I noticed them before?

They appear, stuck together and surrounded on both sides by two streets running into the Chatrons. No, I had never noticed them before. Yet their architectural style, that can be found in Amsterdam, is different from the other houses. The buildings have triangular pediments, whereas they’re usually straight and horizontal in Bordeaux. Looking at them, I think of Protestant austerity and imagine rich Dutch merchants dressed in black and wearing hats.

I feel a cool breeze on my hand after taking off my gloves to go through the explanations of the guide. I’m disappointed to see that there’s no pulley on the gable, as is often the case in Amsterdam. The two houses are from the 17th century, a period when foreign merchants – most of them Deutch, German, and English – lived in the “Chartrons suburb”. They are the only two Deutch houses left. It seems a long time ago that Bordeaux was one of Europe’s leading commercial ports. Just look at the absence of cranes and merchant ships, replaced by trendy restaurants and cruise liners. I also learn that Colbert, to put an end to Dutch domination, introduced protectionist measures in favor of Bordeaux merchants and shipowners.

"Deutch houses" at 28-29 quai des Chatrtrons in Bordeaux, a step of the historical walk along the quays

After this historical discovery, I’m getting back in the saddle, with the map in front of me. My next step is the entrepôt Lainé (Lainé warehouse). This dark, rectangular mass stands out from the blond stone from the 18th century. It reminds me of an old prison. As a reminder of what I learned in the museum, the guide explains that Bordeaux was one of the world’s leading port for cocoa trade from the 17th to the 20th century. I can’t help thinking about the Speicherstadt. This district, whose name means “city of warehouses”, is one of my favorites in Hamburg as it evokes the intense port activity of the past centuries. Plus, I like to walk there in the middle of canals and dark brick buildings. Today, you can find there offices, restaurants and carpet import businesses. I tell myself that, contrary to Hamburg, which is still today one of Europe’s leading harbours, Bordeaux saw its port activity decline. It’s down to a few facilities in various locations further down the river. Now that I think about it, I’ve never seen a container ship in the Gironde estuary.

A stream of cars moves slowly at the pace of the traffic lights. The place for them has shrunk over the decades: whereas 30 years ago, vehicles occupied a large part of the quays, now they progress surrounded by passers-by, cyclists, families taking photos on the water mirror, or joggers. The 18th-century buildings keep a watchful eye on this lively scene.

Suddenly, I see the Bourse Maritime building. It looks like the Palais de la Bourse, located not far away. I’ve often asked myself what this organisation is. By reading the book, I learn that it’s been built from 1921 to 1925 at the request of the Chamber of Commerce to house offices. Today, that’s still where the headquarters of port institutions are. However, I don’t manage to find out more about the role of the Bourse Maritime.

I then ride in front of place des Quinconces and then in front of the place de la Bourse. I don’t stop. First because I know their story, and also because I often go there. Then, I arrive in front of the majestic Porte de Bourgogne. The atmosphere is livelier than at the start of my journey. I can hear the noise of passing cars on both sides of the gate, and the chatter of people sitting on café terraces. Despite the cold, I grab my smartphone to find out more about the monument. I learn that it marked the entrance to the town and was originally the medieval Porte des Salinières. Later, it was renamed Porte Napoléon, to commemorate the emperor’s arrival in 1808. Fishermen, used to unload their cargoes here, especially cod. Suddenly, I remember the explanations in the museum about Bordeaux’s cod fishing industry. I imagine the huge quantities of fish spread out in the salt. The surrounding area must have been even more bustling than it is now, with fishermen bringing in their merchandise and buyers and sellers trading back and forth. Now I understand where the gate’s original name comes from: Salinières – where people used salt.

Even though I’m wearing warm shoes, I can feel the cold in my feet. I accelerate until I reach the Porte de la Monnaie. Narrower than the Porte de Bourgogne, it marks the start of a street that runs into the Saint-Michel district. Its name is a reminder that money was minted in Bordeaux between the 7th and 19th centuries. I wonder what technique and metal was used hundreds of years ago: gold, copper or bronze? In any case, the coins must have born the face of the King of France. The guide tells me that the jurats of Bordeaux, a municipal institution responsible for electing the mayor, were responsible for the construction of the gate.

I then pass by the music conservatory, on the Quai Sainte-Croix. I stop to look at the website because I know little about this part of town. The district was once teeming with port activities. In the 18th century, some fifteen sugar refineries were located in Saint-Michel and Sainte-Croix. At the time, Bordeaux was Northern Europe’s leading sugar port. Once again, I appreciate the importance of past prosperity. It’s a shame that the port activity is now reduced. Back then, there must have been an international atmosphere in this gateway to the world. On the other hand, if Bordeaux were still a leading European port today, the city would surely not be as beautiful and pleasant to live in.

Next, I reach the Quai de Paludate. Located close to the station, it lacks the charm of the other parts of the tour. I don’t expect to find anything interesting here. However, I discover a magnificent, imposing castle in a different style from most of the buildings on the quays. It has several towers, two larger ones on each side. In front of its imposing door, I read the guide. Château Descas belonged to a wealthy wine merchant who built it in 1850 to house a huge winery. Closed for over 16 years, it reopened a few weeks ago as a concert hall.

After finishing this last step, I head for the warmth of home.

One advise: visit the museum and do the walk along the quays in two days, otherwise it can be a lot of information to take at once.

Musée de l’Histoire Maritime de Bordeaux – 31 rue Borie, 33300 Bordeaux, open every day from 10am to 12pm and then from 2pm to 6pm

Do you know a little-known museum, in Bordeaux or elsewhere, that deserves to be visited? What are you favorite historical places on and around the quays of Bordeaux?

Tell me in the comments!

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