1517 to 1815: From military port to commercial port

Founded by François I in 1517, the port of Le Havre underwent multiple extensions before seeing its commercial role take precedence over its initial military vocation.
- Direction territoriale du Havre

Published on

1517 – 1815: From naval port to port of trade

In the year 1517, when king François 1 decided to create Le Havre "to safeguard the ships and vessels of our subjects that do sail forth upon the ocean sea", he had a dual objective: on the one hand to build a port capable of satisfying the new developments in international trade, and commerce across the Atlantic in particular; and on the other, to reinforce the defences protecting the estuary of the Seine, severely affected by more than 200 years of English attacks and occupation.

The position of the new port on the Western coastline of Europe was advantageous for trade ("In Le Havre, facing the Atlantic" as Alfred de Musset described it in "The Poet"), and easily accessible to shipping.

The site that was finally selected, however, was not as auspicious: a peninsula formed by the conjunction of offshore sand bars, beaches of pebbles transported by the tide and deposits of fine sediment, criss-crossed by channels. Although the two ports of Harfleur and Leure were immediate neighbours in time and space, the same sediment prevented their survival by regularly invading the channels with each tide.

The first development scheme for the port included:

  • the creation of a sluice through the pebble beach for access to the existing creeks that formed the embryo of the outer harbour and the future King’s basin (‘Bassin du Roy’); the sluice was protected by two towers, including François 1 tower on the northern side;
  • the construction of a quay 64 m long, of low height (at that time and for many decades, ships were built to withstand stranding for long periods, only refloating at high tide for the particularly long time of 2 to 3 hours specific to bay of the Seine); 
  • a canal connecting the new port to Harfleur.

Work started on the scheme in April 1517 and was completed in 1524, except for the canal, which was not finished until the following century. From the very start, the port had to battle against the pebbles and sand that invaded the estuary, driven by the sluicing effect from the dike for the Leure moat and the main sandbar (the future Barre basin), an effect increased by the first groins along the coastline.

During the 16th century, the physiognomy of the harbour facilities changed very little, but fortifications and a first citadel were built around them. It was during the 17th century that further alterations were made, instigated by Richelieu and Colbert in particular. A new citadel replaced the first in 1627, in the eastern section of the port. 

In the King’s basin, which was still reserved for use by the Royal Navy, new quays were mason-built; the access sluice was equipped with a lock-gate in 1667/69. An arsenal was constructed in 1669, and several hundred ships were built in it up to 1823.
In 1626, the dike of the main sandbar was opened to shipping. 
In 1669, Colbert and Vauban inaugurated the canal connecting the port of Le Havre and the port of Harfleur; it helped drain the land it crossed, supplied the sluice-docks with water and enabled the establishment of industries using waterways for transport. 

In the 17th century, ship-owners were attracted to Le Havre by the cod trade in particular. During the 18th century, traffic in the port diversified and developed, in particular with the slave trade, such that by the time of the French Revolution in 1789, the port was highly prosperous. 

It was during this period, at the turn of century and the boom in trade, that the first ambitious extension plan for the port was adopted: the Lamandé plan (1787) was launched between 1789 and 1815. 

Until the end of the 18th century, business was dominated by military concerns, commercial shipping only became of importance with the development of the port of Rouen, further upstream and inland: with the decline of the ports of Harfleur and Leure, the ship-owners and traders in Rouen became increasingly dependent on the outport in the estuary: ships of more than 180 tons could not sail up the Seine river and had to tranship their goods in Le Havre.