St Tropez History: Pirates & Painters

While St Tropez was put on the international jetset destination map by Brigitte Bardot and the celebrities that followed, it has a long and interesting history that spans far farther than the 1950s. The present incarnation of the city is actually more than 500 years old and over the centuries it has been shaped by its seafarers. Thanks to its fishermen, captains, and crews, Saint-Tropez was renowned in all the world’s ports, and, as a result, some of history’s most admired sailors dropped anchor in this Provencal town.

An Abandoned St Tropez Gets New Life

The history of Saint-Tropez began in 1470 when the nobleman Raphael de Garessio organized the repopulation of Saint-Tropez at the request of Jean Cossa, the feudal overlord for the Gulf of Grimaud. Like many parishes in Provence, Saint-Tropez had been abandoned by its residents after wars, epidemics, and famines-the three scourges of the Middle Ages.

The first Tropezians arrived from Italy or nearby villages, and they built their houses around the partially demolished castle tower, which is now the Chateau Suffren on the Place de la Mairie . It was initially a small village with only three streets: rue du Portalet, rue du Puits, and rue Saint-Esprit, all of which still exist today.

The Port and the Decimation of the Seabed

Little by little, the port in St Tropez developed and surpassed the nearby Port of Cavalaire, which had been active since ancient times. The town experienced remarkable growth throughout the 16th century and attracted both sailors and merchants.

A century passed before the lands located between the sea and the towns of Gassin and Ramatuelle began to be cultivated. Vineyards dominated to the extent that the quantity of wine produced quickly grew to be more than what was needed for the local population. The Tropezians, who were already looking out to sea, began to export it to Provence and the ports of Italy. The sailors also exported everything that the Massif des Maures had to offer, such as wood, cork, or chestnuts.

Alongside this coastal shipping activity, a substantial fishing industry began to develop. The small fishing businesses caught the fish the locals ate each day; and then, from the 17th century onwards, large fishing companies used “madrague” traps to catch tuna.

The maritime economy also included the prestigious yet destructive red coral harvesting industry, with the coral torn from the rocky depths where the Massif des Maures met the azure waters of the Mediterranean. The harvesting was done by free-diving for the coral closest to the surface or, more frequently, with the help of a “Croix de Saint-Andre”, a metal cross with nets that was dragged across the seabed to rip up the deeper coral.

  • Madrague was also the term used for fishermen’s storage houses. It is oddly symbolic that this name, reminiscent of the violent fishing that once saw the sea redden with the blood of the tuna, became world-famous after one of these fishermen’s homes, La Madrague, was bought by the legendary animal rights activist Brigitte Bardot.

In the 1540s, Tropezian coral harvesters were recruited by boats from Marseille to capture this ‘red gold’ off the coasts of North Africa. While this harvesting was extremely and permanently damaging to sea-life, the coral industry further contributed to the enrichment of the town, which counted nearly 4000 residents by the end of the 16th century.

Pirates, Fear and Slavery

In the 1510s, pirates called ‘the Barbarossa brothers’ (one of whom became famous as “Red Beard”), were in the service of the Sultan of Constantinople. They initiated decades of Muslim piracy along the Christian coastlines, and Saint-Tropez did not escape these depredations.

Throughout the 1500s, men, women and children were kidnapped and held for ransom, or sold into slavery. Many Tropezians, including women and children, were taken and sold into slavery in North Africa. Some managed to escape; others died in captivity, and others, either willingly or unwillingly, were converted to the Muslim religion and became privateers.

This menace was the main reason for the development of the “milice bourgeoise”, the part-time militia that still exists today in the form of the Corps de Bravade. Initially, this civil guard was commanded by the lord or by an ‘honorable man’ in the absence of the lord. From the 1510s onwards, the lord, who did not often reside in Saint-Tropez, gradually abandoned his military obligations. In 1558, the municipal authorities decided to compensate for this void and took charge of the town’s defense by appointing a “town captain” each year.

  • Nostradamus recalls this insidious and almost permanent danger that threatened residents and sailors in one of his celebrated quatrains: “Not far from the port, plunder and shipwreck. From La Cieutat to the Stecades islands. To Saint Trope, great merchandise swims. Barbaric hunting on the shore and villages.”

Despite the dangers of piracy, the 16th century was still a century of growth for the town and its residents. However, the following century would be a century of crisis…

The beautiful period of growth began to slow in the 1600s. Piracy was at its height and a large part of the Tropezian fleet was captured. The archives tell us that from 1607 to 1625, 22 ships, single-mast boats, and barques were seized or burned by the Barbary pirates. The city became impoverished and lost nearly 1500 residents. The poorly dredged port gradually filled with silt.

The situation seemed just as catastrophic in the middle of the century. By the 1660s, the fleet was reduced to a few single-mast vessels and small fishing boats. But, like all crises, this one passed, and a recovery was underway by the end of the century.

A New Empire

The 18th century was marked by a new period of development, as many Tropezians turned to the Ottoman Empire. The Turks no longer had control of the seas and had seen their maritime trade decline. For them, the only solution was to charter ships from the King of France, their sole ally in the Mediterranean thanks to the peace treaty signed between Francois I and Sulieman the Magnificent in 1536.

Strange as it may seem, since this confrontation unfolded between Christians and Muslims, it was the Provencal ships, and in particular the Tropezian ones, that ensured the maritime safety of the goods and people of the Turkish Empire. Some of these sailors would become the heads of great sea-faring dynasties.

It was an endeavor that required the experience of the sailors from this small Provencal town. Like other boats based along the Provencal coast, the Tropezian sailors served the Sultan’s subjects by transporting goods and people across the Empire. The local sailors primarily conducted this coastal trade in the eastern basin of the Mediterranean and they often spent half their lives in the east.

War, and Battles for Thrones…

The 18th century was also marked by the “Systeme des Classes” maritime conscription program. This practice, set up by Jean-Baptiste Colbert during Louis XIV’s reign at the end of the previous century, consisted of the state drafting French sailors according to the needs of the royal navy. As a result, the king’s ships had crews made up of fishermen, shipyard workers, and commercial seamen, all supervised by officers who were mainly from the noble classes.

With approximately two-thirds of its men involved in maritime activities, Saint-Tropez was a fertile ground for conscripting sailors. It isn’t surprising that so many of them were called to Toulon to embark on warships. There were more than 200 Tropezians at the Battle of Velez-Malaga in 1704, during the War of the Spanish Succession, when France supported Philip V-the grandson of Louis XIV-against the other European claims to the Spanish throne.

It is difficult to overstate the role of Saint-Tropez in the French royal navy. Some battles involved 10% of the town’s population and more than 60% of its active sailors. More than 500 local sailors took part in the American War of Independence from 1778 to 1784, while more than a 100 were involved in the tragic Battle of the Nile between the British and French fleets in 1798. There were also more than 70 local men present off the coast of Crimea during the Crimean War in 1854. Despite the decline in the number of sailors, many locals were still in navy uniforms during the two world wars.

The Decline and Rebirth of St Tropez

The 19th century was marked by a certain decline, one that Eugene Sue illustrates vividly, and with a touch of irony, in his novel The Salamander: “Quiet and old Saint-Tropez, home of a brave admiral, of the noble Suffren! All that is left of your former splendor are these two towers, reddened by a blazing sun, cracked and ruined, but adorned with green ivy crowns and garlands of blue-flowered bindweeds… And you too, poor port of Saint-Tropez, we can also pity you! For it is no longer those dashing ships with scarlet banners that anchor in your deserted waters; no, it is sometimes a heavy merchant ship or a meager skiff; and if luck has it, a thin schooner, with a narrow bodice tight as a bee, comes to collapse in the shelter of your breakwater, and the entire town is thrown into a state of emotion.”

Eugene Sue sensed that a page of the city’s history was being turned. The glorious voyages in the service of the Turks were definitely a distant memory. Yet even though Eugene Sue was an enlightened connoisseur of maritime history, he seemed to overlook the fact that there were still countless men sailing the world’s seas, from the coasts of Africa to the West Indies.

When his novel appeared in 1832, Saint-Tropez was looking for a future, and it would be the vitality of the Annonciade shipyards that helped restore the city’s glory in the middle of the century. While the shipyards in La Ciotat and La Seyne specialized in the construction of steel-hulled steamers, Saint-Tropez met the demand for wooden sailing boats. The Tropezians would build bigger and bigger boats. Their brigs and three-masted sailing ships would gain renown across the country’s southern ports, and Tropezian builders sold their boats to captains from Agde to Antibes.

the straight of gibraltar, where tropezians would often sail

While the second half of the 19th century saw many Tropezians gradually turn away from the sea, there was still a considerable number pursuing the trade of their ancestors. They passed through the Strait of Gibraltar aboard large three-masted ships that traveled from the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea, navigated the African coasts from Goree to Zanzibar, and frequented the ports of Havana, New York, Valparaiso, or San Francisco.

Travelers visiting Saint-Tropez mostly noticed the fishermen returning to the quay every day to dry and repair their nets while their wives sold the fish. They were oblivious to the fuller story behind the lives of these seafarers. This is how the myth of the charming little fishing port was born, even though up until the 1920s, captains from Saint-Tropez commanded some of the finest vessels of the French merchant navy.

At the same time, the small town began to attract those seeking peace and quiet. Emile Ollivier, the last prime minister for Napoleon Ill, opened the way, succumbing to the charms of Saint-Tropez as early as 1862. He was followed at the end of the century by Octave Borrelli, the one-time governor of Egypt, who had a large castle built which still bears his name.

The Fashionable and Artistic Crowd…

The South of France has famously enjoyed a long association with a gamut of talented painters who have all flocked to the region to seek inspiration from the Provencal colors, light and views. Saint Tropez has been a particular favorite among great artistic masters such as Matisse, Picasso and Signac who all came to the sleepy fishing village at some point in their career and were inspired to create some of their best works.

The history of the painters in the town is well known, but there were also the writers, and then the filmmakers arrived after the First World War, settling in Saint-Tropez and around the gulf. This is how Saint-Tropez changed its face once again.

Soon the little port became very fashionable, and in 1926 the celebrated showman and Parisian theater manager Leon Volterra moved in and acquired what became Chateau Volterra. Monsieur Léon Volterra was a larger-than-life theater impressario from Paris who, during a visit to Saint-Tropez, which already a gathering place for the stars of the day, was swept off his feet by a local siren, Simone, a fisherman’s daughter. They were married within the year.

When elected mayor of Saint-Tropez in 1936, Léon Volterra had little time for his official functions and left matters in Simone’s capable hands. “The Lady Mayoress”, as she became known, was a popular figure in the area, a tireless promoter of its cultural life and, evidently, an indefatigable hostess.

The Volterra’s marriage fell apart shortly after the war but Madame Volterra remained at the Château, selling off parcels of land to make ends meet. She continued to welcome actors, painters and writers to the Château, and each year at Christmas, threw it open to the entire village of Ramatuelle. In later years, she became an ardent supporter of the village’s annual open-air theater festival at which, until her death in 1989, she occupied a front-row seat for every performance.

Many films would be shot in the town. Some directors would come to tell a story set in Provence, such as Jean Choux, who shot La Servante (“The Servant”) in 1929. Jean Godard’s film Pour un soir…! (“for a night”), which was shot in the town in 1931, magnificently illustrates the Saint-Tropez of the Roaring Twenties, a Saint-Tropez that would only last a few more years. From 1935 to 1941, Volterra became mayor of Saint-Tropez, making the town even more notoriously glamorous.

After the Second World War, Saint-Tropez would become more fashionable than ever. The filmmakers returned and in 1955 the film And God Created Women was released and caused quite the controversy (here’s the complete story about that).

Brigitte Bardot in the port of St Tropez

From then on, the entire world, from all spheres of society, would know of Saint-Tropez, as a glamorous destination where the newest fashions are on display and where masterpieces and lovable B-movies continued to be filmed.

Nowadays, it’s impossible not to notice the parking lot full of European luxury cars as well as the easy-on-the-eyes crowd. If lucky, one can easily spot the likes of Beyonce, Angelina Jolie, Naomi Campbell, Kate Moss, Ralph Lauren, and other A-list celebrities.

To this day, the port remains the most famous marina in the world, and the peninsula remains, despite real environmental degradation due to overcrowding, one of the most preserved and least artificial corners in the South of France. It is clear that behind this festive, celebrated image lies a rich and more intimate history: that of the Tropezians who, generation after generation, have made the Saint-Tropez of today.

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