Construction of the Languedoc Canal Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Languedoc Canal provided a practical link between the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts of France and enhanced the economic development of the Languedoc region. The canal was the greatest European engineering project undertaken since the fall of the Roman Empire.

Summary of Event

In early 1681, French workmen dug the final stretches of the Languedoc Canal, and in mid-May of that year a procession of two boats and twenty-three barges set out from the French city of Toulouse on the Garonne River, across southern France, to the port of Sète on the Mediterranean Sea. It was now possible to transport goods by water directly between the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts of France. [kw]Construction of the Languedoc Canal (1665-1681) [kw]Canal, Construction of the Languedoc (1665-1681) [kw]Languedoc Canal, Construction of the (1665-1681) Engineering;1665-1681: Construction of the Languedoc Canal[2190] Architecture;1665-1681: Construction of the Languedoc Canal[2190] Economics;1665-1681: Construction of the Languedoc Canal[2190] Trade and commerce;1665-1681: Construction of the Languedoc Canal[2190] Transportation;1665-1681: Construction of the Languedoc Canal[2190] France;1665-1681: Construction of the Languedoc Canal[2190] Languedoc Canal Engineering;Languedoc Canal

Also known as the Canal du Midi (Midi Canal) or the Canal Royale des Deux Mers (Canal of the Two Seas), the Languedoc Canal was a dream long before it became a reality. French king Francis I had envisioned linking the two coasts by digging a canal between two partially navigable rivers, the Garonne and the Aude, and had sought the advice of renowned Italian artist and inventor Leonardo da Vinci in 1516. Subsequently, King Henry IV undertook construction of the shorter Briare Canal in northern France (finished in 1642), but it was only under the later reign of King Louis XIV Louis XIV;Languedoc Canal and that the Languedoc Canal actually came into being.

The prime mover behind the new canal was businessman and tax collector Pierre-Paul de Riquet de Bonrepos, Riquet de Bonrepos, Pierre-Paul de who had been intrigued with the possibility of linking the Atlantic and the Mediterranean since his childhood. Consulting with Pierre Campmas, Campmas, Pierre who oversaw the water supply of the town and district of Revel, and François Andreossy, Andreossy, François a professional engineer trained in Paris, Riquet chose what appeared to be the most practical route for such a link. Riquet then approached French controller general Jean-Baptiste Colbert Colbert, Jean-Baptiste in 1662 with an outline of his scheme.

Subsequently a royal commission was appointed, and Riquet was required in 1665 to dig a small test canal to confirm the practicality of channeling water to the route’s high point. Colbert was then able to secure royal financing in 1666, to which Riquet initially added a very substantial amount of his own fortune.

In the past, shallow or otherwise unnavigable rivers had sometimes been fitted with “flash locks.” In this system, the water level behind a dam was allowed to rise, at which time narrow gates were opened. Boats or barges then swept through if they were headed downstream or were pulled through with ropes if headed upstream—methods that were dangerous or slow, depending on the vessel’s direction. For his canal, Riquet utilized “pound” locks, which enclosed a body of water only slightly larger than a typical boat between two gates. This system, which may have been introduced to France by Leonardo da Vinci on his 1516 visit and which was utilized in the Briare Canal, allowed the water level to be adjusted quickly, safely, and efficiently.

The Languedoc Canal eventually stretched 150 miles (241 kilometers) between Toulouse and Sète and involved 101 locks. It rose 207 feet (64 meters) from Toulouse to its summit, only to fall 620 feet (189 meters) by the time it reached the Mediterranean coast. Riquet’s engineers and workmen built three aqueducts to carry the canal over rivers and 139 bridges to allow road traffic to cross the canal. A special channel was cut through the lagoon of the Étang de Thau to carry the canal to its eastern terminus, the new port of Sète, the construction of which had begun in 1666. Trees were planted along the canal’s towpaths to shade the animals and men destined to pull the canal’s vessels.

Throughout the project, Riquet faced difficulties that at the time appeared insurmountable to most of his contemporaries. His canal was to be a “watershed” or “summit level” canal, meaning that it would cross the high point between two large drainage systems. Thus, one of the most formidable obstacles to its success involved assuring a constant supply of water. Riquet solved the problem by constructing what would be the largest dam of its time, the Saint-Ferreol, on the Laudot River in the Montagne Noire (Black Mountain) massif. This immense dam created a reservoir capable of feeding the canal for most, if not quite all, of the year.

Faced with an unstable ridge near his hometown of Béziers, Riquet set his men to work digging the 540-foot (165-meter) Malpas Tunnel, creating the first canal tunnel in history—a feat said to have taken only six days! At Fonserannes, again near Béziers, Riquet designed a steep, eight-step “staircase” of locks, allowing a vessel to pass vertically through almost 64.5 feet (about 19.5 meters) within the brief horizontal span of 919 feet (280 meters).

Besides being a visionary and an indefatigable worker, Riquet was a generous master. When construction was at its peak, he employed some 12,000 workers, many of them women, and is said to have paid them the equivalent of a months’ salary for a six-day workweek, which they received in spite of sickness or bad weather. Toward the end of the project, Riquet lost the backing of the French government and was forced to sell most of his property to finance the remainder of the canal. When he died on October 1, 1680, less than two miles (three kilometers) remained to be dug. The job was completed under the supervision of his son Mathias, and the canal was opened with great ceremony on May 15 the following year.

Significance

The Languedoc Canal had been the greatest European engineering project undertaken since the fall of the Roman Empire more than a millennium before. Built soon after the completion of the Briare Canal, it incorporated the technological lessons learned from the earlier project and involved several advances of its own. Linking the Garonne River (and thus the Atlantic coast) with the Mediterranean Sea, the new canal saved French merchants the time, danger, and expense of sailing around their problematic neighbor Spain, which levied a duty on all goods transported through the Strait of Gibraltar. Vessels on the canal carried not only wine, oil, leather, and textiles but also passengers—more than 100,000 per year by the mid-nineteenth century.

Pierre-Paul de Riquet de Bonrepos had anticipated that the canal would enrich the inhabitants of the towns through which it passed, and had accordingly insisted that such towns help defray the enormous costs of the project. Yet it was only in 1724 that the canal managed to pay for itself, after which all profits passed on to Riquet’s descendants. During the second half of the nineteenth century, however, the canal began to suffer from competition with railroads and went into decline, a situation that its acquisition by the French government in 1898 did little to halt.

On December 7, 1996, UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) declared the Languedoc Canal a World Heritage Site. Many later engineering projects of its scale have been purely utilitarian in design, but the Languedoc Canal winds gracefully through the southern French countryside, its locks, aqueducts, and bridges designed to please the eye as well as meet the practicalities of commerce. No cargo has passed through the canal since 1979, but boats and barges carry an ever-increasing number of tourists and sightseers every year.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bordry, François. “A Canal in Southern France.” UNESCO Courier 50 (September, 1997): 37-38. An overview published soon after the canal became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Illustrated with color photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Geiger, Reed G. Planning the French Canals: Bureaucracy, Politics, and Enterprise Under the Restoration. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1994. Geiger’s second chapter, “The French Canals to 1815: An Ambiguous Tradition,” surveys the early development of canals in the country. Includes notes, maps, bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hadfield, Charles. World Canals: Inland Navigation Past and Present. New York: Facts on File, 1986. Extensive, well-organized historical survey with several pages devoted to the Languedoc Canal. Includes numerous maps and black-and-white illustrations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mukerji, Chandra. “Cartography, Entrepreneurialism, and Power in the Reign of Louis XIV: The Case of the Canal du Midi.” In Merchants and Marvels: Commerce, Science, and Art in Early Modern Europe, edited by Pamela H. Smith and Paula Findlen. New York: Routledge, 2002. This work treats the canal as an entrepreneurial project and as an experiment in visual representation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Payne, Robert. The Canal Builders: The Story of Canal Engineers Through the Ages. New York: Macmillan, 1959. A survey placing the Languedoc Canal in historical context. Includes black-and-white illustrations and a select bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rolt, L. T. C. From Sea to Sea: The Canal du Midi. London: Allen Lane, 1973. The standard account in English, detailed but very readable. Supplemented by maps, illustrations, appendices (including a complete listing of locks), and a short bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Smyth, Andrew. “The Canal du Midi.” History Today 53, no. 8 (August, 2003): 5-6. An overview of the project by the author of a guidebook to travel on the canal. Illustrated with color photographs.
Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Seventeenth Century</i>

Jean-Baptiste Colbert; Louis XIV. Languedoc Canal Engineering;Languedoc Canal

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