History of the port

Ecluse de la Citadelle en 1853

Until the 18th century

The history of the port of Dunkirk is one of contrasts, marked down the centuries by rivalries with the fleets and ports of Belgium, Holland and England, and by an ambiguous attitude on the part of the government which sometimes favoured Antwerp to the detriment of Dunkirk, causing a decline in industrial activity, and at other times gave strong support to its development, leading to a spectacular growth in traffic and industrial activity.

 The port started out as a centre of herring fishing under the Counts of Flanders in the 11th century. But it was only after 1350, as a result of contacts with Holland and England, that it began to engage in commercial traffic; as noted by a Dunkirk historian, "At the time Dunkirk was just the small port between Gravelines and Nieuport, and merchant ships did not know the way to it". In the 16th century the ships of Dunkirk took to the seas to engage in privateering. They attacked the Normans, the people of Dieppe, the fishermen of Fécamp and Tréport, and the English. At the time the port consisted only of its entrance, comprising two jetties 350 metres long, and a 450-metre-long quay to the left. In the first part of 17th century, under Spanish domination, the port hardly developed at all.

 The Spanish domination of Dunkirk ended in 1658. This was also the year of the famous Battle of the Dunes, in which the French and English allies retook the city, but Louis XIV had to wait four more years before purchasing it permanently from Charles II of England. There then began an era of major works for the port which prefigured the present-day Eastern Port. A channel was built, under the aegis of Vauban, bordered by two jetties of 1,200 metres. Louis XIV declared Dunkirk a free port so that "all merchants, traders … of any nation, might there unload, sell and retail their goods freely and clear of all entry duties ... and that the said merchants might purchase all goods freely". This privilege was renewed nine times until the eve of the revolution; the people of Dunkirk took advantage of it to trade with the French "islands" of America, Spain, Portugal, Morocco and Guinea, and then, at the end of the century, with the Baltic ports.

 This was also the time when Dunkirk's piracy was encouraged by Vauban and several of Louis XIV's ministers. One of these pirates was Jean Bart (1650 – 1702), who captured countless ships, seizing millions of livres for the Admiralty. He is an emblematic figure for Dunkirk.

 However, the huge losses inflicted by the pirates on the English and Dutch merchant fleets put France in a vulnerable position during the War of Spanish Succession, so that the English were able to force Louis XIV's hand diplomatically when the Treaty of Utrecht was implemented in 1713. The Treaty stipulated that "The Most Christian King shall have the fortifications of the city of Dunkirk demolished, the harbour filled up, and the locks ruined", and put an end to any significant maritime traffic. All that was left of this port city, about which Louis XIV said "Dunkirk will be the fairest place in the world", was a harbour that was no longer serviceable and was practically inaccessible.

 During the reign of Louis XV works were undertaken to restore and repair the quays and docks.

 From the mid-18th century onwards Dunkirk enjoyed a little peace and prosperity; in this climate, its population grew, new industries were created (glasswork, faience pottery and cloth manufacture) and it acquired a Stock Exchange. But the Seven-Years War put an end to this slight improvement; the channel, the dock and the lock, built in 1757 on the initiative of the Prince of Croy were destroyed by the English.

 Louis XVI wanted to repair Dunkirk, but in 1784, due to the difficulties of the local financial situation, the government placed the port under the control of the Ministry of Civil Engineering. 

 The years of the Revolution brought great changes to Dunkirk. The withdrawal of its free-port status, food restrictions and the siege of the city in 1793 led to its depopulation and a sharp drop in the activity of the port.