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Wednesday, June 02, 2010


I don’t know if you know this, but the French have long been obsessed with finding a way around Spain. A trip from the French port of Marseille, on the Meditrerranean, to the French port of Bordeaux, on the Atlantic, covers 1,500 miles – a month’s long voyage in the age of sail, through storm tossed pirate infested seas. In the first century Roman engineeers schemed with the idea of building a canal, from the Gulf of Lion, following the River Herault north toward the Montagne Noir – the black mountain -  through a pass called the Collar of Naurouze, and then dropping down to Toulouse, at the head of navigation on the River Garone, and via that river north 180 miles to the Atlantic. There was just one thing missing from this grandious and brilliant solution of a canal; water.
See, the thing about the Mediterranean coast of France is that the climate is Meditrranean; it has short, mild, wet winters, and very long and very dry summers. Every river in southern France shrinks in August, some years drying up completely. And a canal without water is not a canal. Even Leonardo da Vinci, asked by the King of France to come up with a workable solution in 1516, failed because of the lack of water. A century later, in 1618, the Council for the Languedoc province in southern France sat through yet another sales pitch for a canal, this time from huckster nammed Bernard Arrobat. The Council voted it down, in part because of arguments presented by William Riguiet, the povincal prosecutor. But witnessing that sales pitch was the prosector’s young son, Pierre-Paul Requiet, and he was sold.
Pierre inherited property from his father, and in 1630 he bribed himself into an appointment as the Controller of the Languedoc gabels, which was the tax on salt. Now, every French citizen above the age of eight was required to buy a minimum amount of salt each week from the state. The price varied from provence to province, and could be as high was as 12% of a families’ income. The King received 40% of this money, off the top. From the remaining 60%, the Controller paid the costs for collecting and enforcing the tax, and then pocketed the profits. It was a system designed to be gamed. From his profits, Pierre not only paid for a wife and three daughters and two sons, but a fancy house in Toulouse. But he spent most of his time in the village of Revel, next to the Montagne Noir
Pierre’s had never forgotten that sales pitch, and hired experts to comb the mountain above Revel, looking for the water needed to build a canal. And in 1661, he claimed to have found it. According to Pierre, a stone had fallen from a minture dam he had built across a stream on the Montagne Noir. As the water poured out, it divided, half flowing north (toward the Atlantic) and half south (toward the Meditrranean), and a leaf in the pond was left spinning, unable to decide which way to go. It was a typically French moment of inspriration, poetic and lyrical and probably made up, but it did lead to a serious mistake.
The mistake was the Basin of Naurouze, a huge 8 sided water tank embeded in the ground, which Pierre porposed to build at the site of his test dam. It would be fed by numerous mountain streams, and once filled would provide the year round water supply for the canal.
Pierre took his plan to the King’s Minister of Finance, Jean Baptiste Colbert. This guy was a genius with money, who once observed that “The art of taxation consists in so plucking the goose as to obtain the largest amount of feathers with the least possible amount of hissing”. That was "truthyness" in the extreme. But Colbert knew nothing about canals, so he asked the advice of the formost hydrolical engineer in France, Chevalier de Clerville.
Chevalier took one look at Pierre’s Basin Naurouze and knew immediately it would never work. Instead he proposed an artificial lake in the Laudot valley at St. Ferreol, higher up in the mountains. And since Pierre needed Clerville’s approval to open the King’s check book, Pierre agreed to build the reservoir, so long as he also got to build his Basin. Colbert thereupon approved Pierre’s plan, with a couple of catches. First, only the southern half of the canal would be built initially, because of the expense. And second, the King would finance the project only if Pierre kicked in the first 25%. That way, if it turned out Pierre didn’t know what he was doing, it wouldn’t cost the King a single livres. And that is why Colbert was a financial genius.
Pierre was not. He was so obsessed with building the canal, he might as well have been a complete fool about everything else. On March 1st, 1667 the Council of Languedoc loaned Pierre 2 ½ million livres to begin construction, and on April 16, the first earth was moved for the dam at St Ferreol...
and the Basin Naurouze...
and first bricks were laid for the locks at Toulouse.
In all the 240 mile long canal would have 103 locks. It would cross several rivers, and it would have to build two aqueducts so rivers could cross the canal. Since Pierre had found the money to get started, the King had to cough up 3 ½ million livres to finish the canal. Other investors, pressured by the King, provided the rest of the 15 million livers, but the canal (along with his other expensive construction projects) would bankrupt the King. It did not bankrupt Colbert, bit it also bankrupted Pierre.
The terms of that 8 year loan from his friends at the Council would prove to be crushing. Pierre had to sell off most of his property to meet the interest payments, and eventually he even had to cash in all three of his daughter’s dowries to meet refinance extensions. For 14 years, 12,000 workers sweated and strained with picks and shovels – over a thousand of them women – to reach the Mediterranean at the little port of Sete.
When Pierre died in 1680, at the age of 71, he still owed 2 million livres, and his canal was still a mile and a-half short of completion. His sons were forced to sell half of their interest in the canal to finish it, and it would take a century before they could pay off the debts.
But of course, once the canal, originally called the Canal Royal de Languedoc, was finished on May 15, 1681, Pierre got credit for the whole thing, including the Basin of St. Ferreol...
and the Malpas tunnel, the first tunnel built using explosives. Both of those innovations were designed by and forced on Pierre by Chevalier de Clerville. But Chevalier is just a footnote in history.
Worse, a few years after the canal’s completion, Pierre’s center piece, the Basin Naurouze was abandoned. It had been a failure for just the reason Clerville said it would be; the tank kept filling with sediment. But on the monument eventually erected in 1825 by his sons near the site of the abandoned and dismantled Basin Naurouze, there is no mention of any mistakes.
And every school child in France knows that the Canal du Midi – as it is known today – was built by the genius and drive of one man only, Pierre-Paul Requit.
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