Industrial heritage: the dry dock of Fort-de-France

tanlistwa, bassin de radoub, Fort-de-France, Drydock, Martinique

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Every year, I watch the « Journées européennes du patrimoine (JEP) » [European Heritage Days] programme to see if any unusual sites are exceptionally open. At this game, I have already been able to visit the Société anonyme de la raffinerie des Antilles (SARA) [oil refinery], the water autocurage station of Fort-de-France, the Bouliki water pumping station, Fort Desaix (less unusual, but rarely opened)… and, in this year 2019, I discovered: the « bassin de radoub » [dry dock] of Fort-de-France! Today, I am talking to you about this essential place for the construction, maintenance and repair of ships.

The dry dock of Fort-de-France, classified as a historical monument since 2015

For safety reasons, the #JEP2019 public does not have direct access to the site, but is welcomed by a representative of ENA (current basin manager) on the 3rd floor of the port car park (at the interisland terminal). This allows you to overlook the dock and get a good overview. Nowadays, the dry dock belongs to the seaport; it is still in operation and is operated by ENA until 2025. During the commentary, I learned that the site was classified as a Historic Monument in 2015. I didn’t know that. So I went to do some research to find out more about the history of this site.

The file for classification of the Direction des affaires culturelles (DAC) specifies: « The list of historical monuments includes the refit basin and the cannons (the cut-stone and concrete parts, as well as the cannons in the ground around the basin, the muskets), excluding the moving elements: Ship-gate, hoists, capstans, and the harbour master. »

Radoub & carénage : refit in the 17th and 18th centuries at Fort-Royal (Fort-de-France)

The refit basin as we see it today was built in the 19th century, but since the 17th century, administrative correspondence has referred to refit activities at Fort Royal, in other words, to the maintenance and repair of ships, particularly their hulls.

Excerpt from a letter from the Intendant in 1689 requesting equipment for the careening of ships

In 1689, the Intendant of the Island wrote about the need for equipment to refit the King’s ships (view 714). The administrators also mentioned the problems of filling the fairing of the cul-de-sac of Fort-Royal in 1691 (view 619); the request for a gratuity from the harbour master and the need for a carpenter and a caulker in 1693 (view 775); or the need to dredge the fairing following the clearing of the surrounding hills which led to earth flows in 1696 (view 533). In the 18th century, a letter from the harbour master relates tests made in 1714 of a new composition for the careening of ships (view 609) and in January 1739 a letter from the intendant is entirely devoted to the need to build a dock to protect the careening basin of Fort Royal, to send a machine to clean the very silted port, to build a jetty to protect the savannah against the encroachment of the sea.

All these themes are recurrent in correspondence regarding the need for the port, as the city of Fort Royal, the administrative capital, is politically and militarily strategic and the bay also provides a safe haven for boats during cyclones.

The dry dock of Fort-de-France in the 19th and 20th centuries

The project for the Fort-de-France dock, long imagined, did not come out of the ground until 1864, the year in which the first stone was laid. Four years later, on May 6, 1868, the inauguration of this so-called Vauban style dock took place. The DAC file (which I invite you to read for more details if you are confortable with Frenc) specifies that a movement of construction and development of similar basins took place at the same period and probably influenced its design: Toulon in 1854, Lorient in 1854, Cherbourg in 1858 and Rochefort between 1853 and 1861.

In the 20th century, during the Second World War, the use of concrete was added to Kersanton stone and andesite; it extended the basin, increasing its total length to 180 metres in 1942 and 200 metres in 1950. The Fort-de-France refit dock is one of the few areas with the capacity to accommodate large vessels in the Lesser Antilles.

Often when I think of Martinique’s classified industrial heritage, it is the infrastructure of old sugar houses or distilleries that comes to mind: mill, dry off ovens, purgeries, alembic, vats for cooking sugars…. The classification of the Fort-de-France dry dock is there to remind us that this heritage is more extensive. And you, did you know that the dry dock of Fort-de-France was classified as a Historic Monument? Do you know of other industrial sites classified in the Caribbean outside of Estate and distilleries? Have you visited any unusual places on the occasion of the European Heritage Days?

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