The Port’s History

From its Origins to the 18th Century

 In the Iron Age, Nantes is a trading post inhabited by the Namnetes. It is also possible that Saint Nazaire is situated on the site of ancient Corbilo, described by Pytheas, a 4th Century B.C. Greek navigator.

Following the Gallic Wars, the Romans hand over the Southern Loire to the Pictons, the masters of the Poitou Region, encouraging them to found Portus Ratiatum, which will become Rezé. During the Gallo-Roman Period, Portus Namnetum (Nantes), an important Roman settlement, makes a living mainly from port activities, notably from the salt, copper and tin trades and from the sale of agricultural and marine produce.    



While extensive digging work is ordered on the marshlands east of the urban settlement of Nantes at the end of the 6th Century under the episcopate of Felix, it is necessary to wait until the 14th Century to see the Port opening up to international trade: boats laden with wine from the Loire Valley, with cloth, canvas and hemp, set sail for England and Ireland. Others return from Spain with cargoes of oil and metals.

In the 15th Century, Nantes is a port of call for the Hanseatic vessels which come to collect salt from the Bay of Bourgneuf. Trade agreements are signed with Castille and Leon, then with Bilbao. Fruit, alum, iron and wool arriving from Spain are found alongside the consignments of woollen cloth from Normandy, Flanders and Poitou and of cloth and canvas from Anjou and Germany that pass through Nantes.

Occupied since the Middle Ages, the area of La Fosse is developed in the early 16th Century, around the Place du Port-au-Vin marketplace. While Loire Estuary traffic - notably wine and salt - continues to dominate, the presence of Spanish, Dutch, Irish and Portuguese merchants establishes the Port of Nantes in its role as a European Atlantic gateway at the outlet of the River Loire.                                


At the beginning of the 17th Century, the merchants of Nantes continue to concentrate on inshore navigation but, in the face of competition from the wines of Bordeaux or the salt of Brouage, they are obliged to turn towards the waters of the Atlantic and go fishing for cod off Newfoundland.

The first cargo of tobacco, brought back from the West Indies in 1639, opens the way for a new transatlantic trade. Vessels laden with raw materials set out for the Colonies and return with consignments of exotic produce.

In 1665, the permission serves to organize the sales of the French East India Company develops trade with Senegal, China and India.                                                       



18th to 20th Century: An Atlantic Gateway

Considered to be the leading port in Europe in 1704, Nantes ranks first among French ports until the middle of the 18th Century. In 1725, the Irish, English, Portuguese, Spanish and above all the Dutch represent 13 % of the total number of merchants at the Port of Nantes.

The East India Company having established its headquarters in Lorient in 1733, the slave trade becomes a considerable source of profit. Between 1707 and 1793, boats out of the Port of Nantes will represent 42 % of total French traffic.

Once transported, the Africans are sold as slaves in Martinique, Guadeloupe and especially in Santo Domingo, prior to the slave brigs importing raw sugar, rum, indigo, spices, coffee, cocoa and tobacco. The Port of Nantes is at this time a huge entrepôt for colonial produce that is forwarded to other ports in Europe.

But the silting-up of the Estuary makes gaining access to Nantes more complicated for large vessels. Ports such as Le Croisic and especially Paimboeuf become its outposts. Cargo is loaded onto lighters that travel up the Estuary as far as Nantes.


The early years of the French Revolution do not affect the Port’s growth. The overall gross tonnage increases from 237 716 tonnes in 1790 to 261 163 tonnes in 1792. The civil war, the decree abolishing slavery, the independence of Santo Domingo and the Continental System see the tonnage fall to 43 242 tonnes by 1807.

In the 19th Century, while the slave trade is illegally resumed, notably to Reunion Island, shipowners like the Dobrée family turn towards whaling. Sugar imports still represent a very significant part of the Port’s business. Coal, required to operate the refineries, is imported through the Port of Nantes.

As of 1822, daily links are provided between Saint Nazaire, Paimboeuf and Nantes by steamers that will be bought up by the Orléans Railway Company, whose track arrives in Nantes in 1851 and is then extended as far as Saint Nazaire.


The Saint Nazaire docks are inaugurated in 1856. 3 292 movements are recorded in the first year. The start of the line to the West Indies and Mexico, the Compagnie Générale Transatlantique Line chooses Saint Nazaire as the point of departure for its large liners in 1862. The building of the Penhoët Dock, in 1881, confirms Saint Nazaire’s role as the forward port facility on the Estuary.   



With a draught of 5.80 metres, the La Martinière Canal is opened in 1892 and is intended to make the Port of Nantes more accessible in relation to the sea. At the start of the 20th Century, traffic at the Port of Nantes does indeed exceed the million-tonne mark. The overall traffic volume at the Basse-Loire facilities stands at 4 million tonnes.

20th Century to 2009: The Union of the Estuary

In order to permit vessels drawing up to 8 metres of water to gain access to Nantes, work is undertaken in 1903 to modify the riverbed. The positive results make the La Martinière Canal obsolete.

The Americans arrive in Saint Nazaire in 1917. They double the railtrack as far as Nantes and build oil tanker berths at Donges. The ANTAR Company will take advantage of these infrastructures in setting up a refinery on the site in 1931.

"There is reason to consider the Ports of Nantes and of Saint Nazaire as two closely related parts of a single maritime establishment…", acknowledges the Basse-Loire Study Group, created just after the First World War.

The air raids of the Second World War will cause considerable damage to the Basse-Loire port installations. 121 wrecks obstuct the accesses or form, at La Télindière, an imposing barrier.

The close relationship established between the Estuary’s upriver and downriver facilities results in the creation of the "Basse-Loire Maritime Establishment". New facilities are developed. The first installations at Cheviré come into being in 1956.  



In 1966, the Estuary’s ports are joined together within a single public enterprise corporation: the Autonomous Port Authority of Nantes – Saint Nazaire. The new corporation’s traffic volume then stands at 9.77 million tonnes. The Autonomous Port Authority will gradually come to establish itself as the major multi-purpose port on France’s Atlantic Seaboard.



The decision to build a port facility between Saint Nazaire and Donges is taken in 1970. The development of the 4 berths of the agri-foodstuffs terminal at Montoir de Bretagne will continue from 1971 until 1990.

1976 is marked by the decision to locate a liquefied natural gas terminal at Montoir de Bretagne. With a capacity of 10 million tonnes, it is inaugurated in 1980.

The Montoir de Bretagne ro-ro terminal comes on stream in 1977. It will supported by a second such facility built at Cheviré in 1996.
The Montoir de Bretagne coal terminal comes into being three years later. A 7th berth is added to the oil terminal at Donges the same year.

In 1991, the Autonomous Port Authority of Nantes – Saint Nazaire chooses to use the commercial name "the Atlantic Port of Nantes – Saint Nazaire", to achieve greater visibility internationally.


Since 2002, the Cheviré ro-ro berth has been used for the transportation of Airbus aircraft sections from Nantes to Saint Nazaire.

In 2005, the Port’s traffic volume reaches 34.5 million tonnes. A 4th berth is opened at Cheviré the same year in order to receive new traffic.

In the space of four decades, the handling capacity of the port plant and equipment has risen significantly, increasing from 75 to 1 250 tonnes of cargo an hour.

In 2008, to strengthen their competitiveness at European level, France’s metropolitan autonomous ports become major seaport authorities. The new governance of the Nantes – Saint Nazaire Port Authority is installed in 2009.