Pierre-Paul Riquet à Naurouze, gravure 19ème siècle

Pierre-Paul Riquet & the construction of the Canal du Midi: his life's work

You'll never hear about the history of the Canal du Midi without hearing the name Pierre-Paul Riquet. This entrepreneur devoted his life to the construction of the canal between Toulouse and Thau lagoon. Pierre-Paul Riquet displayed ingenuity and was often ahead of his time in the way he masterfully managed this project, which was incidentally one of the most significant of the 17th century.

Who was
Pierre-Paul Riquet?

A wealthy family from Béziers

Pierre-Paul Riquet was born into a wealthy family from Béziers right at the beginning of the 17th century, on the estimated date of 29 June 1609. The 29 June is the Pierre and Paul saint's day in France and so this date would explain the choice of his first name.

His father, François-Guillaume Riquet was a solicitor and businessman with a seat at the Council of Trent in Béziers. It is believed that he opposed the proposal of a project in 1618 to dig a canal between Toulouse and Narbonne…

That it was his own son who ended up building the Canal du Midi is quite ironic, as I'm sure you'd agree!

Pierre-Paul Riquet married Catherine de Milhau and moved to the foot of the Montagne Noire, to the town of Revel. They had eight children: Jean-Mathias de Riquet (1638-1714), Pierre de Riquet (1641-1641), Élisabeth de Riquet (born in 1645), Pierre-Paul de Riquet (1646-1730), Marie de Riquet (1648-1686), Guillaume de Riquet (born in 1652), Catherine de Riquet (1652-1719), Anne de Riquet (1653-1720).

Did you know?

Every year, on Saint Pierre and Saint Paul's day, the memory of Pierre-Paul Riquet is honoured at a mass celebrated at Somail chapel.

Pierre-Paul Riquet, salt tax collector

Pierre-Paul Riquet was a successful salt tax collector, the Royal tax on salt (gabelle) under the Ancient Regime.

Over the years, he climbed the career ladder. From 'regrattier' (salt merchant) at Mirepoix salt granary, he then became a 'receveur' (tax officer) at the same salt granary before becoming an official salt tax collector for Mirepoix and Castres in 1647. In 1661, he was appointed salt tax collector of Languedoc, with a very attractive salary!

Pierre-Paul Riquet may not have started with nothing, but his wealth largely came from his own career. A remunerative profession which also granted him a certain status in the town of Revel.

But Pierre-Paul Riquet had another dream in mind, to build a canal between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean.

Pierre-Paul Riquet,
the man who built the Canal du Midi

Trial basins at the Château de Bonrepos-Riquet

In 1652, Pierre-Paul Riquet purchased the Seigneurie de Bonrepos manor house, near Verfeil, north-east of Toulouse. He built a Louis XIII-style château there, at the location of the old municipal fort.
There are several factors that suggest that it was here on this estate spread across almost 2 hectares, that Pierre-Paul Riquet studied the possibilities of supplying water to the future Canal du Midi, using the bodies of water on the estate.

Taking inspiration from the Canal de Briare that was inaugurated in 1642 and thanks to his knowledge of the Montagne Noire, Pierre-Paul Riquet came up with a water supply system based on the idea of diverting water from several streams and rivers, and guiding it to the Seuil de Naurouze, the watershed point where waters flow to the Atlantic on one side and the Mediterranean on the other.

On 15 November 1662, with his many experiments under his belt and armed with his ingenious idea for the water supply system, Pierre-Paul Riquet wrote to Jean-Baptiste Colbert, controller-general of finances for the King, with the proposal of his canal project. He had the political backing from the archbishop of Toulouse, Charles Anglure de Bourlemont, who wanted to use Riquet's project to develop the Montagne Noire.
Pierre-Paul Riquet used economic and political arguments to defend his idea. His project would be beneficial for Languedoc, particularly thanks to the development of wheat trade. The King's galleys would now have a solution to avoid the dangerous detour around Spain via Gibraltar.

These arguments convinced Colbert, especially as King Louis XIV had previously entrusted him the mission of making France Europe's leading power.

These engineering structures are my greatest passion and are my dearest children that I hope to live on within, even longer than in the name of the children God has bestowed on me and my wife

Pierre-Paul Riquet
About the Canal du Midi

The trial channel in the Montagne Noire

In 1665, Riquet set up a trial channel to counter any doubts about the possibility of bringing the waters of Alzeau to Naurouze. Besides addressing the technical issues, this trial also meant that Riquet could demonstrate how he imagined the canal route and prove to Colbert that he was the only person capable of managing the construction work.

In November 1664, a Commission of Inquiry met up and voted favourably for the creation of the Canal du Midi. The construction decree was signed by Louis XIV on 7 October 1666. This act authorised the construction of the Canal Royal du Languedoc (former name of the Canal du Midi) and Pierre-Paul Riquet was appointed entrepreneur for the construction of the canal. Soon after, Louis XIV awarded him a title.

The construction work on the Canal du Midi began on 1 January 1667. The first section to be built was the water supply system in the Montagne Noire.

The Canal du Midi: the masterpiece of a lifetime

The 'Lord of the Languedoc canal'

In May 1668, Pierre-Paul Riquet bought the fiefdom and tolls of the canal at auction, and from then on was known as the 'Lord of the Languedoc canal'. This title meant that it was he who received the taxes of goods and people transported along the Canal du Midi.

In June 1669, Pierre-Paul Riquet was adjudicatee of the canal works, from Trèbes to Thau lagoon, as well as the construction of the port of Sète, all for the sum of 5,832 million pounds. The construction work picked up speed.

But construction of the Canal du Midi proved costly and the 'Lord of the Languedoc canal' became so burdened with debt that upon his death, his heirs had to sell half of their shares of the Canal du Midi.

Pierre-Paul Riquet
and the Canal du Midi labourers

A great number of workers were involved in the construction of the Canal du Midi. There were up to 12,000 workers. It was a long and gruelling task. Don't forget that in this era, all tasks, however colossal and technique, were carried out by hand!

Pierre-Paul Riquet had to be inventive to make sure his employees stayed motivated. Besides paying them a monthly salary, Riquet also set up a system of protection for the workers, whereby if they were sick or if weather conditions meant they couldn't work, Riquet still paid them. This was a first for that era!

The death of Pierre-Paul Riquet before the inauguration of the Canal du Midi

After 14 years of construction work, the canal was finally completed. Pierre-Paul Riquet died just a few months before the end of the construction and so he would never witness the moment his Canal du Midi was filled with water! He was buried at the Cathedral of Saint-Etienne in Toulouse.

On 15 May 1681, a convoy of 25 boats left Toulouse for the maiden voyage. When they passed by Béziers, Riquet's hometown, a big celebration was held in his honour!