At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Landes was inhospitable territory. Inland was mostly made of swamps, due to the sandy nature of the soil which was unable to absorb the rain from the Atlantic coast. Mosquitoes were everywhere infecting men with different diseases, including malaria. As for the coasts, the dunes were in constant movement, whipped around by the wind. Some years the sand moved more than 40m inland! The church in Sainte-Véronique Soulac disappeared altogether in the eighteenth century, engulfed underneath it.
In this hostile environment, very few plants could resist the winter floods and noxious vapors of the summer. Landes was shepherd territory and the shepherds moved their herds around to graze on suitable pasture, perched high up on stilts. The only vegetation possible in these desolate wetlands were bushes and the shepherds could easily watch their animals from above.
This Landes “desert” had however, attracted the attention of many agronomists. For them, the area could only be purified by planting a huge amount of maritime pine. This endemic tree would have been a perfect candidate being more than comfortable with sandy soils and also needing large quantities of water. Therefore, had the trees been planted on a large scale, the dunes would have been fixed by their particular type of roots and the marshes would have dried out through evapotranspiration.
Although this fact was widely known from the end of the seventeenth century and confirmed by the studies carried out by the Roads and Bridges engineer Nicolas Brémontier, this solution was never put in place. It went against the sheep farmer’s interests and they had lived in the area for centuries.The true change for the Landes was about to come from a man, and more importantly, with his meeting a woman.
Of Spanish origin, but mainly educated in France, Eugénie de Montijo was going to become Empress upon marrying Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte the first President of the French Republic named Emperor Napoleon III (he was nephew to Napoleon I). As a child, she discovered the Basque coast which was nowhere near as popular as today, but this discovery made a strong impression on her that she constantly shared with her husband.
In those days the journey down from Paris could only be made by road. Therefore to get there, they had to go through Landes County and in doing so, the economic and sanitary situation he encountered there, affected Louis-Napoléon deeply. Emboldened by his political prerogatives, he voted The Act of 19 June 1857, “relating to the purification and cultivation of the Landes de Gascogne”.
Extensive drainage operations were launched. Planting became systematic and roads were plotted out to make the forest worker’s job easier. Local property owners made money by sharing out the new pieces of land, and the industrial revolution with its growing needs in high quality chemical components encouraged the development of pine resin extraction.
The empress appreciated all the changes that were made as they highlighted her husband’s efforts to modernize the country. When he stopped in Landes he made the most of such occasions to share a few moments with his subjects. Several stories from the Landes’ history tell of Eugénie de Montijo in the company of simple citizens such as shepherds or cooks.
Some towns in the Landes still have traces of the imperial visits in their names; Eugénie-les-Bains, Solférino (which was originally a domain owned by Napoleon III) … but it was more widely the appearance and economy of the territory which had been modified.
Napoleon III’s reign is not necessarily a positive memory for History. It began with a “coup d’état” and ended in defeat and the loss of Alsace and Lorraine. He also suffered the lyrical hatred of Victor Hugo, whose “Châtiments” were devoted to dragging him through the mud.
But Landes County owes him its purification and the development of its commercial activity which keeps it rich today. For our success we give thanks to Imperial love!