Brest, a fortified seaport of western France, capital of an arrondissement in the department of Finistère, 155 m. W.N.W. of Rennes by rail. Population (1906) town, 71,163; commune, 85,294. It is situated to the north of a magnificent landlocked bay, and occupies the slopes of two hills divided by the river Penfeld, - the part of the town on the left bank being regarded as Brest proper, while the part on the right is known as Recouvrance. There are also extensive suburbs to the east of the town. The hill-sides are in some places so steep that the ascent from the lower to the upper town has to be effected by flights of steps and the second or third storey of one house is often on a level with the ground storey of the next. The chief street of Brest bears the name of rue de Siam, in honour of the Siamese embassy sent to Louis XIV., and terminates at the remarkable swing-bridge, constructed in 1861, which crosses the mouth of the Penfeld. Running along the shore to the south of the town is the Cours d'Ajot, one of the finest promenades of its kind in France, named after the engineer who constructed it.
It is planted with trees and adorned with marble statues of Neptune and Abundance by Antoine Coysevox. The castle with its donjon and seven towers (12th to the 16th centuries), commanding the entrance to the river, is the only interesting building in the town. Brest is the capital of one of the five naval arrondissements of France. The naval port, which is in great part excavated in the rock, extends along both banks of the Penfeld; it comprises gun-foundries and workshops, magazines, shipbuilding yards and repairing docks, and employs about 7000 workmen. There are also large naval barracks, training ships and naval schools of various kinds, and an important naval hospital. Brest is the seat of a sub-prefect and has tribunals of first instance and of commerce, a chamber of commerce, a board of trade-arbitrators, two naval tribunals, and a tribunal of maritime commerce. There are also lycées for boys and girls and a school of commerce and industry. The commercial port, which is separated from the town itself by the Cours d'Ajot, comprises a tidal port with docks and an outer harbour; it is protected by jetties to the east and west and by a breakwater on the south.
In 1905 the number of vessels entered was 202 with a tonnage of 67,755, and cleared 160 with a tonnage of 61,012. The total value of the imports in 1905 was £244,000. The chief were wine, coal, timber, mineral tar, fertilizers and lobsters and crayfish. Exports, of which the chief were wheat-flour, fruit and superphosphates, were valued at £40,000. Besides its sardine and mackerel fishing industry, the town has flour-mills, breweries, foundries, forges, engineering works, and manufactures of blocks, candles, chemicals (from sea-weed), boots, shoes and linen. Brest communicates by submarine cable with America and French West Africa. The roadstead consists of a deep indentation with a maximum length of 14 m. and an average width of 4 m., the mouth being barred by the peninsula of Quélern, leaving a passage from 1 to 2 m. broad, known as the Goulet. The outline of the bay is broken by numerous smaller bays or arms, formed by the embouchures of streams, the most important being the Anse de Quélern, the Anse de Poulmie, and the mouths of the Châteaulin and the Landerneau. Brest is a fortress of the first class.
The fortifications of the town and the harbour fall into four groups: (1) the very numerous forts and batteries guarding the approaches to and the channel of the Goulet; (2) the batteries and forts directed upon the roads; (3) a group of works preventing access to the peninsula of Quélern and commanding the ground to the south of the peninsula from which many of the works of group (2) could be taken in reverse; (4) the defences of Brest itself, consisting of an old-fashioned enceinte possessing little military value and a chain of detached forts to the west of the town.
Nothing definite is known of Brest till about 1240, when it was ceded by a count of Léon to John I., duke of Brittany. In 1342 John of Montfort gave it up to the English, and it did not finally leave their hands till 1397. Its medieval importance was great enough to give rise to the saying, "He is not duke of Brittany who is not lord of Brest." By the marriage of Francis I. with Claude, daughter of Anne of Brittany, Brest with the rest of the duchy definitely passed to the French crown. The advantages of the situation for a seaport town were first recognized by Richelieu, who in 1631 constructed a harbour with wooden wharves, which soon became a station of the French navy. Colbert changed the wooden wharves for masonry and otherwise improved the post, and Vauban's fortifications followed in 1680-1688. During the 18th century the fortifications and the naval importance of the town continued to develop. In 1694 an English squadron under John, 3rd Lord Berkeley, was miserably defeated in attempting a landing; but in 1794, during the revolutionary war, the French fleet, under Villaret de Joyeuse, was as thoroughly beaten in the same place by the English admiral Howe.