The River Shipping Company of Cochinchina
A steamer ready to depart from Mỹ Tho and head West towards the Mekong Delta
Image © Belle Indochine
The history of the Messageries takes us back to the 1870s or 1880s, at a time when the French admiralty was supporting about three thousand troops in Cochinchina and when the Saigon port, then a little over fifty thousand inhabitants, was hosting the Colonial Council, which, before the time of Governor General Paul Doumer, was levying taxes from the indigenous population and using them in a discretionary fashion. That is to say if you wanted to set up a trade in those times, you needed a real spirit of adventure and a strong will, or much political clout.
The origin of the Messageries Fluviales de Cochinchine, the River Shipping Company of Cochinchina, depends on who tells the story.
The famous Roque brothers, Victor and Henri, who came from the province of Aveyron, in France1 but who had already been is Asia for awhile, were supplying the Cochinchina troops from the Philippines since 1857, and more so since the landing in Tourane2 in 1858. When the Admiralty called on private entrepreneurs to take part in the construction of the colony with the help of subsidies levied from the Indochinese population, Victor came and settled in Saigon in 1860, then had his brother Henri come along, and they partnered in 1870 with a Mr. Marcellin Larrieu to open the Steamer Shipping Company of Cochinchina3, which started trading the rivers between Saigon and Cambodia, at the time up to Kratie, the hightest point deemed navigable on the Mekong.
A steamer calls in Mỹ Tho, Mekong delta
Image © Belle Indochine
Several years later, after the failure of a project in railways, already towards Cambodia, Jules Rueff4 turned to the river, a much more natural communication way in the region, and founded the River Shipping Company of Cochinchina (Messageries Fluviales de Cochinchine) in 18815. The Messageries, the head office of which was in Paris, were from the start endowed with the largest capital in the colony (one and a half million francs), and were allocated since even before incorporation the subsidies that had been until then given to the Steamer Shipping Company, and a nine-year-contract ensuring the monopoly over mail shipping6. They took the upper hand on river transportation towards the Mekong delta and Cambodia.
The Roque brothers are often credited with the foundation of the Messageries Fluviales, although the statutes of the Messageries give its origin in 1881. Was it a common agreement? Did one of the Roque brothers come back to establish the Messageries with Rueff7? Was it an example of the discretionary power the Colonial Council exerted in the wielding of its subsidies? The jungle never stopped at the entrance of the city. Anyhow, many companies could envision their success only with the help of subsidies, and the granting of such subsidies often made for an uneven playing field. We could find no hint of the Steamer Shipping Company after 1882, and we meet the Roque brothers again far North in Tonkin as soon as a few years afterwards.
A time for adventure
Like many de facto monopolies, the Messageries Fluviales had a mixed reputation of using and sometimes abusing their privileged position. Supplying the troops and colonization effort towards Tonkin was very lucrative, and it was probably to keep the upper hand on this market that the Messageries Fluviales supported and even financed in part the 1893 expeditions meant to open commercial routes to Laos, with the launches Hàm Luông, Lagrandière and Massie, which allowed access up to Luang Prabang and even to the Golden Triangle and the Southernmost confines of China.
The launch Hàm Luông crosses Khône island towards Laos on a man-powered rail cart in October, 1893, showing here her steam engine.
Branded a gunboat, she displaced only 20 tons.
Image © Souvenir Français de Chine
At that time like now, the Khône falls, at the 4000 islands, prevented steamers from crossing the Mekong upwards from Cambodia to Laos. The Messageries installed on the large Khône island first a metric railway with three hand-powered carts, which allowed transportation of the first launches, then a real railway when commercial traffic took up.
There we find our Bassac, shuttling goods from Laos between the Southern end of the Khône island and Cochinchina.
The Colombert, a 105 tons steamer, in Laos; in: Excursions aux temples d'Angkor; livret du passager, published by the Messageries Fluviales de Cochinchine, 1912.
Image © South East Asia Visions
When they opened a line towards Battambang, which was de facto under the dominion of the kingdom of Siam but was coveted by France, the Messageries ran along this way very irregularly. Traders who needed to ship goods through the Battambang line had to pay grossly inflated fares and even kickbacks, and it is said Jules Rueff would lend at the steep rate of 120% per annum.8 When competitors tried to open trading routes on waterways Rueff judged his own, not only did they not get the subsidies, but the Messageries had their contracts extended.9 10
"In this business, which was entirely to the benefit of the Company, the Colony was to pay for the whole 25 years of the contract that committed it to Rueff, as a postal subsidy, considerable amounts of money, which allowed him to build within 15 years11 a colossal fortune. [...] That did not prevent the management from being such misers as to make all the Scroodges on Earth pale in jealousy."12
The crew were ill-paid and made liable for any loss, but such was the moral standing that some had a reputation for good living, and a few even made a fortune, basking in riches, women and racing horses, like a certain Commissioner P... on board the steamer Donaï13, who was never caught smuggling weapons and opium though the tax officers chased him all around Indochina and Siam.14
The Messageries Fluviales were nevertheless very present throughout the period, and took an active part in the expansion of the colony. Its boats were involed in both the logistics and the operations, the cargo J-B Say was even sunk by the Siamese in 189315 in the midst of such an operation.
An end dissolved in finance
The adventure and passion for the river must have dwindled with the later contracts: in 1914, no more 20 years of monopoly, and the terms were tightened so much as to turn the Messageries essentially into an administration.16 The Messageries, who had used for a long time every loophole to limit their commitments17, went on abusing clients that were submitted to their monopoly.
Then the Compagnie Saïgonnaise de Navigation et de Transport (C.S.N.T.)18 and based in Saigon, the Messageries steeply increased the river transportation fares in 1926, once the contracts had been secured for a new period, thus opening wide the way for Siamese (Thai) competition, anchoring their bad name with the residents of Laos, and firing outrage in the metropole.19
The business having become essentially financial, the capital of the Messageries was invested into as diverse sectors as plantation and transformation of rubber, the Comptoirs Généraux de l'Indochine (general commercial venture, state-sponsored), public works and electricity, sawmills and the Crédit Foncier de l'Indochine, a bank.20
We lose track of the Messageries in the 1930s, when we suspect that between the dilution of its capital and possible buyouts, it must have disappeared.