Les Messageries Maritimes á Hong Kong (1918-1941)

François Dremeaux has kindly sent extracts from his MPhil dissertation Les Messageries Maritimes á Hong Kong (1918-1941).

He says “I did my MPhil about the Messageries Maritimes in Hong Kong during the interwar period. More than a subject, it is also a passion!”

HF: François has translated the extracts from the original French and I have slightly amended his translations hoping I have not altered his intended meaning. This has not always been straight forward as I confess I am not fully familiar with the English vocabulary or phrasing associated with shipping companies and their agents etc.

François has also provided the images included below.

The company, a long history.
In 1918, there was no need to introduce the Messageries Maritimes. For decades, it had been building its network on the oceans of the world and monopolised French shipping lines to the Far East. To understand the background of this company and its branches after the First World War, we must go back in time and look at its history. It had its roots in 1796, with the birth of the Entreprise générale des messageries, which brought together fourteen French companies involved in stagecoach transport. In the first half of the 19th century, the company embarked on maritime and inland waterway transport to compensate for losses due to land competition from the railways. It changed its name in an agreement with the State in 1851 to Services maritimes des Messageries Nationales, then Compagnies des services maritimes des messageries imperiales in 1852. This commercial shipping company was subsidised by the State to compensate for the constraints of the postal service it provided. In other words, the Messageries Maritimes (its new name after 1st August 1871) was an extension of the French State on the seas, though it also provided, on an entirely private basis, the transportation of goods and passengers. The last agreement with the State before the beginning of the WW1, dates from 1911 but was only enforced in July 1912. The State now shared in the profits of the company, and the concept of a postal service, which was not very profitable on certain lines, is replaced by the idea of a “service of general interest”, propelling Messageries Maritimes even further as the flagship of French interests. This agreement rapidly turned out to be a financial disaster and a new agreement was put in place in 1914. Negotiations were interrupted with the hostilities.

The Far East line and Hong Kong.

Messageries Maritimes Cover Of The Passengers Guide 1937 Private Collection Francois Dremeaux

Cover Of The Passengers Guide 1937 Private Collection

During the Second Opium War (1856-1860), the Messageries provided remarkable
assistance to the French Expeditionary Force. Emboldened by these events and encouraged by the State and many industrialists, the Company signed an agreement with the government on April 22, 1861 to open a shipping line to the Far East. The route was officially opened in October 1862, first to Shanghai, then to Yokohama after April 17, 1870. From that date, the liners provided this service from Marseilles every two weeks and almost continuously until 1940. In the early years, high tensions with China, and sometimes with the British Crown, hampered the organization and prevented the stopover in Hong Kong as the norm. By 1885, everything seemed to be settled.

In the first quarter of the 20th century, it took about 37 days to get from Marseille to
Yokohama, via Port-Saïd, Suez, Djibouti or Aden, Colombo, Singapore, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Kobe. It took 29 days from Marseille to Hong Kong.

To manage stopovers and refueling operations that required preparation, and therefore an
organization on land, a network of agencies gradually took shape on the route to China. In 1863, the Company became the owner of land and premises in Saigon, in order to avoid dependency on the English colonies of Singapore and Hong Kong. However, it was also necessary to settle in these ports. The oldest report from the Hong Kong agency, in the archives of French Lines & Compagnies in Le Havre, Normandy, dates back to 1880.
However, it is very likely that an employee was called upon to reside in the British colony as early as April 1866 because the line head of the service to Yokohama was then transferred from Saigon to Hong Kong; a transshipment was then compulsory in the British colony. From that time on, the importance of the British port for the French company could no longer be denied.

A complete look at the colony.
General service reports are the essential source to know the activity of an agency. These reports were sent by the agent each year to the Messageries Maritimes board in Marseille. They were composed of seven parts, always presented in the same way and in the same order: Staff, Secretariat, Material and Supplies, Traffic, Litigation, Accounting, Claims. This precious source is fully preserved for the Hong Kong agency in the interwar period. The extensive correspondence exchanged over the years has disappeared, but the reports provide an excellent overview of the agency’s activity. To write these reports, the agent must be aware of the political, economic and health contexts of the city. He must live in tune with the heart of Hong Kong, its raison d’être and its origin: the harbour. It is therefore a wise and curious eye that constantly wanders around the British colony, always in contact with many actors in the city, whether they are institutional or private, Chinese, English or French.

Messageries Maritimes and Hong Kong at the end of WW1
The Great War left the Messageries Maritimes bloodless. Over 41% of its ships were destroyed in four years, and few new ships made up for these disappearances. By 1919, the fleet had recovered to only 74% of its 1914 tonnage. Surviving vessels were old, on the verge of obsolescence or worn out by excessive use. Financially, the situation was no better. “The company’s debt, generated by the execution of this agreement [of 1911], is frightening”. An interim agreement was put in place in a hurry, pending the conclusion of new negotiations. It is necessary to focus a little more on the new convention signed on 29 December 1920, which marks the entire period and enshrines “the principle of the
separation of contractual services from free commercial services”. From that date, there was a company called Société des services contractuels des Messageries Maritimes and another called Compagnie des Messageries Maritimes, which managed the first. The contractual service bound the State with the shipowner, who undertook to provide a certain number of public services on the shipping routes: territorial continuity with the colonies, mail transport, etc. The postal aspect of this service made it possible to assign the name of Courriers to the ships that provide it; it is the liners that make the company’s reputation. In exchange, this company does not bear the financial risks inherent in these routes, whose circuit is dictated by political rather than economic needs. In the event of profits, the Compagnie des Messageries Maritimes received 20% and in the opposite case, the State covers the losses… All this does not prevent the Company from having its own routes, different or similar, on which it acts like any other private company; it was the cargo ships that carried mainly freight and very few passengers. Obviously, these vessels benefit from the structures set up for contractual service… In reality, there were very few changes for the agencies that must receive cargo and mail with the same respect. On the other hand, the agent must distinguish their management on paper, which sometimes causes some complications for a complete quantitative study.
After the war, it was a small and crippled Messageries Maritimes fleet that visited Hong
Kong. Economically, the British port was not damaged by the conflict; overall traffic increased from 38 million tons in 1913 to 29,5 million in 1918. The agency, far from the Board’s negotiations with the French State, was trying to cope with the daily imperatives arising from the world conflict and its resolution. “The total requisition of merchant fleets by Allied governments, the decrease in available tonnage as a result of the submarine war, […] have helped to centralize exports of food and raw materials in the hands of governments for supply purposes.” Messageries Maritimes in Hong Kong therefore had very limited flexibility.
The last year of the war was particularly difficult because “in February 1918, general
requisition followed individual requisitions and charters”. The management of the agency was under the supervision of the French consulate, which ensured the payment of all expenses necessary for the operation of the port of call (food, water, coal, etc.). The Company’s correspondent offices in Hong Kong (Canton, Manila, Macau, Amoy, Swatow and Foochow) must accept “the conditions of representation imposed by the new regime for the management of the requisitioned fleet”. From 1914 to 1917, the number of affected ships fluctuated slightly between 48 and 40, dropping to 11 in 1918, to which must be added ten requisitioned ships. Passenger traffic was reduced to a minimum. Whatever the destination, the number of passages fell from 3,361 in 1914 to 606 in 1918, of which 40,5% were requisitioned. The signing of the armistice did not restart everything… In 1919, only eight vessels called in at Hong Kong, two of them were requisitioned ships; but the passages increased significantly with 1,385 customers, and there were only 13.2% of requisitioned passengers. Gradually, the French consulate handed over. 1919 is therefore a year of transition.

The agent, profile of a dedicated representative
Placing an agent in a port of call is primarily used to “facilitate the passage of ships, by
removing, as far as possible, obstacles to ship traffic”. It is a technical role performed by all the staff managed by the agent. From her study of the Alexandria post from 1882 to 1914, Marie-Françoise Berneron-Couvenhes speaks of the “agency as a kingpin”. It also explains that the employee at the head of this device is an informant of the company and the defender of its interests. All this is true in Hong Kong.
Correspondence dealing with current affairs has almost completely disappeared, only the
general service reports provide more or less complete information on the agent’s activities.
The division into chapters of these reports reflects the main lines of his work:

– Personnel, Material and Supplies: concern the internal management of the agency, from
personnel to equipment.
– Secretariat: mainly serves to inform the company about the political, economic or sanitary health of the country of stopover, but also to monitor the proper functioning of the postal part of the service during the affected parties.
– Traffic, Litigation and Claims: concern the commercial movements that the agent drains
towards the company’s vessels.
– Accounting: is the balance sheet of the whole; the agent must justify the expenses for the operation of the agency according to the commercial revenues he has succeeded in
A few letters found refer to other tasks that are not included in the reports, so the proposed vision is certainly incomplete. Moreover, the Hong Kong agent had a wider field of action than the British colony alone. He must ensure the proper functioning of small branches where correspondents are located. He is thus required to travel regularly in the area. It even seems to be an obligation: “I have been able to leave Hong Kong several times to go, as I am obliged to, to visit the correspondence offices that depend on this agency”. These trips also serve to maintain good relations with the main shippers. Everything then depends on personalities or needs depending on the period. The travel budget increased from $50HK in 1925 to $428HK in 1926, then to $746HK in 1927. That year, it seems that visits to Canton were necessary to preserve peace among the company’s customers. “The relationship between[…] some of your chargers are sometimes a little tense”. And the agent mentioned his role as mediator: “Through the visits I make to Canton as frequently as possible, I try to prevent your interests from having to suffer from this state of affairs”. These tours became systematic in the early 1930s, certainly when the crisis required closer contact with customers. From 1930 to 1935, travel expenses were still over $700HK before the conflicts in the region reduced the mobility of the officer who could not afford to be absent from his position for too long. From 1937 and the Japanese invasion of China, he hardly moved from Hong Kong.

The agency in the heart of the colony
Is it worth mentioning that Hong Kong was a very active port? In 1924, it was the second
largest port in the world in terms of tonnage. “This tonnage, which had followed a slightly
steep upward curve since the early years of the century, had marked a recovery since the
end of the war, followed by one of the fastest increases.” It is now necessary to place the
agency in the local context; first place its action in the city, then show to what extent its
activities follow a double rhythm, that of the English colony and that of the affected people
organized by the company.

Messageries Maritimes Inside The MM Agency In Hong Kong, Princes Building Circa 1932 Courtesy Of French Lines & Companies Francois Dremeaux

Inside The Messageries Maritimes’ Agency In Hong Kong, Princes Building circa 1932 Courtesy Of French Lines & Companies

“From March 1, 1914 to February 1946, our Hong Kong Agency offices were located on the 2nd floor of the Queen’s building, located at 3 Ice house street, owned by The Hong Kong
Land Investment and Agency C° Ltd. This three-storey building […] is located in the centre of the business district, in the immediate vicinity of the port”. Lloyd Triestino, an Italian competitor, occupies the ground floor, with five rooms and outbuildings, all forming the southwest wing of the 2nd floor. The space is organized as follows: one office is reserved for the agent, another for the metropolitan clerk (shipping clerk on the map) and one for the compradore. There is a waiting room for passengers and shippers (unnamed on the map) and a parcel room (general on the map) with attached accounting and, finally, a very small room for the archives.
The agent is housed in a property owned by the Company, located at No.9 Conduit Road, on the heights of the Central district. In November 1945, when the offices reopened,
documents effectively attested to the rental of a residence for the agent.
On the map distributed with the stopover brochure, we can see the central position of the
agency in relation to the main points of reference given to passengers. The agency therefore occupies an interesting position in the heart of the city.
In terms of space occupation, Messageries Maritimes are not only present on the second
floor of Queen’s building in Central. They are visible from the outside with, for example, the company’s rowboat that surveyed the port until 1930, and its uniformed personnel. It is also necessary to mention the storage spaces in the warehouses which are in perpetual
movement with unloading, loading and transshipment. The agency sometimes has to
manage certain goods over the long term such as “lots of irons[…] left overdue for several
years”. However, there is no document specifying which areas are rented by the company
and where exactly. The unicorn’s landing equipment and tools are stored in Kowloon wharf
where the agency rents a space.
René Ohl, a director who stayed in Hong Kong for a long time, wanted to give the agency a
little more visibility as soon as he arrived. He asked for the “making of canvases with the
company’s initials on the cut ladders, a flagpole above the agency, etc.” He pointed out that this is to put himself on an equal footing with the competition. In 1937, he had a very large sign added to the facade of the building.

The complex organization of the stopovers
Liners and cargo ships have little in common: “The former are fast and fragile. They are also very expensive in their construction, maintenance and the many personnel they require and especially for the fuel needed for their speed. Cargo ships are simple to design, robust, cheap both in construction and operation, for the opposite reasons.” These two types of vessels operated in Hong Kong on behalf of the two companies grouped under the aegis of Messageries Maritimes. Whether for freight or passengers, these affected areas required multiple and sometimes difficult tasks and preparation before, during and after the ship’s passage.

Before, during and after each stopover, the agency’s activities were numerous and its employees, about an average of twenty,  were always very busy. The agency had to  ensure that the areas requiring its involvement were dealt with quickly and efficiently. It was therefore necessary that the rules of the colony be respected and that the ship had nothing to manage upon arrival. Lighthouse laws, Sunday work permits, health certificates, transport permits for dangerous packages, subscriptions to the Chancellery or payments for rented equipment… the agency had to think of everything. These costs are all steps that require a perfect knowledge of the laws, without forgetting a significant budget. Moreover, with the 1929 crisis, the government considerably increased all forms of taxes; to take only the lighthouse duty as an example, it went from HK$7,683.08 to HK$15,806.16 between 1930 and 1931.

Employees must prepare supplies and respond to all requests: for example, provide fresh meat, have the piano tuned, find a dentist for a passenger… It was also necessary to negotiate coal (and fuel oil prices a little later) and coordinate the actions of the dockworkers.

The Hong Kong agency managed a growing number of stopovers during the period. After
1924, the number of liners stabilized more or less; with few exceptions, there were as many stopovers on the outward journey as on the return, the routes being programmed very strictly. The Far East line of Contractual Services liners regularly departed from Marseille once every two weeks. The number of cargo ships was much more random. Their passage was not systematic and depended on the spaces that had been reserved and the scheduled unloading. Between 1929 and 1935, it was even decided not to stop in Hong Kong.

Finally, it is necessary to note the stopovers of the ships of the companies represented by
the agency after 1927. In some years, these were as numerous, if not more so, than those of Messageries Maritimes. This meant a doubling of the work in some cases
while the benefits were low for the agency, which only received commissions on freight and passengers. These representations appear only far and wide in administrative reports, but in reality they required the same preparation and working time as any other ship in port. After the stopover, the consequences of repairs had to be managed, as well as
breakages, forgetfulness and theft. There were many disputes.

Freight, a key issue
Imports showcased France’s exports. In 1928, out of 29 Messageries Maritimes’ customers who imported merchandise into Hong Kong, 14 imported wine, six perfumery and three glass. However, it is difficult to have precise figures for the period because the charges for these imports are paid in France and the Hong Kong agency only unloaded and made them
available to customers. The administrative part is therefore relatively small, and often very
vague. However, through the correspondence regarding complaints, it is possible to observe that”generally speaking, almost all the landed crates give rise to reservations on the part of the Wharf society. I will mention in particular the packages of wines, liqueurs and fashion items that are most often looted”. Perhaps these recurrences in complaints are due to the fragility of the product, but surely it is also because they were imported in large quantities.
To take a later example with the year 1938, there is a complete file of 56 claims, the details of which are also revealing: eleven concern a variety of alcohol,including champagne, cognac plus Dubonnet and Pernod; six concern loads of cheese, three loads of chestnuts and one load of button mushrooms. A total of thirty complaints concern food (liquid or solid). The import of iron and other metals seems to be an eternal problem: 15 complaints. For the rest, there are wool parts and various loads. There are even three cases of Marseille soaps… that have taken on water.
Overall, it is no exaggeration to say that these are, in the majority, productions specific to
France or at least that make its reputation and distinguish it on foreign markets.
It should also be noted that imports from Indochina are very different. They are mainly
provided by the Compagnie indochinoise de navigation. Among other things, there are
significant loads of rice, cement and many animals (pigs, buffaloes), between 20 and 39,000 tons each year.

A wide variety of products.
The goods exported were very diverse; their precise destinations in France and uses,
domestic or industrial, sometimes remain mysterious and require further
investigation. In the disorder and without wishing to be exhaustive, we find mainly in the
first years following the war, bamboo, cassia, feathers, galangal, hair, chinaware, shells, star anise, skins, tobacco, silks, curios, wolfram or antimony ore, camphor, hemp or even mats…At the end of the 1930s, new products appeared: lead ore, wood oil, kelp, pork intestines, albumin, egg yolks or tin. Loading lists often have the appearance of a Prévert inventory. This heterogeneous nature of the products shows that the agency must have dealt with extremely varied volumes, containers and pricing.

As far as quantities are concerned, changes are permanent and sometimes significant from
one year to the next. Some products disappear and then reappear, volumes decrease
drastically and then increase considerably… The major political or economic mechanisms of the region are not enough to explain it. The reasons for these jolts do not depend on the Hong Kong agency and it is wise to leave these perspectives to further research.

The financial health of the agency depended closely on its customers, those who bring freight and are called shippers. The more chargers there are, the safer the agency is in case one of them defects. Understanding their numbers is one way to learn about the health of Hong Kong’s trading houses. The graph below shows how many private companies or individuals use Messageries Maritimes services from Hong Kong each year.

It is difficult to say if there are many of them since there are no points of comparison with
other agencies. The 1929 crisis caused a deep cut, but foreign companies operating in China recovered from 1935 to 1937, a swan song before the Japanese coup de grâce. What is important to remember and not visible here is the dependence on Canton. The Société commerciale asiatique and Madier-Ribet were the main customers of Messageries Maritimes and their local headquarters were in Canton: the importance of this city is obvious. In 1938, Canton provided 57% of freight on liners and the Société Commerciale Asiatique alone provided 43% of freighter loads.

1939 was an exception since 95% of the liners’ freight came from Hong Kong. The Japanese occupation turned the Canton organization upside down, but the goods still came from China, by indirect means. The proof is in the cargo ships: everything comes from Hong Kong but the Société Commerciale Asiatique of Canton is still the most important shipper…

The passenger’s waltz
They come and go… senior officials or wealthy merchants in first class, missionaries or travel clerks in second class and military or native people in third class. From Hong Kong to Shanghai or Yokohama on the outward journey, or from Hong Kong to Marseilles on the return journey, via all the stops on the route to Port Said… there was no shortage of destinations to choose from and although this traffic was less profitable for the agency, it was nevertheless an important part of the job.

It was not until 1928 that the Maritime Messengers returned to Hong Kong with passenger
traffic equivalent to that of 1914 in number. Up to then, the progress had been modest but
constant; then the figures surged in 1928 and 1929, falling sharply in the following two years and resuming a steady and positive trend. We cannot help but draw a parallel with freight, which follows more or less the same trend.

Fewer passengers does not necessarily mean less revenue. It all depends on the distribution by class. It is pointless to undertake a global comparison of profits over the period because money prices do not give a true picture of the evolution, but it should be borne in mind that the agent can be satisfied with a decreasing number of passengers if the revenues also allow him to show an increasing result thanks to more passengers in higher classes.

Ships are divided into three classes, plus the possibility of being a deck passenger,
sometimes called 4th class. The different populations that cohabit in a very relative way on
boats do not have the same motivations to travel and passenger traffic can change
significantly over time depending on the concerns of these distinct social categories.
However, there was a clear overall movement following the global economic depression after

1929. Passengers, especially those in the upper classes, reduced the frequency of their trips… In 1931, a large number of French residents in Indochina or the region had not returned to Europe on holiday and preferred to extend their stay “at the Colony” to avoid transport costs.

In view of the very wide variety of cases and the numerous fluctuations, it is not necessary
to go into detail about the developments for each distinct type of traffic. As with merchandise imports and exports, the objective is rather to embrace the situation which the agency faced and the major trends of the period.

Not surprisingly, traffic was much higher on return journeys than on passenger ships’ outward journeys. Local competition was fierce on short distances and it was financially unattractive to develop this traffic. In 1922, for example, revenues on return trips were more than 10 times higher than on outward trips. The rest of the period is commensurate and does not have the same magnitude in the ratio as the goods. To speak in terms of number of customers, in 1926, to take another example, shows that compared to the outward journey, there are 3,5 times more passengers boarding in Hong Kong on the return journey. This difference in relation to revenue is explained by the fact that the passages sold on the outward journey are mainly those of lower classes, so there are many people for less revenue. The evolution of the passages on outward journeys follows that of inter-call passages, which tends to confirm that this is often also an indigenous clientele (Chinese or Indochinese most of the time).

Messageries Maritimes Liner Pathos In Hong Kong Harbour Circa 1930 Private Collection Francois Dremeaux

The Messageries Maritimes Liner Porthos In Hong Kong Harbour Circa 1930 Private Collection

Comparisons on return trips stop very quickly if inter-stop traffic is not taken into account.
The stopovers between Hong Kong and Port-Saïd absorb a large majority of passengers.
According to the agents, it is particularly Saigon with the lower classes, but there are no
figures to support this. However, there is no reason to question them when we consider the expansion of Saigon’s Chinatown, Cholon, at the same time; more than 100,000 immigrants from southern China arrived there between 1925 and 1930. The movement continued because in the years that followed, the Messageries Maritimes also had to deal with a large number of Chinese who sought refuge in Indochina. In 1938, however, the Chinese government banned its nationals from leaving China, which explains the sudden and lasting fall.

The most stable element remained the traffic to Marseilles. It was largely composed of
Europeans who follow the regular rhythm of their assignments in the colonies, whether
missionaries or civil servants, employees or ordinary soldiers. Nor was there any sudden frenzy for traders or entrepreneurs to go on an adventure to try their luck in the Far East. The traffic to Marseille was not exclusively Western. There were also a large number of Chinese students who went to Europe to study. This movement is constant at the beginning of the period and then decreases after 1933. The slight decline of 1931-1933 has already been interpreted with the crisis; the second relief of this traffic is an increase from 1936 onwards, which can be explained by the large number of Chinese expatriates to France. First of all, a first wave with a large part of the Cantonese bourgeoisie, faithful to Marshal Chan Chai Tong, who fled after the coup d’état of July 1936, then in 1937 and 1938, Cantonese who, rather than leaving for Indochina, decided to move further away from Japan’s China.

Finally, in 1939, passenger traffic in France dried up at the beginning of the year with “the
uncertainties of the situation in Europe”. The idea of a conflict, far from repatriating the
French to their country, leads them to a certain caution in their movements.(1)


  1. DRÉMEAUX François, Les Messageries Maritimes à Hong Kong (1918-1941), Scientrier, Éditions Gope, 2014, 176 p.

This article was first posted on 19th March 2020.

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  3. French maritime companies in Hong Kong 1918-1941
  4.  Livingston & Company Ltd, established in HK 1841, shipping lines and insurance
  5. The Isthmian Shipping Line 1910-1974 – monthly sailing from Hong Kong to New York 1950s

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