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Messageries Fluviales de Cochinchine (Shipping company, France)

Last modified: 2012-05-12 by ivan sache
Keywords: messageries fluviales de cochinchine | leters: mf (blue) |
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[House flag]

House flag of Messageries Fluviales de Cochinchine - Image by Ivan Sache, 11 December 2011

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Presentation of Messageries Fluviales de Cochinchine

In the last decades of the 19th century, French Cochinchina was ruled by the Admiralty, with 3,000 soldiers stationed in the colony, and by the Colony Council, located in Saigon, then a port of c. 50,000 inhabitants. Until the administrative reorganization of Indochina and the set up of a government in Hanoi by Paul Doumer, Governor General in 1897-1902, the Admiralty and the Colony Council ruled de facto the colony, perceiving tax at their good will. In the 1860s, the Admiralty invited industrials and businessmen to develop the colony.
The brothers Victor and Henry Roque, already established in Far East as the main suppliers of the French troops in Cochinchina, settled in 1860 in Saigon. Together with Marcellin Larrieu, they founded in 1870 the Messageries Vapeur de Cochinchine, operating ships on river Mekong, from Saigon to Kratié (Cambodia), then the most distant post reachable by navigation.

In 1880, Jules Rueff, after a failed attempt to develop a railway line to Cambodia, founded the Messageries Fluviales de Cochinchine. The new company had its seat in Paris and a capital of 1.5 million francs, that is the biggest in the colony. On 22 December 1880, it obtained a nine-years contract granting monopole of the postal service on the Mekong, outrunning the Messageries Vapeur de Cochinchine. The relationships between the two companies (take-over, association, purchase...), if any, are not known: there is no further record of the Messageries Vapeur later than 1882 and the Roque brothers seem to have relocated their business to Tonkin.
On 29 April 1886, the contract granted to the Messageries Fluviales was extended to 31 March 1900, requiring the company to operate eight ships under the French ensign and with a French crew. The contract was amended on 27 September 1889 and 12 February 1890 to list the new lines served by the company. On 9 November 1894, all the contracts granted to the Messageries Fluviales were extended to 14 January 1915.

The Messageries fluviales funded the expeditions organized in 1893 to allow river navigation up to Laos and to the border with China. The company did not mind equipping and operating gunboats. On the border of Cambodia and Laos, the crossing of the Khône rapids, bristled with 4,000 islets, required from the company the building of a 6-km railway on the main island.
In spite of its significant contribution to the colonization, the company earned a bad reputation. Rueff was reported to use any means to increase the company profit and to expel competitors from the navigation business. As an example, the Messageries Fluviales obtained on 24 May 1893 the contract of the postal service to Bangkok (via the Gulf of Siam) originally granted on 31 January 1887 to the Compagnie Nantaise de Navigation à Vapeur. The steamer in charge of the service, the J.-B.-Say, was part of Admiral Humann's expedition to Bangkok; she was sunk by the Siam Navy during the Battle of Paknam (13 July 1893).
Ships of the company were allegedly involved in opium and weapon smuggling with China; indirect evidence was provided by the unexpected standard of life of some captains or commissioners, the richest of them supporting mistresses and race horses, but none of them was ever caught.

The new postal contracts issued in 1914 were much less favorable to the Messageries Fluviales, which lost the monopole on the postal service. Renamed Compagnie Saïgonnaise de Navigation et de Transport (CSNT), the company dramatically increased its fares in 1926. The colonists from Laos nicknamed the company Commerce soumis, nouvelles tracasseries (Submitted trade, new harassment) and massively relied on Siamese companies. Progressively, the CSNT withdrew from navigation and moved to more profitable domains, such as rubber tree plantations and rubber factories, sawmills, cigarettes, power supply and general stores (listed in 1931 in Teston and Percheron's L'Indochine moderne). The CSNT appears to have winded up in the 1930s.

Source: TransMékong cruises website.

More information on the early years of the company, with a map, is to be found in E. Lagrillière-Beauclerc's À travers l'Indo-Chine (1900). At the time, the company operated 34 ships (only 15 in 1886) between Saigon and Luang-Prabang and Battambang. The Saigon shipyard employed 300 workers, while the company owned counters and shops in most river ports of the colony.

Ivan Sache, 11 December 2011

House flag of Messageries Fluviales de Cochinchine

The house flag of the Messageries Fluviales de Cochinchine, as shown in the Yearbook of the Central Committee of French Shipowners, 1922, is white with a blue triangle at each corner and the blue letter "MF" in the middle.
This flag is quite similar to the flag of the Messageries Maritimes, but I have not found any evidence of a link between the two companies. However, the Messageries Fluviales were some kind of "local correspondent" of the Saigon mail ships operated by the MM, and might have found it worth "borrowing" the flag design used by the prestigious MM.

Dominique Cureau & Ivan Sache, 11 December 2011