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.
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.
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.
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 a steamer named Bassac, shuttling goods from Laos between the Southern end of the Khône island and Cochinchina.
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 annum8). 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.
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.
To trade the lower Mekong, the Messageries put in operation as early as the late 1880s, fast river steamers fit for the navigation of the secondary waterways and the delta.
The Bassac, a 214 tons river steamer, is a beautiful example.
The photography depicts the Bassac apparently at an anchor by very high waters, right next to a very tall and straight tree, the wood of which, named gỗ sao, is very fit for building boats, and now rare. Judging by her proportions, she must be 7 meters tall, not including the stack and mast, and a little more than 30 meters in length. She is low enough to find protection in the vegetation during tempests, short enough to turn around in the secondary waterways.
The bow is straight up and thin, suggesting the first Bassac may have traded the estuary, where there are long waves, or just gone to Saigon, which would have taken her through a body of sea at rạch nước mạn.
The Bassac was employed from the early 1890s on between Châu Đốc, Phnom Penh and the Southern station on the island of Khône, where she once hosted Governor General Paul Doumer. From July 1896 on, she ran the line with a new sister ship, probably the Vien Chan.21) The Bassac's upper deck was done up and fitted with electric fans only in 1914 and under pointed orders by the General Government of Cochinchina in the postal service contract, which did not leave much up to the Messageries.22) Counted as an unclassed boat, the Bassac had to run at least 10 kts on trial but was not subjected to the same class constraints as other boats.
The historic steamer Bassac may have been named after the town of Bassac in southern Laos, or after the river Bassac, which runs from Phnom Penh to Châu Đốc. It may even have been the old name of Cần Thơ
More than a hundred years after, with the additional constraint of crossing bridges that were not there at the time, we retained very similar dimensions. Today's Bassac follow with the benefits of modern technology the choices made by the pioneers of the XIXth Century: the dimensions of the boats remain dictated by the rivers they trade.
Today as then, to be able to turn around anywhere on the secondary ways like the Chợ Lách canal, we still need to be less than 40 meters in length. It is very important for safety reasons: the materials-carrying barges and their tugs enter the canal along with the flow, and as they use very little power, they risk being stuck in the way and block the canal. If we follow them, as we are running along with the current, we must be able to turn around and cast anchor.
Today's Bassac's air draft meets the same constraints as in the XIXth Century: in case of a strong wind, and a sudden gust may come very surprising in the Delta, we must be low enough on the water to ensure stability and have the protection of the vegetation. As they do not have the large bulk of a steam engine, with its boiler and coke store, to weigh them down and stabilize them, our Bassac are probably built wider than the historical steamer to sustain a very strong gust even out in the open and reduce the draft.
Fortunately, today's Bassac do not blindly follow all the standards set forth by our glorious forefathers. Today, no need for a candle on the half-deck, near the horses and poultry, to get to read at night.
If you happen to know more whereabouts of the Messageries Fluviales or the steamer Bassac, please contact us.
We owe special thanks to ANAI for having allowed us to find this striking picture of the 1890s Bassac, which triggered our study and the present page.