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Marseilles (Municipality, Bouches-du-Rhône, France): House flags of shipping companies

Last modified: 2013-11-30 by ivan sache
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A short history of the port of Marseilles

It is well-known and historically proved that Marseilles (then Massalia) was founded by seamen coming from the Greek town of Phokia, in Asia Minor. The Massaliotes were fiery seamen, the most famous of them being Pytheas (4th century BP), who calculated the latitude of Marseilles and sailed up to Ireland and maybe even further to the north, and Eutymenes. The maritime power of Massalia ended when the town chose the party of Pompeius against Julius Caesar and lost its independence.
A new maritime era started with the Crusades and the independence of the Republic of Marseilles. After the incorporation of Provence into France in 1481, Marseilles could not afford the competition with Genoa, Venice, Montpellier and the Spanish ports and started slowly to decline.

In 1599, the Chamber of Commerce of Marseilles, the first in France, was created upon Henri IV's request. Louis XIV punished the revolt of Marseilles by entering himself the town through its broken walls, but modernized the port and created the galley arsenal (Arsenal des Galères). Colbert organized the shipping activity, so that trade with Levant and the Barbary Coast (Northern Africa) increased tenfold within a few years. However, the unsuccessful wars of the end of the 17th century and the resulting economic crisis considerably handicapped maritime trade. In 1720, the ship Grand Saint-Antoine brought black plague from Syria and introduced the disease in Marseilles, thanks to forged quarantine certificates. The epidemic killed 100,000 in Provence, including 40,000 only in Marseilles.
At the end of the Ancient Regime, Marseilles had 120,000 inhabitants and the value of the local trade was about 1/5 of the global French trade.

The Revolution was welcomed in Marseilles, but the town once again revolted and was severely repressed. Trade nearly disappeared and was restricted to local coastal shipping. The English blockade during the First Empire did not improve the economical situation. The re-establishment of trade started under the Restauration but took much more time than expected. In the middle of the 19th century, Marseilles had 200,000 inhabitants, and the efficient local administration promoted industrial development. The old basin of the Vieux-Port was deemed to small and it was decided to build a new port in the north of the town.
The Second Empire favoured the industrial revolution all over France, and especially in Marseilles. The three new basins of Joliette, Lazaret and Arenc were built. Within 25 years, the length of the quays increased threefold. The number of steamships increased from 30 to 200. This increase in trade was mostly caused by the colonization and the companies founded and funded by the French State for that purpose. It is said that Ferdinand de Lesseps, the builder of the Suez Canal "forged a golden key for Marseilles". Far-East became the new Mare Nostrum of the shipowners from Marseilles. In 1890, the town had 400,000 inhabitants.
The progress in trade followed the progress in colonization, which was achieved with the incorporation of Madagascar to France in the beginning of the 20th century. In 1913, 570,000 passengers passed in transit through Marseilles, which was the first port in the Mediterranean basin and the second largest French town.

Although Marseilles was located far behind the frontline, the First World War dramatically affected the town. One third of the fleet was lost during the war, scheduled lines were modified or suppressed, for instance the lines to the Black Sea. After the war, most trade was reoriented towards the colonies and especially Algeria, with a monopole granted to ships under the French flag.
The Second World War nearly suppressed trade in Marseilles. After the French defeat in 1940, trade with Northern Africa was reestablished in order to resupply the country. From November 1942 to the liberation, the traffic was completely suppressed. The Germans systematically destroyed the port and sunk 170 ships before capitulating. Thanks to the American help, the port was cleaned and reopened to trade within 17 days. The reconstruction of the port was planified.
The independence of the colonies, the war in Algeria and the closure of the Suez Canal caused the end of several shipping companies in Marseilles. The few remaining companies had to survive through a succession of alliances and mergings.

Source: Armements marseillais - Compagnies de navigation et navires à vapeur (1831-1988), by Paul Bois, published by the Chamber of Commerce and Industry Marseille-Provence [boi03].
This book is the second part of a 15-volumes series entitled Histoire du commerce et de l'industrie de Marseille - XIXe-XXe siècles (History of commerce and industry in Marseilles - 19-20th centuries). It is based on the archives of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Marseilles, which played a great role in the maritime development of the city and was presided by important shipowners.
The book lists (nearly) all the shipping companies that operated in Marseilles between 1830 and the end of the 20th century. For each company, a detailed history, a ship list when available and scale drawings of the ships are given, as well as the house flag(s) of the company. The drawings are in black-and-white but there are three colour plates of flags and funnels in the beginning of the book. About 200 companies and 1,100 ships are presented. Indexes of companies and ships, as well as a rich bibliography are provided.
The first book of the series is Armateurs marseillais du XIXe siècle, by Roland Caty and Eliane Richard (1986), mostly dedicated to the shipowners.

Ivan Sache, 3 March 2004


Index of shipping companies based in Marseilles