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Compagnie des Messageries Maritimes (Shipping company, France)

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Keywords: compagnie des messageries maritimes | letters: mm (black) |
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[Compagnie des Messageries Maritimes house flag]by Ivan Sache

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Presentation of Compagnie des Messageries Maritimes

The Compagnie des Messageries Nationales, a mail-coach service, was created in 1796. Following the industrial revolution in the XIXth century, the mail and parcel services abandoned the coaches for the railway. On 8 July 1851, the Messageries Nationales signed with the French state an agreement for operating four shipping lines to Italy, Levant, Egypt and Greece. On 9 September, the Hellespont was the first ship of the company to leave the port of Marseilles, for Civitavecchia (Italia). In 1852, the shipping company was incorporated in Paris as the Compagnie des Services Maritimes des Messageries Nationales, renamed in 1853 Compagnie des Messageries Impériales. The company bought the shipyard of La Ciotat, where most of its ships were built.

The company efficiently transported French troops during the Crimean War (1854-55). As a reward, it was granted the postal lines to Algeria, Tunisia, and the Black Sea, and to South America (1857). The line Bordeaux-Brazil was the first French line served by steamships. Between 1862 and 1865, lines were set up to Far-East and Japan. A secondary line served the Indian Ocean via the Reunion island and Mauritius.

On 17 November 1869, the Messageries Impériales liner Péluse inaugaurated the Suez Canal, sailing just behind the Imperial vessel. The canal dramatically reduced the travel durations and increased the commercial exchanges, triggering the shipping business. On 1 August 1871, the company took the name of Compagnie des Messageries Maritimes.

In 1880, the lines to Northern Africa were ceded to the Compagnie Générale Transatlantique. Lines to Australia, New Caledonia and the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu) were opened in 1882, via Bombay and Colombo.
Between 1971 and 1914, the company was an essential support to the French colonial expansion. Saigon became the second home base of the company, which operated there smaller "stationary ships" on local lines to Haiphong, the infamous penal colony of Poulo Condor, Hong-Kong and Shangai. In 1912, the South American line was sold to the Compagnie Sud Atlantique, a subsidiary of the Chargeurs Réunis company.

During the First World War, the ships of the company were used as hospital ships and troop carriers. At the end of the war, one third of the fleet, that is 22 ships, was lost.
In 1919, the ship El Kantara inaugurated the line around the world, and was the first French ship to cross the Panama canal. On 29 December 1920, the Société des Services Contractuels des Messageries Maritimes, a subsidiary of the Messageries Maritimes, was granted the operation of the postal and other national lines. The parent company kept the control of the commercial lines and the local lines overseas.

The period 1920-1930 was the second golden age of the Messageries Maritimes. Fuel oil boilers were installed for the first time on the Angkor (1921). In parallel to such technological advances, the company paid great attention to the decoration of its de luxe liners, such as the Mariette Pacha and the Félix Roussel.

In 1932, the liner Georges Philippar burned in the Indian Ocean. It was suggested that the fire was an attempt aimed at the journalist and writer Albert Londres (1884-1932), who died during the fire. Londres was a very popular lawman-reporter, who had exposed in very well documented articles the dark side of the French economical miracle, that is the penal colonies, the abusive colonial system, prostitution etc. Londres has several powerful enemies and knew a lot of shameful things on politicians and businessman. The people behind the attempt, if any, were never found since the police did not consider (or was ordered not to) seriously the criminal hypothesis.

During the Second World War, the fleet of the Messageries Maritimes was commissioned and half of the ships were lost. The law of 28 February 1948 reorganized the merchant navy in France. The limited liability semi-public company (compagnie d'économie mixte) Compagnie des Messageries Maritimes was created by merging the assets of the former company of the same name and the Société des Services Contractuels des Messageries Maritimes, whose contract with the state had expired. In 1949, the first newly-built ship of the company, La Marseillaise, served the Far-East line. In 1962, the South American line was served by ships bought to the Chargeurs Réunis company. The last ship of the company, the Pasteur, was inaugurated in 1966.

On 23 February 1977, the Compagnie des Messageries Maritimes and the Compagnie Générale Transatlantique merged into the Compagnie Générale Maritime, and the flags of those two famous "French lines" were definitively lowered.

Among the numerous sources on the Messageries Maritimes, two websites are of specific interest:

Ivan Sache, 4 December 2003

Description of the flag of Compagnie des Messageries Maritimes

The flag of the Messageries Maritimes is shown on a huge number of posters, postcards and artefacts linked to the life on board. The big companies carefully designed such artefacts (spoons, menus, ashtrays, etc.), which are now valuable collectibles.

Due to the number of sources, it is paradoxally difficult to have an accurate representation of the flag. The source I have considered as the most reliable is a menu - the "French lines" were renowned for the gastronomy on board -, on which the flag is printed in a static (non "floating" way). There, the flag is rectangular, in proportions 1:2, white with a red rectangle in each corner and the black letters M.M in the middle. All sources show the monogram M.M with only one dot after the first M. On some posters, the monogram is shown in blue, probably to better match the blue background of the poster (sea and sky).
The respective proportion ot the red and white part is, on the flag shown on the menu, (3:2:3):(6:4:6), that is, in the vertical dimension along the hoist, 3 units red (upper triangle) : 2 units white : 3 units red (lower triangle); in the horizontal dimension, those figures are multiplied by two, so that the respective proportions of the red, white and red parts remain the same.

Ivan Sache, 4 December 2004

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