How To Lose The Equivalent Of A Liner Fleet in Just Over A Decade: The Decline And Fall of Compania Maritima

For nearly a century since the tailend of the Spanish regime in the Philippines it was Compania Maritima that was the dominant passenger shipping company for most of that period although at times there were also shipping companies that will draw parity or even slightly exceed Compania Maritima. This company has Spanish origins and hence it had the advantage of European connections, a factor not enjoyed by other shipping companies and the plus of that can be felt in ship acquisitions and maybe even capitalization. It also did not hinder Compania Maritima that the owner Fernandez Brothers were not only heavyweight in business but also in politics even in the Commonwealth period and this continued until the early Republic years. As in one of them being a Senator of the Commonwealth and of the Republic. Those were the times when capital was tight and acquiring loans need inside and political connections.

Right after the Republic was born, Compania Maritima or Maritime Company was fast out of the gate and immediately built up a sizable fleet not only in sheer number but even in the size of ships. They were the first among local companies in tapping Europe as source of ships and unlike those sourced by Madrigal and Elizalde, theirs were not old, worn-down ships weathered by convoy duty during the war. There was only one time in the postwar years that a local shipping company was able to match them in sheer number. This was the Aboitiz Shipping Corporation that was the beneficiary of the expiration of the Laurel-Langley Agreement in 1974 when Everett Steamship has to give up their share in Philippine Steamship and Navigation Company. But that fleet of Aboitiz was loaded with small ex-”FS” ships that were already growing old. Compania Maritima had a significant number too of ex-”FS” ships but they were not dependent on that type while that formed the backbone of Aboitiz’s fleet.

However, out of twenty or so ships accumulated through the years with some used for a time in foreign routes, Compania Maritima began losing ships through hull losses at a rate of nearly one per year from 1967 to 1981 when before that they almost had no serious accidents. Of course, like the latter Sulpicio Lines, Compania Maritima “pushes” ships even in inclement weather. But the downturn was so stark I cannot begin to understand it was simply the result of “pushing” or bad luck or the growing age of their fleet. I don’t know if there was a death wish. The weakness of many old Spanish mestizo companies was for too long they simply relied on their initial headstart in capital accumulation which for many resulted from monopolies or warrants given by the Spanish regime. Later, they also had the inside track in Malacanang connections which can do wonder in many things. So when these two factors evaporated, their weaknesses was sadly exposed by the new challengers that grew without the support that the Spanish mestizo companies took for granted.

The middle of the 1960’s also saw a change of occupant in Malacanang who had his own fair boys (well, was there an occupant of that palace who had none?) and these did not include the Fernandezes (their stars were already on the wane then). Suddenly, an outsider was the insider and the former insiders are now the outsiders. That began the decline of the old business empires that were formed during the Commonwealth years or earlier and they were many. Suddenly, the Fernandez shipping companies found they cannot compete in favor with Philippine President Lines (PPL) especially in the international routes. Even the venerable and well-connected but not-in-power De la Rama Steamship was overtaken by Philippine President Lines in the international routes. The redoubtable Madrigals also began to lose steam in this period when they no longer had elective posts.

mv-mindanao

There was also a newcomer on the block that was riding the surge of the king of commodity crops which were copra and coconut oil. Abaca was far going down and those which latched into was also being pulled down like the Elizaldes and the Madrigals. Note these two were once great names in shipping. The Sorianos were lucky they were just in beer and beer carrier barges and the Zobels were lucky that their holdings in non-commercial talahib turned out to be golden real estate. That was also the good luck of the Aranetas and Ortigases. The Rufinos were also in shipping but their fortunes in it were not getting better and the Delgados which was in forwarding and shipping was also finding their hold being swept by the boy of the new man in Malacanang.

The newcomer is actually newcomers as they are a duo. One was the biggest in copra and coconut oil whose signage is still prominent today in SRP in Cebu. This was the Lu Do Lu Ym and their gatherer-carrier locally and their bringer to international markets was the fast-rising Carlos A. Go Thong & Company.

I do not know if the Fernandezes saw their eventual decline in shipping. However, it is not hard to draw visions from the decline of Madrigal, Elizalde, Rufino and Delgado, all very powerful names then and financiers of presidential campaigns one time or another. They have no powerful engine like a commodity crop. They have no hold in Malacanang like before. And there are powerful new challengers buoyed by the need to move goods that they racial kins were beginning to control. Later this change of guard came to be known as the eclipsing of the Castilaloys by the Chinoys or the rise of the taipans. Moreover, the Fernandezes saw their perch in forwarding wrested by a favored boy of Malacanang, the new landsman of the Makati Stock Exchange (now how significant is that?).

What I know is from 1970 Compania Maritima stopped acquiring ships and local shipping history has shown that such a non-move presages the change of the order or standing in shipping. Compania Maritima no longer purchased ships even though they were bleeding from a fast loss of ships. Most of these maritime losses came under a literal storm which means a typhoon.

Compania Maritima first lost a ship on January 16, 1967 when their MV Mindanao, an ex-”C1-M-AV1” ship was wrecked near Odiongan, Romblon on January 16, 1967. That was very remarkable because for twenty years preceding since they restarted operations in 1947, they never lost a ship no matter what typhoon passed the country. However, being beached and wrecked is a lot better than foundering in a storm because a lot of casualties are averted and the remains can either be refloated or broken up depending on the extent of damage. MV Mindanao was broken up the next year, in 1968. This passenger-cargo ship was first known as the MV Star Knot in Compania Maritima’s fleet, the same name she had while on the service of the US Navy in World War II.

mv-cebu

On the same year the first MV Mindanao (there was a later MV Mindanao) was lost, the MV Mindoro, a weak ex-”FS” ship foundered in a storm, the Typhoon “Welming” on November 4, 1967 off Sibuyan island. This ship was first known as the first MV Basilan in the fleet of Compania Maritima before she was renamed in 1952 when another ex-”FS” ship was acquired by the company that will bear that name. When the first MV Mindanao was lost, she was holding the quixotic route Manila-Catbalogan-Tacloban-Surigao-Nasipit-Butuan which passes through the eastern seaboard of Leyte but not under the San Juanico bridge as that bridge was not yet existing at that time.

In 1969, another ex-”C1-M-AV1” ship of Compania Maritima was wrecked again in a storm, the super-typhoon “Eling” (900 hPa!) which was then blowing off northeastern Luzon. This was the MV Siquijor which was earlier known as MV Carrick Bend in their fleet and also when she was still in the US Navy. She was beached in Tag-olo Point on the tip of the longer peninsula enclosing Dapitan Bay and like the MV Mindoro her remains was broken up the next year.

On July 16, 1973, the passenger-cargo ship MV Mactan, the third ship to carry this name in the fleet of Compania Maritima foundered in a storm. She was lost in Tablas Strait on a Nasipit-Manila voyage when two typhoon were affecting our seas. This liner was the MV General del Pilar in the fleet of General Shipping Corporation that was bought brand-new in Japan. She was actually big also at 83 meters length and the only ship of Compania Maritima from Japan except for the taken-over ships from De la Rama Steamship which were the former MV Dona Alicia and MV Dona Aurora (these ships were seized by the National Development Corporation, an entity owned by the Philippine Government, as they are the true owners). The route of MV Mactan is the same as the lost first MV Mindanao which was Manila-Catbalogan-Tacloban-Surigao-Nasipit-Butuan. She was the replacement ship on that route.

The bad streak of Compania Maritima did not end and on September 17, 1973, a liner of theirs from Europe, one of the best in the local waters in the early 1950’s was wrecked in the shores of Pangan-an island, part of the Olango island group of Cebu east of Mactan island. This is the MV Cebu, the biggest in the fleet of Compania Maritima which was only equaled when the brand-new MV Luzon came in 1959 and exceeded only in 1963 when the brand-new MV Visayas arrived from West Germany. Mind you, the MV Luzon and MV Visayas were flagships and so it is an exalted comparison. MV Cebu might be the biggest in their fleet in almost the whole of the 1950’s but it seems it was the MV Panay that they considered their flagship. MV Panay would later share the same fate as MV Cebu. MV Cebu was later broken up in 1974.

mv-panay-herald

In the same year, the sister ship of MV Panay, the MV Jolo will also be wrecked. Is there an eerie pattern now? It seems the ships of Compania Maritima suddenly had a great love for the beaches and not in a nice way. Wrecking does not result in great casualties, hence, there is less to settle on the passenger and it does not produce a great outcry from the public. MV Jolo was wrecked in Caballo island near Corregidor on Oct 11, 1973 when the winds of Typhoon “Miling” hit her. This happened just a month after their MV Cebu was lost.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/goriob1/5376509547/in/photolist-9c71Yt-6xtbRc-96nHhU-96jEtB-bvLTpQ-8F1zNg-6xQbBG-6x3kcV-8Q5zrv-6xKYX6-96nGDs-6xQa7m-6xQ23u-6xhxSh-87vYVv-eAke1J-87vUWg-dYd1NQ-87vPon-87z3Hm-eRVpaH-6x2ANi-96nFvd-eAh2zr-87vPnX-6x7uGs-6xxJeD-dYd17s-6xKR9n-6xxHVz-dXAAyZ-dYcZV9-6xxA1X-96nFQq-eS7RJ9-6xQaxw-6gdQyp-fQzz1P-6xL1bD-fQLVwd-5SB3S6-6xhPwq-7HoByY-5ZfFnk-5Zxnpy-6x2PUH-6xKsu8-6xQ5UC-6xKsuV-6x2ANT

In April 8, 1974, Compania Maritima would suffer the only maritime hull loss due to fire. This was the MV Romblon, an ex-”FS” ship but the incidental thing is she was also beached! It is really a good coincidence if a fire happens near an island. The route of the MV Romblon was Manila-Capiz-Iloilo-Pulupandan-Sangi-Estancia and the beaching happened in Naujan, Oriental Mindoro. She was among the last liners calling in Pulupandan as silting of the waters of the port demanded that only shallow-draft vessels like the MV Romblon can only dock in the port (in a few years liners will stop calling in Pulupandan and Negros Occidental will become a sole property of Negros Navigation).

On March 23, 1977, it was the turn of the MV Panay to be lost by wrecking (again!). She was lost off Salauan Point the farthest spit of land of Laguindingan, Misamis Oriental near where the new Laguindingan airport stands now. There was no typhoon that time as it was summer. Did she go straight for the shallows or they left the nautical charts ashore?

In my study of maritime losses, I actually did not see a streak as long as what Compania Maritima had. And I was wondering what MARINA (it was already in existence then) was doing. If this was Sulpicio Lines and with Maria Elena Bautista at the helm, I think Compania Maritima will already be shuttered. And this is not the end yet.

On April of 1978, a summer typhoon visited the Philippines. This is the Typhoon “Atang”, a 150 kph typhoon that visited the central Philippines. A lengthened ex-”FS” ship of Compania Maritima was caught in that, the MV Leyte. She was wrecked in the southwestern portion of Sibuyan island trying to reach shelter. She was then on a Manila-Cebu voyage.

mv-guimaras

The beaching streak of Compania Maritima would not yet end and on July 6, 1979, the MV Guimaras, a 98-meter liner from Europe will again be wrecked near the boundary of Negros Oriental and Negros Occidental on the southern side. There were two typhoons then in the northern part of the country and maybe the seas then in that place was strong as those two typhoons will suck the sea north.

And on June 23, 1980, another big liner (in those days a liner over 100 meters length is big) of theirs from Europe, the MV Dadiangas will again be lost through wrecking in Siargao island due to Typhoon “Huaning”. The MV Dadiangas was earlier known in the fleet of Compania Maritima as the MV Isla Verde and she was a Manila-Davao ship passing the eastern seaboard of Mindanao, the shortcut route to Davao. It seems changing names of ships from islands to cities did not help them.

Eleven liners lost through accidents in 13 years! Can anyone imagine that!? I am sure the ones commanding the ships of Compania Maritima are not some simple able-bodied seaman. How could they have lost that many and as continuously with most ending on the beaches and on the rocks?

To compare that was more than the fleet of Sweet Lines, Galaxy Lines, Escano Lines, Aboitiz Shipping Company+Cebu-Bohol Ferry Company (outside of Aboitiz’s holdings in Philippine Steamship and Navigation Company) during that time. In that period only the fleets of Gothong A. Gothong & Co., William Lines and Philippine Steamship and Navigation Company could be greater than those 11 ships lost by Compania Maritima but then maybe not in combined gross tonnage because the ships lost by Compania Maritima are generally big.

With those losses, Compania Maritima entered the years of financial crisis of the country in the 1980’s with a much weakened fleet and the loss of Number 1 position in local shipping especially since they did not acquire any more liners after 1970 when they acquired the second MV Mindanao. They also disposed of a few other ships along the way. But still when they began breaking up ships in 1982 and ceasing operations in 1983 they still had 7 ships left although some of these are just old ex-”FS” ships (three) that were barely running.

From a great shipping company and Numero 1, the Compania Maritima went out in a whimper. Kindly, I think they might have had a death wish and a desire for exit already. After closing shop, the Fernandez brothers packed their bags and headed back to Spain, their country of origin. They were dual citizens all throughout.

Photo Credits: Gorio Belen, Philippine Herald, Manila Chronicle, Times Journal

my-leyte

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