Philippine Passenger-Cargo Shipping During The Commonwealth Era And On The Eve Of The Pacific War

Even before the advent of the Philippine Commonwealth in 1935, the Filipino ship owners (this the more proper term as there are American shipping companies operating in the Philippines then as they are free to do so as we are a colony of the US and thus part of their territory) began gearing up for the time when the American steamers will be supplanted by them. It is always the hope of top local businessmen and industrialists of colonies that when independence came that they will replace on top the businessmen and industrialists of their former masters. This was actually their hope also when we were still under Spanish rule, one of the reasons why many of the elite favored the Revolution against Spain. As they say, it is but just natural. And that is one reason why they were for independence for they expect to benefit.

Before the Commonwealth Era began, the biggest shipping companies were Madrigal & Co. and Compania Maritima, the latter with Spanish origins and connections. The two were mainly based in Manila and were about equal in size but direct comparison is not easy as Madrigal & Co. had pure cargo ships in the foreign trade whereas Compania Maritima concentrated on the inter-island passenger-cargo shipping. Compania Maritima was the biggest at the start of the American time but Vicente Madrigal, who has a reputation for Midas touch caught up starting in the time of World War I as the coal and vegetable oil market boomed because of the war and Vicente Madrigal had heavily invested in both. He had the country’s biggest coal mine then in Batan island in Albay. Besides, he was also in the primary export commodity then which was abaca and which also boomed during the war.

Madrigal & Co. had five ships over 110 meters in length (and those will not look small even today) and such size was few in those times. Their biggest, the Don Jose measured 159.6 meters x 20.0 meters and had a GRT (Gross Register Tonnage) of 10,893 tons (and this is in SuperFerry range). The fleet of Madrigal & Co. was even bigger before the Commonwealth era as Vicente Madrigal was forced to send big ships to the breakers and also sell a few to other shipping companies in the aftermath of the economic downturn  and its effect on shipping during the Great Depression of 1929 in the US. That provoked a protectionism in that US that also made easier the passage of the independence acts sought by Filipinos as the US farmers were feeling the effect of tariff-free imports from the colonies. The claim of the Madrigal scions that once they were the biggest in shipping in the country is certainly true because their big businesses boosted their shipping. Many shipping owners then ventured into shipping because they have goods to move and they want certainty in bottoms and preferential rates, of course. And moreover, ships are also big status symbols.

Compania Maritima grew big right at the start of the American period by buying out Spanish-era shipping companies especially Reyes y Cia (this is pronounced as “Compania”) and the MacLeod & Co. which divested from shipping but retained their business interests in the country which centered on trade distribution. After that, its next period of growth started in the mid-1920s and continued up to 1935 when its ship acquisitions stopped suddenly. Being Spanish citizens also then they might still have been observing how they will be affected by the coming independence of the country that will happen after ten years of a Commonwealth period which is the preparatory and training period for independence and where Filipinos will hold high places in government already. But then also they might have been affected by the looming Spanish Civil War and the unrest before that. The ships of Compania Maritima from 1924 to 1935 formed the big part of their fleet which was overtaken by the Pacific War which commenced on December 7, 1941.

The most notable of the other fleets then in the Commonwealth Era were the related shipping companies La Naviera Filipina Inc. and the Aboitiz & Co. Inc. The first was actually a partnership of the Spanish-derived Escano and Aboitiz families which were both in the primary export crop then that was abaca which has great use then in shipping. It was the Escano family which sponsored the coming of the Aboitiz family to the Philippines from Spain, according to their history and both were based in Leyte and Cebu and also spanning those two important islands. The sizes of the two fleets were about equal in number to Madrigal & Co. and Compania Maritima but their ships were were a little smaller. However, nearly all of their ships were brand-new. If their ships were not that big, the reason was they were not doing the long Southern Mindanao route that needed big liners.1938 0416 mv Don Esteban_De la Rama Steamship Co ad
Research by Gorio Belen in the National Library.

Next with about half of the ships of the “Big Three” came next the De la Rama Steamship Co. Inc. which was owned by a leading businessman of Iloilo and a Senator of the Commonwealth at that. Browsing over its ads, one might have the impression that it was the leading shipping company of its time. However, the maritime databases do not support that as their fleet was not that big although they have regional operations (but then Escano and Aboitiz also had ships connecting Cebu and Leyte that are not in the maritime databases). It had five brand-new ships and some were big, ocean-going liners. Their inter-island ferries were luxurious, it was promoted well and was touted to be the best in their class (and maybe that is where the impression “leading” came from).

De la Rama Shipping, like the La Naviera Filipina is a shipping concern that bet big in the Commonwealth Era and in the coming independence and that was shown by their acquisitions of brand-new ships like what La Naviera and Aboitiz & Co. did. From basically being regional shipping companies of a decade before, the two had ambitions of being leading national liner shipping companies and that was good then for Philippine shipping. And wouldn’t it be good if the two leading shipping companies had competition including in the oceangoing routes? Truly the anticipated coming of independence perked up the shipping sector then

Next in rank came the Manila Steamship Co. Inc. of the Elizalde y Cia which had about the same number of ships as De la Rama Steamship. However, their ships were not new. Like Madrigal & Co. and Compania Maritima, they have ships in the 60- to 90-meter range because like the two just-mentioned companies, they have long routes and that means up to Kingking which is the modern Pantukan in Davao del Norte located at the apex of Davao Gulf and that is about 850 nautical miles in distance from Manila. Travel to Davao Gulf takes up to two weeks, one-way, as there are many ports of call in a voyage. Woe to the passengers if the accommodations are “cattle class” but I wonder if the tale is true or if it is a joke that at the end of the voyage they say many of the male passengers are already on the last hole of their belts. But in truth, many of these ships were already luxurious for their time in terms of accommodations, amenities and service and were divided into different passage classes as in those were not all-economy ships (a note to put it in context, the last liner of that type was the Palawan Princess of Sulpicio Lines Inc. which was also in the 80-meter class and was actually popular with the passengers in most of her career here). The Elizalde y Cia shipping company actually originated with the Ynchausti & Co. shipping concern which divested when they got heavily involved in the Spanish Civil War and the unrest before that.

After those majors come a slew of small liner companies with one or a few vessels and maybe the most notable among them with more vessels were Rio y Olabarrieta, a shipping company which connects Palawan and Mindoro to Manila and the government-owned Manila Railroad Co. (MRC), the forerunner of the Philippine National Railways (PNR) of today which had to operate ferries to connect its Bicol Line to their South (Luzon) Line but ended up operating liners as well (and the reason was President Quezon loved the MRC very much). These small liner shipping companies were about twelve or so in number and among them were Tabacalera (the short name of the Compania General de  Tabacos de Filipinas, a Spanish-derived company) which was once a big shipping company (and was still a leading tobacco company then), the Gutierrez Hermanos of Bicol (and supposedly related to the Gutierrezes of movie fame), Negros Navigation Co. Inc., Smith Navigation Co., the J. Garcia Alonso of Bicol, m/s Palawan Inc., United Navigation Inc., Visayan Transportation Co. Inc., E. Lopez (which was in Southern Lines Inc. after the war) and even the Philippine Government (yes, the government was also in shipping then).

1924 Mulle de la Industira

A 1924 photo but Muelle de la Industria, the primary local port then would still look similar to that in 1935. Credits to the photo owner.

A digression. If Bicol was well-represented in the shipping companies before the war (Madrigal & Co. among them), the reason was the primacy of the abaca (also called as “Manila hemp”) then as the leading export crop and Bicol dominates in the production of that crop plus the fact that Legaspi Oil, the leading exporter of copra then was based in Bicol (this was before Lu Do, Lu Ym of Cebu grabbed that distinction with the help of Carlos A. Gothong & Co.). The main source of coal then was Batan island and that is just a few nautical miles from Legazpi. As the saying goes, there are ships when there is cargo and it is not the other way around. Moreover, Legazpi  port (incorrectly spelled as “Legaspi” then) was supported in the movement of goods from the Bicol Valley (read: copra and abaca) because of the localized Bicol Line there of the Manila Railroad Co. which extended for most part from Pamplona town (later in Sipocot) to Legazpi and from Tabaco town (where the abaca of Catanduanes lands and Tabaco is the trading center of copra of the neighboring areas – Tabaco’s product then was abaca and not tobacco) to Legazpi. The Manila Railroad Co. has a spur line to Legaspi port and Legaspi Oil which had a separate port. [In this paragraph is the reason why my father volunteered to transfer to Legazpi. But he did not anticipate that soon abaca and coal will fade into insignificance.]

This liners list does not include the regional shipping companies and among those the most numerous were in Cebu connecting the other Visayas islands and Mindanao (the northern part). Where before in the early American period when Iloilo was bigger than Cebu and held the title “Queen City of the South” because of sugar and its connection to Singapore and when Cebu was considered “insignificant” for shipping by a 1908 almanac (that was when Legaspi port was as prominent as Cebu). The opening of northern Mindanao enabled Cebu to overtake Iloilo not only in shipping but in over-all prominence thereby grabbing the title “Queen City of the South” from Iloilo to the eternal consternation of the Ilonggos).

The ships of the regional shipping companies were small compared to the multi-day liners as those were basically overnight ships and the most numerous were actually the wooden-hulled motor boats which are called as lancha in various parts of the country. Most of the bigger regional ships were just in the 30-meter class in length and most were below 200 gross register tons. Among the most prominent Cebu-based regional shipping companies were Eutiquio Uy Godinez, the Cebu Navigation Co, the Visayan Stevedore Transportation Co., the Insular Navigation Co. and Maria P. Asuncion Garianda. In Iloilo, probably the most prominent were the two Lizarraga shipping concerns. In Zamboanga, it was the Francisco Barrios Jr. shipping company. In Manila, the big equivalent of them was the Teodoro R. Yangco shipping company which dominated Manila Bay and beyond and once claimed to be the biggest shipping company in the Philippines.

Amazingly, the progenitor of the postwar dominant Go Thong and Sweet Lines shipping lines after the war were still not prominent then. Well, in war some rise and some fall and some never even came back.

In our book, I will be more detailed. This is just an introduction.

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