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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The Short-Lived Return of Madrigal Shipping Company to Passenger Shipping

The Madrigal Shipping Company is a shipping company with a long history although few are still familiar with the name. They started before World War II with the name Madrigal & Company and was probably the Philippines biggest shipping company at that time if listing is limited to Filipinos. However, they were mostly in cargo shipping unlike the rival Compania Maritima of the Fernandezes which concentrated on passenger shipping. The founder of the company, Vicente Madrigal was considered the top Filipino industrialist-businessman then by the reckoning of many and probably is the richest Filipino then. He was also politically very well connected to Malacanang and is a political heavyweight himself being a Senator of the Commonwealth of the Philippines. The Madrigal Shipping Company was connected to the many businesses of Vicente Madrigal and it moved their goods like abaca (Manila hemp), coal, ore, copra and also sugar. However, when World War II happened Madrigal Shipping Company lost their entire fleet save for one. Most were captured by the Japanese which were then subsequently lost to American attacks.

After World War II, the company was renamed to Madrigal Shipping Company and started shipping again in 1946. The company has a mixed passenger-cargo and cargo fleet and the latter has the bigger ships. The passenger-cargo ships of the company was smaller and it might have something to do with the routes it was sailing. Madrigal Shipping Company concentrated its branch of passenger shipping on routes to Bicol and Northern Luzon. The route to Bicol would extend to as far as Larap port in Jose Panganiban town in Camarines Norte and the Northern Luzon route would call on Salomague (in Ilocos Sur), Batanes and Aparri. They also had a passenger-cargo ship that would go round the entire Luzon starting from Manila to Northern Luzon before proceeding to Bicol ports and round the Sorsogon tip of Luzon on the way back to Manila.

The passenger-cargo fleet of Madrigal Shipping Company cannot be called luxury liners by any means as they were simply basic passenger-cargo ships. They can even be described as primarily cargo ships with passenger accommodations and the accommodations are generally of one class only, the Economy class. Half of their passenger fleet consisted of former “Y” ships, the smaller cousin of the ex-”FS” ships which were former tankers. In the postwar shipping fleet of the Philippines only they and Luzon Stevedoring Company (LUSTEVECO) operated ex-”Y” ships but the latter operated them as they were originally were – as tankers. In Madrigal Shipping Company, their ex-”Y” ships were converted in passenger-cargo ships with cargo holds. These ex-”Y” ships seemed to be the replacement ships for the Madrigal ships commandeered by the US for the war effort. The other half of the postwar passenger-cargo fleet of Madrigal Shipping Company consisted of old ships from Europe. The company has a penchant for buying old ships from Europe just like another major shipping company, the Manila Steamship Company.

In 1955, in the aftermath of the capsizing and sinking in Babuyan Channel of their ex-”Y” ship Cetus which was trying to beat a typhoon, Madrigal Shipping Corporation sold all their ex-”Y” ships to North Camarines Lumber Company (no typographic error; this is also a shipping company). I wonder if this has a connection to their reputed superstitiousness. However, it was a favorable sale from the Bicol point of view since North Camarines Lumber Company also has the same passenger routes to Bicol and so no ship was lost on that region. Maybe Madrigal Shipping Company made sure of that as the patriarch Vicente Madrigal was actually born in Bicol and had many businesses there.

However, they held on to their other passenger-cargo ships but of course their routes and frequencies were affected by the sale since they did not purchase replacement passenger-cargo ships. In cargo shipping they were still strong and still buying cargo ships but in passenger-cargo shipping this sale of ex-”Y” heralded their slow retreat. This retreat might also be in anticipation of paradigm changes. Even in those days it is easy to foresee that the rail and the trucks will challenge the ship in Luzon in due time. Being in politics (the daughter Pacita of Vicente Madrigal succeeded him in the Senate) and conversant with government plans they might even have the inside track in foreseeing the future. By the 1970’s only one passenger-cargo ship was still sailing for Madrigal Shipping Company, the Viria and before the end of that decade they were already out of passenger shipping. However, the cargo shipping of the company remained but it also declined in due time. It however sprang a surprise later when together with a Taiwan shipping company it bid for the state-owned National Shipping Company of the Philippines which was then being privatized.

In 1988, to the welcome surprise of many Madrigal Shipping Company came back to passenger shipping as the A.P. Madrigal Steamship Co., Inc. This time it was truly liner shipping and not just like the basic passenger-cargo shipping of before. They did that when they fielded the Madrigal Tacloban in 1988 (this was later known as the Madrigal Romblon), the Madrigal Surigao in 1989 and the Madrigal Masbate in 1990. The notable thing about the three is they were all cruiser ferries and the negative thing is by that time nobody is buying or fielding cruiser ferries anymore because it was already obsolescent and the RORO (Roll On, Roll Off) ships have already proven their superiority over the cruisers (well, maybe not in safety or stability).

The first two ships were actually sister ships named the Tai Shan and the Nam Shan and they were originally Hongkong ferries. They were acquired by A.P. Madrigal Steamship Co., Inc. as bareboat charter with option to purchase from Cortes Shipping of Zamboanga. Tai Shan became the Madrigal Tacloban here while Nam Shan became the Madrigal Surigao. Madrigal Tacloban‘s applied route was Manila-Catbalogan-Tacloban while Madrigal Surigao‘s applied route was Manila-Maasin-Surigao. It was also a welcome move by many since these routes are exactly the same routes just recently vacated by Escano Lines which went out of passenger shipping (they however stuck to cargo-container shipping).

However, some shipping lines including Sulpicio Lines Incorporated and Aboitiz Shipping Company opposed their applications because of the so-called “prior operator” rule which was the usual “basis” for opposing a new entrant to a route. Actually, the two mentioned shipping companies were fearful because A.P. Madrigal Steamship Co., Inc.’s ships were better than their ships in those routes (however, Aboitiz Shipping Company had long ago abandoned their Catbalogan and Tacloban route). And besides Sulpicio Lines Inc. had no Catbalogan/Tacloban ship at that moment because of the sinking of Dona Paz. But however the opposition at the start, A.P. Madrigal Steamship Co., Inc. was eventually allowed by MARINA, the maritime regulatory agency to sail the applied routes.

Even then, there was actually already a problem in these routes as these are also the same routes slowly being threatened already by the intermodal trucks and buses borne by the short-distance ferry-ROROs that were already serving as the “bridges of the sea”. Maybe this was the reason behind what was cited by Aboitiz Shipping Company that they experienced a 60% drop in passenger volume. However, as cruisers that can’t carry much cargo (they were even described as “pure cargo”) maybe Madrigal Shipping Company thought that won’t be much of a problem for them. Maybe they were just intent on beating the competition with superior ships, in their view. Their ships have more beautiful lines anyway. And as bare-boat charters their risk is not high as they can just return the ships if they did not turn in a profit.

Madrigal Tacloban (Madrigal Romblon) and Madrigal Surigao were sister ships and both were built by Niigata Shipbuilding & Repair Incorporated in Niigata, Japan in 1972. The two both measured 78.6 meters by 12.1 meters by 5.6 meters in L x B x D. The LPP was 70.0 meters but Madrigal Surigao had a higher GT at 2,147 while Madrigal Tacloban had 2,136. The NT was 1,035 and the DWT was 312 tons. Both had two masts and two passenger decks on a steel hull with semi-bulbous stem and a retrouvaille stern. They were not equipped with cargo booms. The sister ships were both equipped with twin Niigata diesel engines with a combined 5,100 horsepower that propelled them to a top speed of 17.5 knots. The two ships looked identical.

Another ferry, the Madrigal Masbate came to A.P. Madrigal Steamship Co., Inc. from Taiwan Navigation Company Ltd. of Taipei but this ship was actually homeported in Kaohsiung. This was a beautiful ship with magnificent and modern lines that was built as the Tai Peng by Hayashikane Shipbuilding and Engineering Company Limited in their Nagasaki shipyard in Japan in 1971. The ship measured 77.5 meters by 12.6 meters by 5.5. meters with an LPP of 70.0 meters. She had a GT of 1,992, an NT of 743 and a DWT of 474 tons. The ship had two masts, two passenger decks with a steel hull with a raked stem and a cruiser stern. She was powered by a single Kobe Hatsudoki marine engine of 4,900 horsepower which gave her a top speed of 17 knots.

When all three were already sailing, the renamed Madrigal Tacloban which was now Madrigal Romblon was doing the Manila-Odiongan-Malay (this is better known as Caticlan now) route. Meanwhile, Madrigal Surigao was running the Manila-Odiongan-Maasin-Surigao route. And it was Madrigal Masbate which was sailing the Manila-Catbalogan-Tacloban route. Although they were already set by 1990, the Madrigal ferries, however, did not sail long. This was already the era when more liners were coming fast including great liners with four passenger decks, a passenger capacity of well over 2,000 with a true gross tonnage of 10,000 and over and of speeds nearing 20 knots and with hotel-like accommodations, amenities and service.

And A.P. Madrigal Steamship Co., Inc. was unlucky to bet in routes that were already being eaten up by the intermodal form of transport where trucks, buses and private vehicles are transported between island by the short-distance ferry-ROROs and whose travel times are shorter with flexibility of routes and ubiquity of departures. Moreover to some former ship passengers travelling by intermodal bus it is a new adventure and tourism too to places they have never seen before. To the traders and shippers, the intermodal option meant no more hassles with North Harbor port and the crooked Manila policemen. That also meant no more pilferage and delays and they are no longer at the mercy of the arrastre.

After just a few years, A.P. Madrigal Steamship Co., Inc. quit passenger shipping (however, they were still in cargo shipping). The sister ships Madrigal Romblon and Madrigal Surigao were sold to the breakers and they were broken up in 1994. It was an early death as the ships were only 22 years old. It was also a premature death because if they waited a little longer they might have gone to Sampaguita Shipping Lines which soon geared up to buy former liners to be used in the then-developing Zamboanga-Pagadian route and the Zamboanga-Jolo or Bongao route. They would have better choices than the ships they acquired from WG&A, the former Tacloban City and the former Iligan City as they were newer and have sailed far less nautical miles.

Madrigal Masbate was far luckier than the sisters. In 1994, another Zamboanga shipping company that was buying better overnight ferries (and the shortcut to that is to buy hand-me-down liners), the SKT Shipping Line (later the Kong San Teo shipping company or KST Shipping Line) purchased the laid-up Masbate Madrigal. She was fielded in the premier route to the east Zamboanga then, the Zamboanga-Pagadian route. Appropriately, she was named the Pagadian City. She was by far the best ship in the route, the most beautiful and the most gorgeous ever to call on Pagadian port, as the locals would concede and included in the comparison were the Manila liners which called on Pagadian port in the 1950’s and 1960’s.

Zamboanga City was actually a beehive of acquiring new ferries in the mid-1990’s including new-build fastcrafts. They actually had the most acquisitions of Malaysian fastcrafts then which was equal in number to the Cebu HSCs. Bullet Express and Weesam Express plus the fastcraft Sea Jet actually all originated in Zamboanga and just migrated to the Visayas. In 1996, the latter great Aleson Shipping Lines of Zamboanga was also gearing up. It was actually a dogfight then in Zamboanga between Sampaguita Shipping Lines, SKT Shipping Lines and Aleson Shipping which was latter won by the latest-named. Too unfortunate Madrigal Romblon and Madrigal Surigao were not snagged up in Zamboanga then.

After this episode, Madrigal never went back to liner shipping again. Well, I hope they will try again. After all we have almost no liners left now. They will be applauded this time if they do.

[Photo Credit: Manila Bulletin through Gorio Belen]