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Liner History: Messageries Maritimes (Compagnie des Messageries Maritimes)

Ocean Liner History: Messageries Maritimes (Compagnie des Messageries Maritimes) In 1835 the French Government created a state owned steamship service between Marseilles and the Levant. This continued until 1851 when it was transferred to the management of Messageries Nationales (the state operated road communication concern).

The shipping side of the business was split from the road activities in 1852 under the name Compagnie des Services Maritimes des Messageries Nationales.  With the return of the French monarchy in 1853 this became Compagnie des Services Maritimes Imperiales and the company expanded dramatically over the next few years and by 1857 owned 57 ships.

Scenes of Messageries Maritimes ships in various parts of the world.

After the Franco-Prussian War and the abolition of the monarchy in 1871, the company became Compagnie des Messageries Maritimes, usually shortened to MM.  In 1904 the fleets of Compagnie Francaise de l’Est Asiatique and Compagnie Nationale de Navigation were taken over.

The second world war decimated the fleet which had been split between the Allies and Vichy France and by 1945, only 21 ships were left.

However the fleet was rebuilt, but the independence of French colonies and the advent of air travel caused the whole passenger fleet to be disposed of between 1969 and 1972.

In 1977 MM and CGT (French Line) were amalgamated under the title Compagnie Generale Maritime and by 1981 the name MM disappeared from Lloyds Register.


1835-1939 Marseilles – Constantinople – Black Sea – Trabzo Marseilles – (1851 Civitavecchia) – Beirut.
1854-1940 Marseilles – Algiers / Oran / Bone – Tunis.
1860-1912 Bordeaux – Rio de Janeiro + Rio feeder service.
1862-1869 Marseilles – Alexandria – overland – Suez – French Indochina Mauritius feeder service to Aden and Suez.
1866-1914 Saigon – Manila feeder service.
1869-1958 Marseilles – Suez Canal – Ceylon – Indochina.
1869-1981 (French ports) – Marseilles – Suez Canal – India / Far East / Australia.
1881-1981 Marseilles – Port Said – Mahe – Reunion – Mauritius – Adelaide – Melbourne – Sydney – Noumea.
1962-1972 Hamburg – Havre – Bordeaux – South America.

The Cambodge (13,217 grt) was one of the great Messageries Maritimes ships built following WW 2.

Messageries Maritimes, a France-based shipping company, ordered three identical ships to be built around the late 1940s to provide passenger and mixed-freight service on a Marseilles-to-Yokohama route, with many calls in South Asia as well. The first to be completed was SS Viet Nam in 1952, followed by Cambodge, the name which Stella Solaris was first christened, in 1953. Cambodge was built by the Societe des Ateliers & Chantiers in Dunkirk, Nord, in northern France. The name was derived from the Southeast Asian country of Cambodia. Her keel was laid down in 1949 and she was launched on June 28, 1953, then completed and delivered to Messageries Maritimes in July 1953. The third ship, SS Laos, was not completed until 1954.

Cambodge and her sisters were only mid-sized. The ship was 13,520 GRT, 545 feet (166 m) long with a beam of 72 feet (22 m). She was powered by twin Parsons geared turbines, which gave her a cruising speed of 21 knots (39 km/h). Cambodge could carry 347 passengers on 7 decks—117 in first class, 110 in second (tourist) class, and 120 in third (steerage or cabin) class. First class cabins occupied the majority of the passenger space in the central portion of the ship, the second class in the stern, and third class in the bow. First class passengers also had a large pool for their private use. A large amount of artistic flair was employed in the design of Cambodge. A French style predominated, but some Asian decorations were also incorporated. Italian artist Nino Zoncada was hired to design some of the interior of the ship.

Her sisters, the Viet-Nam (13,162 grt) and Laos (13,212 grt), came into service in 1952 and 1954 respectively. They were both sold in 1970 to be employed in the pilgrim service until both were destroyed by fire in the mid-1970s.

Accommodations aboard the Cambodge

Excerpts from the brochure describing the Cambodge:

“The intermediate steamer Cambodge was built for the Compagnie des Messageries Maritimes by the Ateliers et Chantiers de France at Dunkirk. She is similar to the Viet-Nam and Laos, and like these two vessels intended for the Indo-China and Far East service.”

“The Viet-Nam, Laos and Cambodge are of identical type with the following main characteristics: length 532′, breadth 72′, displacement when loaded approximately 15 150 tons and deadweight capacity approximately 6 400 tons; propelling machinery developing 19 600 h.p., giving a service speed of 21 knots.”

“… special attention has been given to ventilation, so important when operating in tropical waters. In the dining rooms, first class cabins, some of the tourist class cabins and the hairdressing saloons, the air is renewed frequently by a permanent air-conditioning system.

As on the sister ships, fire-fighting equipment of a most advanced type is provided in the form of a sprinkler system, which at the same time acts as a fire-detector. The Cambodge is fitted with the most reliable navigational aids – radar, gyro pilot, gyro compass and ultra-sonic detector. As on the sister ships, there is a Denny-Brown stabilizer, which considerably reduces rolling and avoids slackening speed in bad weather.

The Cambodge is designed to accomodate 117 first class, 110 tourist class and 312 steerage passengers with cabin accomodation for 52.

M. Jean Leleu was responsible for the decoration scheme. The harmonious arrangement of masses and colours, the variety of materials used and the co-operation of a team of selected artists have transformed the luxuriously fitted Cambodge into a veritable palace.

The first class cabins located on C and D decks, some of which have the advantage of a private balcony, are comfortable and spacious. The de luxe suite on D deck, comprising private balcony and bathroom, and a charming oval state room communicating with the dressing-room, is a delight to the eye with its sutle inter-play of yellow and blue-grey tones. Tourist class cabins are located on C deck.

The public rooms reserved for first class passengers are: the main lounge with lacquered light wood panelling on which are depicted figures of the ‘Comédie-Italienne’, blending with the beige-tinted fabrics and full carpet, and a rosewood cabinet concealing an altar inlaid with liturgical motifs; the hall with a small circular recess bright with colourful ceramics; the card room furnished with inlaid sycamore; the writing room in which soft shades of yellow and green create the appropriate restful atmosphere; the smoking room-bar with its ceiling decorated by Despierre, with its deep blue upholstery, and its terrace together with the open-air swimming-pool combining to form a veritable Lido. And finally, the dining room with its domed ceiling encircled by a garland of sculpted sea-nymphs, large bay-windows and fluorescent lighting recreating the daylight, and the Grau Sala paintings whose grace and humour recall the charms of a Paris of days gone by…

For the tourist class passengers, there is a dining room full of warmth and harmony, where polished oak panelling sets off the pleasant landscape scenes. and a smokeroom with lacquered partitions, enlivened with ceramic decorations full of humour and the spontaneous charm of a Hamburg oil painting.”

“As on the sister ships, there is a children’s nursery and play centre, on F deck. There are also two hairdressing saloons, an ironing room, a photographic dark room and a laundry equipped with the latest apparatus.”

“Cinema performances for first and tourist class passengers … are given in the tourist class dining room.”


1851: Creation of the Compagnie des Services Maritimes des Messageries Nationales, issued from the Messageries Nationales. This company specialised in stagecoach transport from 1796. The covenant with the State allowed for the exploitation of 4 lines : Italy, Levant, Egypt, and Greece.
The Hellespont was the first of the company’s vessels to leave Marseille.
Purchase of the La Ciotat shipbuilding yards.

1853: Change of name to the Compagnie des Messageries Impériales.

1854: Concession of the postal lines over Algeria and Tunisia followed by an expansion over the Black Sea.

1857: Concession of South American postal services.

1862: Progressive implementation of the Far East service, as far as Japan in 1865.
An annexe line serves the Indian Ocean for the Islands of Reunion and Mauritius.

1869: Inauguration of the Suez Canal. This new route considerably reduced the distances and reinforced the growth of exchanges.

1871: Change of name to the Compagnie des Messageries Maritimes.
Abandon of the North African lines in favour of the Compagnie Valéry then the Compagnie Générale Transatlantique in 1880.

1882: Service to Australia followed by New Caledonia then the New Hebrides.

1914-1918: Transformation of ships into hospital ships or as troopships. At the end of the war 22 ships have been lost which is about a third of the fleet.

1919: Inauguration of the Round-the-world line by El Kantara, first French ship to cross the Panama Canal.

1923: Presence of the André Lebon in Yokohama at the time of the earthquake. The ship took aboard 1500 refugees including the French ambassador Paul Claudel.

Années 1920-1930: Period of technical progress in particular with the introduction of oil fired heating on the Angkor in 1921. Luxurious decoration perfectly illustrated by the liners, Mariette Pacha and Félix Roussel

1932: Fire on board Georges Philippar.

Second World War: Fleet requisitioned. Half of the ships are lost.

1949: The La Marseillaise is brought into service on the Far East line, first ship in the rebuilding of the fleet.

1962: The South American line is assured by the recovery of old liners from the Chargeurs Réunis : Laennec, Charles Tellier and Louis Lumière.

1966: Launching of Pasteur, the company’s last liner.

1977: Merging of the Compagnie Générale Transatlantique and of the Compagnie des Messageries Maritimes that officially took place on February 23rd. The new company took the name of the Compagnie Générale Maritime.

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