A survey of maritime relations between Belgium and the united states of America (1830-1939) (II)


As the first bill (voted on 9th September 1870), guaranteeing a minimum postal service of 300,000 BF to sail to the USA, did not raise the slightest interest, the government increased the subsidy to 500,000 BF on 27th July 1871. In that year Philadelphia sought doser contacts with the continent of Europe. This led to a treaty (24th February 1872) between the state and the "International Navigation Company" that provided for two departures in summer (May till September) and one every three weeks during the Winter. For this three steamers flying the Belgian flag had to be engaged with the co-operation of the Antwerp shipbroker's firm Von der Becke & Marsily. The "S.A. Navigation Belge-Américaine" was founded on 5th September 1872 with a capital of 5,000,000 BF. Only the two aforementioned Belgians were shareholders, each with 50,000 BF of stock. The new company was the "Red Star Line". The Americans chose the Belgian flag, as this offered the mort favourable advantages when competing with the British. In addition, on 1st July 1873 a line to New York was established, and the company obtained a temporary arrangement for alternate voyages between New York and Philadelphia. Owing to the international recession, the shipping company was unable to make this a paying proposition, and for that reason a new convention was signed on 14th July 1877. Departures for New York were to be continued a 31 st December 1878 at fortnightly intervals, followed by twelve-day intervals from 30th June 1879 and ten-day intervals with a sailing to Philadelphia every twenty-four days. On lst April 1880 it was agreed that there were to be departures to New York on Saturdays and to Philadelphia on the fast Saturday of the month, all on the basis of a maximum subsidy of 500,000 BF.

Because of the alternate sailing to New York and Philadelphia, which sometimes coincided, records had to be carefully kept. After certain changes to the convention of 14th March 1882 a new contract was drawn up on 10th March 1887, cancelling the voyage to Philadelphia and bringing down the subsidy to a maximum of 380,000 BF. The maximum duration of the voyage was shortened by 26 hours to 274 hours in Summer and by 20 hours to 304 hours in Winter. In 1892 a plan was drawn up, guaranteeing a weekly service to New York. No other ports of call were allowed except by special permission or in case of emergency. Half the fleet was to sail under the Belgian flag. A new service "à grande vitesse" was granted by the American government to the "Red Star Line" on condition that the town of Antwerp put at their disposal a suitably sized dry-dock for repairs, an ice breaker to keep the Scheldt open in Winter and a direct railway line connecting with Berlin, Cologne, Basel and Paris, etc. The latter happened to be already in existence. The company was entitled to the entire profits from the mail conveyed by the ships. In a nutshell, it can be said that despite the unfavourable conjuncture, the voyages became more regular and more frequent, thanks to the subsidies. Not only was the duration of the voyage shortened, but the fleet grew in numbers and even more in tonnage (Table 3).

The "Red Star Line" succeeded in 1887 in averaging 264 hours 5 minutes on 50 voyages Antwerp/New York and 268 hours 24 minutes on the return, which was considerably faster than the speed imposed by the state (an average of 289 hours). On this run eight steamers were in operation in 1882 with a net tonnage of 17,781 tons. Besides these, two others were under construction (around 6,700 tonnage). By 1st January 1914 the shipping fine owned five ships with a net tonnage of 42,324 or nearly 18% of the total Belgian fleet.

On the outward voyage the "Red Star Line" cargo consisted of sheets of glass, wire from the Rhineland, steel girders and other ironware, primarily from Germany and Lorraine, wines from the Rhine and the Mosel districts, and coal as ballast when there was insufficient cargo. An innovation was the export of chicory, which required refrigeration (-4° C). It was principally in the transport of emigrants that the "Red Star Line" gained renown. Her packet boats had been specially designed with the transport of passengers and cargo in mind (Tables 4 and 5).

On the return voyages the "Red Star Line" brought back the usual cargoes of cotton, tobacco, timber and especially cereals. Between 1883 and 1886, 46% of the total grain imports from the USA were transported by the ships of the "Red Star Line". Practically no information can be found concerning profits. One account from the shipping company drawing attention to their request for subsidies concerns a journey by the "Westland" in 1884.

From the credit balance of 9,116 BF BF the sum of 7,949 BF had to be paid out on dry-dock and upkeep charges. Another account shows that the total number of journeys for 1879-84 

produced a credit of 1,290,334 BF. However, given the depreciation of the ships and the company's general expenses (unknown), they must have been overdrawn. An entry on 31st December 1884 shows that the company's capital amounted to 13,615,000 BF in shares. At that time the steamers had depreciated in value by 3,254,440 BF. The assets were valued at 19,659,288 BF. In addition to the debit and credit columns there remained reserves of 396,597 BF. The account disclosed that to date no dividend had ever been paid out It was imperative for the state to subsidise the fleet if it was to be maintained.

In 1902 the "International Company of New Jersey" changed its name to the "International Mercantile Company". Before the First World War there existed a weekly service to New York, departing on Saturdays from Antwerp and calling at Dover on the way. Alternately they sailed once or twice a month to Philadelphia (18 times yearly) and ran a fortnightly freight service to Boston. Starting in 1920 the ships of the "Red Star Line" sailing from Antwerp called at Southampton and the following year they also included Cherbourg. The recension and the decreasing numbers of emigrants caused the size of the fleet to shrink, and by 1935 the remaining ships were sold off to A. Bernstein of Hamburg, who retained the crews and continued on the already established route.

Other shipping companies established in Antwerp appealed in vain to govern­mental departments. The first to make an appeal was the "White Cross Line", founded in 1865 by the Swiss Daniël Steinmann. About 1872 he opened a shipping line to New York with three steamers. Theodore Engels and Company also started a line in 1875. When Steinmann found himself in financial difficulties, he proposed working with Engels, probably in the year 1883, sine Engels in his correspondence requesting help from Brussels also mentions Steinmann's shipping lines with his own. Between September 1882 and August 1883 Engels succeeded in completing 26 sailings to the U.S.A. with four ships. Three thousand seven hundred and twenty passengers (out and back) were transported and 119,954 tons of freight were carried. Steinmann completed 19 voyages with four ships, 2,095 passengers and a cargo of only 74,060 tons. From 1884 to 1886 three steamers of Engels and Company were in service, sailing to Boston, New York and Halifax. In 1885, 18 voyages were made. By 1888 Steinmann still owned one ship and Engels sold two of his three steamers. Renewed claims for subsidies were refused on the grounds of irregular sailings. Six years later both companies had ceased to exist.

In October 1885 the "Furness Line" opened a fine to Boston with three steamships. Fruitlessly did their agents Kennedy and Hunter seek to obtain exemption of payment on certain dues.

We would like also to mention the "Phoenix Line", which sailed under a foreign flag and was owned by the ship-owning Wilson family from Hull. From 1896 on they ran a line between Antwerp and New York with hired steamers.
The oil companies were the first to launch ships for the transport of crude oil, for which they founded subsidiary companies. One example is "American Petroleum SA", founded in 1891, which owned three ships. Shortly after this a fourth was acquired bringing the total tonnage to 8,000 tons. Just before the First World War another two ships were added (together making 9,500 tons). By 1913 the company owned 10 ships and 21 lighters, though alter the war only the "Ampeco" remained. In 1925 the 12,360-ton "Motocarline" was launched and in 1937 the "Esso Belgium" (15,000 tons) came into service. Just before the second world war the company was renamed "Standard American Petroleum Company" (Belgian Ltd company) and owned two ships. Another case was the "Belgian Gulf Oil Ltd Company", an amalgamation of three companies which started in 1933. The oldest was the "SA pour l'Importation d 'Huiles de Graissage" (1891), which owned four ships (12,050 tons).

During the First World War a final but important step was taken by the government which was to influence Belgian-United States maritime relations. A "Commission for Relief in Belgium" was set up to provision the population during the difficult war years. In January 1916 they requested and obtained from the Belgian State that all suitable steamers flying the Belgian flag should be put at their disposal to sail between the USA and Rotterdam. Only 24 ships were found to be suitable, whereas twice as many were needed. Therefore the government entered into negotiation with the shipowners. The Brys and Gylsen Group suggested issuing two bond issues: one for 25 million and one for 75 million BF, the interest and capital of the latter being underwritten by the State. The potential ban was to be guaranteed by the value of the fleet of 39 ships that were yet to be built together with the profits made during the war years. Thus the "Lloyd Royal Belge" came into being on 26th June 1916. The Brys and Gylsen Group had three Belgian and two British companies under their control: the "Gylsen Shipping Company Ltd", the "Antwerpsche Zeevaart Maatschappij Ltd" and the "SA de Commerce et de Navigation" on the one hand, and the "Brys and Gylsen Ltd" and the "Anglican Steamship Company" on the other. Their national character was to be respected. At least three quarters of the ships had to be put on regular runs. Two government commissioners were appointed and the shipping companies could rely on the support of the government.

The fleet consisted of 35 vessels. Eighty per cent of the total assets, valued at a minimum of 100 million BF, were transferred to the "Lloyd Royal". This company preferred a quick expansion to building up reserves or paying out dividends. After the war the "Lloyd Royal Belge" started a line to New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, New Orleans and Galveston. Not without cause did the shipowners expose them­selves to criticism by the shipowners' union, which accused them of unfair competi­tion, seeing they had the advantage of government backing. The ships were in a bad state of repair, and the service left much to be desired. Finally the government became the shareholder. The debts were paid by selling off the ships. The dead-weight tonnage of 330,527 tons on 52 ships in 1923 dropped to 136,775 tons on 18 vessels in June 1927. In 1930 the "Lloyd Royal Belge" still operated a service to New York every ten days. The same year a merger with the "Compagnie Belge Maritime du Congo" became inevitable, the new firm becoming the "Compagnie Maritime Belge (Lloyd Royal)".

We shall end this chapter with a survey of shipping lines at home and abroad which covered a regular route between Antwerp and the USA (Table 6).




The achievements

In the light of the present report we can give only an idea of the general trend. These results are to be found in the Appendixes.

In relation to harbour traffic and the growth in the average tonnage of ail shipping docking in the port of Antwerp it is interesting to note the following points.

Twenty years were needed between 1850 and 1870 to double the tonnage, whereas alter that it only took 10 years to do the same, owing mainly to the introduction of steamships. Once again it took twenty years from 1880 to 1900 to double the tonnage, followed by a gradual rise towards 1913. A comparison of the 1913 level with that in 1939 shows a period of stagnation, except for a small rise above this level during the second half of the twenties (Table 7).

In relation to the general incoming harbour traffic, the contribution of the USA-route was considerable : in 1820 18.6%, 1840 15.63%, 1880 19.9%, 1890 16% and 1900 12.3%. Owing to the Civil War a low of 5 to 7% was reached in the years 1860 to 1865, while the last quarter of the 19th century especially was the best, with a Peak of 20% in 1880. Immediately after the war the figure was 18%, but this went down again to an average of 10% (Appendix VI). In comparing the figures available, it is striking to see that between 1850 and 1939 the average tonnage of ships on the transatlantic route was 40% higher than the general tonnage of all incoming shipping put together. This can only be explained by the introduction of giant steamers on the transatlantic line. The second conclusion is drawn from the steadily increasing number of ports in the Pacific Ocean open to in- and outgoing vessels between the States, more especially so alter 1923.

Let us now review the proportion of the total arrived tonnage in Antwerp for the principal nationalities (Appendix V). The German flag was the most frequently observed in the port of Antwerp between 1830 and 1865. Originally, the Stars and Stripes were also well represented but by 1860 ships under the American flag had drastically diminished in number. With the exception of the early post-war years, the percentage of American shipping continued to fall to less than 5%. It was the British who succeeded in getting the lion's share for themselves in 1865 (up to about 60%).

Alter 1918 their predominance was to slowly diminish in proportion to the steady growth of the German fleet already preparing for the Second World War — an occurrence similarly noted before 1914. The Belgian flag was then well above 10% between 1830 and 1835, and the same position was reached once more between 1880 and 1900. In the twenties it remained steady between 6 and 7% but alter that fell back to 5%.

The Belgian flag held its own better on the transatlantic route: very low (to a maximum of 6.5%) till 1860 — a period in which the USA held the major part of the traffic —, rapidly rising to 49% between 1875 and 1895. The setback came on the eve of the First World War, when it fell to 17.5%. This level was attained once more in 1924, only to diminish gradually again to 10% alter 1930 (Appendix VI).

We shall now analyse the figures for cargo and passenger transport. First of all, in the aforementioned period, we notice that our balance of trade with the USA always fell short, an imbalance that went back to the days of Willem I, when bricks were transported as ballast. However, between 1924 and 1929 this product became an important export item, reaching a peak of 130,000 tons in 1927. Unfortunately the weight was of no comparison to the value. In 1914 18% of ships sailed under ballast to the USA, even 68% by 1919, a figure which then crashed to 6% in 1929: by 1939 it had returned to 18%.

In our foreign trade the USA came fourth alter Great Britain, France and Germany. This was the case in the years preceding the First World War, as also in the period 1929 to 1939. In 1895 imports from the USA amounted to 7.9% and in 1913 to 8.3% of total imports in Antwerp, whereas our export figures were 3.4% and 2.9% respectively. The Belgian Luxemburg Economic Union imported an average of 9.1% from the USA and exported 6% on average, but sometimes lows were recorded. The slump in freight transport charges in the twenties hit the transatlantic route badly, and the depression was also particularly responsible for its damaging effect on commercial relations with the USA In this manner total Belgian Luxembourg Economic Union exports dropped from the 100 index to 81 in 1929, whilst its exports to the USA dropped to 53.5%.

The most important products imported from the USA between 1860 and 1939 were: cotton, cereals, oil (alter 1870), cars (especially after 1920), timber and, to a lesser extent, coffee (till 1900), tobacco, fruit, meat and linseed (cattle feeder) (Appendix VII). We would like to mention in passing the import of animal fats (in 1880 — 23,354 tons; in 1890 — 25,040 tons) and iron ore (the record year being 1900 with 20,692 tons). Honey was also regularly imported till the First World War (as much as 1,252 tons in 1910).

J. Heffer considered sugar and sheet glass the most important exports from Belgium to the USA before 1900. In fact, not only was the supply more varied, but there was no less in value or weight of other products. In this manner Belgium exported relatively large quantities of iron and steel, zinc, cement, rags, hides and also glass for mirrors (up to 15,568 tons in 1928), mineral water and chicory (fresh and roasted) (Appendix VIII). On the other hand the export of cement and sheet glass to the USA diminished in importance; in 1900 it was still 30% and 16%, by 1910 only 3.8% and 7.9% respectively. In 1880 32% of glass exports still went to the USA The export of mineral water and chicory did not get established till the end of last century. In 1890 there is a mention of 498 tons of chicory and 1,411 tons of roasted chicory; in the same year mineral water exports to the States were valued at 2,472,587 BF, which equalled about 68% of total mineral water exports for that year. The fact that cement and glass were such successful exports naturally had to do with the expansion of these fields in industry.
The production of glass in Belgium was already a long-established tradition. It had risen from 1.28 million m2 in 1841 to 15.86 million m2 in 1875, reaching 33.44 million in 1899 and, after a slight decrease, climbing to a peak of 61.66 million m2 by 1929. In 1933 production fell to a third. Till about 1890 the USA remained our best customer and not long after was displaced by Great Britain. When the war ended demand from the USA continued to decrease. The reason for this was protectionism. When the USA signed a commercial agreement with Czechoslovakia in 1937 the import duty on glass was lowered. The clause of most favoured nation allowed Belgium also to take advantage of this and glass exports to the USA recovered.

Emigrants were, in a way, our most important export. Especially the years between 1880 and 1913 marked the best period for passenger transport services (Table 8).

After the war stricter immigration laws in the U.S.A. put a stop to this source of income, though migration to Canada grew in importance. So, in 1929 there were only 11,430 migrants in Antwerp of which 8,324 travelled to Canada ".

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From the facts already mentioned we may conclude that maritime relations between Belgium and the U.S.A. were marked by significant fluctuations and a continual trade imbalance. The sway the American flag originally held on this route had to make way for other countries. It still took many years before Belgium was able to realise her endeavours in running a regular service. This finally came about thanks to considerable financial assistance from America and the Belgian government. The route was kept going on basic products such as cotton, cereals and oil. Only a few manufactured goods from Belgium enjoyed temporary success. Together with the migrants, they formed the main part of the return cargo. This exchange of cargoes underwent too many exacerbating factors to ensure the continued commercial success of the line.