Hiring practices in a colonial situation: The Messageries Maritimes in the Gulf of Aden (1862-1940)

Governing the population of the Gulf of Aden
By Laurent Jolly

Beginning in the 19th century, shipping companies were an instrument of the European colonial and commercial presence, as well as a means of circulation between the colonised countries and the broader world. The Messageries Maritimes was one of the most powerful French shipping companies. As early as 1862, its ships linked Marseille to Indochina, and as France’s colonial holdings expanded, other destinations followed beyond Suez. In its ports of call, this shipping company—which had a strong presence in the Indian Ocean—sought the cheaper labour needed to keep its ships running smoothly and to satisfy its customers. In the boiler rooms of its ships, thousands of operators recruited in Aden or Djibouti constituted a workforce that the company hired in an effort to limit its operating costs in a context of stuff commercial competition. The Messageries Maritimes not only built a special relationship with its Yemeni operators, but its practices also allow to uncover the tensions between a company that was subsidised yet committed to the free market, and colonial authorities anxious to control and limit travel to the Metropole without penalising the business world. The company was a major player in the migratory flows from the Gulf of Aden, and its interests were given precedence over compliance with the regulation of migratory flows that was gradually taking shape in Europe.

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