Wednesday, June 11, 2014

From "El Balear" To The "Oasis"

One hundred and eighty years ago, in 1834, the first steamship arrived in Palma. Its name was "El Rey Don Jaime", but it was nicknamed "El Balear". For Mallorca, totally reliant on shipping, it marked the dawn of the modern era of maritime transport. It meant speedier connections with the mainland - "El Balear", which operated once a month between Palma and Barcelona, could take just fifteen hours to complete the journey - and so a revolution for merchant and passenger shipping. Before the steamship belched and billowed out of Barcelona and made its way to Palma, a sailing ship doing the same journey could take up to twenty days.

With the arrival of the steamship came a further innovation - a new one, a tourist one. A year after the first steamship came to Mallorca, an announcement was made of a tour of Scotland, Iceland and the Faroe Islands to be made by steamship. Two years after this, the Peninsular Steam Navigation Company was founded. It was to become better known as P&O.

"El Balear" had its origins in a request made by a Joan Reynals to the board of commerce in Barcelona in 1829 to import "a steamship of new invention to Spain". It took until 1834 for "El Balear" to make its maiden voyage. It could carry a maximum of forty passengers - not many therefore - but the speed at which it could travel meant that it could be pressed into serving other regular routes, those to the south of France and to Cadiz. Despite there being these other lines, the venture was not a great success. In the first year of operation the losses amounted to over 7,500 pesetas - a fair old amount then.

In fact, it wasn't to be until the 1880s that steamship companies operating out of Mallorca were to truly to come into their own, and by the following decade there were two principal shipping concerns based in Mallorca. One of these was Isleña Marítima, and it was to play a crucial part in the subsequent development of the island's shipping.

Isleña Marítima was an early diversification into legitimate business by the Santa Margalida-born Joan March, who acquired the company. On 1 January 1917, a new company came into being. It was Trasmediterránea, a shipping company whose history is inextricably linked with Mallorca and with March. But the founding of Trasmediterránea is not as it is often reported. March, through Isleña Marítima, took control of Trasmediterránea the year after it started operation. Of the four original founders, none of them was actually Mallorcan. But once March had control, the company came to be seen as Mallorcan (though it was headquartered on the mainland) and came to have a virtual monopoly for decades, thanks to March's close relations with various politicians, one of whom of course was General Franco.

Though Trasmediterránea more or less ran merchant and passenger shipping, there were other other shipping concerns, and they were ones which, almost one hundred years after that tourist ship had journeyed in the North Atlantic, introduced the cruise ship to Mallorca.

Depending on which opinion you prefer, the role of cruise ships in inter-war tourism in Mallorca has either been totally overlooked or greatly exaggerated. It's true to say that it is often neglected, but it is also true to say that its significance hasn't been overstated. In the twelve months before the outbreak of the Civil War, over 5,000 passengers arrived in Palma on 360 ships. The routes included a direct one with New York, this line having in fact been established some twenty years previously.

And it wasn't only North America which sent cruise passengers. South America did, too. Just after Christmas 1925, the "Conde Verde" arrived in Palma with 450 passengers on board. The newspaper "ABC" carried a short news item about this ship, one that related an incident involving customs officials in Valencia before the ship set sail for Palma. Brushes with customs were a regular source of complaint by cruise passengers in those days. 

One aspect of tourism from those times which has been overlooked was that which involved North Africa. Indeed, the whole relationship between Mallorca and Algeria is one that has been largely forgotten. Packet ships operated between Palma and Algiers, and they brought back Algerian visitors to the island. A shipping route from Marseille via Palma to Algiers was to be mirrored by a seaplane route that Air France ran (bringing French and Algerian tourists to Mallorca) before the Civil War intervened.

But to come back to the cruise ships, when the passengers arrived, they were, thanks to the better roads and new coaches, taken off on their excursions. And where did they go? They were taken to the likes of Valldemossa, the Caves of Drach, Pollensa. The same places to which cruise passengers are now also taken, which just goes to show that not a lot has changed apart from the sheer volume of cruise passengers and the type of ship. In September, the largest cruise ship in the world, the "Oasis Of The Seas", with a passenger capacity of 6,360, will arrive in Palma.

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