Sunday, November 27, 2016

One Hundred Years Of Shipping

In Barcelona on 25 November one hundred years ago, four men put their signatures to a document. It was the deed of incorporation of a new company. Its name was Compañía Trasmediterránea, the most famous of Spain's shipping companies and one that was also to become associated with notoriety.

The four directors of the new company were Jose Juan Dómine, Vicente Ferrer Peset, Joaquín María Tintoré and Enrique García Corrons. Each of them already had shipping interests, but Trasmediterránea was to become an altogether grander operation than any of them had been involved with up to that time. And the reason for that lay with a name not on that deed.

In January 1917, the shipping activities of Trasmediterránea started. It had at its disposal 44 ships. A year later, control of the company was to be taken via another shipping operator - Isleña Marítima. The owner of that company was Joan March Ordinas, later to be known, among other things, as the last pirate of the Mediterranean.

Santa Margalida-born March was by then a very wealthy man. He had acquired his wealth at a young age. The story of how he came by his wealth has been told many times. And having control of shipping companies was an on the face of it legitimate means of acquiring further illicit wealth - from smuggling. In fact, it had been March who had really created Trasmediterránea in the first place.

Trasmediterránea was of course perfectly legitimate and the business grew rapidly, thanks to it having a virtual monopoly on cargo and passenger transport and on official postal services. Its operations embraced the Balearics, the mainland, north Africa and the Canaries. By 1921, the fleet had increased to seventy ships.

March, who founded the Banca March in 1926, was able to get contracts with a succession of governments, even the Republican government (which was to send him to prison, from which he was able to escape). His contacts were such that Alfonso XIII was a shareholder; the king was apparently given 3,000 shares by March. In recognition of such generosity, Trasmediterránea was awarded the contract for moving troops, supplies and equipment to north Africa during the Rif War of the first half of the 1920s.

Then came Franco and the Civil War. March, Franco's banker, was able to supply ships to the Nationalists. It has been said of the relationship between the shipping company and Franco that Trasmediterránea conducted "peculiar" missions. Among these, after the Civil War had ended, was a collaboration with the Nazis: Trasmediterránea ships would help supply submarines out on the high sea.

March, as is well known, played all sides. While he helped the Nazis, he was also responsible for transporting Jews to safety. They paid, and very handsomely too, to be taken to New York. This was despite Trasmediterránea not having permission to undertake transatlantic voyages. When the FBI took an interest, it was Winston Churchill who intervened. March was his favourite Mallorcan spy.

Joan March died in 1962 - some still believe the road accident to have been suspicious - but his name was to live on with Trasmediterránea. Fifty years ago, the "Juan March" (the Spanish version of his name was used) was launched. The March family still controlled the company, but in January 1978 Trasmediterránea was partially taken over by the Spanish government. It was said that the sale was because the shipping industry was experiencing great difficulty. In fact, Trasmediterránea was on the point of bankruptcy. The government of Adolfo Suárez paid the equivalent of 2.60 euros per share for more than half the shares.

It was to be fully nationalised in 1997 and then privatised five years later, sold to the construction company Acciona for 259 million euros plus the taking-on of over 200 million euros debt.

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