Abstract: French Mail Contracts with Private Steamship Companies, 1835-1914

Marie-Françoise Berneron-Couvenhes


Communication by mail between the "mother" country and overseas colonies was a challenge for many European nations. When the development of steam power in the 1830s empowered a regular maritime postal network, the French government responded differently from other states. At first (1835-1850), the French State established its own steamship companies to operate exclusive routes primarily in the Mediterranean. The scheme lost a great deal of money, primarily because the government ships were prohibited from carrying freight so as not to compete with private companies. Then from 1850 to 1883 the government subsidized private steamship companies with mail contracts to carry mail through the Mediterranean, eastward to the Indies, and across the Atlantic. Compared with Great Britain and the United States, France paid much more for these contract mail routes, and dedicated a higher percentage of the annual postal budget to foreign communications networks. A new contract in 1883 (through 1914) gave the State more control over the contractual arrangements with steamship companies (similar to those with railroad companies) but still cost France more than other major countries. The French government's dedication to maritime postal links reveals the extent to which it considered this network a desirable way of establishing a French presence in foreign countries.

BEH On-Line Paper