Monday, October 31, 2011

Leopoldville 1931 - Unatra obtains a shipping monopoly

On June 20, 1931, as the economic impact of the Depression came to be felt in the Belgian Congo, the Ministry of the Colonies in Brussels established shipping rates designed to benefit the quasi-governmental shipping firm, the Union National des Transports Fluviaux (Unatra).  Unatra had an interesting pedigree.  It was created in March 1925 out of the merger of the state river transport firm Sonatra (Sociéte National des Transports Fluviaux au Congo) and CITAS (Cie. Industrielle et de Transports au Stanley Pool), a private company founded in 1899 (See Mar. 13, 2011).  Sonatra itself was the successor to the Congo Free State’s Marine du Haut-Congo, which launched the first steamer, the “En Avant” on Ngaliema Bay on December 3, 1881, coincident with the founding of Leopoldville (See Mar. 5, 2011).
The "En Avant" (L), "A.I.A." (C) and "Roi des Belges" (R) -- Leopoldville 1889

The Leopoldville Chamber of Commerce wrote an urgent letter to the Governor General on June 27th, expressing concern about the government’s approach to shipping rates.  Only the month before, the Chamber had called for a moderation in rates, given the declining value of export commodity prices, but the measures favoring Unatra were the opposite of what they expected.  None of this had a more adverse impact than on local businessman Oscar Chinn.
The Unatra naval yards in former CITAS port
Chinn, a British subject, had immigrated to South Africa in his youth, then moved to Stanleyville (Kisangani) in 1925, where he started an engineering firm.  In 1927, he took over management of the African and Eastern Corporation shipyard in Leopoldville.  In 1928, he sold the shipyard on the owners’ behalf and after a brief holiday in Britain, returned to Congo in February 1929 to set up his own shipyard and shipping firm in Leopoldville.  At the time of the Ministry of Colonies edict, Chinn owned 6 ships and 8 barges and operated another six steamers on behalf of private owners.  While other firms, such as Lever Brothers’ Huileries du Congo Belge had larger fleets than Chinn’s, these companies were transporting their own produce and merchandise.  Chinn was the only private shipping operator and as such was in direct competition with Unatra. While Chinn had continued to operate after the Crash, Unatra had been forced to lay up some of its fleet and Chinn was actually negotiating the purchase of two Unatra vessels at the time of the Ministry’s edict.
Unatra port in Leopoldville -- late 1920s
The new measures took effect July 1, 1931.  Unatra reduced its shipping rates, but was allowed to incur deficits which the Colony committed to reimburse.  The result of this subsidy was to grant Unatra a monopoly, as no other shipper could compete at market rates.  Since the subsidy was to be paid by colonial taxes, Chinn as a substantial entrepreneur and tax-payer, found himself in the situation of subsiding his competition.  Unatra, for its part, stepped up its campaign to conclude long-term “fidelity contracts” which committed the large trading and plantation firms to ship their goods on Unatra boats.
The "Yser" at the Unatra naval yards
SOCCA share
 At a meeting of the Conseil du Gouvernement in Leopoldville in October, the principle of extending the subsidy to all river transporters was approved, but the Ministry of Colonies declined.  To add insult to injury, the Ministry issued a decree that more than doubled taxes on river boats.  Chinn’s tax bill in 1932 increased to Frs.13,891 over 5,784 the previous year.  On March 18, 1932, Chinn and four other private transporters (Socca, Socotra, Nogueira and Socoume) sued the Colony in the Court of First Instance in Leopoldville claiming damages from the monopoly allotted to Unatra.  The suit cited the Treaty of Saint-Germain, to which Congo was a party, which guaranteed equality of treatment.  The suit was eventually dismissed on the technicality that the rates had not been set by the Colony, but rather the Colonial Ministry of the Belgian Government.

Some of the Unatra fleet in port
Colonial Minister Tschoffen visited the colony in August, and the shipping rates were among the issues on his agenda.  A meeting on August 4th between the Minister and the Chamber of Commerce, and attended by the Governor General, the British Consul, Chinn and Valckenaere of Socca. Tschoffen declared that he was personally opposed to monopolies, was prevented from creating them by international treaty and therefore proposed that henceforth the subsidies be allocated to all river shippers.  He was not willing to consider claims of damages nor considered the “fidelity” contracts to be a concern of the Ministry.  The measure was of little benefit to Chinn, since nine of his clients representing 70% of his business were now bound by “fidelity” contracts to Unatra. Further, the now solvent Unatra was buying up the fleets of the small shippers.  In any event, Chinn was effectively bankrupt and returned to Europe in October 1932.  The British Ambassador to Belgium met with the Belgian Foreign Minister in December, but no action was taken as the damage suit was still making its way through the appeals process in Leopoldville.
Unatra port at Leopoldville
A Unatra steamer at the Chanic ship yards in Leopoldville-Ouest
The British Government continued to press the issue and in February 1934 served notice of its intent to pursue the matter at the Permanent Court of International Justice at The Hague.  The hearings began in April before an 11 judge panel.  The Belgian Government case was largely based on the insignificance of Chinn’s operation and certain technical irregularities in the registration of his ships.  On December 12, 1934 the judges issued their decision, split 6 to 5 in favor of Belgium, declaring that the measures taken in June 1931 were not, “in conflict with the international obligations of the Belgian Government towards the Government of the United Kingdom”.
Unatra Bureau -- Ave. Rubbens
Nonetheless, the Belgian Government issued an Arrêté Royale on January 20, 1935 that restructured Unatra under a new entity called the Office des Transports Coloniaux (OTRACO).  The Matadi-Leopoldville railway, as well as the stevedoring firm, Manucongo, were also incorporated into the new parastatal. After Independence in 1960, the name was adjusted to Office des Transports du Congo (See Mar. 19, 2011).  In 1971, under Mobutu’s authenticité campaign, OTRACO became the Office National des Transports, ONATRA.  The Kabila government recently restructured ONATRA as the Société Commercial des Transports et des Ports (SCTP), which re-launched the urban railway (Chemin de fer Inter-Urbain) in June this year (See Oct. 24, 2011).
Unatra port in Leopoldville -- 1930s
·        Permanent Court of International Justice, 1934. “The Oscar Chinn Case, Judgment of December 12th, 1934”, Leyden: A.W. Sijthoff Company.

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