Confused and Wandering: A Review of Delmas-Vieljeux, l'Histoire d'une Compagnie Maritime Rochelaise
La Rochelle, a moderately sized provincial city in Western France, has long been highly linked to the seas, being an important port and trading center for the better part of a millennium at least. Somewhat famous for the siege of the Huguenots in 1628, perhaps mostly for magnificent portrait of Cardinal Richelieu on the harbor mole surveying the siege, it has continued to be important in the centuries since. Part of this has been derived from the role of shipping companies, a prominent one of which is covered in this book - that of the Delmas-Vieljeux company. In Delmas-Vieljeux, l'Histoire d'une compagnie maritime rochelaise, written by a broad range of contributors, a broad look occurs at a wide variety of the activities undertaken from the company, ranging from its formation, to its personnel, to its naval fleet, their activities, corporate history, international shipping organization, labor management, the protestant community of La Rochelle which is the milieu from which it is drawn, and a host of other affairs. It all sounds highly promising, and leafing through the book is bound to fill one with great hopes about this professional looking, lengthy, and well illustrated volume. Unfortunately, it does not quite measure up to that in practice.
Part 1, "Delmas-Vieljeux, une famille protestante rochelaise" (DelmasèVieljeux, a Rochelais Protestant family) covers the Protestant community of La Rochelle, discussing some aspects of its size, history, and social composition, before moving on to the relationship of some of the leaders of the Delmas company to the city, such as Léonce Vieljeux, the mayor of the city. Various other figures and their careers are displayed as well, and their particular contributions - such as the legacy left behind in architecture and buildings. It also has some scattered other material such as the paternalist inclinations of the company, or the writings of Emile Delmas about his voyages in Egypt.
Part II, "Les activités de la comapgnie" (The Company's Activities), includes the start of the company in the 1860s, serving the Ré and Oléron islands, important in the wine trade there particularly, before continuing on with its expansion, with more steamers, government subsidies, the viticulture crisis of the late 1880s, coal shipping, and colonial commerce - important both for wine from Algeria and tropical wood. The Delmas leaders were often avid colonialists. They also took advantage of colonial labor, related in a fascinating chapter on the Kroumen, or Kroomen, West African sailors. Much of the chapter is devoted to the naval construction and repair in both La Rochelle and in Africa, as well as the activities of resistance members during the Second World War. A final section is devoted to international shipping organization, internal changes in the company's organization with the loss of family control to a corporate coup, and memorabilia of the company.
Part 3, "Des bateaux et des hommes" (Of men and ships) covers initially the actions of the company's founders, especially in relation to their participation in infrastructure development and the public functions. It also covers some measure of the organization of the administration, before moving on to the fate of the merchant fleet during both world wars - neither one being kind on it. After the war the company reconstituted itself in part thanks to the purchase of liberty ships. Various shipwrecks had unfortunately afflicted it over time, which are discussed by the book.
A brief conclusion discusses the heritage and thanks the participants.
Before reaching into my criticisms of the book, one should start with the positives. Ironically, the same root of what I view as its greatest and most pronounced failing, the excessively broad scope of the book, means that it is guaranteed to turn up some fascinating pieces. The shipyards of the company, its usage of the Kroomen African labor, initial first steps, are all to me at least, fascinating. There are many individual moments of bright light and interest throughout the book, which can make for useful subjects, especially in retrospect.
Unfortunately, the ills much outweigh this. One of the gravest issues are the chapters which are unconnected to the rest of the text, not even attempting to draw any parallels between their subject and the rest of the book. For a flagrant example of this, see the chapter upon international shipping developments: De la Diversification à L'internationalisation by François Souty. The chapter is an intriguing one it must be stated, in its dealing with changes in international shipping regulations and how various markets were managed, in particular making extensive note of the way in which the US market is heavily protectionist concerning shipping. But the actual level of discussion of the company of Delmas-Vieljeux and how the international shipping environment affected and impacted them is all but non-existent. On a lesser scale, that can also be reflected in a tendency to repeat material which previous chapters have covered, such as basic biographies of figures. I certainly appreciate short recollections to the past, such as mentioning who a previous figure is, but sometimes, such as a brief biography of Pierre Vieljeux succeeded on the very next page by the same character, including a description of many of the previously stated facts, and his establishment of an aeronautics club in the French department of Charente-Inférieure, this can become painfully excessive. One can also ask about the relationship of this to the broader history of a merchant company...
In fact, this previous query is something which is repeated constantly throughout, in that there is also a further problem in that the book has a very broad scope, and a lack of focus on the Delmas company itself. It switches around to a vast collection of different activities, including various personnages associated with the company, workers, ships lost at sea, shipwrecks, port expansions, political roles, the protestant community of La Rochelle, traffic type, shipping lines, etc. Many of these are quite pertinent and important to the company's history, and almost all are indeed quite interesting. But many are not, and really belong to a social history of La Rochelle. The book lacks a true chronological history of the company's developments and activities throughout history, instead taking individual screenshots.
Despite a fascinating subject, the plentiful pictures, and broad focus (or perhaps because of the last), the book fails to really link and unify them to a sufficient extent to make it a truly good tome on the subject, although it has enough material to still provide jolts of excitement and interest. Although still doubtless interesting to those who specialize in La Rochelle, French maritime history, maritime companies, and a diverse range of maritime history topics, the diversity of topics makes it hard to really recommend to any one particular group. Reading it will provide chapters which individually are quite fascinating, like the Kroemen, but for the most part the book does not succeed in providing a true history of the Delmas-Vieljeux company.
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© 2018 Ryan Thomas