I think this material, originally published on MerchantNavyOfficers.com, was authored by Fred Waddington. Acknowledgements were given to "Sea Safari" by Peter C. Kohler and illustrations by James M Stewart from the book by Duncan Haws "B.I.S.N.C.O" in the Merchant Fleets series. Please see this site's HOME PAGE for information about the background to content republished here.
Note: I have not checked any of the statements in the article for accuracy and republished it as presented - apart from changes to the presentation style.
Any soundly established British shipping line is one of the finest expressions of the genius of an island people. It has been the lot and fortune of the British India Company to play a unique part in British imperial history as well.
British India Centenary 1856-1956
In the vanguard of the progress that marked the Victorian Age frequently stood an enterprising Scot. Scottish entrepreneurs and engineers built much of the commercial and civic infrastructure of the British Empire and expanded its bounds. Calcutta, the business centre of the British Raj, with its ornate houses of commerce along the Hooghly evoking Argyle Street in architecture, became a palm-treed extension of Glasgow, exerting a call to the ambitious and adventurous of a remarkable generation of Scot. The BI story begins with two such men, William Mackinnon and Robert Mackenzie, both of Campbeltown, Argyle.
Robert Mackenzie arrived in Calcutta in 1836 and set up an oil goods import/export business there as well as being the agent for the India General Steam Navigation Co. Indian commerce and eastern overseas trade were then entering a period of enormous expansion occasions by the ending of the Honourable East India Company's long held monopoly and rapid developments in steam navigation. Because of reasonable distances and the availability of Bengal coal, steamship services were established in Indian waters well in advance of other regions. Indeed, the first regular scheduled overseas steamer route, Bombay to Suez, was begun in 1829 by the East India Company, four years before Royal William crossed the North Atlantic.
The man who would establish steam navigation along India’s coasts, the Bay of Bengal and the Persian Gulf, was born William Mackinnon on 31st March 1823 in Campbeltown, Argyle. Beginning his career in commerce with a Portuguese East India merchant in Glasgow, he too, was drawn to greater prospects in India where he arrived in 1847. His business relationship with Robert Mackenzie began almost at once and the partnership of Mackinnon, Mackenzie & Co. was founded in December 1847. So too was its involvement in shipping, mainly chartered sailing vessels running between India and Australia. It was on passage from Australia to Calcutta that Robert Mackenzie was lost in a shipwreck in 1853.
The firm continued to prosper, additional capital was raised in Scotland and Mackinnon took an increasing interest in shipping. "A shrewd little man who loved to pore over maps and perceive where a ship might carry, or take up, a profitable cargo," as he was described in BI Centenary, Mackinnon hit upon the idea of opening up India's vast coastline to steam navigation to reach the many places where railways did not touch.
The stately homes of England,
Shake hands across the sea,
And colonists, when writing home,
Pay but a penny fee.
Nowadays in an age of instant communication, it is worth recalling when the mails, transported by stage, railway or ship, were the only means of keeping in touch, especially in the far-flung colonies, where those early settlers endured almost unbearable conditions. Letters from home assumed an immense importance and quantity; by the 1890's some 22 million pieces of mail were posted annually from Britain to the Empire. In an age when "transportation is civilisation", getting the mails through safely and speedily became a Victorian obsession.
The steamship, by virtue of its regularity even more than speed, revolutionised world-wide mail communications and there was no prouder vessel than bearing the imposing prefix "R.M.S.", Royal Mail Steamship, "conveying the Mails and Dispatches, under contract with Her Majesty's Government." Today only one such vessel, R.M.S. St Helena, remains in ocean service between Britain, the South Atlantic islands and Cape Town, but at the turn of the century a large yet elite company of crack mailships were the "shuttles of an Empire's loom."
For the traveller, taking passage in an R.M.S. meant safety and speed, and promised the Victorian virtues of seasoned British officers, stout seamen, whether from Bristol or Bengal, a plentiful bill of fare and an irreproachable dignity derived from sailing with the English Mails. There were practical advantages, too; in any civilised harbour, the Royal Mail pennant at the foretruck guaranteed priority berthing, coaling and provisioning. For the Colonial Office, mailships running to a regular timetable were a vital part of the "trade follows flag" imperial credo. Machinery had mastered the monsoon, and the whole of the coastline round India and Burma fell within reach of British trade and influence.
For an aspiring steamship line, securing a coveted Royal Mail contract guaranteed minimum revenue beyond the carriage of cargo (the quantity of which was limited aboard early steamers due to the amount of coal required) and passengers and conferred an enormous cachet. There also came a heavy burden of running to a fixed contract over a set number of years, maintaining an often rigorous schedule in all conditions and submitting to the whims of the Admiralty, Post Office or whatever authority conferred the contract. Competition for such contracts was keen, often cut-throat, but once won, could make or break a company.
The Honourable East India Company, which had only just annexed the southern half of Burma, opened the door to Mackinnon Mackenzie when in 1855 they invited tenders for a regular mail steamship route between Calcutta and Rangoon. The Scottish partners were successful in their bid and set out to establish the first reliable scheduled steamship service in the Bay of Bengal.
Eighteen fifty-six. Queen Victoria establishes the Victoria Cross to award extraordinary valour by British redcoats then fighting the Anglo-Chinese and Anglo-Persian Wars. Natal becomes a Crown Colony. Tasmania is granted self-government and Marthinius Pretorius establishes the South African Republic (Transvaal). Woodrow Wilson, Sigmund Freud, George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wild are born. The Khedive of Egypt grants Ferdinand de Lesseps the concession to construct the Suez Canal. And on 24th September the Calcutta & Burmah Steam Navigation Co. is registered with £35,000 in capital.
Choosing the peacock of Burma for the company crest and houseflag, Mackinnon acquired a small fleet of second-hand steamers for his new Royal Mail service. In a sense the future BI's African connection began at once for the second vessel purchased was the Cape of Good Hope, a new 500-grt steamer built for the London-South Africa service of the defunct General Screw Co. She and the Baltic (1854/535grt) maintained the initial fortnightly run between Calcutta, Akyeb, Rangoon and Moulmein.
The company’s association with the Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Co. began at an early date, if under rather regrettable circumstances, when on 23rd March 1859 Cape of Good Hope was rammed and sunk by P&O's aptly named Nemesis in the Hooghly River. Apart from this and other setbacks, including the loss of the line’s newbuilding, Calcutta (1860/527grt) in Irish waters even before entering service, the company persevered.
India was transformed after the Indian Mutiny in 1857 during which the infant Calcutta & Burmah carried troops, thus starting a long tradition between the company and Her Majesty's forces. The mandate of the long moribund Honourable East India Co. was ended and direct rule from Whitehall brought far-reaching developments in trade and a large influx of civil servants. It was the beginning of the modern British Empire, one in which Mackinnon's fledgling little line of steamers would go on to play a considerable role.
In 1862 an important an long lasting friendship was begun between Mackinnon and Sir Bartle Frere, a member of the Viceroy's Council and chief administrator of the Bengal Government, that was to have a big impact on the company's fortunes and indeed those of the British Raj itself. As a result Mackinnon was able to propose to the Viceroy, Lord Canning, that a scheduled mail service linking Calcutta and Bombay with calls at numerous intermediate ports should be instituted. Frere was enthusiastic about the scheme, which also interested the Viceroy, but the Bombay Government's approval had to be sought too. With the appointment next year of Frere as Governor of Bombay this idea, that depended on a financial grant, became a reality. Of greater importance still was the granting by the friendly Governor of two mail contracts, one for fortnightly service between Bombay and Karachi and the other for an eight times a year service between Karachi and Persian Gulf ports. Prior to this act the new routes had already been tested so the carriage of the mails was quickly and easily implemented, the arrival and departure dates having to dovetail with those of the P&O schedule for the English Mails.
Apart from enabling the company, since 28th October 1862 reorganised and restyled as the British India Steam Navigation Company Limited (BI), to switch vessels between its eastern and western wings, the monthly coasting services acted as a more efficient feeder for P&O goods such as coir yarn and Mangalore tiles, as well as valuable foodstuffs like spices, coffee, pepper and coconut oil. Within two years the frequency of this schedule had to be doubled and the Persian Gulf Line's departures increased to one a month. One other feature of the coasting line was an important new agreement with P&O's arch-rival, the French mail company, Messageries Imperiales (later to become Messageries Maritimes) enabling some interchange of passengers and cargo at both Galle in Ceylon and Pondicherry in India. British India was to benefit in future years from this good relationship even, in East African waters.
Thus within a year BI was operating the following services:
- Calcutta-Akyab-Rangoon-Moulmein (fortnightly)
- Calcutta-Rangoon-Moulmein-Penang-Malacca-Singapore (monthly)
- Rangoon-Port Blair, Andamans (monthly)
- Bombay-Karachi (fortnightly)
- Karachi-Persian Gulf ports (eight times yearly)
- Calcutta-Bombay via coast ports (monthly)
As indicated, some of these were to be improved in frequency and over the next few years many new routes were to be opened up. The network of services was not unlike that of a large water-bus company, whose reputation for reliability became steadily more established, as did that for the service and discipline provided by the British officers and the Indian crews to whom wearing the company uniform was an object of immense pride.
The ships, despite their small size, quietly assumed a smartness of their own as regards appearance and performance. This was an age when a warship of the Royal Navy, elegant in black hull and yellow upperworks, was more gaily turned out then most merchantmen. British India's sombre livery of black hull, funnel and boats, dark brown masts and dark varnished deck houses was enlivened only by a white sheer line and the two narrow white bands separated by a thin black line that ringed the funnel. The houseflag was a white swallow tail burgee emblazoned with the cross of St Patrick in red and the crest was among the most symbolic imaginable, the figure of Britannia backed by the British lion with one paw resting imperially on top of a globe. There was something else about these ships: the polished copper steam pipes, the glistening black varnish of the lifeboats, the bleached white teak decks and vessel names like Cashmere, Kurrachee, Satara and Coconada that bespoke a pride of purpose and place as belonging to the British India Line of Royal Mail Steamers.
In 1863 alone BI added nine ships to its fleet and quickly acquired a distinctive look about its vessels. Nothing revolutionary was to be found in the design and construction of a BI ship; pace-setting usually proved, if at all, only fleetingly profitable. The company did not design its own vessels, preferring to order "off the peg" to its own exacting specifications. These included the ability to operate on any of the BI's services and to have spacious 'tween decks for the carriage of cargo, livestock, troops or passengers. Additionally the vagaries of Calcutta's meandering Hooghly River with its maximum depth of 27 feet, restricted the size and draught of the ships. Like most lines, BI enjoyed a special relationship with one builder, Wm. Denny & Bros. of Dumbarton, that began with the India of 1862 and carried on through to Ordia of 1950. Another important early builder was A & J Inglis, Glasgow.
The 1.059-grt, 239 ft. India was really a one-off ship spotted by Mackinnon in his desperate and urgent Clydeside search for new tonnage to enable him to fulfil his new commitments. She had been intended for Trans-Atlantic use, but was still unfinished. Completed therefore to Mackinnon's specification, she joined his fleet as the first ship with a gross tonnage exceeding 1,000 grt. Two-masted and rigged as a brig, the single screw steamer was powered by a simple direct-acting two-cylinder engine and capable of carrying 28 Saloon passengers and 600 on deck. So satisfied was BI with her suitability for the trade and performance that it quickly ordered from Denny's four very similar vessels, which were two pairs of sisters, with identical hull dimensions, but three-masted and barque rigged without forecastles. Later, however, these were added and Saloon accommodation, at that time always in the poop, was enlarged. Named Burmah (II) (1863/1,081 grt) and Arabia (1863/1,081 grt) the first pair were followed by Punjaub (1864/1,080 grt) and Cashmere (1864/1,083 grt). Larger versions would be built later, but the company continued to need many small vessels also, these being for particular coastal routes were often affected by draught and other limitations.
In this, the era of sail and steam, all these early BI steamers were brig or barque rigged. It is recorded in BI Centenary that Baghdad once "sailed from Mombassa to within a day's run of Aden without the propeller having turned once." In addition to being essential in case of mishaps with machinery or screw (then all too common), sail was routinely employed to get extra speed during the monsoon and to steady a vessel heavily laden with deck passengers. Indeed, BI ships used auxiliary sail right through to the First World War and stay sails were used into the 'twenties.
Such was the pace of steamship development that all of the initial simple engined vessels were made obsolete within a few years with the rapid improvement of the compound engine. In effect, using the steam twice through compounding halved coal consumption and enabled steamships to compete economically with sail. British India, already known for having its entire fleet composed of modern screw steamers, made the considerable investment of refitting its still new vessels with the improved engines.
Saloon accommodation of the early BI ships was inevitably small and usually divided into two grades, the better being traditionally sited in the poop and the lesser amidships. This was based on the prevailing thought that the throbbing of the screw was preferable to being in close proximity with the vibration, heat and clanking of the machinery and boilers. From the beginning BI shunned ostentation in on-board services or accommodation, but its service by Goan stewards and bill of fare were certainly on par with those provided by P&O steamers, including the huge Victorian menus and inevitable luncheon curries which quickly became a hallmark. Far from today's frivolous shipboard lifestyle, BI ships (and most passengers) took themselves seriously, perhaps too much so:
The Austrian traveller Baron Von Hubner, who made a long voyage in the Durunda in 1885, recorded in near despair the awfulness of a shipboard Sunday - no whist, no bezique, even smoking was unpopular. "Young M. caught with a novel in his hand: a lady looks at him fixedly, utters the word 'Sunday', takes away the novel and slips into his hand a hymnbook instead"
Far more numerous than the travellers in Saloon were the deck or unberthed passengers who found shelter in the 'tween decks or under awnings topside, providing their own bedding. Their numbers on board depended on the weather conditions, fine or foul, as during the monsoon, and the length of the voyage, long or short. On average the larger ships could carry approximately 875 deck passengers during fair weather voyages. In charge of deck passengers'' needs was the Chief Officer who bore a considerable responsibility indeed, given the numbers carried aboard in very limited space, yet BI from the start insisted that deck passengers afforded the best possible treatment. Their meals were prepared by the vishiwallahs, normally a separate one each for Hindus and Moslems. The vishiwallahs received free passage but were not part of the ship's company. These huddled masses were to form the bulk of BI's passenger trade for the life of the company. Most were Indians, the migrant labourers for much of the Empire, who built the railways, harvested the crops and toiled in the mines when local labour was found unwilling or unable. Upon their backs were largely carried the trade and development of the Empire and BI conveyed no more important passengers in terms of company profit and Imperial progress.
From the start, the heart of BI was its localised services as exemplified by the legendary "umbrella ships", the coasters that were originally summoned, legend has it, to collect cargo or passengers by a merchant hoisting an umbrella, or later a flag, to attract the captain's attention. It is all the more remarkable to consider that BI achieved a reputation for the regularity and safety of its service at a time when the Indian coast, Bay of Bengal and Persian Gulf were among the poorest charted waters in the world and each beset with its own peculiar and geographic conditions. Thus Mackinnon's entrepreneurial ambitions were realised by good seamanship and well-found ships that truly went were no others had plied before. Many an eastern port was surveyed, buoyed and lighted by BI enterprise and at BI's expense.
There were pirates to fend off in the Gulf, inter-racial or other religious fights among deck passengers as well as the burra sahibs in Saloon to cater for. The little steamers of BI came to play an important role in the lives of the scores of small coastal communities and to both native and European, they were the sinew and symbol of the British Empire.
Mackinnon died in 1893 and the next major period in the company's history began when James Mackay joined the Board in 1894. Mackay had been a partner in Mackinnon, Mackenzie and Co since 1881 and quickly established himself at the forefront of the company and, as Lord Inchcape, became Chairman of the Board in 1913. The following year saw BI amalgamate with P&O; some might say that P&O acquired BI, others say that Inchcape acquired P&O.
BI continued to operate as BI and didn't lose identity until the reorganisation of the P&O Group in 1971; for some people though BI will never die.
Ask anybody to name a shipping company and it's a reasonable bet that P&O will be mentioned; very few will mention or even know of the existence of BI. Throughout the first half of the twentieth century BI owned the largest fleet registered in the UK, both in terms of number of vessels and tonnage. Yet the company remained largely unknown to the majority of the British public. The almost obscure nature of BI came mainly from the fact that throughout its life it was part of larger enterprises and operated primarily in Eastern waters.
Before we get too far ahead though, there were some interesting and noteworthy landmarks in the history of BI.
On the 17th November 1869 the Suez Canal opened. In the same year the Calcutta-Mauritius service was opened with the Satara. This was not initially a financial success and it was to be another twenty years before a regular mail service was established.
1872 saw the start of the Aden-Zanzibar service, linking with the P&O Mail at Aden. This was a monthly contract and in 1876 it was extended to Mozambique
1874 the London-Basra service started; the first we see of what came to be known as the BI 'home line', though at this stage it wasn't a regular service.
1881 Bombay-Lourenco Marques service, this was abandoned nine years later but reopened in 1894. A separate Bombay-East Africa service started in 1896. Also in 1881 was the start of the London-Queensland service by the Merkara.
1885 Rajpootana commenced the Calcutta-Australia service.
1889 A BI officers association was formed in Bombay. The association petitioned for an increase in pay, paid leave after five years overseas, free passage out and home, continuation of pay whilst in hospital and a stabilisation of one-third pay against sterling. At this time pay was in Indian silver rupees, which fluctuated in value with the price of silver.
1896 Calcutta- new Zealand service commenced with the Chilka.
1897/1898 Officers' strike took place on 13th November 1897 at Bombay and on 7th December at Calcutta and Rangoon. Matters at issue were pay, rates of exchange for the rupee, better regulation of promotion and in particular cessation of the practice of promoting officers to acting rank, rotation of staff across favoured lines and ships, and the Officers Guild.
1904 Palamcotta opened a service to Amoy and Swatow
1906 Recruitment of cadets. Candidates had to have two years experience in a training ship or one year at sea in a sailing ship. A premium of £50 was required; this was only abolished in the 1950’s.
1907 Calcutta-Japan service commenced.
1914-1918 The first World War. 25 ships lost (127,782 gross tons) out of 126 ships (570,243 tons)
1st October 1914 B.I.S.N.Co taken over by P&O S.N.Co.
April 1915 Mazagon Dock Co formed at Bombay jointly by BI and P&O. Part of the dock had been in use as a dockyard since 1700. The company was sold in 1960.
August 1816 Garden Reach Workshops, Calcutta, formed in conjunction with S.N. Co Ltd. The land had been acquired in 1865. The company sold it in 1960.
1920 the BI fleet reached a peak strength of 161 ships. In tonnage terms the peak was reached in 1922 at 831,533 gross tons.
1939-1945 The Second World War. 51 ships (321,703 gross tons) lost out of 103 (321,703 gross tons).
1957 P&O and BI boards separated, Sir William Currie remaining chairman of both.
1970 Mr Ford Geddes became P&O Group chairman. BI absorbed in the P&O Group reorganisation. The BI name survived as nominal owners of certain ships based in India and the company remained as an entity.
23rd May 1982 Dwarka, last ship in BI ownership, delivered for breaking up at Karachi.
Any history of a shipping company must include something of the ships that were the heart and soul of the company, and there I have a problem. Which ships do I write about, because each and every ship has a history of it’s very own, all 50