B.I. and the Partition of the Indian Sub-Continent


This page is Tom Kelso's article about the involvement of B.I. Ships in relocating people following the partition of the Indian sub-continent into India and East and West Pakistan in August 1947 - originally published on the MerchantNavyOfficers.com website. Please see this site's HOME PAGE for information about the background to the content republished here.

The Diaspora by Sea

The 15th of August 2007 marks the 60th anniversary of Indian Independence, and just as significantly, the "partition" of the sub-continent into the national states of India and (East and West) Pakistan.

During the run-up to this event, and in the following few months, it is estimated that about five and half million people fled each way across the Indo-Pak border in the former state of Punjab alone, Hindus from Pakistan and Muslims from India. Similar diaspora took place across other parts of the border. Various estimates have been given, ranging from 200,000 to 1.5 million, being the number of men, women and children who were massacred by the proponents of the two religions, with in many cases, the Sikhs suffering in the middle ground.

Little appears to have been recorded regarding the evacuation of refugees by sea, out of Bombay to Karachi, and vice versa. Between June 1947 and the following February, it is thought that some 200,000 were transported from these ports by ships of the British India Steam Navigation Company. Because of the political implications at this critical time it seems that only ships of non-Indian/Pakistani flag were considered safe from retributory action. The BI vessels which became involved were, from their deck passenger carrying capability, eminently suitable for this operation. The writer does not remember other than BI ships being involved.

During this period every available BI passenger-carrying vessel was committed to the operation. The Victoria and Princes docks (and possibly Ballard Pier) were the embarkation points at the Indian end, with the Keamari wharf their equivalent in Karachi. In the critical months of August and September, it seemed that literally thousands of Muslim fugitives were allowed entry into this part of the Bombay Port Trust territory, possibly at government behest, for their own security. Access to many of the godowns was given (or taken?) providing much needed shelter from the monsoon rain. Many, perhaps with foresight and the necessary cash, had managed to obtain tickets from the Company's Managing Agents in Bombay, Mackinnon & Mackenzie, and such were allowed to board irrespective of what ship was named on the passage ticket. Certainly, in the case of Dwarka, prior to departure, the wharf was a mass of frightened and desperate people, accoutered with such possessions as they could carry, shoving and pushing towards the brow. Many, with the assistance of those who had already boarded, scrambled through the shelter deck tonnage openings. It was quite impossible to prevent this "backdoor" embarkation. Although the Bombay State police were present in force, positive control of the milling crowds appeared quite beyond the half-hearted attempts of the sepoys (or "Bombay Canaries" as the latter were referred to by some).

Behind the scenes, ashore, apparently our agents were encountering problems with the supply of coal and oil fuel, fresh water and provisions at both the Bombay and Karachi ends . I believe that in some cases ships were diverted for necessary replenishment (Murmagoa?) Although Dwarka fuelled to capacity on her intervening Abadan calls, likewise fresh water at Basra, the latter's availability onboard was rationed by strict limitation of supply. Exit and entry at the enclosed docks in Bombay was confined to about an hour either side of high water, but within these limits, as one ship left another took her berth to continue the mass embarkation.

At Karachi, dummies were used, thus keeping the vessel some distance off the jetty, and this successfuly prevented uncontrolled boarding. However, it is probable that lack of space in the basins of Bombay's Victoria dock prevented such a solution there, even if the necessary pontoons had been available.

On normal passages between Bombay and Karachi, although passage tickets were "sighted" at the gangway, on boarding, these were later collected by the Purser assisted by a squad of kalassis, who were adept at ensuring that no deck passengers could avoid this check. (It was said that used passage tickets had been known to have been resold!). However, during the evacuation, in Dwarka at least, it was found that this routine could not be carried out effectively because of the over-crowded shelter and 'tween deck spaces. I remember being told by Mr Vernon Webb, Chief Officer, that he estimated that there were three or four hundred persons aboard above our capacity!

Another recollection is of arriving at Karachi and berthing being delayed. Apparently, several hundred Sikhs,intent on reaching Keamari to escape to Bombay, had taken shelter in a Sikh temple in the city. The report went that a large crowd of the local population had surrounded the temple, eventually setting it ablaze, killing many,if not most of those seeking sanctuary inside.

Gradually over the ensuing months, more control was excercised by the authorities, refugee numbers decreased, and the extra tonnage was withdrawn. By January 1948, scheduled sailings were virtually back to normal. For my own part this experience was a never-to-be forgotten introduction to my sea-going on the Indian Coast.....I had joined Dwarka, my first ship, as a Cadet, in London, in early July."

The author included the following acknowledgements in the original article:

  1. B.I. by Laxon & Perry
  2. Raj - The making and unmaking of British India by Lawrence James

British India Ships Involved in the Operation

Ship Built Passenger Capacity (1st + 2nd + Deck) Normal/Previous Employment
Bamora 1914 12 + 24 + 1,156 "Slow" Gulf Mail [1]
Barala 1912 12 + 24 + 1,100 "Slow" Gulf Mail
Dumra 1946 20 + 30 + 1537 "Fast" Gulf Mail [2]
Dwarka 1967 20 + 30 + 1537 "Fast" Gulf Mail
Ekma 1911 51 + 39 + 2,257 Laid up, Bombay Harbour
Ethiopia 1921 50 + 49 + 2,257 Bay of Bengal Service [3]
Kampala 1947 60 + 180 + 2,441 Bombay-East & South Africa Service [4]
Karagola 1917 58 + 64 + 1,050 Bombay- East Africa Service [5]
Karapara 1915 44 + 64 + 1,490 Bombay-East Africa Service
Khandalla 1923 60 + 68 + 1,061 Bombay-East Africa
Shirala 1925 30 + 32 + 2,950 Bombay-East Africa (?) or Calcutta-Straits (?) Service
Varela 1914 32 + 24 + 1,292 "Fast" Gulf Mail
Varsova 1914 32 + 24 + 1,160 "Fast" Gulf Mail

Notes on routes shown in above table:

  1. Bombay, Karachi, Pasni, Ormara, Gwadur, Chabaar, Muscat, Jask, BandarAbbas, Sharjah, Dubai, Lingeh, Henjam, Bahrain, Bushire, Kuwait, Mohammarah, Basra and return (not all of these ports visited each voyage)
  2. Bombay,Karachi,Gwadur, Muscat, Bahrain,Kuwait,Abadan,Basra and return via same ports
  3. Calcutta, Coconada [occasional],Madras, Rangoon)
  4. Bombay, Murmagoa (occasional), Karachi,Seychelles, Mombasa, Zanzibar, Dar-es-Salaam, Mozambique, LM, Durban and return via same ports
  5. Bombay, Bedi Bunder[occasional] Mombasa, Zanzibar, Dar es Salaam and return by same portsCalcutta, Rangoon, Penang Singapre and return

Of the foregoing vessels, it is thought that Dumra, Dwarka, Kampala and possibly Varela and Varsova did not materially interrupt their scheduled services but carried refugees on the Bombay/ Karachi, and Karachi/Bombay "legs"