The Four 'D's of the British India Line


This article by James Shaw was submitted to and was originally published in Ships January 1978 issue.

James describes the four post-war passenger ships built for British India's India-Persian Gulf trade and recalls a passage made in 1976 in the last survivor of the quartette.

The Four 'D's

At the conclusion of World War II, British India Steam Navigation Company Ltd, a pioneer shipping firm in the Indian Ocean region, found itself in possession of a fleet reduced by almost half through the ravages of war. To meet expected post-war demand and increased foreign competition, the company in co-operation with several British ship¬building yards, began an earnest building programme to both re-equip and modernise a fleet which only two short decades before had been the largest in the world.
The 4,867 grt Dumra built in 1946 by Barclay Curle & Co, Glasgow, was the first of the four 'D' class ships completed for British India after WWII. Powered by 4,200 bhp Doxford diesels, the Dumra has a speed of 14 knots. Sold in 1976 to Indian owners, she lives on in the Persian Gulf trade as the Daman. [1]
As passengers still played a large part in British India's business, fourteen vessels of the post-war building programme were constructed to accommodate various numbers of passengers. Four of these vessels, the Dumra, Dwarka, Dara and the Daressa, were launched over a period of four years in the late 1940s to undertake the line's India-Persian Gulf trade, a service which had first seen British India colours in 1862.
The Dara, completed in 1948 by Barclay Curle, met an untimely end in April, 1961, when she capsized and sank whilst under tow off Dubai following a bomb explosion and fierce fire. [1]
Dara with the fire about extinguished. A total of 238 passengers, crew and shore personnel perished in the incident. [2]
Through pre-war days the service had been held down by four similar vessels launched during the First World War. The four 'V's – Varela, Varsova, Vita and the Vasna had helped build up British India's reputation for punctuality in the Gulf but, though all had managed to survive the war, they were, by mid-century, well over thirty years of age.

The new 'D' class vessels were built much on the same lines as their earlier predecessors. All hovered around 5,000 tons gross with relatively shallow draughts of 6.5 metres, Doxford 4200 diesels gave the vessels a speed range of 13 to 16 knots depending upon the particular ship. Each had cabin accommodation, varying from an original three class complement of 134 cabin class passengers in the Dara down to 50 cabin class in the Dumra and the Dwarka.
Daressa completed in 1950 by Barclay Curle, was sold in 1964 10 the Chandris Group and renamed Favorita. After further service as the Kim Hwa with Singapore owners, she was broken up in 1974. [3]
The ships were provided with an abnormally high deck passenger capacity to cope with the huge flow of Pakistani and Indian labourers between their homes and the Persian Gulf states. Actual deck capacities varied with seasonal weather conditions but both the Dumra and the Dwarka were licensed to carry 1,537 deck passengers outside the monsoon months. The Dara was close behind with a capacity of 1377 on deck, while the Daressa, built for express service, was limited to 251, except on short voyages.

Cargo capacities of the ships varied between 5.000 to 6,000 cubic metres, some of this insulated and air-cooled to accommodate loads of fresh fruit transported to the Arab states. The Indian and Pakistani labourers are particularly fond of mangoes which are imported from their home countries, while the Arab themselves are great consumers of tea brought from India and Ceylon. Trans-shipped products from the large ports of Bombay and Karachi also account for a considerable amount of the B.I.s Gulf trade.

From its 1862 beginnings in the Persian Gulf, British India steadily expanded its services, both in capacity and in the ports of call serviced. The original trade however focused on the Bombay to Basra axis and this was continued until only recent years when port congestion along the Tigris/Euphrates halted British India services at Kuwait. The main ports of call continue to be Kuwait, Bahrain, Doha, Dubai, Muscat and Karachi with several smaller ports called at sporadically.

The service from earliest times has provided British India with several of its more serious incidents. In the late 1860s the B.I. ship Cashmere was taken and looted by pirates just off the coast of modern-day Iraq. As recently as 1953 the Dwarka suffered a series of murders committed by Aden Somali deck passengers who had run amok in an inter-racial quarrel. Three of the Asian crew were killed and two of the European officers severely wounded before the murderers were finally caught.

The harshest moment in the Persian Gulf services, however, came at 4.40 am on the morning of 8th April. 1961. At that time the Dara was returning to Dubai harbour to finish loading cargo and passengers, an activity which had been interrupted some hours earlier by a gale which forced the ship to put to sea. A sudden bomb explosion occurred between decks which panicked passengers and crew and started an immediate fire. Though aid was soon furnished by ships in the area, 238 passengers, crew and shore personnel on board perished in the incident. The Dara herself capsized and sank some miles off Dubai three days later after being taken in tow by a salvage vessel.

Most voyages, however, were of a more peaceful nature, though stifling heat and uncharted waters never made the journey a comfort. Today a voyage with one of the 'D's down through the Gulf is both a glimpse into the past and a view to the future. Ancient dhows vie with modern container ships for trade in an area that saw man's first attempts to navigate the oceans.

A trip was undertaken by the author during the hot summer months of 1976 on the last of British India's Persian Gulf foursome, Dwarka. Few cabin passengers bother to make the voyage any longer thus cabins are relatively easy to obtain. A cabin class ticket was taken through the local Mackinnon Mackenzie agency, a name which is well known in the Gulf area and has strong historical ties with the formation of British India itself.
Dwarka completed in 1947 by Swan Hunter, is the last survivor of the 'D' class quartette and was the vessel in which the author made the passage described in this article. [3]
The ship was boarded in Kuwait where she lay loading cargo and passengers for the return trip down the Gulf to Bombay. The Dwarka was tied up at Pier 9 - a new concrete structure which made the old vessel look even more than her 30 years. Passengers came aboard and were allotted their cabin or deck space depending on which class they had chosen to travel in.

We sailed in the early morning hours, before the heat of the Gulf swelled to its maximum intensity of over 120 degrees. Upon clearing the breakwater the Dwarka first manoeuvred through an 'invasion force' of over one hundred anchored merchant vessels, then set her course to the South-east for Bahrain, There were only five cabin passengers aboard for this trip. On deck, however, over 250 deck passengers with their belongings were spread out from bow to stern. Large iron-barred gates separated the classes while at sea giving an abnormal amount of room to the few who had decided to pay the higher fare.

Accommodation Arrangement

Cabin and public room layout on the 'D's differed somewhat between vessels. The Dwarka has been modified slightly from her original design but most rooms are still in their rightful places. Two berth cabins occupy the promenade deck with a lounge and library situated forward. A small bar lies midship just aft the cabins and a second, smaller, lounge occupies its own "island" at the end of the promenade deck. The bridge deck on the next level down contains a small dining room aft which is being used by the ship's crew. Near to it is the hospital and doctor's office. Three and four-berth cabins then run forward to the Purser's office and the main dining saloon. Below this on "upper" deck are located more cabins which have now largely been taken over by the ship's crew. Deck passengers accommodate themselves 'tween decks and on the hatch covers which are protected by canvas awnings.

There is no swimming pool or social director on the Dwarka. She is like her former sisters, a working ship and to paying passengers she can offer little more than transportation, accommodation, decent food and a passage through one of the world's more romantic and congested bodies of water. Travel time between the two most distant points on the Dwarka’s schedule. Bombay and Kuwait, is seldom longer than two weeks and in most cases, only nine days. Manama in Bahrain and Port Qaboos in Muscat are usually alternated on the eastward and westward voyages, however, on this particular sailing, both ports were called at homeward bound.

The morning mist which inhabits the Gulf during Summer months still hung in the air when we arrived off Bahrain after the overnight voyage from Kuwait, nearby freighters emerged from the gloom as grey shapes. Shortly however, the air became clearer with a rising breeze. The Dwarka's speed was cut and we glided on through the fleet of vessels anchored off Manama.

Like Kuwait, Manama's limited berthing capacity had left droves of cargo vessels on her doorstep. Oil rigs and tender boats also gather here as the port offers one of the few-natural harbours in the Gulf. The Dwarka, by virtue of her passengers, was able to steam to the head of the pack and claim an open berth which had been reserved for her that morning.

Bahrain has long been British India's regular bunkering port in the Gulf area and the Dwarka lingered well past 8 o'clock that evening to take on bunkers. On the starboard side, mangoes and tea emerged from hatches as more deck passengers trooped aboard. Once the fuel barge had been cleared from alongside, a waiting tug throttled up to give us lines for the pull to sea. In the meantime a constant unloading of cargo went on among the other vessels at dock side. Manama's lights soon faded in the West while those of the ships at anchor appeared like a city which had found itself at sea. Soon even these were left behind as the Dwarka steamed eastward, rounding the Qatar Peninsula to gain the port of Doha.

Doha is one of the Gulfs smaller ports and the smallest at which the Dwarka normally calls. Though new port construction was under way, there were only four berths available at the time of our visit, while over forty vessels waited offshore. The Dwarka took only four hours of the stevedores' time before casting off lines once more and heading for the open sea. We had taken on several hundred more deck passengers and their assorted belongings. Most of these people were Indian or Pakistanis who had come out to the Gulf states on two and three year work contracts. When the contracts were completed they were all too ready to return home, most with new refrigerators and television sets as extra baggage.

The following morning the Dwarka was making headway through yet another fleet, this time off the city of Dubai. An old dhow port, Dubai has grown quickly to become the Gulfs largest and busiest harbour. Here 22 ships lay at dock while over 100 more were anchored in the outer roads. Nearby a giant crane was busy constructing yet more breakwater to shelter the increasing number of ships which call. Our purser marked down a 2 pm departure time stating that we must leave early in order to clear Muscat harbour the following evening. Muscat's Port Qaboos harbour is notorious for its heat and we would be arriving on Friday, a religious holiday.

We eventually cleared the dock at 3 pm on our own power, the Captain having given up hope on the two lone tugs which at that time were busy shepherding in the Pakistani-registered Ocean Energy (ex-Santa Inez). By nightfall we were approaching the Strait of Hormoz. To the far West gas flares brightened up the horizon. Eastwards a series of navigation lights blinked into the distance cutting the sea into two distinct lanes. Early morning silhouetted the rugged coast of Muscat off the Dwarka's starboard side.

The Approach to Port Qaboos

At noon we picked up scattered ships laying at anchor. First the long-hulled tankers awaiting their cargoes of oil, then the general cargo ships standing off Port Qaboos. We approached past the anchored Polish Ocean vessel Hanoi, then past the ex-British India ship Manora - now P & O Strathmay. To our port a high rock island is 'tattooed'' with the names of ships which, by fortune or misfortune, have entered the crater-like port. Jagged rock mountains rise directly from the water leaving only a narrow shelf on which the small town clings. Our berth was provided by the Safina-e-Abid, ex-China Navigation ship Anshun, which made for the open sea with black smoke rolling from her funnel. Like the Dwarka her decks were jammed with passengers.

Immigration problems and the Friday holiday delayed our departure until the following morning at 10 am. Little cargo had been put down but over 300 deck passengers came aboard swelling the Dwarka almost to her capacity for the monsoon season. By lunch time we were well clear of the coast and had taken up a North-east course for Karachi. Speed was reduced to provide for a morning arrival and also cut somewhat into the effects of a South-east swell on the deck passengers. Late in the afternoon Mogul Line's vessel Mohammedi was passed on her way inbound for Muscat, her railings lined with the curious. She, like the Dwarka, is nearly 30 years old, yet here, in the Gulf, her passenger trade still keeps her economically viable.

After a full day and night's sailing across the Gulf of Oman we arrived off the great fort that guards Karachi harbour. Our pilot was picked up from the midst of a small fishing fleet making its way towards sea. Once in the calm waters of the bay we continued up channel to the West Side docks. Here the Dwarka appeared much more at home. Karachi is an old port and a fitting place for an old ship. The trip down from Kuwait had taken only seven days. From Karachi the Dwarka would continue across the Arabian Sea to Bombay, then, after a layover of several days, resume her route back up the Gulf.

The Dwarka is the last of British India's vessels in the East. Apart from the cruise ship Uganda, she is the last B.I. ship still under her original colours and no doubt is one of the oldest passenger vessels in the world still maintaining her original route and operating under her original name. Once she is gone, British India Steam Navigation Co will cease to exist East of Suez. The other three 'D'' ships have now all been sold or lost; the Dara to the terrible explosion in 1961, a case which still goes unsolved, the Daressa sold in 1964 to Chandris Lines, and the Dumra sold in 1976 to Damodar Bulk Carriers of India after several years on charter. The Daressa continued as the cruise ship Favorita for some years before being resold in 1969 to Golden Line of Singapore who renamed her Kim Hwa. In 1974 she was finally sent to the breakers after five years of service on the Hong Kong-Singapore route. The Dumra lives on in the Gulf under the name Daman. She trades sporadically on her old route and has been changed little in appearance. The Sirdhana, a larger B.L vessel taken off the India-Japan run in 1963, assisted in the Persian Gulf trade shortly after the loss of the Dara but she too was finally disposed of and sent to the breakers in 1972.

Thus, in 1977 only the Dwarka, now a ship of 30 years of age continued a British service begun 115 years ago. When she is gone it will be up to the former British India freighters, now dressed in the corn husk yellow of P & O to continue the tradition of service.

Image Credits

  1. By courtesy of The Allen Collection
  2. By courtesy of The National World
  3. By courtesy of P & O Steam Navigation Co.