Although British India's first awareness of the potentiality of possible trade with the 'Dark Continent' from India went
back as far as 1864, it wasn't until a statement in BI's annual report of 1870 that it set out its stall as to its interests
for expansion which coincided with the opening of the Suez Canal in 1870.
"The opening of the Suez Canal, by which a new expeditious route is provided for general traffic between Europe and India,
is likely to have an important bearing on the company's interests". BI Annual Report 1870.
Further to this statement another appeared in the following year:
"The Directors believe that the opening of the Suez Canal may, on the whole, prove not to be prejudicial to the prospects
of the Company". BI Annual Report 1871.
At the time however it would appear that P&O didn’t share BI's enthusiasm and subscribed to the more general view of
the British Government of the day in its opinion that the canal was part of a French plot for expansion on its own behalf
both south and east of Aden.
At this juncture British India's only spheres of trading were the Bay of Bengal ports and those leading from India to the
Persian Gulf. In 1871 it established its first service from UK ports out to Basra via Lisbon, Algiers and Red Sea ports.
A further five years later its service from London, Colombo, Madras and Calcutta was inaugurated and much to the annoyance
of P&O won coveted Indian trooping contracts, the latter contributing much to the company's fortunes for many years to come.
What now, many years later, seems an extremely fortuitous event, an old friend of William Mackinnon, Sir Henry Bartle Edward
Frere was instructed by the British Government to reconnoitre possible trade links with Africa starting with its eastern
seaboard. It's hardly any surprise that the first mail contract was awarded to British India between Zanzibar and Aden linking
up with the steamers of P&O. The first group of vessels provided by the company included the new Calcutta
and Coconada, Umballa, Akola, Medina and Punjaub.
BI's first vessel carrying mails to arrive at Zanzibar was RMS Punjaub on the 15th of December 1872 with
Captain Hansard in command, she was the beginning of an unbroken 104 years service to East African ports. However BI's
aspirations were of a higher order as it wanted access to all Africa's eastern ports, in this, in the first instance, it
was to be disappointed for the Government stood by its previously appointed mail carriers, P&O to the north and Union
Steamship to the south Apart from carrying the mails on this service BI's little steamers also shipped manufactured goods
south bringing local produce north but it was in 1874 that it carried its most important load when it shipped the body of
David Livingstone north for passage on P&O’s Malwa. The carriage of Livingstone's remains along with his two retainers,
Chumna and Susi was free of charge and later Sir Bartle Frere expressed both his and the Royal Geographical Society's
thanks by letter to BI’s Secretary, Mr P. Macnaughtan.
I am charged by my Colleagues of the Council of this Society with the welcome duty of expressing through you to the
Directors, British India Steam Navigation Co., their cordial thanks for the liberality of the Board in conveying free
of charge the body of the late Dr. Livingstone from Zanzibar to Aden.
They wish me also to state that they consider the merit of this Act enhanced by the feeling terms in which the wishes
of the Directors are expressed in your letter.
I an empowered to add to the thanks of the Council and myself those of the family of our Great Traveller, and it is
the wish of all of us that the Directors should convey to Captain Henderson of the Company's Mail Steamer Calcutta
and the Officers, Engineers, & Crew our warm acknowledgments of the respect and good feeling they displaced
at the embarkation and disembarkation of the honoured remains. Both H.M. Stanley and Sir John Kirk later attended
the state funeral at Westminster Abbey.
By this time British India required an agent to act on its behalf with exporters and importers alike and its first choice,
unfortunately turned out to be an unsavoury character, one Captain H.A. Fraser, late of the Indian Navy. Archibald Smith
from the company's Glasgow office and E.N. Mackenzie from its headquarters in Calcutta, later to be known as Smith,
Mackenzie & Co., Ltd in 1877, very soon replaced him and their first office in Zanzibar was situated on a shamba
previously purchased from Fraser.
From its earliest beginnings, BI's foray into East Africa turned out to be perhaps one of its most lucrative, and in
1879 set about extending its base of trade down into Mozambique and other harbours of Portuguese East Africa. It further
extended out into the Indian Ocean including islands such as Comoro, Madagascar, Seychelles, Mauritius and Reunion.
In 1881 BI inaugurated a service calling at many of the ports in the Indian Ocean sailing from Bombay to Aden and
onto Zanzibar before sailing south to Mozambique, Inhambane, Quelimane, Lourenço Marques and Delgado Bay. In 1884 further
ports were added to the BI ships itinerary calling at Lamu, Kilwa and Lindi and two years later African waters claimed its
first BI victim when Abyssinia under the command of Captain M. Macfarlane was wrecked on the Pinda Shoal fifty miles
north of Mozambique.
BI furthered its ambitions in East Africa in 1887 when its agent in Zanzibar, Mr E.N. Mackenzie accompanied General
Sir William Lloyd Mathews (1850-1901) in his exploration of the land that lay directly inland of the island of Mombasa.
The General went on to be both Commander of the Sultan of Zanzibar's Army, the islands Prime Minister and later
championed the Island's abolishment of slavery in 1890. The trip proved so successful that a Mr J.W. Buchanan was
ordered to Mombasa to set up office, this office was later to supplant that of Zanzibar's in importance not only to BI
but East Africa in general. Sadly Mr Mackenzie was not to see his dream for Mombasa realised, as he died a short while
later from Malaria contracted during his trip into the hinterland.
1887 also saw the formation of the Imperial East Africa Company ostensively formed to promote trade, put down slavery
and create religious freedom. Initially, without subsidies Mackinnon forecast that the I.B.E.A. would fail. In this
he was correct, for the government had to take over the same year that Mackinnon died, 1893, appointing the Foreign
Office to oversee the exploitation of both Uganda and Kenya for commercial purposes. Eventually the IBEA disappeared
entirely as the Foreign Office assumed total control. Though Mackinnon's dream for East Africa fell somewhat short
of his aspirations, the company he founded was to prosper greatly from his foresightedness. The Welsh born
journalist/explorer H.M. Stanley by way of tribute said, "East Africa had become Mackinnon's love, his pride, and
the one important object of his life. Mackinnon's soul was noble, his mind above all pettiness. His life was now
bereft of its object, and the mainspring of effort had been removed, and so he visibly declined and death came in
kindness." Stanley had earlier sailed on B.I.'s Madura in 1887 to Matadi to commence his expedition to rescue the
German born Emin Pasha in Equatoria, he said of his voyage:
"The Madura is a comfortable steamer. Tween deck abreast of the boilers is rather a hot place for the people, but we
have had agreeable weather and the men have preferred to stow themselves in the boats and among the donkeys and
on deck to the baking heat below….(the) expedition were in such an overfed condition after the glorious plenty
onboard the Madura that they straggled later in the most disheartening manner."
Bullard King, who won a lucrative contract awarded by the Natal Colony to provide transportation of Indian coolies to
work its sugar plantations, briefly challenged BI's monopoly of trade between India and Africa in 1889, however
BI was still able to record carriage of 400,000 deck passengers in the same year. As trade in East Africa prospered, so
too did BI's and it commenced a new service to reflect this in 1890 sailing from London to Zanzibar with calls at Aden
and Mombasa. As BI expanded, so too did its agents Smith, Mackenzie & Co and bizarrely was supplying coal to both
the Royal Navy and that of the German Imperial Navy though I hasten to add this facility to the German Navy was
withdrawn during the First World War.
The groundwork previously carried out by the ill fated IBEA on a railway link between Mombasa and Lake Victoria
was rejuvenated by Lord Salisbury's government in 1896 and their appointed engineer, George Whitehouse, arrived in
B.I.'s Ethiopia at Mombasa to oversee its construction. Work commenced in the May of 1896 using Indian labour,
some two thousand initially later climbing to 32,000 and all from Gujarat. This indentured labour was transported
by BI steamers, as were all of their supplies and foodstuffs including rice from Burma.
Although perhaps the most monumental turning point in the fortunes of the British Empire, the Boer War proved extremely
profitable for the fortunes of British India, and out of 272 ships chartered more than once by the British Government
for the transport of both troops and supplies between 1899-1901, ten were BI with a further twenty nine making the
one voyage. Of these the most often utilised were Avoca and Dunera, each making five voyages.
It was during this conflict that perhaps one of the most remarkable feats of marine engineering took place when the
engineers of Fazilka led by the redoubtable "Lackie" Brown managed to repair a broken tailshaft. From
breakdown to arrival in Colombo took an astonishing forty-seven days, the situation onboard although tenuous would have
been all the more so if Fazilka had been carrying troops as opposed to 'in ballast.'
The Uganda rail link from Mombasa to Lake Victoria was finally completed in the December of 1901 with Nairobi becoming
the new capital of the Protectorate some six years later. The Ugandan Government steamer, Sir William Mackinnon,
which had been transported from Mombasa to Lake Victoria by porter for erection at the railhead at Kisumu, crossed the
lake to Kampala linking both countries and remained in service until 1929. Thus began the great white migration to East
Africa, initially most travelled from South Africa. In Britain, to encourage emigration, the Government ordered that
one quarter of all arable land be set aside for those of white extraction. In the beginning, and after many crop failures,
the staples of East African production, those of tea, coffee and sisal were established.
After a seven year hiatus, BI reintroduced its 'Home Line' service on the 17th of July 1902 operating a small fleet of
chartered in tonnage sailing from Middlesbrough carrying steel products to Zanzibar, Beira and Lourenço Marques on a
four weekly service. By 1905 Mombasa had been added to the service with Port Sudan joining the following year.
Virawa was the first BI ship to inaugurate the re-established service in 1906 and in 1907 increased
demand led to the company chartering in further tonnage from Strick Line. Yet further demand in 1909, especially from
the copper mines in Rhodesia for the carriage of railway lines firmly established what was to become bedrock of the
company's overall operations.
Delivery of the mails to East Africa still depended on more than one company, whether it be by canal via P&O or by
Capetown via Union Castle whose services were met by BI steamers for the mails final run along the East African coast.
Disquiet was voiced by such leading voices of opinion as The Times when it declared: 'Sooner or later provision
of an adequate mail service to British East Africa, through the Suez Canal, will become a necessity, but up to the
present the British India Company, which has been the line largely interested in the trade, has not seen the way to
provide a through service without more payment for mails than the Government now gives'. A while later Union Castle
somewhat reluctantly commenced to operate further north to Mombasa but initially declined to instigate a round Africa
service. After questions in the 'House' re possible savings should foreign-owned ships be used, Union Castle finally
agreed to operate a somewhat piecemeal service using Geulph, Carisbrook Castle and
Dunvegan Castle, however BI refused to be drawn and maintained its chartered in Strick Line ships
whose maximum passenger compliment was only twelve, however they did transfer Mombassa and
Matiana to the Home Line eventually. British India remained sceptical about possible passenger number
potential to East Africa right up and till the First World War and only added the ex Dale Line ship Nidderdale,
renamed Berbera that could accommodate twenty nine passengers and introduced her to the service in 1913.
Advertised ports of call were southbound, London, Port Sudan, Zanzibar, Mombasa, Beira, Lourenço Marques terminating
at Durban with the return voyage calling at Lourenço Marques, Beira, Chinde, Mozambique, Port Amelia, Zanzibar, Mombasa,
Aden, Port Sudan, Suez, Naples, Marseilles and Gibraltar before finally arriving back in London, altogether a fifty day round trip.
In January and February of 1914 Union Castle introduced two ships specifically designed for their Round Africa service,
Llandovery Castle and Llanstephen Castle. Both ships could carry 313 passengers in two
classes with the upper deck reserved specifically for adults only, children being confined to the lower deck. BI's
desultory response was to enter into service the twenty seven year old Golconda, well past her prime and
only able to carry 102 passengers.
With the advent of World War One British India's service to East Africa was all but suspended and it was only
able to offer a limited service, however its ships were engaged in the East African Theatre on two notable occasions.
The first was something of a disaster when four of the company's ships took part in the aborted landings at Tanga
on the 3rd of November 1914. The second landing, at Mafia Island and Vanga, proved to be more successful and drove
the Germans from their coastal emplacements. Unfortunately their Commander, General Lettow-Vorbeck along with his men
escaped and continued a successful guerrilla campaign against the British which continued throughout the hostilities.
During the war BI lost its entire established East African fleet, Golconda being the first when sunk
by a mine on the 3rd of June 1916 when en route to Calcutta in the North Sea. Mombassa went in the
same year on the 20th of October, this time by torpedo to the U-39 when off Cape Corbelin, Algeria.
Both Berbera and Matiana went the way of Mombassa, the former
on the 25th of March 1917 in the Straits of Messina, and Matiana as a sitting duck after she'd
grounded on Keith Reef off Tunisia on the 1st of May 1918.
Although BI commenced its advertised cargo services to East Africa in 1919 utilising Ormara,
Japan and Grachus it wasn't until 1920 that BI brought to an end its agreement
with Union Castle on its joint South/East African service and terminated its ships at Beira linking up with
intermediate ships for the northern bound voyage. Its passenger service advertised as Route 22 was also reintroduced
with its departure port being Middlesbrough calling at London, Marseilles, Naples, Port Said, Suez, Aden, Mombasa
and terminating at Zanzibar. Also this year the Protectorate of British East Africa became know as Kenya Colony
and accordingly benefited by yet another upswing in emigration due in part to the Soldier Settler Scheme whereby
war veterans received subsidised land in the Highlands of Kenya, passenger numbers to Rhodesia also rose. For whatever
service the 'K' class ships were designed for and I've seen both UK/East Africa and Bombay to East/South Africa
declared, all three ships proved successful and went on to serve both routes. Starting with Karoa,
which was quickly followed by Karapara, originally laid down as Karunga and both are
completed in 1915, Karagola the final ship wasn't in service until April of 1917. Khandalla
completed six years later brought the class to four vessels.
Neuralia briefly entered service on the 'Home Line' route before being transferred to trooping
duties along with her sister Nevasa, which had initially been positioned, on the London, Bombay
and Karachi route. Neuralia later went on to introduce the educational cruising programme in the
July of 1932 to be followed by a long line of other British India ships ending with the Falkland veteran Uganda.
Perhaps British India will be best remembered on the East African route by its 'M' class ships of which the
company built twenty three, though in three distinctly identifiable groups. Some were to sail on the Indian route
whilst others served on the East African. In 1926 the very first female engineer joined Mulbera,
Queen Victoria’s Goddaughter, the Honourable Victoria Drummond, two years previously Mulbera had
carried, on her first voyage to East Africa the future King and Queen, the Duke and Duchess of York for an official
visit. To serve its feeder service two specifically designed ships entered service in 1922, Dumra
and Dwarka and because of the shortage of readily available coal both were diesel powered, the
'D' class served Kenya, Tanganyka and the Portuguese East African Coast. From 1928, and thereafter four 'M' class
ships were designated East African tonnage exclusively, they were, Madura, Malda,
Matiana and Modasa. In 1930/31 the 'Ms' were supplemented in part by BI's newest
tonnage, the Kenya and Karanja which entered service on the Bombay-Durban mail
service. Both had been launched from Alexander Stephen & Sons Linthouse yard and had achieved an impressive
18.5 knots on trials though this was reduced to a more modest sixteen knots when in service. To date they were the
finest fitted out ships ever launched by BI and accommodation comprised berths for 66 1st class, 180 2nd class and
1,981 deck passengers, they boasted not only a lounge, dining saloon and smoking room but a music room for passengers
so inclined. The Natal Mercury waxed lyrical about their entry into service declaring, "the public rooms
have an air of spaciousness and coolness. This has been obtained mostly by the use of clean, subdued colours;
and the exclusion of any unnecessary drapery and hangings. Chairs and tables are provided in abundance, but even
though extremely comfortable, have an absence of fussy decoration that might impart any feeling of 'hotness'." Both
ships were taken over as troop transports during the war, neither returned to BI service, with Karanja
becoming a casualty at the 'Torch Landings' in North Africa and Kenya being taken over by the
Admiralty at the cessation of hostilities. In 1935 the 'Feeder Service' ship Dwarka was withdrawn
from service after it was discovered that her grounding at Chinde in the same year was irreparable so therefore
BI ordered her replacement, Sofala, from the yard of Henry Robb of Leith which was delivered in
1937. Needless to say the advent of the Second World War totally disrupted all service to Britain's Colonies not
least of all those to East Africa and normal service wasn’t resumed until 1946.
Another coastal liner was added to augment BI's feeder service, the Mombasa, in 1950, her accommodation
had a capacity for eight 1st class, sixteen 2nd Class and 250 deck passengers she was followed a year later by
Mtwara which had a slightly larger passenger capacity. Throughout the pre and post war period BI ran
a dedicated cargo/passenger liner service involving many of its various class of ships the most notably being its
'C' class, most ships having accommodation for twelve passengers.
British India's final large scale investment in its passenger tonnage for its East African route arrived in 1951/52
in the shape of Kenya and Uganda and both ships have been extensively covered on
this section of the site. Kenya was to operate a monthly service until the closure of the Suez Canal
in 1969 when the voyage round the Cape proved somewhat uneconomical. Uganda’s service on the route
continued until 1967 when she was withdrawn for conversion into an educational cruise ship. Throughout the closure
of the canal BI maintained its cargo/passenger liner service to East Africa and remained thus right up and till the
P&O rationalisation programme in 1971. The final BI sailing to East Africa was left to one of her redoubtable
'C' class ships, the Chilka, which sailed in what was to be the services centenary year on the 18th
of June 1972 bringing to an end a long and prosperous association with those of Britain's former colonies.
Richard Crow who travelled the route from the UK to East Africa, not only in BI's service but also as an ex-pat
serving out in East Africa from 1948 through to 1960, in Mombasa, Dar-es-Salaam and Tanga as a Pilot, Harbourmaster
and Assistant Port Manager recorded his experience of the voyage on canvas to bring the story to a close.
His paintings do not refer to any particular voyage just a generic overview. From the Routier of his days on the run
in Mantola pre-war the ports visited, not all during the same voyage, were:- U K loading ports
Middlesbrough, Hull, Antwerp and London. Homeward bound for Pilot, Plymouth. In transit, Tangiers, Marseilles, Malta,
Port Said, Suez, Port Sudan and Aden. East African coast Mombasa, Tanga, Zanzibar, Dar-es-Salaam, Beira and Lourenco
Marques. His paintings also do not feature the same ship, in fact no known ship at all, just a typical bridge scene
from his memories which he appear variously as Officer of the watch or as the Pilot when entering Dar-es-Salaam.