These pages are
the basis of a series to be added from time to time recounting
some of the history of British India Steam Navigation. This opening
page carries a potted history of BI from its formation in 1856
to the centenary year in 1956, when this account was published.
A PDF version of this file is available for download here.
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SHORT HISTORY OF
BRITISH INDIA STEAM NAVIGATION
IT IS admitted
by her friends, her rivals, and even her enemies, that the experience
of Great Britain
in the maritime affairs of the world has been unique. It is simply
a fact of history that the shipping lines based on that small island
in the Eastern Atlantic are remarkable in strength and efficiency,
these qualities rooted deeply in the natural instincts of an insular
people with a long history of stable government behind them.
It is therefore
an occasion of true international importance when one of the largest
and oldest shipping concerns in the world celebrates its Centenary.
This occurs in the autumn of this year, 1956, when the British
India Steam Navigation Co Ltd — so much better
and so affectionately known as BI — celebrates its hundredth
will be duly marked by appropriate celebrations in London, Calcutta
and other bases of this fine old shipping line. It is more permanently
memorialized in the Official History — BI
Centenary, by George Blake, the novelist and maritime historian,
and published by Collins of London and Glasgow at 21s.
It is a truly
romantic story, fit for the pen of an experienced novelist, throwing
into high relief the personalities of many remarkable men of the
pioneering type, the dramatic growth of trade by sea in Eastern
waters, the many dangers — and occasional comedies — of
seafaring. and the intrusion of the steamship into ports that had
never before seen anything more advanced than an Arab dhow or a masula
boat. Historians of the future will see clearly that the development
of BI from small beginnings was (however one may care to look at
it politically) a phase of world history.
Mackinnon and Mackenzie
of the company was William Mackinnon. He was born, in 1823, in
Campbeltown. From this small seaport on the western coast of Scotland
he went to Glasgow as a young man and there became familiar with
the ways of Eastern trade in the office of what was then called
an "East Indian Merchant." The
facts cannot now be known with certainty, but it is on clear record
that William Mackinnon arrived in India in 1847, and that he was
immediately in touch with another native of Campbeltown, Robert
Mackenzie. It is said that Mackenzie persuaded the young Mackinnon
to come to India and seek his fortune in that rich and rapidly
may be, these two young Scotsmen ultimately formed a partnership
as general merchants. Mackenzie was in business at Ghazipur, buying
and selling all. manner of goods from Europe and exporting the
products of India. (It is of much interest that he used the inland
waterways of the Ganges delta for the collection and distribution
of his wares). Mackinnon started as manager of a sugar mill at
Cossipore. Soon they were working together in import and export
trades, and thus was formed the firm of Mackinnon, Mackenzie & Co
which was to become one of the greatest names in the commercial records
It was not long before these two young men from Scotland saw that
their trading interests could be extended by the use of ships, and
they duly bought or chartered a few small sailing vessels to carry
goods to Australia, then rapidly expanding as the discovery of rich
deposits of gold was attracting immigrants from the United Kingdom.
These settlers could absorb almost any amount of consumer goods,
and the partners in Calcutta set out energetically to supply the
This trade was
so profitable that in 1853 Robert Mackenzie himself set out for
Australia to oversee the disposal of a large mixed cargo—from
sugar, rice, coffee and tea to bedsteads and soap. Having sold these
at good prices, he embarked in the small steamship Aurora on his
return to India. This underpowered ship was wrecked on Gabo Island
off Cape Howe on May 15, 1853, and Mackenzie was drowned. William
Mackinnon was left alone to carry on the growing business in India.
In fact. he was able to buy out his partner's brothers for Rs. 51.000,
and it is of interest that these brothers went on to settle in Australia,
where their direct descendants are active to this day.
Mackinnon was a small man with delicate features, but his commercial
brain was razor-keen. To help him in his expanding mercantile business
he brought out to India several young relatives and friends from
his native Scotland. At the same time he was dreaming and planning
for the expansion of trade by means of shipping. He saw clearly that
the great potential wealth of the sub-continent could not be developed
by railways alone, and that India could most easily get her goods
into the world markets through a service of steamships that would
open up innumerable small ports from Calcutta southwards and, round
Cape Comorin, northwards to Bombay. He was in advance of his time
in deciding that his steamships should be screw steamers, the propeller
in preference to the side-paddle.
His chance came in the mid-1850s when the Hon. East India Company,
then the effective government of both India and Burma, invited bids
for a contract to carry mail between Calcutta and Rangoon on a strict
schedule of regularity. Mackinnon was quick to make an offer; he
would form a limited liability company to run at least two screw
steamers between the two great ports, the promptitude of their services
guaranteed. This was accepted.
then hurried home to Scotland to raise the necessary capital and
buy the vessels he required. The Calcutta & Burmah
Steam Navigation Co Ltd was registered in Glasgow on September 24.
1856. The capital was what we would regard nowadays as the modest
sum of £35,000. It is of interest that Mackinnon reserved shares
to the value of £7,500 fur sale to his friends in India.
That was the
beginning of what is now the British India Steam Navigation Co
and the anniversary of BI must date from the formation of the Calcutta & Burmah Company. It is of more than romantic interest
that Mackinnon chose as the badge of his new concern — on crockery,
cutlery, etc — the peacock of Burma.
The first two
vessels of the new company were the Baltic and the Cape of Good
Hope. Both were screw steamers, but they were rigged as brigs,
and the early steamship skippers never hesitated to hoist sail
and so save coal in suitable conditions. Each was of about 500
tons gross, some 190 feet in length. It took these cockleshells
months to sail from the UK to India round the mass of Africa.
Even so, they
did well on the Burma mail run, the very first axis of BI services
in Eastern waters. The mails were only a part of it. A tidy passenger
trade developed, and in due course the cargo trade in such commodities
as teak and rice grew so large that Rangoon became a base for Mackinnon's
ships second in importance only to Calcutta itself. Before the
Second World War, for example, 20 vessels on eight different mail
and passenger runs used the port: there was not a day of the week,
except Sunday, when at least one BI ship was not coming in or going
Akyab and Moulmein
were to become important ports of call for the ships with the two
white bands round their black funnels. On what was known as 'the
jungle run' they probed the tortuous channels of the Mergui Archipelago
and, indeed, did much to chart, buoy and light those hitherto remote
seaways. (The " Mutton Mail" was
the regular Friday run from Calcutta to Rangoon and Straits, so called
because the cargo included large numbers of sheep and goats.) In
Moulmein they still remember the Ramapura and Rasmara, two paddle
steamers specially designed to maintain a fast passenger service
from Rangoon. These were Pan-ma-Hyno — "before the flowers
fade," a pretty Burmese idiom, suggesting that the flower a
girl might put in her hair in the early morning was still fresh when
the ship arrived at its destination in the afternoon.
Indian Coastal Trade
In the meantime, William Mackinnon was rapidly expanding both his
fleet and his trade. It was his conviction, shared in Government
circles, that coastwise trade would be the solution of many of India's
economic and over-population difficulties. So he sent his ships probing
southwards towards Madras and Ceylon. Soon they were rounding Cape
Comorin and heading northwards, so that Bombay became a terminal
port of significance within the scheme of things.
This was a commercial
revolution. Dozens of small ports along the Indian coasts were
opened up to large-scale traffic — Vizagapatam,
Coconada, Masulipatain, Tuticorin and so un. Artificial harbours
were few and far between, of course, and even at Madras the loading
and unloading was done by masula boats, those pliable craft that
seem able to take any amount of knocking about and are so brilliantly
handled by the local boatmen. Even more romantically, Mackinnon's
ships became known along the seaboards of India as Chatri ki Jahaz,
the Umbrella Ships, for if a local merchant had a parcel of goods
to be put on board or taken off, he stood on a clear patch of beach
and hoisted his coloured umbrella to catch the skipper's attention!
years of the founding of the Calcutta & Burmah Company
this shipping venture had prospered remarkably. The vessels were
now venturing beyond Rangoon and Moulmein towards Penang and Singapore.
A service was working, however infrequently, right round the sub-continent
from Bombay to Karachi. A regular mail contract to cover the whole
of this route was being negotiated, and Government was already hinting
that it would like Mackinnon and his partners to undertake a similar
service, eight times a year, up and down the Persian Gulf.
So William Mackinnon
returned to the UK in 1861 and there, without difficulty, raised £400,000 to float the British India Steam
Navigation Co Ltd — and the Calcutta & Burmah Company had
been floated on only £35,000 six years before! Six new ships
of size were promptly ordered from British yards. They were twice
as large and twice as powerful as the Baltic and Cape of Good Hope
of 1856. The new BI company was registered in Scotland on October
firm of Mackinnon, Mackenzie & Co, which William
Mackinnon had formed with the friend drowned in shipwreck, became,
as they are to this day, the Managing Agents, presiding over the
fortunes of a great fleet from the towering office building in Strand
The mail service of BI ships up and down the Persian Gulf started
in 1862, and it was a step into the nearly unknown, into the dream-world
of a modern film producer.
The Gulf, a
sufficiently dangerous area in these days of radar and other navigational
aids, was then virtually uncharted. The climate is highly variable
from one end to the other—torrid heat below
the Straits of Hormuz and then the killing shamal within. At one
stage, even the deck officers of BI ships on the route threatened
a sort of strike for better conditions on such a difficult tour of
duty. Like their colleagues on the Calcutta-Rangoon-Singapore run,
they had to do much of their own charting, buoying and lighting.
The Persian officials on one side and the Arab dignitaries on the
other were apt to be less than friendly to the invaders from Europe.
There were always wild men about, carried as what were then called
deck passengers — Afghans who had to be forced to surrender
their arms on boarding the ships, and onshore pirates.
Usually the pirates could be driven off by hot water pumped by the
engine-room through hoses, but the gang that looted the Cashmere
in the late 1860s worked to an ingenious plan.
They embarked as deck passengers and, knowing the vessel to be carrying
specie, rose at a signal. They succeeded in seizing the ship. and
they got off with considerable booty after having killed an Indian
engine-room hand and wounded several members of the crew, including
the Third Officer. (It is a popular BI story that another officer,
taking refuge on top of the awning, was heartily prodded from below
by the scimitars of the pirates.) In the issue the then Sheikh of
Muhommerah, a good friend to BI, hunted the bad men down, disposed
of the ringleaders by hanging, and recovered much of the gold. It
took much longer to persuade the Turkish Government to admit liability
and pay compensation.
For many years thereafter every BI ship fired a salute as it passed
the Sheikh's palace, near the site of the now historic oil town of
of rich oilfields on the Arabian side of the Gulf has completely
changed the picture from the shipping point of view. In the early
days BI ships dealt mainly with the ports on the Persian side.
For a long period of years the company ran a mail service all the
way from London up to Basra. Now the needs of the new oil settlements
at Qatar, Bahrein and Kuwait require a fast weekly service based
on Bombay. This is maintained by four neat, modern vessels of the
D Class — Dumra, Dwarka and their sisters, latterly reinforced
by the larger Sirdhana.
Before the Suez Canal was opened in 1869 it was thought by many
people that the mails from Europe to India and the East could best
be handled by directing them to the Syrian coast, running them across
country to the Euphrates-Tigris valley, and so down these great rivers
to where the ocean-going ships waited at Basra. That was not to be.
Just after the Second World War, however, BI services out of the
Gulf were successfully expanded by the placing of ships mainly interested
in cargo on a route that takes them from Basra all the way to Colombo,
where they diverge either to Singapore, Hongkong and the ports of
Japan, or to Australasia.
That is one measure of the ever-increasing importance of the Persian
Gulf in the economics of our modern world.
Indian Labour Problems
Less than 20
years after it had been founded as the Calcutta & Burmah
Co. the British India S. N. Co. Ltd. had become a formidable force
in the shipping world. The ships listed in the company's handbook
for 1873 numbered 31, running up to 1,780 gross register tonnage.
Four new ones up to 2,500 grt were building. That was a big fleet
It was not merely
that the basic routes—Calcutta-Rangoon and
beyond, Calcutta-Bombay, and Bombay-Basra —were doing well.
The ships with the white-striped funnels were adventuring up towards
China and Japan. There were explorations in the direction of Mauritius
and the Seychelles. On occasion BI was asked to carry British troops
so far afield as New Zealand. Small units of the Fleet circled the
island of Ceylon.
Scindia - BI 1878-1909
The largest development towards the end of the nineteenth century,
however, was that of the carriage of Deck or Unberthed passengers
although circumstances have largely changed in these days.
Indian labour was looking for employment overseas. The labourers
were ready and willing to work in the rice paddies of Burma, in the
rubber plantations of Malaya. They would move far afield to the sugar
plantations of the Pacific islands and even across that ocean to
the West Indies. We know today that Indians, members of a clever
mercantile race, form a large part of the confused racial mix of
East and South Africa.
India company's business as a shipowner was to cater for this trade — to give the Indian worker a passage to his
chosen field of labour at cheap rates and in decent circumstances.
The ship specially designed to carry the Deck or Unberthed passenger
was evolved. Most of this type of ship were working out of Madras
across the Bay of Bengal to Burma and Malaya. Two of the specialised
craft, Rajula and Rohna, at one time held the most comprehensive
passenger certificates ever issued. Both vessels were authorised
to carry more than 5,000 passengers—much more than the two
great Cunard Queens were ever allowed.
This capacity of the older BI ships to carry a large number of passengers
on any voyage was invaluable to Great Britain at various crises in
her military history. But that is another story. It is sufficient
meanwhile to note that, during its early years of expansion, the
British India company operated exclusively in eastern waters, using
Calcutta as its main base. The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869
was to alter the whole pattern of the firm's trading.
The first vessel to pass northwards through the new Canal was the
BI ship India, homeward bound to have her engines brought up to date.
The Southern Cross
of the Suez Canal gave BI the opportunity of running for a while
the longest mail service in the history of shipping—from
London to Brisbane, Queensland. This voyage took fully two months
to complete. The service was inaugurated by BI vessel, Merkara, which
left London on February 12, 1881, and anchored in the approaches
to the harbour of Brisbane on the evening of April 13 that year.
The history of BI's contacts with Australia in the later decades
of the nineteenth century is curiously confused. Long before William
Mackinnon founded his shipping company, he and his partner, Robert
Mackenzie, had been speculatively trading with Australia during the
fabulous days of the Gold Rush, shipping the consumer goods the new
settlers required. It was not until the arrival of the Merkara, carrying
immigrants and a cargo of refrigerating machinery, that a regular
service was established.
The idea was
largely that of Queensland's forceful Prime Minister, Sir Thomas
Mcllwraith. He realised that emigrants from Britain, travelling
by the conventional route south-about round Cape Leeuwin, were
tempted to land at the first Australian port of call—Adelaide, Melbourne
or Sydney—and he wished to attract to Queensland more than
the riff-raff left at the end of the long voyage, not to mention
the goods a community in the pioneer stage sorely required. Against
bitter opposition, he therefore pushed through the Legislative Assembly
a Bill to provide £55,000 a year for a mail Contract with BI
- BI 1911-1950, one of the company's longest serving vessels
the arrangement may have been in the colony, as it was then, especially
among the owners of small coastal shipping lines, it greatly benefited
Queensland over a period of years. (It is on record that, when
an emigrant ship arrived, she was immediately boarded by lone settlers
looking for wives off the peg, so to speak). It was not, however,
a great bargain for BI concern. The obligation to come into Brisbane
north-about by Sumatra and the Torres -Strait, and home again by
the same route, meant that the ships could rarely pick up for the
homeward voyage the pay-load of cargo that might have been collected
at the larger southern ports from Sydney round to Fremantle.
The direct London-Brisbane service petered out in 1895. BI had put
on an adequate service from Calcutta to Queensland, but the ships
from London had taken to coming south-about, getting the advantage
of calls at Fremantle and other ports on the way. Economic troubles
within Queensland itself checked the stream of assisted immigration.
For some time
thereafter the story of BI's association with Australia is still
more confused. The company's interest in the island continent had
by no means abated, but it is a fair surmise that the Managing
Agents in Calcutta were worried to know where to find the ships
to meet the growing demands on the ramifying services they already
provided over thousands of miles of ocean. More than one merger
of shipping interests about the Australian coasts was arranged
; two Australian shipping companies of substance were acquired—the
Ducal Line and the excellent little fleet of five vessels built
up by Captain Archibald Currie.
The latter had
built up an interesting trade. Currie specialized in the carriage
of Australian horses—the famous brumbies mainly
for the use of the Indian Army ; and he carried back to Australia
large cargoes of gunnies, that is, jute bags for wheat and so on.
(He once carried a load of 400 camels from Karachi to South Australia).
The loading and unloading of a cargo of spirited horses was apt to
create pandemonium, just as the high spirits of the dealers who accompanied
their animals made any voyage in a BI ship from Australia to India
a very lively social affair indeed.
Watering the horses at sea presented a problem that had to be solved
by careful trial and error. It was discovered that if the grooms
started at one end of the stalls, hell in the shape of flashing hooves
and tossing heads was let loose at the other. Thus it was found necessary
to see that the buckets were evenly distributed over the decks before
watering started. It is on record that horses in transit relished
an occasional ration of draught beer.
The most dramatic among the many legends of BI comes out of its
Australian associations. This was the wreck of the Quetta on the
hitherto uncharted rock that now bears her name.
She was homeward bound and with a Torres Strait pilot embarked when
she struck the reef on the night of February 28, 1890. She sank within
three minutes, and the loss of life was heavy. Among the survivors
was a baby girl, and it was long enough before her identity was established.
She was taken into the household of Captain Thomas Brown, a Torres
Strait pilot, and brought up as Quetta Brown. On Captain Brown's
death the child was adopted by his brother. Villiers Brown, of Brisbane,
and in due course she married his son. This young man was killed
in the First World War, and Quetta Brown ultimately took a second
husband in Mr. Malcolm McDonald of Brisbane, where she died in 1949.
It is now known that she was the only child of a widower, Copeland
by name. who had himself been accidentally drowned not long before,
and that she was being sent home to relatives in England. There is
still a Quetta Memorial Chapel on Thursday Island. There to this
day hangs the ship's bell.
The BI services
to and from Australia were interrupted by the two World Wars, but
they are now on a firmer footing than they have ever been before.
In conjunction with the vessels of the P&0 and
Federal Companies, three BI ships with refrigerated space are on
the regular UK-Australia route by way of Mediterranean and Red Sea
ports. Another service from the Persian Gulf carries passengers and
goods for the island continent, touching at Karachi, West Coast of
India ports and Ceylon. A third service runs from East Coast ports
of India and Pakistan, touching at Colombo and Singapore on the way.
The three services circle the huge island, both by the Torres Straits
and Cape Leeuwin.
It is of interest that, on the first of these routes, BI chooses
to employ its two fine Cadet Ships, Chindwara and Chantala, each
accommodating a score and more young men in training as officers.
High-spirited in the way of youth, they are familiar visitors from
Brisbane round to Fremantle.
pattern of the British India company's trading in Eastern and Southern
waters was completed when it made a connection with East Africa — a
connection that, after many vicissitudes, is today in excellent
It was in 1872
that Government contracted with the company for a mail service
between Aden and Zanzibar. In general in those days the mails from
the UK were carried out of London by the fast ships of the P&0UK
Their distribution to the more remote ports of the Indian Ocean,
the Bay of Bengal and beyond became the responsibility of BI
The British Government had a twofold purpose in East Africa. It
was pledged to the suppression of the slave trade. On a lower level,
it had to keep a sharp eye on the intrusions of the new German imperialism,
then carefully exploring and quietly annexing the coastal regions
of a potentially rich hinterland. Thus the British India company
and its Chairman, by now Sir William Mackinnon, Bart., had become
deeply involved in matters of political as distinct from purely shipping
The mail Contract
in itself was not an attractive bargain, but East Africa was then
in an early stage of development, and at Aden BI ships could take
over from the larger P&0 vessels all manner
of manufactured goods from Europe and the States. They could bring
back the typical products of the region—coconut in various
forms, cloves and rare timbers. The company's services were extended
southwards down the coasts of East Africa to Portuguese East Africa,
there only to meet the opposition of what is now the Union-Castle
Early representatives of BI in East Africa had many queer problems
to face. They were called upon to deal in ivory and rubber, reckoning
their accounts in sterling. Maria Theresa dollars, and then rupees
and cents. They had to supply a bottle of blotting sand for an Arab
princeling, a double-barrelled gun for King M'tesa of Uganda, a variety
of goods for the Queen of Madagascar. One indent of 1879 shows them
bringing in a quantity of fish-hooks, 3.000 Tower muskets, a second-hand
safe and 30 copies of the Koran, five of these in expensive binding.
It is to cut a long story short to say that, on the purely shipping
side, the extension to East Africa was of great advantage to BI.
From Zanzibar, the first base, the ships visited the Seychelles,
Mauritius and Reunion. A regular service took to running from Zanzibar
by way of the Comoro Islands to Madagascar. Another swept right round
the Indian Ocean from Bombay to Aden. Aden to Zanzibar, and so southwards
to Mozambique and Delagoa Bay.
Thus the little
shipping concern founded by William Mackinnon in 1856 was straddling
the seas East of Suez, here, there and everywhere. In 1894 the
Fleet consisted of 88 vessels, some of them running up to 5,000
tons gross—even more in the case of the Golconda,
an old-timer that survived until torpedoed in the North Sea in 1916.
circumstance that involved BI company and its directors in the
public affairs of East Africa was the formation of the Imperial
British East African Company. This followed the agreement of the
British Government to hold a protectorate over Zanzibar. The IBEA
was to explore and develop the interior as well as to put down
slavery and strong drink, and to promote religious freedom. It
was also to survey the line of the Uganda Railway far into the
interior from Mombasa. where BI had already set up a new base for
its purely shipping operations. Of the capital of £240.000
William Mackinnon, his relatives and associates put up fully one-quarter.
The venture did not prosper. Caravans of native labourers were lost
or massacred in the backblocks, goods looted right and left. Experiments
in growing coffee and flax were expensive failures, as were groundnuts
many years later. Within just a few years its funds began to run
At the highest
level Sir William Mackinnon intimated to the British Government
that, unless financial help was forthcoming, the IBEA must close
down at the end of 1892 and abandon both Kenya and Uganda — probably
to the Germans. He suggested a subsidy of only £50,000 to continue
the administration of Uganda for five years. It was refused. William
Mackinnon died in London in June, 1893.
William Mackinnon of Balinakill (1823-1893) - a bronze by
Charles McBride, 1894, held by Argyll and Bute Council in
their Burnet Building, Campbeltown. William Mackinnon was
born in Campeltown on March 31, 1823. The same artist was
responsible for the large bronze standing figure of Mackinnon,
formerly at Keil School, Dumbarton which Mackinnon founded,
and now in Kinloch Public Park, Dumbarton.
One of the best
friends of his later years was H M Stanley, the author-explorer.
A rigid member of one of the most severe Presbyterian denominations,
William Mackinnon was deeply interested in the African work of
David Livingstone, and when his body at length came down from the
interior, it was laid out in what is still BI flat above the office
of the agency in Zanzibar. It was then reverently carried to Aden
in a BI vessel for transhipment by P&0 to London and
Westminster Abbey. When Stanley was setting out on his expedition
to relieve Emin Pasha. Mackinnon put at his disposal BI ship Madura
to carry its personnel and supplies from Zanzibar round the Cape
to the mouth of the Congo.
Stanley was at hand when William Mackinnon died in the Burlington
Hotel. London. He attended the funeral on the estate his friend had
bought for himself in the West Highlands of his native Scotland.
He insisted in his copious writings that the refusal of the Government
to help the IBEA was the death-blow.
That is as may be. Mackinnon was already 70 years of age and had
endured a long and often worrying career in the shipping business.
It was of more importance now that the British Government came to
its senses after his death and took the East African problems in
hand. The railway from Mombasa right up to Nairobi was duly completed.
Out of the welter of international politics the East African regions
were saved for the British Commonwealth and it is now proper to understand
that the vision and investments of this little man from Campbeltown
have prevailed where a British Government looked like failing.
William Mackinnon has many memorials, the best of them, artistically,
the statue in the Treasury Gardens at Mombasa. But better still is
the ebb and flow of BI ships out and in the East African ports, the
procession always led by the queens of the modern fleet, the Kenya
and Uganda, of 14,500 gross tons each, maintaining the regular fast
mail service between London and ports as far south as Beira.
Inchcape the Great
It is more than 60 years since William Mackinnon died but except
in the Bay of Bengal area and on the Coast of India, the pattern
of BI trading has remained largely unchanged.
In the Bay of Bengal area BI pre-war maintained a network of passenger
and mail ships. In addition they catered with cargoships for the
major share of the rice trade from Burma to India and Ceylon and
the coal trade from Calcutta to Indian coastal ports, Burma and Ceylon.
In 1938 BI carried over 500,000 passengers and nearly 950,000 tons
of cargo in these passenger and mail ships, over 800.000 tons of
cargo from Burma in the cargoships and well over 1,000,000 tons of
coal from Calcutta.
Today most of
these trades are non-existent for BI but the major overseas services
of the company still run on the lines that were already familiar
when Queen Victoria celebrated her jubilee. Ships run regularly
from the UK through the Mediterranean, the Suez Canal and the Red
Sea. spreading fanwise over the reaches of the Indian Ocean, the
Bay of Bengal and down to Australia. Local services based on Calcutta
and Bombay — each of these ports with its BI dockyards
and repair shops — provide services from the East to China,
Japan, Africa and the Persian Gulf.
Nor did the death of the founder of the company involve the slightest
halt in its development. From the very beginning BI has created its
own civil service, so to speak. Likely young men are selected to
go to head office of the managing agents in Calcutta, there to go
through the mill and to proceed, if their merit is proved, to one
or other of the main agencies: anywhere from Karachi to Yokohama.
Some fall by the wayside, as they do in any navy or army, but there
is always a majority of tried and trusted men to carry on in the
tradition established by Mackinnon and his associates 100 years ago.
On the founder's death in 1893 the chairmanship of the company was
taken over by his oldest, ablest and most faithful friend in business,
James Macalastair Hall. This was only for a year until, in 1894,
Sir William's nephew, Duncan Mackinnon. took the seat of honour:
the founder having died childless.
In the meantime, however, a particularly bright star had arisen
in the East. This was James Lyle Mackay, latterly the first Earl
of Inchcape, and beyond any doubt far and away the most forceful
among the many forceful figures produced by the British shipping
A native of
the seaport town of Arbroath in the Scottish county of Angus, his
father the captain-owner of sailing ships, he went to India as
an assistant with Mackinnon, Mackenzie & Co in 1874.
Five years later there occurred a crisis within the Bombay agency,
when the affairs of the then agents. Nicol & Co, got into a mess.
Mackay was sent across the subcontinent to clear up the confusion,
and this he did with ruthless brilliance. When he returned to Calcutta
in the late 1880's he was the supremely able man in complete charge
on the spot; and all the nominal powers of a chairman and board of
directors in London could not stay his triumphant handling of BI
aftairs. He was now the managing director of the managing agents— and
The story of
a remarkable life is told in the authorised biography — Lord
Inchcape by Hector Bolitho. But however large and important the many
affairs he handled for the British Government, and even if he was
almost nominated Viceroy of India and was actually offered the throne
of Albania, BI was his first and last love. He was almost entirely
responsible for the merger of the P. & 0. and BI interests in
1914, but he was the last man to allow the identity of the younger
concern to be lost in that of the older. The colours, the funnel-markings
and the traditions dating from 1856 must be maintained; BI Fleet
must be kept in perfect trim, growing in size and efficiency as its
special trades required and as shipbuilding science advanced.
became Chairman and Managing Director of the huge P&O/BI group when the merger took place. That was almost on the
outbreak of the First World War, and his companies were immediately
plunged into dangerous action. The BI ships, with their specialised
capacity for handling many hundreds of unberthed passengers at one
time, were invaluable as troop carriers and as hospital ships. Losses
were heavy — and they were to he very much heavier in the Second
War—but such was Inehcape's prescience in buying tonnage and
arranging amalgamations, that in 1922 BI Fleet was the largest single
merchant fleet in the world — 158 vessels of nearly a million
gross tons afloat and in regular service.
This man's genius in the larger affairs of shipping is implicit
in the tale of just a few of his acquisitions in the face of competition
from Japanese and German interests. He bought the Nourse Line with
its regular services from India to the West Indies by way of South
African ports. He was quick to acquire the Apcar Line when the Armenian
family of that name decided to dispose of its highly efficient service
from Calcutta to Japan. And it is of much historical interest that
the local merchants at intermediate ports, and particularly at Hong
Kong, still refer to the service as the Apcar Line.
The first Earl of Inchcape died in 1932. He was succeeded as head
of the Board by his son-in-law, the Hon. Alexander Shaw, who became
in due course the second Baron Craigmyle. This Lord Craigmyle was
a man of the sharpest ability, but his health was poor, and after
six years in the chair he retired.
To the oversight
of the great P&O/BI group there was then appointed
Sir William Crawford Currie, GBE, who has continued as Chairman to
this day and who will preside over the celebrations of this centenary
was born into the BI, so to speak, his father a kinsman of the
Mackinnons and a partner of Mackinnon, Mackenzie & Co
in due course, after going through the mill. Sir William was educated
in Scotland and at Cambridge, qualified as a chartered accountant
in Glasgow, and in 1910 followed the family trail to Calcutta as
an assistant, to become a partner in 1918 and eventually senior partner.
In 1926 he was called to the London office and in 1932 became deputy
chairman of the P&O/BI group. Elected chairman six years later
he was, like Lord Inchcape before him, left to handle the affairs
of this huge concern during a Second World War, at the same time
working for Government as Director of the Liner Division of the Ministry
of War Transport.
BI ships were
sunk by the dozen in that bitter Second War. the terrors of dive-bombing
and guided missiles added to the threat of the conventional U-boat.
In all, 51 vessels grossing 351,756 tons were lost in the struggle—and
that was almost one-half of BI fleet wiped out. Sir William Currie
was left with the task of rebuilding anew, also to face the many
problems created by the grant of independence to India, Pakistan
have been faced, the problems overcome. In this centenary year
the BI fleet consists of 60 vessels with a total gross tonnage
of 432,722. Five new ships are being built or fitted out — up
to the giant Nevasa of 20,000 tons, designed as a troopcarrier under
the company's management. Five large oil-tankers will be added before
the end of this decade. In an average year the British India company's
ships carry some 3.5 million tons of cargo and nearly 300,000 passengers
over three million nautical miles of sea-routes.
The body of
William Mackinnon lies in a remote graveyard in the West Highlands
of Scotland, at Clachan, Argyll, near his beloved house Balinakill.
His soul goes marching on.
The author of this history, which appeared in a company-issued
booklet, is unknown. With a view to publishing a correct attribution,
the editor would be pleased to hear of anyone who believes they
have a claim to the copyright of this work.)
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