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 birthday.
The occasion 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
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.
The founder 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 developing
However that 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 of India.
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 demand.
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
William Mackinnon 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 out.
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
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!
Within five 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 28, 1862.
The mercantile 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 Road, Calcutta.
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
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 Abadan.
The discovery 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 for 1873.
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.
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.
The British 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
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
The opening 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
Unpopular as 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.
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
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.
The intricate 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 condition.
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 interest.
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 line.
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
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 out.
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.
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
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 industry.
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 he managed.
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
Lord Inchcape 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
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 occasion.
Sir William 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 and Burma.
Those tasks 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.
His soul goes marching on.