British India Steam Navigation Co. Ltd.



Started originally by Argyllshire Scotsmen Robert Mackenzie and William Mackinnon in the 1840s, the early generations of management were Scots: mostly from Glasgow. Taking advantage of the spirit of the new age of ‘free trade’ and the crumbling of the ‘Honourable East India Company’, soon business expanded, with goods from Glasgow to India and on to China and Australia. When the remaining parts of Burma were seized by the British in the 1850s, unsurprisingly this company got involved there too. In 1856 the company was named the Calcutta and Burmah Steam Navigation Company. Six years later it became the British India Steam Navigation Company Limited.

This was most definitely a business which expanded with the Empire. Providing vessels for service to the Crown in trooping for the Maori wars in New Zealand during the 1860s and the Zulu War of 1879, commercial opportunities soon followed. Mail contracts were important in this (being paid state subsidies) and the company also reached into the Persian Gulf and down East Africa’s coast in the 1870s. Of course, the opening of the Suez Canal in 1867 was highly significant in opening up these regions to economic activities.


As the company expanded rivals were taken over where necessary. Again H.M. Government was supported in trooping during the Second Anglo-Boer War 1899-1902 and in the Boxer Rebellion in China during 1900 - with new commercial contracts in their wake. However, their main competitor was P & O. Although it has been maintained that this was an amalgamation, without digging deep into company records it is not unlikely that this was a case where all out commercial conflict would have been highly costly, if not fatal to one or both parties. Anyway, from 1914 until after the Second World War the British India Steam Navigation Company Limited operated ‘independently’ within the P & O group of companies.


Less well covered than P & O, the historical information in this section was found in Duncan Haws’: The Merchant Fleets: British India S.N. Co (Burwash, TCL Publications, 1897).


Within the surviving company documents there are officers’ records books that deal with seamen officers, engineers (and others from technical branches), medical officers and clerks (that must have been the company’s designation for pursers) for significant periods. There are also others that are far more limited for the hotel branches and also cadets.



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