British India Steam Navigation Company

British India Steam Navigation Company ("BI") was formed in 1856 as the Calcutta and Burmah Steam Navigation Company. The company had been formed out of Mackinnon, Mackenzie & Co, a trading partnership of the Scots William Mackinnon and Robert Mackenzie, to carry mail between Calcutta and Rangoon. It became British India SN Co in 1862. Under the hand of Lord Inchcape, who had become chairman in 1913, the company became part of the P&O group of companies in 1914 through a complex amalgamation, but continued with its own identity and organisation for another nearly 60 years until 1972, when it was entirely absorbed into P&O.

British India Steam Navigation Company
ship owner and ship operator
PredecessorCalcutta and Burmah Steam Navigation Company 
FounderSir Robert Mackenzie, 10th Baronet 
Productspassenger and cargo shipping
ParentP&O (1914 onwards)

As one of the largest shipowners of all time, the company owned more than 500 ships and managed 150 more for other owners. At its height in 1922, BI had more than 160 ships in the fleet, many built on Clydeside, Scotland. The main shipping routes of the line were: Britain to India, Australia, Kenya, Tanganyika. The company ran services from India to Pakistan, Ceylon, Bay of Bengal, Singapore, Malaya, Java, Thailand, Japan, Persian Gulf, East Africa and South Africa. BI had a long history of service to the British and Indian governments through trooping and other military contracts. In the last decade of its operational existence BI carried thousands of school children on educational cruises.

The cargo ship Gairsoppa, carrying silver bullion, pig iron and tea, which was sunk at great depth by the German submarine U-101 some 300 nautical miles (560 km; 350 mi) southwest of Galway Bay, Ireland, carried the richest cargo of any sunken ship in world history.[1] Some of the company's better known passenger ships included Rajula, Dunera, Scindia, Sirdhana, Leicestershire, Dwarka, the sister ships Kampala and Karanja, and Kenya and Uganda, and Dara, which was sunk by a terrorist bomb in 1961.

Nevasa of 1956 was the final passenger ship built for BI. Serving as a troopship until redundant in 1962, Nevasa was assigned new duties with the BI educational cruise ship flotilla until 1974, when she became surplus and was scrapped in 1975 having earlier been joined in this trade by the more economic Uganda. The highly popular Uganda was taken up (STUFT) by the British Ministry of Defence in 1982 as a hospital ship during the Falklands war with Argentina. Returning to BI's tradition of government service again in 1983 – this time as a troopship – Uganda was "the last BI" when finally withdrawn in 1985. Dwarka holds the distinction of closing British-India's true "liner" services, when withdrawn from the company's Persian Gulf local trades in 1982, in her 35th year.

Company timeline


  1. C. Michael Hogan. 2011
  • BI Ship Site
  • A Short History of British India Steam Navigation
  • Clydeside built BI ships
  • Miller, William H., The Last Blue Water Liners, Conway Press, London, 1986 - ISBN 0-85177-400-8
  • Morton, Michael Quentin, "The British India Line in the Arabian Gulf, 1862-82", Liwa journal, December 2013, Vol. 5, No. 10, pp. 40-63
  • Documents and clippings about British India Steam Navigation Company in the 20th Century Press Archives of the ZBW
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