AIM25 : Click here to go back to the AIM25 homepage
Archives in London and the M25 area

British India Steam Navigation Company Ltd

Identity Statement

Reference code(s): GB 0064 BIS
Held at: National Maritime Museum
  Click here to find out how to view this collection at ›
Full title: British India Steam Navigation Company Ltd
Date(s): [1856-1970]
Level of description: Collection
Extent: 12ft: 37m
Name of creator(s): British India Steam Navigation Company


Administrative/Biographical history:

The founder of the company was William Mackinnon (1823-1893) who, in partnership with William Mackenzie (c 1810-1853) was in business as a general merchant near Calcutta. In the mid-1850s they secured the East India Company's mail contract between Calcutta and Rangoon, for which purpose Mackinnon founded the Calcutta and Burmah Steam Navigation Company Limited, registered in Glasgow in 1856. Within five years of its founding the company had expanded considerably; from Burma, its ships were serving Penang and Singapore: by coasting from Calcutta to Bombay, dozens of small ports along the Indian coasts were being opened up to large-scale traffic.

In 1861 Mackinnon founded the British India Steam Navigation Company Limited, which superseded the Calcutta and Burmah Company. The mercantile firm of Mackinnon, Mackenzie and Company, Calcutta, became the managing agents, a function which they were to fulfil for well over a hundred years. As, until the opening of the Suez Canal, British India operated exclusively in eastern waters, and thereafter had a large part of its fleet employed in 'foreign-to-foreign' trades, it developed a distinctive organization. The Calcutta office had wide decision-making powers as managing agents, and were the operators of the eastern services. All but the most complicated repairs and overhauls were carried out at the Company's establishments at the Garden Reach workshops at Calcutta or the Mazagon Dock at Bombay. In Britain, the Secretary, based in Glasgow until 1892 and thereafter in London, was the link between Calcutta and the Board of Directors. Entry into the Dutch East Indies internal trade was achieved by the formation in 1865 of a Dutch flag company, the Netherlands India Steam Navigation Company. A connection with China was made in 1868, in conjunction with the Messageries Maritimes of France. There was also westward expansion, British India taking a share of the Moslem pilgrim traffic to Jeddah from 1869, and from 1872 carrying P and O mails, passengers and cargo from Aden to Zanzibar. The first 'Home Line' (in B I terminology a service to and from the United Kingdom) was inaugurated in 1874, as a result of the opening of the Suez Canal. In 1881 a mail contract was arranged with the Queensland government, although it lasted only until 1895. British India ships on the Australian run were grouped under the British India Associated Steamers, to differentiate them from vessels earmarked for the company's main trading routes.

Throughout the period the company had been consolidating its position with the Indian and home governments as a partner in the business of moving troops and military stores by sea. The British India involvement in East Africa was strengthened in 1890 by a regular service from London to Zanzibar via Aden and Mombasa. It was at this point that Mackinnon took part in the formation of the Imperial British East Africa Company, investing a quarter of the capital in it; however, the government was not prepared to back it. Japan was included in the B I itineraries in 1907 and participation in the trade was strengthened in 1912 by the purchase of the Apcar Line, which since 1901, had had a cargo pooling agreement with British India. Another British India service was the transport of Indian workers from the Coromandel Coast to Burma, Malaya, East Africa and Mauritius, 1892 to 1932. Sir William Mackinnon was succeeded by James Macalister Hall (d 1904) in 1893 and Duncan Mackinnon (d 1914). The appointment in 1913 of James Lyle Mackay (later Earl of Inchcape, 1852-1932) as chairman foreshadowed the amalgamation of B I with P and 0 (q.v.) in 1914, of which combination he was to become the chairman. Lord Inchcape was, however, careful to maintain a great degree of autonomy for British India. First World War losses were partially offset by the acquisition in 1917 of the Ham Line and the Nourse Line (q.v.). A massive replacement of tonnage after the war led to B I's becoming in 1922.


Scope and content/abstract:

Papers of the British India Steam Navigation Company Ltd, comprising minute books: Calcutta and Burmah Steam Navigation Company Limited, 1856 to 1862; British India Steam Navigation Company Limited, 1863 to 1961. The annual reports cover the years 1865 to 1970. Accounts: ships' accounts, 1927 to 1958; general journals and ledgers, 1935 to 1959; specialized accounts for supplies, repairs and stevedoring, pay and pensions, 1938 to 1969; Calcutta office's general accounts with London, 1935 to 1955; Passage Books, 1951 to 1969, summarizing passenger carryings on the various services. British India owned a great deal of property (godowns, wharves, repair yards, office and staff accommodation) in India and elsewhere, which are documented in a register of properties, 1889 to 1965, with supporting files. Information about ships' voyages, portage accounts, etc exists only for the period 1960 to 1970. British India operated a fleet of landing craft for the Ministry of Transport and there are files and log books for these, 1966 to1970. Correspondence: letters to and from the Secretary, 1865 to 1900; files relating to mail contracts, trooping, relief expeditions, 1863 to 1962. Some confidential correspondence is included in the collection; three of Lord Inchcape's letterbooks, 1912 to 1932, and two confidential letter files, 1885 to 1893. Staff Records: records of commanders, officers, engineers, cadets and stewards, 1868 to 1957, are contained in forty volumes and there are extensive pension fund registers. Technical Records: technical files, 1958 to 1967 relate to major maintenance and repair work and new buildings. British India issued a yearly handbook containing detailed information about the fleet, the various liner services, rates of freight and passenger fares and the company 5 agents; there is a bound set, 1866 to 1939 and 1949 to 1969. Parallel with these, although more recent, are copies of the British India house magazines and news letters. There is also a file of press cuttings on the occasion of the Company's centenary in 1956.

Access & Use

Language/scripts of material:

System of arrangement:

Conditions governing access:

Please contact the Archive for further information. There are certain restrictions on the use of the staff records which are more stringent than the normal thirty-year rule for business records.

Conditions governing reproduction:

Please contact the Archive for further information. The collection is deposited on the understanding that the company has first sight of any work which makes extensive use of the collection.

Finding aids:

Detailed catalogue online at the: National Maritime Museum website .

Archival Information

Archival history:

Immediate source of acquisition:

The records were deposited on loan by P&O in instalments from 1973 to 1979.

Allied Materials

Related material:

Publication note:

Description Notes

Archivist's note:
Edited by Sarah Drewery, Jun 2011.

Rules or conventions:
Compiled in compliance with General International Standard Archival Description, ISAD(G), second edition, 2000; National Council on Archives Rules for the Construction of Personal, Place and Corporate Names, 1997.

Date(s) of descriptions:

Related Subject Search

* To search for other records with similar subjects, tick any subjects above then click "Run New Search"

Related Personal Name Search

* To search for other records with similar names, tick any names above then click "Run New Search"

Related Corporate Name Search

* To search for other records with similar names, tick any names above then click "Run New Search"