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Friday, January 17, 2020

Few British shipping companies in the 20th Century were grander than the British India Steam Navigation Company.

James L Mackay (later 1st Earl of Inchcape - 1852- 1932) in 1914, took seven months to engineer what was in fact a reverse takeover. It was said that P&O had acquired B I and that Inchcape had acquired P&O. On his shopping list, he successfully bought Hain, Nourse, NZS, Union SS of New Zealand, AUSN and Eastern & Australian all by the end of 1917. B I was not left out of this spending spree, for by 1922, they alone operated 161 ships totalling 831,533 gross tons. Although standards of ships husbandry varied across this fleet that ranged from hospital ships to troopships, from passenger cargo ships sailing on schedules from Britain to India, to coastal services in East Africa. The most prominent fleet within a fleet was the APCAR line that connected India and most of the main ports in South East Asia, China and Japan. Such was the demand for navigating officers that in 1920, British India operated five cadet training ships. What remained a feature of British India’s throughout its later history was a high standard of service and the condition of their ships, whether they were in terminal ports or in distant parts of the world. Much of this was achieved by the continuity of employment by generations of Lascar Indian crews. It could be said that the most enduring impression was the standard of the Company’s lunchtime curries whether it was in Antwerp or Zanzibar.

Soon after the end of the Second World War, British India placed an order for two pocket-sized coastal passenger ships to link the ports of what, at that time, was British East Africa - the colonies of Kenya and Tanganyika. British India had two ships based in East Africa. They were the Kilwa (2,653g/1921), purchased from the Swire Group in 1947 for £30,000, and the Sofala (1,031g / 1937). She had been built to a Coast Lines design, by Henry Robb of Leith. It was to this builder British India returned to order the Mombasa (2,213g) which was delivered in January 1950. So large were the scale of the plans of the British government’s development for agricultural development in southern Tanganyika, that a new deep water port was constructed at Mtwara just south of Lindi. From there, the government owned East Africa Railways & Harbours built a railway westwards from the new port into the savannah lands. The scale of the British government’s groundnut (peanuts) plan meant that a second ship would be required, and as the Mombasa sailed on her delivery voyage in January 1950, the builders were assembling the Mtwara on the stocks. The delivery of these two small ships was overshadowed at that time by the orders for the large C Class cargo ships; British India’s two new passenger ships, Kenya and Uganda, and no fewer than six passenger cargo ships for Apcar Line. The order of the second coastal ship from Henry Robb enabled the dimensions to be increased from 266 ft in overall length to 288 ft and the beam from 43 ft to 46 ft. A bigger hull took the deadweight from 1,364 tons to 1,815 tons and a deeper draught from 14.5 ft to 16 ft.

Being larger than the Mombasa, the Mtwara was able to provide an increased number of passengers. Twenty-six in First Class, 40 in Second Class and 350 in an “unberthed” category in No 1 and No 2 Tween Decks and probably more to their comfort under awnings on the forward well deck. The deck passengers were catered for by food from two galleys in a deck house at the base of the foremast on the Well Deck and lavatories were in the Forecastle Head. The stratification of the class system in British East Africa was never more evident than in the differing layout of the passengers’ accommodation. First Class was for the colonial administrators and the technical service operatives; Second Class was to British “other ranks”, Asian traders and Indian clerical staff; deck passengers were for “natives” who made up nine million of Tanganyika’s population.

In the ten two berth and two three berth cabins, First Class occupied a disproportionate area of the Bridge Deck / Centre Castle. At the forward end was a lounge in the style of the 1950s which had “silver Betula panelling with English Walnut facing” and as much seating as could be crammed in. Immediately below, on the Upper Deck, was their Dining Saloon which would have also been used by the ship’s deck officers. These two public rooms faced forward with the intention that they would be the coolest onboard. In this ship’s design, it could have been expected that there would have been a suite - even if this stateroom’s only different feature was an adjoining bathroom for the governor, or the top echelon of colonial administrators in which to travel. Possibly, in British India’s view, all First Class passengers were equal. Also occupying the superstructure amidships were ten four berth cabins for Second Class passengers at the Upper Deck level. This class had a small lounge at the after end of the Bridge Deck below which on the Upper Deck there was a small 24 seat Dining Saloon. British India had possibly decided that the Second Class were thirstier than First Class for they had a bar in their lounge and even their food was warmer for their Saloon was next to the ship’s main galley.

With the ability to carry as many as 416 passengers, British regulations required the Mtwara to carry a doctor who had a consulting room adjacent to his Upper Deck cabin. A dispensary was part of the two roomed hospital on the uppermost part of the Poop which it shared with four life-rafts and the two potato lockers. The accommodation for 61 petty officers and ratings was masterfully squeezed into the Upper Deck aft of the Second Class. As the crew comprised at least four different nationalities, there were two galleys for them - making a total of five onboard the Mtwara - four separate mess rooms and even segregated wash-rooms and lavatories. Did Henry Robb’s naval architects and designers ever face a more complicated challenge? The only Chinese people amongst the crew were a fitter and a carpenter and they were important enough to each have a single berth cabin. Also in the ship’s complement, were a chief clerk (who also got a single berth cabin), six tally clerks and a barber. How British India ran a ship of this complexity is revealed in this detail by the overview of her layout.

Probably in grateful isolation, the British officers had the whole of the Boat deck to themselves. The captain had exalted status with a suite on the Bridge aft of the wheelhouse and chartroom. The Boat Deck accommodation was for seven engineer officers, three navigators and one radio officer. There was no space for an officers’ publicroom, but the engineers had a duty mess on the Bridge Deck adjacent to the Second Class Lounge. With six steel lifeboats crammed onto the Boat Deck, there was no space for much else. All the accommodation onboard was ventilated by Thermotank punkah louvres blowing air in at the outside ambient temperature although it could be warmed.

Read the rest of this article with additional pictures in Sea Breezes Magazine - July 2019 Issue
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