In early 1981 I took passage on the last ocean-going, regularly scheduled passenger ship in the world: the RMS Dwarka, running from the Persian Gulf to Karachi and Bombay. I had just left my newspaper job to travel in the Muslim world and write my first book, The Heart of the Bazaar: A Journey Into Islamic Asia. That book was rejected 75 times and never published — but years later it became the basis for my newest book, Street of Storytellers. Here is the second part of a chapter from the original Heart of the Bazaar.
To the dessert forks and coffee spoons, each piece in the Dwarka’s silver was engraved with the letters “BI,” for British India Steam Navigation Company, Ltd. B.I., as itself, no longer exists — it is part of a corporation now — but in its day it had as much to do with the making and shifting of eras in the world as has any similar enterprise, early or late, any carrier of human beings.
B.I. was the principal operator of steamships to colonial stations around the Eastern seas. The company was based in India, founded there in 1862 by a Scottish Calcutta merchant, William Mackinnon. By its heyday in the 1920s and 30s, British India steamers were running from Madras to Singapore, Bombay to the Kenya Colony (which Mackinnon had also founded) and South Africa, and Bombay to Basra at the base of Mesopotamia in the Gulf. They reached also Aden, Tanganyika, Zanzibar, Dar es Salaam, Colombo, Calcutta, Jakarta, north Queensland, Brisbane, Japane and, by cargo carrier, Fiji. By the time after the Second World War that all the company’s long-range passenger services, except this one, had ended, B.I. had done much to transform the physical and human landscape of the destinations it served.
It was, after all, the transport of people more than goods that dug in the British Empire. Especially in Africa, India and Southeast Asia, where colonization made its most thorough impression, what went on was not simply the buying cheap of raw material — say, cotton — from a colony and selling back at profit the made-in-England product, the shirt, to the colonized. It was when moving people became the heart of the enterprise that imperialism, for the British, really began to pay off.
Slavery was abolished in the British realm in 1833. Three years earlier, England had abandoned the mercantile system of restricted trade between herself and her colonies, and opened up a worldwide experiment in free exchange. Most of Britain’s Oriental and African adventures were begun and developed by private companies, usually controlled by Scots: the East India Company, Mackinnon’s Imperial East African, the North Borneo. Generally those businesses did not start rich. They took abroad a Scotsman’s stringent approach to finances, and they could count on no sizeable support from home until they began turning profits. The areas they entered tended to be either rich in land and resources and scarce of people to work them — as were much of the Malay Archipelago, and sub-Saharan Africa — or dense with people who had not enough good land, as was so, most of all, in British India, including what is now Pakistan.
With the new open market came a bloom of endeavoring, in regions until then unattractive for the huge amount of work they needed to begin producing profit. The major resource the companies could pour into each raw situation was the human being — the Briton, eager to venture from his home, and the Indian, eager for his own reasons to leave his. The word “coolie” comes from the Hindu, for unskilled laborer. Indians were first shipped abroad the year after slavery ended, in 1834. They went under indentured servitude, giving over five to seven years to their employers in return for passage over and, if they took it, passage back.
A very large migration came. For the Briton the first experience of it was the famous P&O Line, Peninsular and Oriental, which conducted the fresh sahib’s passage from Europe via Port Said to Bombay. There P&O gave over to B.I., whose coal-powered ships steamed about the eastern empire, carrying Britons cabin class and coolies on deck to possessions and protectorates in Africa, the Indian Ocean, Malaya, Indonesia, Singapore.
Today the world is changed. Rarely do many English remain in the places they turned into economic extensions of the West and ruled until after World War II. In many of those places, large colonies of Indians do remain. Tightly clannish, many of them now proprietors of local or broadspread commercial empires, Indians are big parts of the population in Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore, in Fiji and Sri Lanka and around the Indian Ocean, in East and South Africa — and in Britain itself. They are, by and large, islanded where they are.
Change too has supplanted the old steamships. In all the world, when I boarded the Dwarka, she was the only one left.
She survives because the particular conditions of the Gulf have preserved the patterns of labor migration that were so important in the British Indian ocean empire ... The growth of [the Gulf’s] principal towns and city states have been entirely dependent upon labor migrants from India and Pakistan ...
So it is as the principal carrier of modern labor migrants, the survival of an essentially 19th century trade, that the Dwarka has become the last passenger vessel of British registry employed on a scheduled route around the year. The Dwarka is the survivor of a magnificent tradition, and when she goes, as is likely within the next few years, an era will end in British shipping history.
That was written in 1978 by John Mackenzie, creator of a BBC documentary on the Dwarka. By early 1981, when I boarded the ship, her trailing distinction had grown. Year-round passenger service by ocean liner across the Atlantic was discontinued in 1969, done in by air travel; the last long-range service in Pacific waters ended in 1978. The Dwarka was the last regularly scheduled, ocean-going passenger ship — the last on full route, neither an Islamic pilgrimage vessel nor a ferry or cruise boat — anywhere in the world.
Launched in 1947, she stayed on the Gulf run because, unlike the airlines, she could carry just about unlimited amounts of personal cargo. Into her hold went refrigerators, washing machines, televisions and more, brought home to India and Pakistan by workers at the end of two- to five-year contracts up and down the Arabian coast.
She survived, in other words, because of the space inside her.