INDO-PAK PARTITION: The Diaspora by Sea

tom e kelso
14th August 2007, 12:12
The 15th August 2007 marks the 6oth anniversary of Indian Independence, and just as significantly, the "partition" of the sub-continent into the national states of (East & West) Pakistan and India.

During the run-up to this event, and in the following months, it is estimated that about 5.5. million people fled each way across the new Indo-Pak border in the former state of Punjab alone. Similar Diaspora took place across other sectors of the frontiers. Various estimates have been given, ranging from 200,000 to 1.5 million, being the number of men, women, and children who were massacred by the proponents of the opposing religions, with in many cases, the Sikhs suffering in the middle ground.

Little appears to have been recorded regarding the evacuation of refugees by sea, out of Bombay to Karachi, and vice versa. Between 1947 and the following February, it is thought that some 200,000 were transported from these ports by ships of the British India Steam navigation Company. Because of the political implications at this critical time, it seems that only ships of non-Indian/Pakistani flag were considered safe from retributory action. The BI vessels which became involved were, from their deck passenger carrying capability, eminently suitable for this operation. The writer does not remember other than BI ships being involved.

During this period every available BI passenger vessel was committed to the operation. The Victoria and Princes docks (and possibly Ballard Pier and Alexandra Dock wall) were the embarkation points at the Indian end, with Keamari wharf their equivalent in Karachi. In the critical months of August and September, it seemed that literally thousands of Muslim refugees were allowed unrestricted entry into this part of the Bombay Port Trust area, possibly at local government behest, for their security. Access to many of the godowns was given (or taken?) providing much needed shelter from the monsoon rains. Many, perhaps with foresight and the necessary cash, had managed to obtain tickets from the Company's Managing Agents in Bombay (Mackinnon & Mackenzie & Co Ltd) and such were allowed to board irrespective of what ship was named on the passage ticket, certainly, in the case of DWARKA, prior to departure, the wharf was a mass of frightened and desperate people, accoutered with such possessions as they could carry, shoving and pushing towards the brow. Many, with the assistance of those already onboard, scrambled through the shelter deck tonnage openings. It was quite impossible in the reigning bedlam to prevent this "backdoor" embarkation. Although the Bombay State police were present in force, positive control of the milling crowds appeared quite beyond the half-hearted attempts of the sepoys.

Behind the scenes, ashore, apparently our agents were encountering problems with the supply of coal and oil fuels, fresh water and provisions at both Bombay and Karachi ends. I believe that in some cases, ships were diverted for necessary replenishment to a comparatively neutral port (Murmagoa?). Although DWARKA fuelled to capacity on her intervening Abadan calls, likewise fresh water at Basra, the latter's availability onboard was rationed by strict limitation of the supply. Exit and entry at the enclosed docks in Bombay was confined to about an hour each side of high water, but within these limits, as one ship left another took her berth to continue the mass embarkation.

At Karachi, dummies were used, thus keeping the vessel some distance off the jetty, and this successfully prevented uncontrolled boarding. However, it is probable that lack of space in Bombay's Victoria dock basins here prevented such a solution.

On normal passages between Bombay and Karachi, although passage tickets were "sighted" at the gangway, on boarding, these were later collected by the Purser assisted by a squad of kalassies, who were adept at ensuring no deck passengers could avoid this check. (It was said that "used" passage tickets had been known to find their way onto the market and been re-sold!). However, during the evacuation, in DWARKA at least, it was found that this routine could not be carried out effectively on account of the excessively crowded shelter and 'tween-deck spaces. I remember being told by the Chief Officer that he estimated there were at least three or four hundred persons aboard above our capacity!

Another recollection is of arriving at Karachi and berthing being delayed. Apparently, several hundred Sikhs, intent on reaching Keamari to escape to Bombay, had taken shelter in a Sikh temple in the city. The report went that a large crowd of the local population had surrounded the temple, eventually setting it ablaze, killing many, if not most of those seeking sanctuary inside.

Gradually, over the ensuing months, more control was exercised by the authorities, refugee numbers decreased, and the extra tonnage was withdrawn. By January 1948, scheduled sailings were virtually back to normal. For my own part this experience was a never-to-be-forgotten introduction to my sea-going on the "Indian Coast"..... I had joined my first ship as a cadet, the DWARKA in London only a month or so before, in early July.

The BI ships involved (with their year of build and normal employment) were as follows:

BAMORA (1914) "Slow" Gulf Mail

BARALA (1912) "Slow" Gulf Mail

DUMRA (1946) "Fast" Gulf Mail

DWARKA (1947) "Fast" Gulf Mail

EKMA (1911) Laid-up, Bombay Harbour

ETHIOPIA (1921) Calcutta-Madras-Rangoon-Calcutta

KAMPALA (1947) Bombay-East and South Africa

KARAGOLA (1917) Bombay-East Africa

KARAPARA (1915) Bombay-East Africa

SHIRALA (1925) Bombay-East Africa OR Calcutta-Straits

VARELA (1914) "Fast" Gulf Mail

VARSOVA (1914) "Fast" Gulf Mail

tom e kelso
23rd August 2007, 07:03
It has been brought to my attention that s.s. KHANDALLA (blt.1923) also made at least one and possibly more voyages from Bombay to Karachi with refugees at this time.
KHANDALLA, which would normally have been on the Bombay~East African service had the following pax capacity:

60 1st class; 68 2nd class; and 1061 deck passengers.

7th April 2008, 14:21
Thanks Mr Tom .E.Kelso for writing the historical role played by "B.I.S.N" ships in commuting the victims of the 1947 "India-Pakistan Partition".
My father late Mr Louis.J.Furtado worked as a "Tally-Clerk" on one of these "Refugee ships" and he always narrated the horrible "Hate crimes" that he witnessed on board these ships and the suffering of the travelling refugees ,both in Mumbai and Karachi.
I am settled in Mumbai and belong to a generation for whom the partition of India-Pakistan is history, the worst holocaust after World War-11.

7th April 2008, 16:13
I remember reading a book about Mountbatten which detailed the Partition and it's horrors. I'd never heard of it before, but not long afterwards I was in Karachi and a youngish fellow came on board selling pictures made of rice leaves stuck to black card, he had a very distinctive smell from some sort of perfume he wore. He showed everyone a card which said he had had his tongue cut out during the Partition between India and Pakistan. I'm ashamed to say, being a skeptic, I asked him to show me - when he opened his mouth, I wished I hadn't asked.

He would have been a young boy at the time of the Partition (1947) - it was unbelievable what cruelty these apparently gentle people inflicted on one another in the name of religion.

About ten years later I was once more in Karachi, this time on an Australian ship, sitting quaffing ale in the bar. Suddenly, I smelt the very same perfume and looked round to see him again, still hawking his pictures. We don't know how fortunate we are, do we?

John T.

21st August 2008, 13:49
What an excellent piece of historic writing, Mr. Kelso, about a period of our late Empire which many people in this Country won't even know about.

My name is Phil Roe, ex-Brocklebank Engineer. I remember talking to Captain Phil Pembridge once, on "Maipura", about Partition and he said he would never forget the sights he witnessed, in 1947, as a young cadet in Calcutta.

I don't recall which ship he was on, at the time, but he said they were not allowed ashore under any circumstances. His main abiding memory, of this terrible time, was seeing many, many bodies, both Muslim and Hindu, floating down the Hoogli as the ship was making its way up-river to finally dock in Kidderpore.

Mans inhumanity to man, usually in the name of religion, ironically, never ceases to amaze me! Salaams, Phil Roe

21st August 2008, 14:18
I was master of a Panamanian flag ship in 1979, from UK to Karachi, we had a gentleman come on board selling pictures at the time I would estimate him to be in his late thirties. He couldn't speak but had a letter to show us that said his tongue cut out by Sikhs, could this have been the same man?

Regards Robert

16th January 2014, 15:05
If this is the same SS was in Calcutta in 1933.

Pilot mac
16th January 2014, 18:18
Very interesting article Tom, it must have been very tense at times with so many passengers. I was also a Cadet on 'Dwarka' (albeit much later 72/73),
never a dull moment. I think our paths almost crossed on one occasion when I was sent to 'Tairea' as Third Mate only to be shanghai'd at the pierhead and despatched to 'Merkara' instead (1974 'ish).

Dave MacVicker

26th January 2014, 11:02
Even in '72, when we went into the Taj, where we were known(Dwarka), Fernadez, the barman, would welcome us. The wealthy locals(they had to be wealthy to be there), came out with the questions, "welcome boys, what sort of mess have we left Karachi in?", "We really gave it to them, is anything left there?". That war was well over by then! I mentioned that the Indian AF had hit a merchant ship, a British one, with casualties. That silenced them. A Harrison boat, I seem to remember.

Dave McV will have his own fond memories of Karachi!


Pilot mac
26th January 2014, 18:02
Hi Duncan,
many fond memories, can remember being thrown out of the Taj Nightclub (Blow Up) and returning later with Chinese friends who the doormen were terrified of, they of course allowed us back in!

Remember the lovely Parsi girls in Bombay?

And I of course have fond memories of the 'quaintly incomprehensible laws' which resulted in me being arrested in Karachi whilst trying to swap a film


1st February 2014, 05:21
At present i am reading the classic India/Pakistan partition novel "A TRAIN TO PAKISTAN" by celebrated Indian author Mr Kushwant.Singh. Reading a part of the book brought back memories of my fathers accounts of the refugees sailing on the "B.I.S.N" ships during that crisis. Although there was not much bloodshed on the ships compared to the trrains the travelling condition of the passengers was horrible and on arrival in Bombay(Mumbai) they were directly allotted sheds in Ballard Pier.They bathed in the open air and most of the refugees my father Mr Louis.J.Furtado carted were from the Sindh province. Today many of these same refugee's ancestors might be "BILLIONAIRES or MILLIONAIRES" as the Sindhi's later proved to be a very talented business class among the Indian community. When is a novel or a official history book on the "Indo-Pak 1947 refugee transport by sea" to be written. Better late than too late.

1st February 2014, 05:52
I was master of a Panamanian flag ship in 1979, from UK to Karachi, we had a gentleman come on board selling pictures at the time I would estimate him to be in his late thirties. He couldn't speak but had a letter to show us that said his tongue cut out by Sikhs, could this have been the same man?

Regards Robert

Hello Robert, sorry I missed this post. If you are still visiting the site, yes, I'm sure that would have been the same person.

John T