RMS Empress of India

The  Canadian Pacific Steamship Company (CPSC)

The Canadian Pacific Railway Company first entered into shipping with their Tran-Pacific service from Vancouver to Asia. Initially they had purchased some ships from the Cunard Lines to build up their fleet, and made certain changes that suited their purpose. When success followed their venture, the Canadian Pacific Railroad, more popularly known as CPR, adopted a new name for their shipping wing — Canadian Pacific Steamship Company (CPSC). From the early 1890s the liners of the Canadian Pacific began to cross both the Atlantic and the Pacific with three of the amazing ocean liners, the Empress of India, the Empress of China, and the Empress of Japan. They were the most princely liners of that time.

In 1891 the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR), which owned the Canadian Pacific Steamship as well, had entered into a contract with the British Government to provide a subsidized mail service between Britain and Hong Kong via Canada. This led to the advent of three specially designed ocean-liners of which the RMS Empress of India happened to be the first one, followed by the RMS Empress of China and the RMS Empress of Japan. Historical significance of these liners lay as a Royal Mail Ship, denoted by the prefix RMS. In those days the ships entrusted to carry British mails could use this prefix; others were using only the ‘SS’, denoting 'Steamship'. This was the genesis of the CPR Trans-Pacific fleet, which would adhere to this route for the next fifty years.

 

The Ship...

The Empress of India was built by the Naval Construction & Armament Co., Barrow, England. Till 1888 it was known as the ‘Barrow Shipbuilding Company’ which, besides making passenger and cargo ships, also built large warships. The Empress of India, along with her two sister ships, was the first one to be equipped with twin propellers with matching engines. She had a capacity to accommodate 50 first class, 150 second class and 400 steerage or third class passengers. On 8 February 1891 the Empress of India left Liverpool on its maiden voyage via Suez to Hong Kong and Vancouver. She reached Vancouver on 28 April 1891. This was the beginning of her regular route sailing through Hong Kong — Shanghai — Nagasaki — Kobe — Yokohama — Vancouver and back. In those early days of wireless telegraphy the call sign established for the Empress of India was ‘MPI’; likewise for Empress of China the sign was ‘MPG’, while for Empress of Japan, it was ‘MPJ’.

 

 Her Glorious Career

On 18 August 1903 the Empress of India had her first share of ill luck. On the following day the New York Times headlined: ‘CHINESE CRUISER SUNK: Captain and Fourteen Men Go Down with the Huang-Tai. The steamship Empress of India in Collision with the Warship near Hong Kong — Many Rescues.’ This was followed by the news datelined 18th August: ‘The Canadian Pacific Railroad’s steamship Empress of India (from Vancouver, B. C., July 27, and Yokohama, Aug. 10, for Hong Kong) was in collision near this port today with the Chinese cruiser Huang-Tai. The warship sank an hour after the collision. The Empress of India saved 170 of the crew of the cruiser. The Captain of the Huang-Tai, who refused to leave his ship, and thirteen of her crew were drowned. The Empress of India was badly damaged amidships.’
A recent book has come up with more information in this regard, ‘…About 150 miles north of Hong Kong in clear weather the two ships were on parallel courses with Empress of India gradually overtaking the cruiser. When they were nearly even, Huang-Tai turned to starboard as though to cross India’s bow. It struck a glancing blow on India’s port side appearing to do a little damage. However, Huang-Tai must have lost several plates below the surface, for it filled rapidly and sank….’ As to the impact coming upon the Empress of India, the New York Times of 26 August 26 1903 wrote: ‘The Cost of the repairs to the Canadian Pacific Railroad’s steamer Empress of India … is estimated at $20,000. This is exclusive of the damage to her propeller blades…’
Recovering from the mishap, the Empress continued on her usual course almost till she was sold to the Maharaja of Gwalior on 7 December 1914. The change of ownership had in its background a specific reason. In 1908 the new mail contract between Vancouver and Yokohama called for a reduction in the crossing time from 12 to 10.5 days, putting severe stress on the Empress’ capabilities. This made the Canadian Pacific to go for new and capable vessels which finally were introduced in 1912.
On getting the Empress of India the Maharaja of Gwalior had converted her into an Indian Army Hospital ship and renamed her to ‘Loyalty’. Thus the erstwhile Empress of India, with a new name and a different assignment, began her second phase in life on 19 January 1915. She ran mainly between Bombay and Mesopotamia. In March 1919 her utility as an Army Hospital ship had come to an end when she went to another owner. This time it was the Scindia Steam Navigation Company of Bombay which put her on their Bombay-Marseilles service. Untiringly the ship ran on that route for eighteen months without yielding any profit to her owner-company. With no more prospects to try upon, the once majestic Empress of India remained laid up off the Elephanta Island in Bombay. The ship, as though, had to contain herself with nothing more besides basking in her glittering past, when during a particular voyage she had carried aboard an Indian monk to the Western shore, and with him took the spiritual treasures of his ancient Civilization. But her end was not far away. In February 1923 the great Empress of India was sold for becoming scrap and, as fate would have it, was broken to pieces by Maneckchand Jiyray of Bombay. But, how curiously, she chose India as her final resting place!

 

Interlude

From Vancouver Vivekananda traveled to Chicago by train via Winnipeg. In 1893 the World’s Columbian Exposition was celebrated in Chicago to commemorate the 400th year of Columbus’s arrival in America. The Congress of Religions, a historical event designed within the mammoth Exposition, began on 11 September 1893, and went on for 17 days.

His first appearance at the inaugural session of the Religious Congress made Vivekananda the most sought after delegate to both people and press. An American idealist philosopher in his youth had heard the Swami at the Religious Parliament. What he, William Ernest Hawking, wrote afterwards is indicative of how the thinking Americans evaluated the Swami at the Congress. Hawking writes: ‘… He spoke not as arguing from a tradition, or from a book, but as from an experience and certitude of his own. …What I could feel and understand was that this man was speaking from what he knew, not from what he had been told. He was well aware of the books; but he was more immediately aware of his own experience and his own status in the world; and what he said would have to be taken into account in any final worldview.’

Following the Religious Congress, Vivekananda remained in the US for around two years before leaving for England via Paris aboard La Touraine from New York port on 17 August 1895. He was accompanied by Francis Howard Leggett, an extremely wealthy American Businessman.

 

 

RMS Empress of India at Vancouver

RMS Empress of India at Vancouver

Vancouver during 1890s

Vancouver during 1890s

Menu Card of RMS Empress of India

Menu Card of RMS Empress of India

A Souvenir of the Religious Congress

A Souvenir of the Religious Congress

The SS Peninsular leaving Vancouver dock

The RMS Empress of India leaving Vancouver dock

© : Somenath Mukherjee (See MORE )​