The British India Steam Navigation Company (BISN)
The Golconda was among the notables in the great fleet of the British India Steam Navigation Company. The history of BISN is entwined with India in many ways. Scottish contribution had played great role behind the expanding British Empire in shaping her commercial and civic infrastructure. And behind the BISN, later largely known as BI, stood two Scotts: William Mackinnon and Robert Mackenzie, who went into the partnership of Mackinnon, Mackenzie & Co. in December 1847. Shipping was one of their interests, and initially it was restricted to sailing chartered vessels between India and Australia. By 1890 smooth and timely delivery of some 22 million pieces of mail that went every year from Britain to various corners of her Empire became an essential task. It is said that in those days ensuring safe and speedy movement of mail had become a Victorian obsession. This had inspired the steamship companies to look for a coveted Royal Mail contract. To enter into such a lucrative business of transporting mail between Calcutta and Rangoon, the Calcutta Burmah Steam Navigation Company was registered in Glasgow on 24 September 1856. This was the genesis of the British India Steam Navigation Company. With success leading to further prospects, the new BI Company was registered in Scotland on 28 October 1862. The mercantile firm of Mackinnon, Mackenzie & Co, which William Mackinnon had formed with his friend Robert Mackenzie (later drowned in shipwreck in 1853), functioned as Managing Agents, and for long presided over the fortunes of their great fleet from the towering office building on Strand Road in Calcutta.
The BISN Fleet
In 1894 the BI fleet had 88 vessels, some among them were running up to 5000 tons gross, or even more in a few cases. The routes those vessels adhered to included London, Marseilles, Port Said, Suez, Aden, Colombo, Madras, Calcutta and reverse. This was how the Golconda had once taken aboard the Swami on his second visit to the West. In 1914, slightly beyond a decade since the Swami had left this earth, two large shipping companies, the P. & O. and the British Indian Steam Navigation, went for a merger to amalgamate their business interests. The point is, Vivekananda first went to the West on a ship of the former company, while in the second visit he sailed aboard that of the latter one. In 1972 the BI was entirely absorbed into the P. & O.
Initially the Golconda was built in the yards of the William Doxford and Sons of Sunderland in the middle of the 1880s in anticipation that the Canadian Pacific Railway Company, which owned the Canadian Pacific Steamship as well, would buy her for their Vancouver-Hong Kong service. She was designed as a double-deck and whale-backed steamer with two funnels with a barquentine rig on four masts. Later the ship was registered with specification which show a gross tonnage of 6037 (3960 net) with length and beam measuring 422 and 48 feet respectively. On trial her engine achieved a speed of 13.9 knots; though her weak point lay in her low accommodation — allowing no more than 80 in her first class and 28 in the second. This had posed a serious obstacle in getting a prospective buyer. Initially the Dixford had the Liverpool and Great Western Steamship Company, commonly known as the Guion Line, in mind as the prospective buyer. But neither they nor any other buyer had ever shown any interest in the newly-built ship. Subsequently offer was made to the Canadian Pacific Steamship for their just started Vancouver — Hong Kong service. Negotiations began on a highly positive manner and the ship was eventually christened as Transpacific. But when the Canadian Pacific had finally backed out, the ship was acquired by a Hull owner who renamed her to Nulli Secondus. But these all had taken place far before the ship reached her final stage. In August 1887 when the British India Steam Navigation Co. came to know about the ship, they made an offer and it was accepted. In December 1887 the ship was finally completed as Golconda.
When the Golconda joined the BI fleet she began serving on their main London — Calcutta route. As the BI’s flagship she sailed for twelve years save a brief government charter when the Golconda was utilized as a transport in the Boer war (October 1899 — May 1902).
Footfalls of End
Later, when the Golconda resumed her civilian duties following the government charter, her look and limited speed were gradually deemed to be obsolete. In March 1913 she was deployed in the East African service; and two years later, in 1915, Golconda was requisitioned as an Indian Army transport. After several return voyages to Europe, when On 3 June 1916 she was en route from Tees (Middlesbrough) to London for Calcutta with general cargo, the vessel was sunk by a mine laid by UC-3 (contrary news has it that she was torpedoed and sunk by a German U-boat) close to Aldeburgh (Suffolk, East Anglia coast) with loss of 19 lives. The captain survived.
With Vivekananda on board the Golconda reached Tilbury Dock on the north bank of the River Thames in Essex on 31 July 1899. This time the Swami did not stay for long in England. He left London on a train to Glasgow on 16 August; and on the following day he boarded the SS Numidian for his fourth transatlantic voyage, which this time took him to New York for the second time. In the early morning of August 28th , almost three hours behind schedule, the ship reached her destination port.
Calcutta Port in 1900
Close up of SS Golconda
BISN House Flag
Letter written by one POW at India's Ahmednagar Prison to someone aboard the SS Golconda
Old poster of BISN
Tilbury Port, London in 1900s