The Calcutta & Burmah Steam Navigation Company was registered in Glasgow in 1856. One of the first ships of the company was Cape of Good Hope, built in 1853, (420 gross tons). She was a steamer, but also rigged as a brig. At 190 feet long, she still managed ninety days from Southampton to Calcutta to begin her carrier as a mail ship.
The Company had the contract from the Indian Government (nominally the East India Company, which governed India & Burmah) to run a schedule mail service between Calcutta and Rangoon. It became a success and the following year the Company was called upon to carry troops from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in support of the Government during the Indian Mutiny.
The Company could see a future in the carrying of troops, supplies and horses on behalf of the Government, so additional ships where bought.
In 1862 they changed the name of the Company to British India Steam Navigation Company.
Over the following years the BI, as it became to be known, grew to be one of the largest shipping companies in the world. By 1922 it had grown to 158 ships, which at that time was the largest merchant fleet in the world.
At the outbreak of WW2 they had 105 ships, and lost 51 during the war including one in which my father sailed (fortunately he survived). The Company also managed a further 71 vessels, and sixteen of those were lost.
The Company celebrated its hundredth anniversary in 1956 by launching their latest troop ship Nevasa.(20,527 gt)
Nevasa – from the painting by Robert Lloyd
In 1962 I joined the Company, and after the appropriate sea time and passing my exams I was appointed Third Mate in the Bankura (6,793 gt)
In 1967, while serving in the Bankura we sailed from Calcutta to Rangoon – as the port was still called then, in the country of Burma (the ‘h’ had been dropped). The picture below is the front cover of the ID card issued by the Burmese authorities at that time, and at the bottom is the inside.
We were alongside for two days, one hundred and eleven years after the first BI ship, the Cape of Good Hope, called in to Rangoon.
I liked Rangoon, but it would be forty five years before I returned – but this time on holiday in 2012, just before the country changed and became more democratic.
We stayed at the Traders Hotel – the white building on the right. On the left is Scott’s Market, now called Bogyoke Market but everyone we spoke to referred to it as Scott’s.
Inside the market – gold, jade, silver what ever you wished. Ground floor.
Higher up the less expensive items were for sale.
Near Scott’s Market is Holy Trinity Anglican Cathedral, built in 1894, which is the oldest colonial cathedral in Myanmar (Burma).
Our hotel was inexpensive, so we stayed on the Club Floor – I was surprised at how ‘cheap’ it was. I did check the rates recently (the hotel has changed its name) and there is no way that we could afford to stay there – never mind staying on the Club Floor!
When we came to pay they had the facility to accept credit cards, but not in the normal way – the details had to go through Singapore – I think because the Government of the time wouldn’t allow the normal procedure.
The tea room in the main foyer (ground level not the Club Floor).
View from the Club Floor.
Club Floor dining room.
We asked one of the staff where could we go to experience Burmese food with the locals.
Just round the corner and the food was delicious and cheap (cheap for us). We changed money on the street as well as the banks – the bank insisted on ‘clean’ unfolded notes. At that time the Australian dollar was higher in value than the US, so we were obtaining about 876 local Kyat for one Australian dollar. Handing over $50 note we then stood there counting 43,800 Kyat . . . . . the space in my pocket was too small so it took two pockets to stow the cash!
We did go to a bank near Scott’s Market to change money – the rate was similar to the street value – a guard on the door eyed us as we entered. I did notice that he was not wearing any shoes, just flops flops .
I considered that all I had to do was stamp on his toe and I would be able to rob the place. EXCEPT that when I walked in I saw the rear wall behind the tellers was a solid wall of money, and at the exchange rate that we were offered, to make a robbery worth while, I’d need a forklift to carry more than a few thousand dollars worth of Kyat!
When I took the above picture I had my back to the bank’s main doorway, so attempting a fast get away, using a fork lift, didn’t seem all that practical.
Small street always attracted me – you didn’t know what you’d find.
We wondered down near the river as I wanted to see if the Strand Hotel was still standing. On the way I had to take a photograph of the coloured buildings, because I recognized the area !
This is what the Strand looks like today, but in 2012 it was tired and not a patch on its glory days. It was built in 1901 and acquired by the Starkies brothers of Raffles, Singapore & Eastern & Oriental in Penang fame. In 2016 it was refurbished to be once again one of the finest hotels East of Suez.
In 2012 we had a drink in this bar, and sat at the far end – the staff were indifferent to us, and the service extremely slow, I only hope they have lifted their game since the refurbishment.
The Strand Café today – the above three photographs have been downloaded off the net.
The Irrawaddy River or as Kipling said The Road to Mandalay – the Road to Mandalay for Kipling, was the river – listen to the words.
I stood on the river bank and remembered my first visit, while breathing in the smells of salt water, the river and the ever present smell of Asia, something of which I never get tired. To complete the memories, we decided to cross the river by ferry.
The ferry terminal and the ferry on the river approaching.
One or two other people had the same idea.
Hot & cold food sellers spend all day floating back and forth trying to sell their wares.
Looking back at the ferry terminal
A houseboat, not a bit like the modern holiday river cruisers.
Memories . . . .
Approaching the other side of the river.
Once ashore we each hired a tri-Shaw, which also had room for a ‘pusher’ – if the trishaw was bogged or on a hill the pusher jumped off and pushed the bike & passenger.
A touch of the old Raj . . .for Rangoon railway station.
While I was in Burma – in 1967 and 2012 I never felt afraid or threatened. I found the Burmese to very friendly people, and perhaps one day I’ll return.