Every year, on April 5, India celebrates National Maritime Day to commemorate the voyage of a ship. But this wasn’t just any ship. The SS Loyalty, which made the journey from India to England in 1919, completed this voyage after winning a series of battles, not on the high seas but against India’s colonial powers. The story of the SS Loyalty is the story of a stubborn Indian nationalist who was determined to see a home-grown vessel take to the seas at a time when Britain controlled these waters.
By the late 19th century, a few Indian entrepreneurs were trying to break the hegemony in the field of steam navigation
In those times, European powers carved their imperial empires through the oceans. It was in the early 16th century that the tide turned in the waters around India, when the Portuguese defeated the combined forces of the Egyptians, Sultan of Gujarat and the Zamorin of Calicut, in the Battle of Diu (1509). This heralded a new era in trade.
Till then, trade to and from India had been controlled by Arab merchants, via the land route that connected the east and west. However, after Vasco da Gama landed in Calicut (now Kozhikode in Kerala), almost every ambitious European power landed up on India’s shores – the Dutch, the Danes, the English and even the Croats. Of course, Britain triumphed.
By the late 19th century, a few Indian entrepreneurs were trying to break this hegemony in the field of steam navigation. But these attempts were stymied by the sheer wealth and influence that the British companies commanded. The most notable attempt to start a shipping company was by Jamsetji Tata, who launched Tata Lines in 1890. It was meant to carry cotton and yarn between Bombay, China and Japan.
The most notable attempt to start a shipping company was by Jamsetji Tata, who launched Tata Lines in 1890
However, the biggest player in the shipping sector, British-owned Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Company (P&O) at once dropped their freight rates from Rs 17 per ton to a ridiculous Rs 1.5 per ton. The result was inevitable – Tata Lines was forced to shut down. And, as soon as they tasted victory, P&O restored their rates to Rs 17!
The battle was won but the war had only just begun. In Tuticorin in South India, the Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company launched by V O Chidambaram Pillai in 1906 continued to compete with the British India Steam Navigation Company (BI) for shipping routes to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). Like before, British shipping companies slashed their rates and, in a series of ‘unfortunate accidents’, British ships rammed into Swadeshi’s ships, both in the ports and at sea, inflicting extensive damage on the fleet. In 1908, Chidambaram Pillai was even imprisoned on ‘sedition’ charges and, in his absence, the company shut shop.
It was in 1919 that Walchand Hirachand, then a railway contractor and an ambitious businessman, chanced upon a ship named SS Loyalty, through a senior Crompton Executive, a Mr Watson, he had met on a train. Originally known as the RMS Empress of India, the ship had been purchased by Maharaja Sir Madho Rao Scindia of Gwalior and offered for service as a hospital ship during the First World War. With the end of the war, the ship was to be sold as a surplus.
Scindia family had no financial stake in the company and Hirachand used the name only to attract investors
Hirachand saw a great opportunity and got some of his friends and future business partners to contribute money towards the purchase of the ship. Together, they set up the Scindia Steam Navigation Company in 1919. Oddly enough, the Scindia family had no financial stake in the company and Hirachand used the name only to attract investors. It was a tough sell as most of the 102 Indian shipping companies registered between 1860 and 1925 had gone into liquidation, one after the other.
Hirachand had an additional challenge – Lord Inchcape, Chairman of British India Steam Navigation Company, one of the largest shipping companies in the world. Inchcape was the Goliath of the shipping world and was nicknamed the ‘Napoleon of Shipping’ for his shrewd business acumen. Anyone in the empire outside Britain had to seek permission from the Shipping Controller, who was Lord Inchcape’s crony. Hirachand was promptly refused permission.
But he refused to give up and bombarded the establishment with complaints. At the time, India had become a powder keg with the events leading up to the Jallianwala Bagh massacre (April 13, 1919), and there was a huge backlash against British policies in India and back home in Britain. So, as a ‘concession’, Hirachand was granted permission to buy the SS Loyalty.
His next challenge was to convert the ship from a hospital ship into a passenger liner, which would have to be done in London and would cost Rs 10 lakh. Hirachand’s plan was to do a ‘launch’, whereby the ship would sail for London and to be refitted. Only preliminary changes were made in Bombay for its maiden voyage. The next problem was getting passengers.
Hirachand had thrown down the gauntlet and Inchcape was furious. ‘If I hear that the SS Loyalty has got even one passenger through you, understand that from that moment you lose BI’s support’, was the call that went to every shipping agent from Lord Inchcape. Still not deterred, Hirachand put out ads proclaiming, ‘Passengers Wanted’ across all Indian newspapers. He received an overwhelming number of applications.
Gandhiji himself called on the Scindia Shipping directors to bless the new venture
But getting cargo to the ship’s hold was a challenge. Despite requests, most Indian companies refused to roped in, including the Tatas, whose founder Jamsetji had himself once tried to break the British shipping monopoly. Unwilling to be stonewalled, Hirachand bought 1,000 tons of cement and 500 tons of pig iron, which they hoped to sell in Europe.
Finally, the SS Loyalty set sail for London on April 5, 1919. On board, along with Hirachand were several celebrity passengers like Maharaja Hari Singh of Kashmir, Maharaja Jagatjit Singh of Kapurthala along with his Spanish wife Anita Delgado, famous cricketer Prince Duleepsinghji of Jamnagar, and luminaries from the legal world such as Sir Chunnilal Mehta and M C Chagla. The morning the ship sailed, Mahatma Gandhi himself called on the Scindia Shipping directors to bless the new venture and wish them success.
A contemporary journalist covering the event noted:
‘Apart from those who had come to see off their friends and relatives, there were hundreds of people who had thronged the wharf simply to wish bon voyage to the first Indian ship sailing to Europe. An emotional upsurge overtook the passengers and onlookers alike as the SS Loyalty sounded the last siren and pulled up her anchor.’
The SS Loyalty reached Marseilles 18 days later, where most passengers disembarked as the ship needed urgent repairs. However, in Europe, Hirachand found it impossible to hire agents for repairs, cleaning or even unloading the cargo as no one wanted to upset Lord Inchcape and BI.
From then on, he faced an uphill struggle against British shipping companies, and, in 1923, Scindia Steam Navigation Company was forced to sign a ten-year agreement with Lord Inchape, which restricted Scindia to coastal trade only. That same year, the SS Loyalty was sold for scrap as it needed extensive refurbishment and was difficult to maintain. Lord Inchcape even offered to buy out Hirachand but the latter refused and chose to fight on.
This was the beginning of a new shipping empire – and Indian one. Hirachand had smartly decided to focus on coastal trade while building capacity. He bought out smaller Indian shipping companies, one after the other, from promoters who were tired of fighting British interests.
In 1927, SS Jalabala, their first cargo ship, was launched, and a decade later, in 1937, Hirachand’s shipping firm launched Hajj services to Saudi Arabia. India's independence in 1947 was a great boost to the company's fortunes, and it launched services to the US and Singapore in 1950.
Business historian Gita Piramal in her book Business Legends writes, “When Walchand entered shipping in 1919, India’s mercantile marine consisted of a few small tramps serving tiny unknown ports along India’s coastline. By the time he died in 1953, he had wrestled a 21 per cent share of Indian coastal traffic from British shipping interests.”
Scindia Steam Navigation Company thrived in a newly independent India, before a succession of financial crises forced it to go into liquidation in the 1980s. But Walchand Hirachand had left a legacy that the nation will never forget, for in 1964, April 5 was declared as National Maritime Day, to commemorate the historic voyage of the SS Loyalty and the diehard nationalist who fought against all odds to make India proud.
Today, there are around 550 ships flying the Indian flag on the high seas. Hirachand and his SS Loyalty were truly the flag-bearers of the Indian fleet!