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  • Writer's pictureL.J. Singh

Founding Fathers of Indian Shipping | The Scindia Steam Navigation Co. Ltd. Bombay

Our National Maritime Day is celebrated, every year on the 5th of April, which is a very significant day for the Indian Merchant Navy and Indian Shipping. On this very day in 1919, an Indian Merchant Navy ship S.S. LOYALTY, owned by THE SCINDIA STEAM NAVIGATION CO. BOMBAY, under the Swadeshi flag, defying British Maritime supremacy sailed from Bombay to the UK. I have served this pioneer shipping company, right from the beginning of my sea career for nearly a quarter of a century. I am enclosing the historical narrative about The Scindia Navigation Company, rightly deserves to be called, Founder Fathers of Indian Shipping, Lal Singh, a retired Chief Engineer of this Shipping company.

When the might of the British Empire and her supremacy in sea trade was challenged by a fledgling Scindia Steam Navigation Company Bombay, Indian Maritime history was made in April 1919, in fact paving the way for National Maritime Day. Earlier, Indian shipping companies registered in the beginning of the 20th century had failed and closed down because the British who were monopolising this trade saw to it that no Indian venture survived to offer any challenge to their business.

However, prominent businessmen of Gujarat, Walchand Hirachand, Narottam Morarjee and Kilachand Devchand took the plunge into the 'unchartered waters' by launching a single ship company. The idea fructified in the purchase of a steamship SS LOYALTY which had earlier served the Canadian Pacific Railway Company under the name RMS EMPRESS and then was used as a floating hospital for the troops during WW-I under the new name SS LOYALTY. This vessel, made in England, could accommodate 700 passengers and cargo but the company had to face numerous hurdles in terms of baseless route restrictions for 10 years.

Surprisingly, the inaugural voyage of SS LOYALTY, flying the Indian and Scindia flags was booked to capacity and notwithstanding odd colonial pressures, made a successful voyage to the British shores but their unethical wheeling-dealing did not stop. The ship returned to India in ballast without any cargo or passengers. This setback however did not at all deter the determined founders of the company who now fortified in their resolve, set up a whole fleet and now concentrated on cargo, in a bid to not confront or antagonise the established P & O Company who had been serving seagoing passengers since long. This pushed Scindia Shipping into dire financial straits after it was forced to sign unfair agreements on routes and freights with rival companies but it survived by sheer dint of its determination and grit of the floating staff particularly the Engineering and Navigating officers some of who even offered pay cuts by way of solidarity with the management.

Walchand who was chairman of Scindia Shipping & Navigating Company till 1950 was a great visionary and understood the need for innovation for survival in this field which was marked by cutthroat competition. The company, therefore, started underwriting in this business. This paved the way for a shipbuilding facility in India and very soon people saw the emergence of Scindia Shipyard on our eastern coast port of Vishakhapatnam which later on became Hindustan Shipyard Ltd and produced what became India's first indigenously built ship named JALAUSHA and was launched at this shipyard. All ships owned by Scindia carried the prefix JAL (water) before their name.

Scindia's house flag was a rectangular blue with a white disc in the centre with a red Swastika. The funnels had a broad yellow band on a jet-black background which became the company's conspicuous logo visible at every harbour where ships were berthing. During World War II, sea routes became too hazardous for normal traffic and were therefore closed but later on, after the war when operations were permitted and cargo service started for Germany, Scindia ships required a lot of explanation on the Swastika in their house flag which, incidentally though, bore some resemblance with the much-hated symbol, an angled Swastika, of Hitler's Nazi party. It had to be explained to the post war Germans that the company emblem, the Swastika, a word in Sanskrit, is an ancient emblem of good luck depicted in Hindu ceremonies and religious functions.

After our Independence in 1947, Scindia entered the USA, UK, European, Canadian and Australian waters for cargo and passenger services and earned a reputation for efficiency, punctuality and comfort. One of the most preferred services, Calcutta- Great Lakes became a rage almost overnight because no other Indian company had the wherewithal for it. Very soon, need for specialised training of seafaring officers led to the establishment of TS DUFFERIN (Training Staff) later on DMET (Directorate of Marine Engineering and Training) and a slew of other such facilities now topped by Indian Maritime University (IMU) at CHENNAI and Marine Engineering Research Institute (MERI) KOLKATA and TS CHANAKYA, MUMBAI.

I remember that top underwriters like Lloyds Register of Ships and government surveyors always had a good word for Scindia's safety and machinery efficiency. Soon, new companies like Shipping Corporation of India, Great Eastern Shipping, and India Steamship Co. emerged with many officers seeded from Scindia taking sea transportation to new heights.

The imposing SCINDIA HOUSE in Ballard Estate Mumbai is a nostalgic reminder of the glory the SSNC was before it was obliged to sell its fleet and fold up. Walchand Hirachand Marg in Mumbai is another reminder of the visionary that the entrepreneur was.

As a retired employee of the once single ship initiative beginning with SS LOYALTY that spread its tentacles worldwide and gave 'berth' to the modern marine industry, I am overcome with nostalgia when reminiscing over why the 5th of April is celebrated as National Maritime Day every year.

LAL SINGH, A retired Chief Engineer, of this Shipping Company

Written By-

Lal Singh

Retd. Chief Engineer (IMN)

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