In the early 1850s Calcutta, which was the most important city in the British Empire after London, there was a thriving community of Scots who looked to exploit the opportunities presented by the expansion of the empire. Among them were William Mackinnon and Robert Mackenzie, two schoolfriends from the Argyll county in western Scotland who moved to India in the 1840s. Setting up shop in Bengal, Mackinnon and Mackenzie sold merchandise in Bay of Bengal ports and founded Mackinnon, Mackenzie & Co.

In 1853, when the British annexed Lower Burma, the duo, who were in their early 30s, sensed a bigger opportunity – one that would lead them to build a multinational empire that changed the way people and goods travelled around the world. “The potential commercial opportunities in the subcontinent were not going to be taken advantage of by the expansion of the railway network alone, so sea borne trade around the Indian coast appealed greatly to Mackinnon, Mackenzie & Co,” wrote David J Mitchell, who served as Engineer Officer for the British India Steam Navigation Company from 1967 to 1974.

Within two years of the low-lying areas of the Irrawaddy Delta and coastal regions of southern Burma becoming British territories, the East India Company invited tenders for a regular mail steamship between Calcutta and Rangoon. The Scottish duo managed to win the bid and subsequently founded the Calcutta and Burmah Steam Navigation Company, the forerunner of the British India Steam Navigation Company.

Growth of Rangoon

The Calcutta and Burmah Steam Navigation Company bought a small fleet of steamers for the new mail service, with two ships maintaining a fortnightly run that connected Calcutta with Akyab, Rangoon and Moulmein. The Cape of Good Hope, a 500-tonne steamer, was the first ship to carry mail, goods and passengers from Calcutta to Rangoon. It started operations in 1856.

Along with Robert Mackenzie, William Mackinnon (above) founded the Calcutta and Burmah Steam Navigation Company, the forerunner of the British India Steam Navigation Company. Credit: Eveleen Myers/Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain].

However, within a year, the 1857 Indian War of Independence broke out, and the ship was used to carry British troops from Colombo to Calcutta. After the war ended, the Cape of Good Hope was joined by a steamer of relatively the same size, the Baltic, to ply the Calcutta-Rangoon route. “Passenger and cargo carrying trade soon developed and Rangoon was in time to become second only to Calcutta in terms of importance with eight different mail and passenger services using the port and at least one ship going in or out every day but Sunday,” Mitchell wrote.

When the British Empire annexed Lower Burma in 1852-’53, the population of Rangoon was just 30,000. By 1881, the number rose to more than 150,000. The steamer service brought with it goods and labour that transformed Rangoon from an overgrown village to a boomtown and a hub for trade. “It took two decades (1852 to 1872) to develop the central part of the city and all was done by Indian labourers imported seasonally by Indian contractors,” academic Uma Shankar Singh wrote in a 1980 paper for the Indian History Congress. “Rangoon expanded quickly with the growth of trade and agriculture in Lower Burma; the introduction of frequent steamship services between India and Burma, the influx of Indian immigrants and ever-increasing need for new accommodation.”

By 1861, the Calcutta and Burmah Steam Navigation Company was absorbed by the British India Steam Navigation Company, which was established by Mackinnon. The company had found favour with the British rulers for its help in the 1857 war and was given regular contracts to transport troops to other colonies from India. Its steamers frequently carried British troops to the Andaman Islands from Calcutta and Rangoon. The company also transported British troops to faraway New Zealand for the Maori Wars in the 1860s.

Calcutta became one of the world’s major shipping hubs by the 1870s. There were several new routes around the Bay of Bengal and beyond. Ships left four times a week from Calcutta for Rangoon via Port Blair and Kamorta (Nicobar Islands). There was also a fortnightly service to ports on the Malay Straits, such as Penang and Singapore, from Calcutta via Rangoon.

Opening up Burma

The regular steamship services to Rangoon and Lower Burma from Calcutta made it easier for Indians to migrate to Burma in search of opportunities. Since Burma was a part of British India until 1937, there were little restrictions for Indians who wanted to move and settle in the country.

Bengalis migrated in significant numbers to the country as vacancies arose in the widening economy and bureaucracy. According to the book The Burma Delta: Economic Development and Social Change on an Asian Rice Frontier, 1852-1941 by Michael Adas, Bengalis comprised of 30% of the population of Indians in Burma in 1881.

In his 1980 paper, Uma Shankar Singh added that 40% of Bengali immigrants to the country were from Chittagong. A fortnightly service from Calcutta to Akyab via Chittagong was popular among Bengali migrants to Burma.The steamer would stop at several smaller ports in modern-day Bangladesh and head to Cox’s Bazar before sailing to nearby Burma.

The demand to ferry Indian immigrants to Burma was so high that services were extended to places such as Madras and ships called on other eastern Indian ports such as Vishakhapatnam. The British rulers even offered subsidies to shipping companies to transport Indian immigrants to Burma. As a result, by the turn of the 19th to 20th century, Indians formed nearly 50% of the population of Rangoon and were well established in different parts of the country.

With the demand for Indian seasonal labour growing from the 1870s, a Madras-Rangoon steamship service was introduced by the British India Steam Navigation Company. By the end of the 19th century, over 60% of Indian immigrants in Burma were from the Madras Presidency, according to Michael Adas.

End of an era

The British continued to attach high importance to the Calcutta-Rangoon mail steamer into the 20th century. Although the global shipping industry was badly hit by the Great Depression, the British India Steam Navigation Company continued to make a profit on the Rangoon-Calcutta line. By the 1930s, there were 10 weekly services connecting the two cities. Media reports from the decade suggest that the service was known for its punctuality. It took two days to go from Calcutta to Rangoon, where it would load and unload cargo for two and a half days before heading back to the eastern Indian city.

The service continued to be the prime mode of sending mail between Britain and Burma. Mail for Burma would arrive by ship to Bombay from where it would be sent to Calcutta by train and further to Diamond Harbour before being loaded on the Rangoon ferry. This arrangement continued until the Japanese invasion of Burma in 1942 when steamship services between India and its neighbour were suspended.

Sherman tanks and trucks advancing in Burma during World War Two. Credit: Imperial War Museums/Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain].

The ferry was resumed after the Second World War and continued to operate after India and Burma attained independence from British rule in 1947 and 1948, respectively. By the 1950s, airmail was being used to deliver the post from Britain to Burma and the mail steamer began to become redundant. There is no reliable information as to when the Calcutta-Rangoon ferry service stopped. A retired employee of the YMCA in Rangoon (now Yangon) said that he travelled regularly to Calcutta by the ferry until 1953. He said the deck had a large number of working-class seasonal Indian migrants, while British officials and businessmen who still had major interests in both cities used the first class.

Howrah Bridge, a 1958 Hindi film starring Ashok Kumar and Madhubala, depicted the two protagonists taking the steamship from Rangoon to Calcutta. In a scene where Ashok Kumar got off the ship in Diamond Harbour, the British India Steam Navigation Company sign was visible. This would suggest that the services continued well into the late 1950s.

The ferry service was probably phased out after Burmese leader General Ne Win expelled Indians from the country in 1962. In the 1960s, around 300,000 Indians were thrown out of Burma, with the Burmese government only sparing those who ran tea shops, paan shops and barber shops. Special ferries and planes were arranged by the Indian government to evacuate those Indians.

In 2014, the Shipping Corporation of India launched a standalone cargo ferry service from Chennai to Yangon, but there has since been no talk of reviving India and Myanmar (as Burma is now called) passenger ferry services. Both governments are keener to operate buses from Manipur to Myanmar. The planned April 2020 launch of a Mandalay-Imphal bus service was indefinitely suspended on account of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The revival of passenger ferry services between India and Myanmar could help boost trade, tourism and cultural ties.

Ajay Kamalakaran is a writer and independent journalist, based in Mumbai. He is a Kalpalata Fellow for History & Heritage Writings for 2022.