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Leith Shipyards

A history of the Ships built at the Henry Robb Shipyard in Leith, Scotland. Also a testimony to the men who built the Ships and to all who sailed in them.
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British India Steam & Navigation Co



The M.V.SOFALA was just one of the many ships built at the Leith Shipyards of Henry Robb for the British India Steam Navigation Company (BI)

B & I history

From the

The founder of the British India Steam Navigation Company (BI) was William Mackinnon (b.1823-d.1893) who, in partnership with William Mackenzie (ca.1810-d.1853) operated as a general merchant near Calcutta.  In the mid-1850s Mackinnon, Mackenzie & Company secured the East India Company's mail contract between Calcutta and Rangoon and founded the Calcutta & Burmah Steam Navigation Company Ltd, registered in Glasgow in 1856, with a capital of £35,000.

Within five years of its foundation, the company had expanded considerably: from Burma, its ships were serving Penang and Singapore, while dozens of small ports along the Indian coast were being opened up to large-scale traffic by its service between Calcutta and Bombay.  A mail contract to cover the whole of this route was being negotiated, and a similar contract up and down the Persian Gulf was being contemplated by the Government.  In 1861 Mackinnon raised £400,000 to establish the British India Steam Navigation Company Ltd, and ordered six larger ships.  The new company, which absorbed the Calcutta & Burmah Company, was registered in Scotland in 1862.

The original Mackinnon, Mackenzie & Company in Calcutta continued to exist and operate as BI’s managing agents, a function which they were to fulfil for nigh on a hundred years.  BI secured a network of mail contract services – Bombay/Karachi, Bombay/Gulf, Bombay/Calcutta and Madras/Rangoon – which became the backbone of its operations.

Until the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, BI operated exclusively in eastern waters, and thereafter the larger part of its fleet was employed in 'foreign-to-foreign' trades.  BI developed a distinctive organisational structure with the Calcutta Office having wide decision-making powers as managing agents and operators of the Eastern services.  On the next level were the principal agencies at most of the main ports (either branches of Mackinnon Mackenzie or affiliated to them) each having a large number of smaller independent agencies.  In addition there was a network of company-owned repair facilities at Garden Reach Workshops in Calcutta or Mazagon Dock in Bombay where all but the most complicated repairs and overhauls were carried out.  There was a board of Directors in the UK and the Company Secretary, based in Glasgow until 1892 and thereafter in London, was the liaison between them and the management in Calcutta.

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