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British India Steam Navigation Co.

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[British India Steam Navigation Co. houseflag]  image by James Eugene Ipavec and David Mitchell, 27 August 2008

based on Sampson (1957)

See also:

Description of the flag

Houseflag: White burgee with red St. Andrew's cross.

Brown's Flags and Funnels (1940):
British India Steam Navigation Co. Ltd. London
Funnel: Black with two white bands.
Flag: A white, forked flag, a red orthogonal saltire, starting from the hoist corners. The arms of the saltire are pictured 3:14 of the hoist wide. The fork is orthogonal as well, leaving a white border between saltire and edges. This border is pictured 4:14 of the hoist wide. (One can not help but wonder whether in the actual flag the white is as wide as the red beside it.)
Peter Hans van den Muijzenberg, 18 October 2003

British India Steam Navigation Co. The fleet commodore used this flag with the addition of a red ball in the white hoist area.
Neale Rosanoski, 22 March 2004

Larousse Commercial Illustré (1930) shows British India, London: white swallow-tail with a red saltire. The flag's indentation is about one fourth deep, the distance between this edge and the saltire equalling the width of the saltire's arms. Now this width appears to be one fourth of the flag's height. The image shown above as `British India Steam Navigation Co.', shows a thinner saltire and much more room between the saltire and the indentation. The on-line 1912 Lloyd's Flags & Funnels has this flag under No. 638: 
Jan Mertens, 16 May 2004

The BI houseflag was a white burgee with red St Andrew's cross. Although no record remains as to the origin or meaning of the flag, the book Shipping Wonders of the World did recount a yarn which, though unauthenticated, perhaps contains some of the truth: It is to the effect that the founders, William Mackinnon and Robert Mackenzie, being good Scots, instructed a flagmaker to make sets of flags for their first ships, taking the St Andrews's cross as their design and cutting a triangle from the fly to distinguish it from the national flag. One of the partners drew an outline to indicate the flag's shape and position of the cross, but the ignorant Sassenach flagmaker based the saltire on a red-on-white St Patrick's cross instead of the intended white-on-blue. Rather than waste the completed flags, the story goes, the frugal Scots adopted the design.
John Prescott, 19 August 2008

An example at, circa 1951, shows the middle lines of
the saltires going through the corners, and the angle in the saltire seems closer to orthogonal.
Peter Hans van den Muijzenberg, 6 May 2019

Construction Sheet

[British India Steam Navigation Co. houseflag] image by David Mitchell, 19 August 2008
[Click on image for double sized version.]

Commodore's broad pennant

[British India Steam Navigation Company houseflag] image by Jarig Bakker, based on the website of the National Maritime Museum.

From the website of the National Maritime Museum, "Commodore's broad pennant, British India Steam Navigation Company, London. A white burgee bearing a red saltire and a red ball at the hoist. The flag is made of a wool and synthetic fibre bunting. It has a cotton hoist and is machine sewn. A rope and two Inglefield clips is attached.

The company was set up in 1856 by a Scottish firm of general merchants, Mackinnon, Mackenzie & Co., as the Calcutta and Burmah Steam Navigation Company to run a mail service between Rangoon and Calcutta. A new company was founded called the British India Steam Navigation Co. Ltd in 1862 to run services from Calcutta and Bombay to Indian Ocean ports, using local coal and with a subsidy from the government of Bombay. With the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, BI began direct services between India and the UK, their routes eventually extending to East Africa, the Far East and Australasia.

BI ships were used for trooping in most conflicts until the British Government changed over to air transport in 1960. In 1893, the original company chairman Sir William Mackinnon died. In 1914 BI amalgamated with P&O. The company suffered a loss of business as a result of Indian independence in 1947. It lost its separate identity with the reorganisation of P&O in 1971.
Jarig Bakker, 5 August 2004

History of the British India Steam Navigation and its flags

[The following section was prepared from with material and links added by Jan Mertens, 15-21 January 2007.]

“For all those with an interest in British India Steam Navigation (BI)" the site at has much to offer: The ‘History’ section recalls the beginnings:
“ the mid-1850s when the Hon. East India Company, then the effective government of both India and Burma, invited bids for a contract to carry mail between Calcutta and Rangoon on a strict schedule of regularity [, William] Mackinnon was quick to make an offer; he would form a limited liability company to run at least two screw steamers between the two great ports, the promptitude of their services guaranteed. This was accepted. William Mackinnon then hurried home to Scotland to raise the necessary capital and buy the vessels he required. The Calcutta & Burmah Steam Navigation Co Ltd was registered in Glasgow on September 24. 1856. The capital was what we would regard nowadays as the modest sum of £35,000.
That was the beginning of what is now the British India Steam Navigation Co and the anniversary of BI must date from the formation of the Calcutta & Burmah Company. It is of more than romantic interest that Mackinnon chose as the badge of his new concern — on crockery, cutlery, etc — the peacock of Burma.”

[British India Steam Navigation Company houseflag] image by Eugene Ipavec, 24 August 2008

Based on a lithographed image at Colours are unknown.

More on this peacock emblem on the page dedicated to ‘BI Associate and Affiliated Companies’:
“This badge, copied from a piece of company crockery, is the only known surviving representation of a C&BSN device.” [Colours unknown to me.] I do not think this is a swallowtail; in any case there are nine horizontal stripes, four of them lighter in colour, and a very large double-rimmed disk showing a peacock in his pride.

More flags from this British India Steam Navigation Co. page, but to begin, some recent BI flag sightings (fittingly hoisted, or shown, during reunions):
"Fittingly", as since 1971, BI symbols had to make way before P&O livery. The flag lives on.

- Back to above house flag page. The second listed is 1866 Nederlandsch-Indische Stoomvaart Maatschappij which, as Jarig states, was British rather than Dutch - a white, red saltire, blue initials between the arms ‘NISM’.

[British India Steam Navigation Company houseflag]  image by Eugene Ipavec, 24 August 2008

Based on image at

- Third one is 1873 / British India Associated Steamers, although the following page mentions 1885 as founding year and absorption into BI in 1903 (this particular ship along with the others, too, I suppose). Flag was white swallowtail with red saltire, large blue disk in centre. The British India Steam Navigation page in question is the only source showing the swallowtail I am aware of (it may well be erroneous).

[This flag for which Jan has doubts is that of the British India Associated Steamers as shown by Lloyds 1882 as British India Association. According to the company was registered 5/1885 with its first ship "Jumna" built in 1886 and its fleet was absorbed into the main BI fleet in 1903.
Neale Rosanoski, 26 August 2008]s

- Fourth one is 1881 / Queensland Steam Shipping Co.

Red swallowtail, white saltire as given by BI page.

- Fifth one is unknown, being 1885 Eastern Steamship Company (Ducal Line). See this comment on a discussion list:
“the Eastern Steamship Co (Ducal Line) which traded between the UK and Calcutta. (…) in 1884 agreement was made between the Ducal Line and British India Steam Navigation Co whereby Ducal Line ships would trade alongside BISN Co ships on the Queensland trade.”

Apparently the end came in 1902: Possibly the house flag is shown on the last picture (painting of ‘Duke of Devonshire’), here, but there is not enough detail – same problem here.

- Sixth firm named is 1885 / British India & Queensland Agency Company showing the flag of British India Steam (taking some artistic liberty it is true – the swallowtails on this page do match their saltires). Could this have been the Australian branch?

- Seventh is 1887 / Australasian United SN Co. showing a white saltire defining red (upper, lower) and blue (left, right) triangles. Shown at au~hfau.html#ausn. Check out Neale' comments on the merger of firms and house flags to obtain this one.

- No. eight is 1895 / Ceylon Steamship Company, house flag unknown. Some history (including rates for cows and the notorious boiler) is available here.  According to the BI ship site, 1895 was the year when BI acquired a controlling interest.

- Ninth is 1901 / Eastern Coal Company, no flag shown (or found); 1901 is year of foundation.

[Apcar & Co.] image by Ivan Sache, 29 March 2008

- Tenth named is 1912 / Apcar & Co., purchased by BI in that year, a Calcutta-based firm active in mining founded by a family of Armenian descent. A blue saltire defines two white triangles (upper and lower) and two red ones (left and right). Also seen in the on-line 1912 Lloyds Flags & Funnels: (source of the flag image No. 133). (See also: Apcar & Co.)

- Eleventh is 1913 / Archibald Currie & Co. (year of purchase), a Melbourne firm (I think “Archo.” is a typo for “Archd.”). White flag with red saltire, a blue lozenge placed over it in the centre. Jorge’s version has it large, the BI site small. Large again, bolstering up Jorge’s version, in Lloyds mentioned above, No. 470:

Founder’s biography (small but excellent fleet; famous for transportation of horses):

- Twelfth is 1915 / Mazagon Dock Company, no house flag, but a funnel showing the P&O and BI flags together. Saying it all in a few sentences (
"April 1915 Mazagon Dock Co. formed at Bombay jointly by BI and P&O. Part of the dock had been in use as a dockyard since 1700. The company was sold in 1960" (to the Indian government, jm).
I should add that its successor, Mazagon Dock Ltd, is now a very important shipyard in India:

- No. thirteen is 1916 / Garden Reach Workshops (Calcutta), no flag given. This was a ship repair yard also acquired by the Indian Government, Again, a quote from the same Merchant Navy Officers webpage:
"August 1816 (surely 1916, jm) Garden Reach Workshops, Calcutta, formed in conjunction with [P&O] S.N. Co Ltd. The land had been acquired in 1865. The company sold it in 1960."

- Fourteenth is 1917 Hain Steamship Co. Two are shown, both red with white initials `EH and `H' respectively. Founder's biography:

- Fifteenth is James Nourse, also acquired in 1917, see our page. White, a blue saltire, and a red lozenge in the centre. The Merchant Navy Officers site gives a history.

- Sixteenth is 1919 / F.C. Strick and Co. showing the white swallowtail, horizontally edged in blue and containing the famous red and blue chevrons already familiar. Company history at Merchant Navy Officers (incidentally presenting two related firms I had never heard of).

- Seventeenth is 1919 / Eastern & Australian Steamship Co., London, the year in question logically being that of acquisition by BI as the company was founded much earlier: see our page. Green field, broad descending diagonal in red bearing a crest (colours of wreath not detailed) of a yellow lion – rampant reguardant - holding a white anchor. The main difference with Jarig’s version is the anchor’s colour (white in the BI page version) but that is covered by Neale’s comments.

- No. eighteen is 1928 / Arracan Flotilla Company, year of purchase, no flag given. Totally unknown to me.

- No. nineteen is 1934 / Asiatic Steam Navigation Co., 1934 being the year a controlling interest was acquired. See FOTW-ws giving a blue star on white and broad horizontal edges, also blue. The BI version has the edges much smaller but Jarig’s source is most authorative, backed up by the 1912 on-line Lloyds Flags & Funnels. Asiatic Steam history from Merchant Navy Officers site

[British India Steam Navigation Company houseflag] image by Eugene Ipavec, 24 August 2008

Based on image at

- Twentieth is 1962 Trident Tankers Ltd, a P&O venture aimed at getting a share of the growing tanker market and quickly becoming the largest independent oil carrier of that period. In the beginning of the seventies, rationalization measures led to the company being absorbed by the P&O Bulk Shipping Division. The house flag is the famous P&O flag with a black-rimmed lozenge, bearing Neptune’s trident, added in the centre.

P&O flag at gb~hfp.html#po

Merchant Navy Officers site, pages dedicated to Trident Tankers:

No. twenty-one (and last) being 1965 / Mauritius Steam Navigation Co. Based at Port Louis, 1965 being I think the year of foundation. Possibly still in existence?

The flag shown is a white swallowtail, completely edged in blue, bearing a red diamond touching the blue edges and a blue initial ‘M’ in said diamond.

To end, a note on the British Indian Steam Navigation house flag referring to comments of Peter Hans and my own regarding the exact placement of the saltire above. Let me drag in the inevitable eBay offer, item no. 130003031892 (end 10 July 2006) showing an original house flag from several angles. "Size 67 x116 cm" (See also photos of events in part 1 of this series – at least the version used outside is not original, surely?) The image here quite clear as to the regularity (placement, good design) of saltire and flag field. Apparently Sampson’s image was approximate, not so the Larousse Commercial 's (using Lloyds as a source I reckon).
Jan Mertens, 21 January 2007

British Shipping lines: continued