Kenya to India: A Peculiar Document from the SS Karanja
In late 1975 I took passage aboard the S.S. Karanja, a mixed cargo/passenger vessel that plied the route between Mombasa and Bombay, with a stop-over in Karachi thrown in at no extra charge. The trip took ten days or so; the Karanja was not the fastest boat in the P&O fleet.
Having decided to book my ticket in steerage, I was given this document to sign and turn over the maritime authorities. The Karanja was a South African-flagged ship. And so, as the casual reader will see, especially in articles 2 and 5, I was obliged to agree to the apartheid system under which the ship sailed. And because I had purchased a cheap ticket, I was going to be on the losing end of the game.
This paper astonished me to the point where I decided to keep a copy for posterity. Should apartheid ever fall, I reasoned, interested parties would want to see this bit of racist nonsense and so better understand the conditions under which people of color had been obliged to live in White-ruled Africa and Asia.
As it happened, the part of the letter that warned me: “I will not be permitted to seek solitude or alternative company in parts of the ship reserved for saloon passengers and ship’s officers” was roundly ignored by the Karanja’s staff. I was able to roam the ship at will along with my other traveling friends. Our Asian peers in steerage were not granted this privilege.
The “intermediate class” consisted of a large room down near ship’s waterline. It contained about fifty bunk beds. A few port holes provided light but they were kept closed during the passage because they were only a couple of feet above the sea itself. Except for a few travelers the passengers were all either Indian or Pakistani. At night they would gather on deck and play music under the stars of the Indian Ocean. And so I was welcomed into Asian culture despite the best efforts of the White powers who owned the ship and ran the P&O Line.
Those same port holes did provide one convenience in the end, however. During our four-day stop in Karachi, small boats would come out to the Karanja and do a brisk trade in food and various treats with the passengers who were continuing to Bombay. Negotiations and sales were accomplished through the ports. Amazing to think about how enterprising people can turn the smallest opportunity into a profitable exchange.
As for the travelers, we came and went several times daily into downtown Karachi, trading goods from the Karanja’s duty-free shop with local taxi drivers. When the boat left Karachi I had the biggest imaginable bundle of Pakistani rupees. They were difficult to sell in India but I still came out ahead of the game.