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Kenya to India: A Peculiar Document from the SS Karanja

September 7, 2010

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.

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. Virgilio Santos permalink
    September 30, 2013 10:35 am

    During the 2nd half of 1972, I was working at Cory Mann Gerge (Beira) Pty Ltd-Mozambique and shipped tons and tons of lead and zinc to Bombay and Karachi. The vessel called Beira port every month if i am not mistaken, on the way south to Durban or North to Karachi.
    Many times boarded that vessel when in port.

  2. Paul permalink
    August 19, 2012 6:20 pm

    I was 2nd electrical officer from 1974 to 1975. The wireman Cagi and his assistant were Indian, the Petty officers were Chinese. As far as I knew, apartheid didn’t exist on board.
    We all “mucked in” to keep the old Ship going. Boy, did it break down. One breakdown I remember was when one of the forced draught fans failed for the boiler. You might remember tons of black smoke belching out of one of the chimneys. Left a trail miles long in the clear blue sky. Also remember the flying fish and 3 large sharks swimming along side
    Regards
    Paul

  3. Arthur Gottschalk permalink
    August 7, 2012 6:14 pm

    I did this trip from Mombassa in 1974, traveling in a four-birth men’s cabin. My wife also traveled in similar fashion with women. I remember that the food, which included high tea, was excellent. In fact, this was one of my most pleasurable travel experiences. I had my Land Rover with me, traveling down in the hold. What a thrill to watch my car hoisted onto the dock in Bombay. After a long stay in India we drove back to Paris.

  4. January 15, 2012 5:03 am

    Kit,

    Just came across your very interesting post! I, too, was on the Karanja between Mombasa and Bombay, in October 1974. I had booked my passage (reserved bunk, e.g. metal slab hinged from a wall) by post to SCI in the UK from my then home in Ghana – as the first leg of an almost around-the-world voyage by passenger ship.

    I don’t recall the document you post here. But I also don’t recall any other non-Asians travelling in that class. On occasion I went up to the 2nd class bar for a beer and a chat with the folks there, but generally stayed in my area. Several of the passengers on that sailing were overseas South Africans of Goan ancestry, on pilgrimages to the exposition of St. Francis Xavier.

    http://www.goacom.com/culture/religion/stfrancis/expositions.htm

    We had several extra days in Karachi due to congestion of the harbour, and I went into the city on several days with these “Goan” South African fellow passengers.

    In the context of your posting, a couple of possible ironies on my part:
    1. Allegedly, my ancestry includes the first Governor General of the British Raj.
    2. I wound up marrying a SEAsian woman of Indian ancestry.
    3. My next leg by sea was on the Chidambaram, then of the Shipping Corporation of India, between then Madras and Penang. On that ship, all caucasians were steered into “1st class” staterooms. We later met one european who had negotiated his way into 2nd class. He noted that the maintenance was outstanding (not in a positive context).

    • January 16, 2012 10:01 pm

      Hi David,

      Check your email!

      Kit

  5. Steve permalink
    February 18, 2011 6:50 am

    Kit,
    Were you on the December 1975 sailing of the Kajanja? In other words, did you spend Christmas 1975 on the Karanja. If so, I was also on that sailing traveling bunk class. I would be interested to see your photo and see if I can remember you. Do you have any photo’s from that trip. Did you eat in the Indian mess, or the European dining room? Best Wishes, Steve

    • February 18, 2011 11:28 pm

      Yup, sure was on the Christmas ’75 trip! I emailed you at the live.com address given in your reply. Let me know you got it!

  6. September 8, 2010 12:00 am

    I don’t see any racism in the words of this document. I do see you get what you paid for. Whether rules are ignored or not by staff may or may not constitute racism. It would depend on the the staffmember him/herself.

    Remember, you experienced it. Others did not, and like me, will have a very hard time seeing it in these words.

    • September 8, 2010 12:55 am

      see articles 2 and 5

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