We love cruising and have been on fourteen cruises since I arrived in the US. These have included several cruises in the Caribbean as well as ones to Alaska, the Mediterranean, the Mexican Riviera and the Yangtze river in China. Our last cruise was with my brother Peter and his family and it was on one of the largest cruise ships in the world…….the Carnival Dream which was 1000 feet in length, over 128,000 tons and accommodated more than 5000 passengers and crew!

Carnival Dream

Cruising is for me the ultimate relaxation and one can be as active or not as one chooses. There are multiple activities on board ranging from trivia and board games to pool side games as well as entertainment which is usually of the highest quality. Then, of course, there is the food which is usually excellent as well as having a cabin steward to make one’s bed and clean the cabin. Essentially all of one’s needs are taken care of and one also gets to visit exotic ports! What more can one ask for?

But this posting is about a very different type of experience on a couple of ships – far removed from today’s cruises. It was a ship that was used to provide basic transportation between India and Kenya. This was no cruise with all of the amenities I described above – though I have wondered on occasion whether my love for cruises is in any way related to the experiences recounted below.

The ships were operated by the British India Steam Navigation Company also known as the BI Line. There were several of these ships that plied the India to East Africa sea lanes. The better known ones were the Karanja, Amra, Kampala, State of Bombay, Muzzaffari and the Aronda! Most Indians who emigrated to East Africa from India from the 1930s’ to the 60s’ most likely arrived on one of these ships. All BI ships were named after places or areas where the company traded. One that I sailed on – the SS Amra – is named after a village east of Benares in Uttar Pradesh. Amra is also the name of a flowering tree that grows at high altitudes.

There were generally three classes of travel on these ships: there were a limited number of first class cabins usually occupied by Europeans (a term used in Kenya to describe anyone who was white), two grades of second class (2nd/A and 2nd/B) and the vast majority of the passengers were in deck class which was akin to multiple over-crowded dorms located in various parts of the ship.

I arrived in Mombasa in 1949 with my mother, my elder sister and brother on the SS Khandalla. I was three years old and remember nothing of that voyage. My father – who was already in Mombasa – told me that one of his lasting memories was the sight of us coming down the gangway at the port in Mombasa. My mother was carrying a bag in one hand and was holding on to my elder brother with the other hand. My sister was carrying me. My mother would always talk with horror about that voyage – apparently sea-sickness was rife and the overall conditions were horrendous.

Over a decade later a similar voyage on another of the BI ships was described as “full of six hundred vomiting Indian families fleeing East Africa because of the country’s (Kenya’s) upcoming independence”. So sea-sickness was very much part of the experience and some were hit harder than others especially if the seas were rough. It likely did not make things any easier for my mother given that she was traveling with three children. We all traveled deck class which was the least expensive method of travel – and the most crowded and least comfortable. Ventilation was poor and much depended on where within the deck one had a berth. Passengers to bring their own bedding since the ship would not provide it! There were common toilets and bathrooms …… just the most basic of amenities. It was essentially transportation and food! I believe the Khandalla was sold for salvage not long after that voyage.

But my most memorable voyages were on the SS Amra.

SS Amra

My parents were both teachers in Mombasa at the time and every four or five years, the British colonial administration – Kenya was then a British colony – would pay for transportation to India by ship. We were provided deck class tickets – for my parents and the family to voyage from Mombasa to Bombay (as it was then called before it became Mumbai). In December 1956, when I was ten years old, my parents and four children set sail for Bombay. My mother and younger brother who was then just two years old traveled second class to ease the inconvenience of having to travel deck class with a young child – after paying the difference to upgrade. My father, sisters and I traveled deck class.

The Amra was one of three ‘A’ class ships built for BI and was just over 8,000 tons. She was launched by Lady Willingdon on 29th April 1938 and sailed from London on 18th November on her delivery voyage to Calcutta to begin her brief career as a Burma mailship.

She was an immediate success on taking up the mail run at the end of 1938 but with her speed and extensive accommodation she was soon swept up into trooping duties, spending two periods in 1940 as a Personnel ship. In 1940 she was requisitioned as a hospital ship being converted at Bombay and seeing her first service between Somaliland and East and South Africa. In 1943 she moved into the Mediterranean, evacuating wounded from the Sicily and Salerno landings and was under constant German air attack despite being clearly marked and illuminated. She completed her service in September 1946.

The Amra’s post war service was as a passenger ship between East Africa and India. It was again modified and accommodated 45 first class, 110 second class, and well over 2000 deck class passengers! Consider this: an 8000 ton ship carrying well over 2100 passengers compared to the Carnival Dream which is over 128,000 tons and carries 5000 passengers and crew and one gets an idea of the crowded conditions and lack of amenities!

I was not quite 11 years old when I sailed on the Amra for the first time and being on board a ship for several days was about as exciting an experience as any for a kid brought up in Kenya. The voyage took between 8 and 10 days to complete depending on the conditions en route. The Amra was considered to be among the best of several ships that plied this route but that was not saying much given the standards of the other ships! There were lots of other kids in my age group for company and the whole experience of being on a ship was a novel one. There was Indian vegetarian food served in one restaurant …… more like a mess than a restaurant ….. where most of the Indian passengers would eat. I usually ate there mainly because the friends I made on board also ate there. There were servers who would go around with various types of food in large stainless steel buckets and ladle them on to the plates of the diners. My father ate at the non-vegetarian restaurant which was a rather more formal setting with waiter service, etc. I accompanied him at his insistence on one occasion. He also accompanied me on one occasion for vegetarian food but was clearly unimpressed with it. I suspect it was the chaotic atmosphere and the table manners of some of the passengers which turned him off even more so than the food.

It was on the Amra that I saw my first Hindi movie. It was a comedy called “Mastana” and I am not sure why I enjoyed it given that I did not understand Hindi. The movie was shown on the open deck with a make-shift screen and speakers that blared out! There were English movies also shown at various times in a similar setting.

Tombola, which is a game similar to Bingo, was another highlight of the activities in which many of the passengers participated.

I recall the Amra docking at Seychelles for a day where some passengers disembarked and a few people came on board. Kenya and, in fact East Africa, had a fairly sizable number of immigrants from the Seychelles. All through the voyage and especially near the Seychelles, one would witness all sorts of sea-life and especially flying fish.

Later in December of 1957, I returned alone to Mombasa by ship after a year in a boarding school in Bangalore, India – Bishop Cottons Boys School. It was a plan my parents conceived to educate me in India through high school and college – a plan that did not work out given that I returned to Kenya a year later! On this occasion I traveled by myself – a not quite 12 year old on board a ship for over a week by myself. Obviously it was a different era in that today, hardly any mode of transportation would allow a child to travel on his/her own without someone being responsible for the child. My parents thought that another family who were on board the ship would function as unofficial guardians but for whatever reason it did not happen. I did however travel second class and shared a cabin with three other Indian kids about my age – two were brothers. Once again I had a phenomenal time with even more leeway than when I traveled with my parents.

The Amra ended its sea-faring days after it arrived at Keelung, in Taipei on 2nd December 1965 for demolition. Her bell was later installed in the church at Sharjah shared by the Royal Air Force and the Trucial Oman Scouts.

Those voyages between Mombasa and India were memorable not just for me but also for many other Indians who lived in East Africa and traveled to and from India.

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82 Responses to “Voyages between Mombasa and Bombay – SS Khandalla and SS Amra”

  1. Hasmukh Doshi says:

    I remember our voyage in Amra in 1964 from Dar-Es-Salaam to Bombay (now Mumbai). I was fourteen at the time. Our family of six started from Dar-Es-Salaam to Mombasa (stopped 2 nights) to Seychelles stopping for a night and finally to Mumbai. It took just under fourteen days. Many passengers suffered from sea sickness. The food was marvellous. The films shown on the deck were black and white Bollywood films. I don’t think I can recall seeing any colour Bollywood films. I remember sneaking into second class at night where I saw Indian band performing English music for the benefit of second class passengers most of whom were Indians with Western values. Some were enjoying Waltz dancing and alcohol was available too. On decks during daytime we can see all kinds shapes and colour of fishes jumping out of sea and sometimes in a small groups as if performing a synchronised dance. Ohhh!! the ocean water was deep blue and in those days nobody had heard of pollution or plastic killing the marine life. One day I went right to the bottom of the ship where engines are located. They were massive engines and shaft driving propellers must be more than 10′ in diameter. The engine crew were wearing long piece of cotton clothe around their ears to keep the deafening sound of engine rooms to the minimum. There I met an Indian crew who had this small door open and the sea was visible 10′ below us. He had a fishing line out in the sea and showed me different types of big fish he had caught earlier. The fish were quite big and he said the crew will be eating them later in the evening. Presumable with curry I believe. That sailing voyage and those lovely days are forever etched in my memory. Take up cruising I recommend it though today’s cruise ships’ engine room are out of bound for passengers.

  2. Nutan says:

    Our family had travelled in april 1959 via state of bombay from mombasa to bombay when i was 8 yrs old.we travelled in pup deck class where well equipped cabins were there but wash rooms were common. Deck was common. Journey was for 9 days. Food was good but we all had vomiting sensatione except my mother who used to chew le
    On n ginger. We were from kaliro, uganda.

  3. Rama Bhikhabhai says:

    My parents together with elder brother (age 4) and sister (age 1) travelled in Amra ship in the beginning of 1947 from Bombay to Dar es Salaam. My mother vividly remembered that the steamer had made a halt at Seychelle Islands and it was very beautiful.
    I wonder if anybody knows more aobut travelling conditions during that time.
    One always wishes that one could have asked more questions to parents when they were still living.

  4. nahwaal says:

    Hi you say you travelled on this ship in 1947… my mother was born on this ship in 1948 she is from south africa. would like to know if can recall any memories on the ship in that time

  5. Anonymous says:

    Thank you for posting the image of SS AMRA and the informative post. My Grandfather, Captain Oliver Goldsmith, Wiltshire Regiment, died on SS AMRA on 24 January 1944, from a gunshot wound sustained in Italy.

  6. Raj says:

    I am doing our family tree and found that my father came to Mombasa on 14 October 1944. I would like to find out which boat and the passenger list on the boat that he came on. Does anyone have any information on how I can find this information?

    Many thanks

  7. Mukundan says:

    My father bought a ticket for me to travel to Tanga in Amra for 18 May 1958 bombay to Kampala via Karachi. He paid 750 shillings. I don’t know what class was my ticket. I was then a first year student of metallurgical engineering at Benares Hindu university. I was to travel after my first year examinations in May 1958. Tragically he died on 4th February in Tanga hospital after a short illness.my mother wound up our matters in Tanga and left Tanganyka and settled down in her native place in Kerala state in south India. My journey was cancelled. I visited Tanga many years later on 4th February 1985 to see where my father worked and where his body was cremated. He was working for Karimjee Jivanjee sisal estates. I think he went to east Africa in 1930.

  8. […] Lucky that her parents were already out in the ‘jungles’ but she was saddened to be leaving her grandmother and sisters behind. Accompanied by friends of the family, the train journey from Nar to the port of Mumbai was bearable. What she wasn’t prepared for, was the 10-day-journey on the steamer, across the Indian Ocean. […]

  9. Ravi Menon says:

    Hi – I remember sailing from Mombasa to Bombay on the SS Karanja in 1966. Not sure what month. Does a passenger list exist anywhere? Thanks!

  10. Joshua Mathew says:

    hi, I am Joshua Mathew and was born in Arusha, in the foot hills of Mt. Kilimanjaro on August 7th, 1962. I lived there till the age of four and travelled by ship in 1966 and never went back, I have very little memory of my birth place. My brother Jerry and sister Jessy were also born in Tanzania. they returned to India in 1970 with our mother and I remember talking about watching the movie chitty, chitty bang, bang more than a dozen times on the ship. The VW beetle car that was used in that movie is on show at the Euro Disney in Paris.

    in 1960 my dad had travelled by SS Amra to Bombay. My dad was working in Arusha, Dara-a-salam, Moshi from 1955 to 1971 and my grand father PM Joshua was there from 1950 to 1959.

  11. Joshua Mathew says:

    MY dad was the Manager of a Sisal factory and my mother a home science graduate was working in the Food science department. Both our parents are no more and so I am not able to get any more details. Both of them used to speak fluent zingbari. My father who was later working in Oman visited Tanzania twice between 2004 and 2008.

  12. I travelled on the SS State of Bombay from Dar es Salaam to Bombay mid December 1963. Reached Bombay on 31st December. I remember Itcha Parekh ( Asha Parents cousin from South Africa Annie from Kerala. Anyone still alive from that time ?

  13. shashi says:

    I was travelling from Uganda by train from tororo to mombasa in 1966 with my family it took 3 days by train to reach mombasa after 1 day rest I have to travel by S’S Amara steamer it took 10 days to reach
    BOMBAY it was fantastic time that time I was 16 years old

  14. Peter Jacoby says:

    I was a passenger in second class on the SS Karanja in September/October 1971, embarking in in S. Africa and destined for Karachi. The ship was redirected to Mumbai due to the India/Pakistan war that fall.

    We young travelers, a very interesting bunch indeed, were carefully attended to by the First Engineer – we called him Alice for what reason I can’t remember. Do you have any information as to Alice or other staff during that time. Love to see if they are still floating around somewhere.


    Peter Jacoby


    aMy best years of life from 1948 to 1960 in Kampala.I have travelled with my mother snd brother i 1954 , 1957 and 1959 by SS. KARANJIA ,S.S AMRA .It took 8 to 10 days but the trip was enjoyable.My father was in charge of Group of Insurance companies in Kampala.He was entitled First class fare and the trip was excellent.Those memories will always remain.

  16. joy alfonso says:

    I travelled as a child when I was under 10 from Uganda to Mombassa by train in the ’60s. We then travelled with my mum dad and my elder sister to Bombay, via Schyelles. As a child it was never frightening nor did we ever fear for our lives on the ship, we always sent ‘third class’ under the ship where the portholes would often go under the sea and could see the fish. We were allowed to roam on the ship freely and met so many young kids and played with them. We tried first-class once and never went back it was awful as it was so unsteady and we were so seasick. The food was fantastic in third class in the mess and we also used to go fishing on the deck where we managed to catch shark and swordfish. I wish I knew who my friends were and the ship I have no idea and wish we had receipts or passenger lists. Those were happy days and happy memories. The best ever tea was served on the ship first thing in the morning hot and milky so nice.

  17. I suspect The Library of Congress In Washington DC would keep electronic records of the List of passengers for most steam ships traveling between Bombay and Mombasa. If someone lives close to DC and has enough time, maybe they can do some research and let us know.


  18. Rick Pinto says:

    I have just come across this wonderful webpage and the series of posts made herein, having last night just by chance come across a DVD I had bought at the time there was a SS Titanic Anniversary presentation in my town in Lancashire UK in circa 2009. That started a chain-reaction as I sought some more information on these B+I Steamship Company steamers. In 1956,my late mother took me and my 2 brothers,along with my uncle,from Mombasa(I was born in Kenya)to Goa. I was there to study a further 7 years. I have vague recollection of that name SS Amra, but not am not 100% sure because the ship we travelled on, well below decks, and its allied sea-sicknesses recanted here, also called in at Karachi where we stayed 1 night. Most definitely did not call in at Seychelles. So, not precisely 100% sure was it the SS AMra, or the SS Karanja, or the SS Kampala but these names ring a bell in my now faded distant memories. If anyone reading this post recalls making that sailing route, Mombasa-Karachi-Bombay-or direct to Marmagoa,in Goa,I’d love to read their recollections so that I can tie in all my distant faded memories and share with my sister in the USA.

  19. TJ says:

    Rick, you probably were on the SS Amra. We did stop at Karachi en route to Mumbai – or Bombay at that time. You probably don’t recall the stop in Seychelles because we did not dock at the harbor – there may not have been one that could accommodate a ship the size of the Amra at that time. We docked some ways off and there was a tender that took passengers to and from the port to the ship. I am not sure of this but perhaps passengers allowed transportation to and from Seychelles were limited to those who had a reason to do so ….. it was not like a cruise where passengers were invited to do so as tourists. The stop was also used to restock on food and other necessities for the onward voyage to Bombay.

  20. Seema Clear says:

    Does anyone have a list of passengers travelling from Mumbai to Mombasa in 1944?
    Which steamers were around then?

  21. Kamaljit says:

    I travelled to Mombasa from Bombay in Oct Nov 1952. I was 4 years old and travelled with my mother and four brothers. My father was a teacher in Mombasa. I want find emigration records. Any idea from someone? I am sure all travellers had to fill emigrating papers with GOI.so if someone can provide leads to accès either BI line or GOI records, please do send a link to me on के kbinvest.kss@gmail.com

  22. Yasmin MAHATAY says:

    Does anyone know how I can get passenger lists for 3 ships. AMRA, KAMPALA AND KARANJA.

  23. SP says:

    I too would love to get hold of passenger lists. I’ve emailed The Ships List at P&O and in the meantime you can look at


  24. Rudolph. A.Furtado says:

    My father Late Mr Louis.J.Furtado worked for ” Smith Mackenzie ” in Mombasa and worked on.I ships as a ” Cargo Supervisor from the 1950’s upto 1977.I was born in Mombasa and have vivid memories of sailing on ” S.S.Karanja” as a kid from Mombasa to Bombay and back during our visit to India.My last voyage was in 1968 when my mother and myself permanently migrated to Bombay with Dad still employed in Mombasa.Remember watching the Hindi movies on the ship’s deck as well as the elders playing ” Horse racing” and also the band in attendance on occasions.I later became a ” Marine Engineer” and sailed on various types of ship’s for 23 years and it was those voyages on ” M.V.Karanja” as a kid that attracted me to a seafaring profession.After prematurely quitting sea employment started travelling the Globe on my own expenses indulging in extreme adventure sports.Today at the time of writing have visited 81 countries and almost entire India.My one dream is to sail on the World’s largest ship ” Symphony of the Seas” and link back to childhood travel on ” M.V.Karanja”.

  25. SP says:

    Thanks for post RUDOLPH A FURTADO. Do you know where I could get hold of passenger lists for the Karanja. My family and I left Mombasa for Bombay in either late 1968/early 1969 or early 1970. Don’t have exact date of travel. Both parents now sadly deceased so cannot ask them and siblings can’t remember the exact date. Thanks

  26. SP says:


    Here is a you tube video of the SS Karanja as she leaves the drydock in Singapore after an extensive refit.


  27. […] She grew up in Kenya, but attended school in India, and some of her fondest memories are of the ocean voyage to/from Mombasa and […]

  28. Helga says:

    Hi there, I’m looking for the duration of a voyage on the Karanja from Mumbai to Durban in 1950 – and also confirmation of the port stops if possible please? I require the info for a book I’m writing. Thank you!

  29. Zeferino Fernandes says:

    I was born in nairobi, kenya, and travelled to marmagoa, goa,landing on 16th april,1964. We had travelled on the AMRA,and the sea voyage from mombasa to marmagoa took 7 days. In nairobi, i had schooled in Dr. Ribeiro Goan school.

  30. Janet Lacey says:

    I travelled alone from Mombasa to Bombay at my booking I had to sign a form that I would not complain at the end of my journey. I suppose they were taking a lot on I was female and 24. My boyfriend had flight ticket and I had not!
    I loved the journey and the staff I was very safe and fed well.
    Very good memories of excitement and looking forward to countries and people new.


    Great reading. Brought back memories.

  32. John.Marcus Savy says:

    SS Amara,and her siblings.
    I bordered Amara with my mother at the end of 1946, heading for Tanga. Then to boarding school in Arusha. Looking back on these BI Liners. The reliability and safety records speak for themselves. Unlike the modern cruise ships these ships were in constant use and one never heard of fires or mechanical break downs like one hears today. My lasting impression is that they introduced me to the taste and smells of Asian Cousin, thank God. Bring on the Samossa,Jalebys and Bajeers.I am getting hungry. Fair sailing, love you all John, now in Panama.

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