Wednesday, 8 May 2013


Late in the year 1946, the Partners of Cowasjee & Sons, who had till then, prior to World War II, considerable experience in chartering ships for their coal and salt business decided to enter into ship-owning. Led by Rustom and Noshirwan Cowasjee, they purchased a World War I built ship “Seringa”, took delivery of her on 27th January, 1947, and renamed her “Firoza”. As Karachi was not then a port of registry she was registered at Bombay.

As interesting interlude, pre war Lloyds Register of Ships record shows Mr. Minocher Cowasjee as the owner of the Bucket Dredger “Edward Jackson”. This dredger was sold for scrap by Karachi Port Trust. She was repaired and re-commissioned by Mr. Minocher and his colleague Mr. Hashim Ghanci a famous scrap merchant and chartered to the Gaekwar of Baroda who was then setting up Port Okha and she became the nucleus of the development of that Port.

The first partnership named East & West Steamship Co., consisting of nine members of the Cowasjee Family was formed and registered at Karachi on 6th August, 1947.

(Cowasjee family originally belonged to “Variaw” – a port near Surat. The family moved to Karachi in 1860 – at that time Karachi Port was upto Native Jetty)

Meanwhile these same owners purchased thirteen minesweepers from the Royal Indian Navy of LOA 153 feet and about 450 GRT. The purpose was to convert them into small coastal ships to trade on the west coast of India upto Colombo and to the Persian Gulf ports. Four of these ships were converted to cargo carriers at the Cowasjee owned shipyard of British India Engineering Works at Karachi. The first to be named “Fatima”, after the first lady of Pakistan, became first merchant ship to be registered in the newly established Port of Registry at Karachi on 11th August, 1948. Further conversions were abandoned as the coastal trade had died down gradually.

The next to join the fleet was Fakira. Later more ships were acquired and the Pakistan Merchant fleet took shape and became a reality.

At the time of partition the port of Chittagong, the only port in East Pakistan was very small and underdeveloped. Drafts at the Karnaphuli River were very low ranging between 22 and 24 feet at high tides. Ships had to wait upto 60 / 70 days to obtain berth at one of the only four suitable berths available. Ships had to register at the port for berthing, waited several days, and often ran out of bunkers and fresh water thus had to proceed to the nearest bunkering port of Vishakapatnam to replenish. Incidents were known when this was done twice during a ships single call. Added to this, ships had to unload part of their cargo into barges to achieve the smaller draft for entering the Karnaphuli River where port of Chittagong was located.

Mostly the ships carried rice and general cargoes from Karachi to Chittagong and return via Calcutta or Vishakapatnam with coal cargoes and jute for Karachi. A round voyage took anything upto 100 days. This continued till 1956 when India stopped coal shipments to Pakistan.

With the increase of the fleet year by year and development of Chittagong Port and tea and paper industries all over East Pakistan the inter coastal trade flourished. However shortage of shipping space continued to be felt till late 50s, putting “premium” on freight rates.

Another venture of the East & West Steamship Co. was in the field of Salvage. Until 1952 this side of shipping remained the sole and close preserve of German, Dutch and Danish Companies. East & West broke this stranglehold to become the first company in South Asia to enter this field to the great displeasure of the north Europeans. In 1952 they took from the British Admirality a Salvage Vessel on a five year bareboat charter. Manned by German officers and Pakistani crew under the personal supervision of Partners of East & West, many stranded and distressed ships were salvaged by them.

The most famous case was that of the Norwegian Ship “Telodo” which ran aground whilst outward bound from Karachi in June 1952, and found herself stranded due to very rough weather and swell. On Clifton beach, she became a sightseers target every evening when cars could drive around her at low tide. After strenuous combined efforts of East & West’s “Salvigil” and small coasters combined with the barge fleet of Cowasjee & Sons she was eventually re-floated. Her entire valuable cargo of 5,000 tons was safely landed and transported by road via Clifton to Keamari. For this enterprise Lloyd’s Underwriters awarded to the Cowasjee the highest recorded salvage which remained in the Guinness Book of Records for over 14 years.

Upto 1956 Pakistan’s North Western Railway and East Bengal Railway were entirely dependent on coal for their engines. This coal was supplied by India over its land borders and partly be sea. India suddenly decided to curtail its supply leaving Pakistan Railways and Government in quandary. Large stocks of coal were urgently required. International Coal markets were not prepared to supply the quantities required.

The ministry of Industries under whom the Coal Commissioner operated called upon Mr. Rustom Cowasjee to use his thirty year connections with British Owners of coal mines in South Africa. Mr. Cowasjee together with Mr. Dinshaw who were the largest bunker coal suppliers in Pakistan managed with their old connections to induce the mine owners for supply an emergency supply of 750,000 tons.

Timely transport was the next hurdle and Government unilaterally decided East & West to be the sole ship-owner capable of arranging such quantities in the short time required and placed an order for 400,000 and 350,000 tons each to Karachi and Chittagong respectively to be transported in chartered ships. This was done within a period of six / seven months most successfully at a fixed rate per ton to government. During the period 1947-1974 East & West had owned 18 ocean going ships.

As the shortage of shipping between the two wings continued due to the inordinate delays at East Pakistani Ports, the company formulated a new concept of a scheduled cargo cum passenger service and for this purpose purchased in 1961 a German passenger cum cargo ship to be named “Rustom”. Heavy opposition to this concept was raised by other ship-owners resulting “Rustom” not being allowed to operate according to this concept, despite prior approval  having  been  granted  by Government. With the great perseverance of Mr. Ardeshir Cowasjee for almost one year, government eventually agreed to allow the 26 day round voyage concept. This service was started in 1962 and followed by other ship-owners who had then strenuously opposed same. The “Rustom” continued to be the most favored ship in the inter-wing traffic till joined by the purpose built “Ohrmazd” in 1968. Later ship remained the pride of East & West Steamship Company fleet till nationalization of Private Shipping by Government in 1974.

After the separation of the two wings of Pakistan, “Rustom” and “Ohrmazd” traded successfully between Karachi and Northern Europe, the latter achieving the highest daily rate of charter at that time for a ship of that size.

True history must record all facts available. During their ownership East & West lost two ships at sea.

The first was “Fakira” in February, 1956 in the China Seas. The redeeming factor was that all crew managed to take safely to the lifeboats and were rescued by a merchant ship which landed them at the port of Saigon. The Owners chartered KLM Super Constellation to bring them to Karachi as “destitute seamen with no baggage”. They were surprised by a demand from the airline, it turned out that the crew had managed to salvage much more than their personal belongings including the ships crockery cutlery and linen before abandoning ship. The sole exception was the second mate Mr. Abdul Jabbar Randev who was the last to leave the ship with only her compass and log books in true maritime tradition. Pakistan Government honored Mr. Randev for his bravery under distress. After retiring from sea life Capt. Jabbar served meritoriously as Principal Officer Mercantile Marine Department for many years.

The other loss was that of the “Minocher Cowasjee” in 1957. Whilst on a voyage from Tientsin in North China to Antwerp via the Cape of Good Hope, off the coast of Madagascar, the ship suddenly stopped sending her noon report to the owners who promptly alerted the agencies in the vicinity. With the assistance of underwriters an air sea search / rescue operation was organized for over ten days without success and the ship was declared lost with all hands on board.

The erstwhile owners also took pride in their standard of maintenance of their ships. They mention two episodes demonstrating this. The first, in 1965 after the Indo-Pak war, the Government was badly in need of coal to be imported from China and against the protest of the owners, ordered the “Fakirjee Cowasjee” then 40 years old to proceed in ballast to North China in full cyclone season. A foolhardy direction by marine standards. The ship encountered heaviest gales in the China seas to the extent that the Master reported moving backwards for three days in his noon reports. She eventually made it to Tientsin to the great relief of the government officer who gave the order, and the owners who cared for their crew.

In July, 1966 the same ship, then 41 years old, whilst on voyage from Karachi to Chittagong in the Bay of Bengal in heavy monsoon received a distress call from a sinking Greek Ship. Being the nearest ship in the vicinity the Master gave full speed ahead to his Chief Engineer who responded by reaching a speed of 15 knots with the whole ship shuddering. They succeeded to rescue several seamen.

A year later owners sought government permission to scrap this ship which was promptly refused owing to the past record. The Director General, a Commodore from Pakistan Navy  was eventually persuaded to grant the request when his attention was drawn to the fact that the ship was two years older than him.

1 comment:

  1. Nisha:

    We were wondering if you have any information on the East & West order for (8) BAC One-Eleven Jets in 1961-62? The order was placed on behalf of an airline called Western Airways. The order was cancelled in 1963 but we were wondering if maybe East & West were planning to get into the airline business?