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Inchcape & British India

'It is an enormous advantage to the Company looking not today, or tomorrow but to the future that we should be united with a great Company like the British India Company.' Sir Thomas Sutherland, AGM, 1914

Like P&O, the British India Steam Navigation Company (BI) was a company of size, age and standing. Together they shared a Scottish heritage and influence in India.

In 1847 William Mackinnon and Robert Mackenzie set up in business in Calcutta. Within a decade they had secured a mail contract from Calcutta to Rangoon and the forerunner of BI, the Calcutta and Burmah Steam Navigation Company, was established. It was the first of many mail contracts which would enable BI to dominate the coastal traffic in India and to branch out to the Settlement Straits of Penang, Singapore and Malacca, the Arabian Gulf and Africa’s East Coast.

P&O and BI enjoyed a long history together - sometimes as competitors but more often as companions: 'We have always been friends, and close friends of the BI company.'

Like Sutherland, Inchcape’s career with Mackinnon Mackenzie, and later BI, began at an early age with a position overseas. Inchcape spent many years in Calcutta where he rapidly rose through the ranks, enjoying high office and respect in the region, as well as the company. In 1893 he was recalled to London to take over the management of BI on the death of Sir William Mackinnon.

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Sutherland and Inchcape were good friends, united by their shipping interests for over 30 years, and able to mastermind the merger in secrecy, taking the City by surprise. The two companies amalgamated by means of an exchange of stock, creating a total joint capital of £15 million. Directors of both companies served on each other’s boards and a joint board was formed of twelve P&O and eight BI directors. In all other respects the two companies continued to run entirely separately, complementing each other’s services and routes.

Inchcape was appointed Chairman of the joint board, allowing Sutherland to begin ‘an honourable retirement’ at the age of 80, after a life devoted in service to the Company.

Inchcape commanded P&O for the next 17 years, building an empire as he went and gathering influence and respect as ‘the doyen of British ship-owners’ along the way.