Indus Flotilla

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The Indus Flotilla, also named as the Indus Steam Flotilla was a freight and passenger steamship service operating initially between Karachi and Multan(Mooltan).

With the opening of the Scinde Railway from Karachi to Kotri in 1858 the Flotilla service operated upstream from Kotri (Kotree on the Indus River and then the Chenab River to [Multan]], which by the River was 700 miles(1100km). These steamers were intended to accommodate the traffic between the ‘Scinde Railway’ and the ‘Punjaub Railway’ until the ‘Indus Valley State Railway’(IVSR) was built [1]. In the event the IVSR was not operational until 1878


File:Scinde Railway Company - Lines

The Scinde Railway Company was first established by deed of settlement in March 1855 and incorporated by the ‘Scinde Railway Act’ of Parliament in July 1855 after which a contract was entered with the East India Company in December 1855 for the construction of the ‘Scinde Railway’ for a line from Karachi to Kotri.

This was followed by further concessions granted to the Scinde Railway Company’ which included the establishment of the ’Indus Flotilla’ steamers to connect Kotri to Multan with the onward ‘Punjaub Railway’ to Amritsar and the ‘Delhi Railway’. These all to provide a complete connection from the port of Karachi to Delhi and opened in stages, finally in place by 1870 - see individual pages for further information

The Indus Flotilla was formed in 1856 by the ‘Scinde Railway Company’ to provide "the navigation of the Indus, etc, by means of steam vessels [sic], between Kotree(Kotri) and Moultan(Multan) , to be worked in connection with the railways. Capital - £ 250,000. Rate of Interest Guaranteed - 5 per cent." [2]. The terms negotiated were the same guaranteed rate of return as the original guaranteed railways.

History of Steam Navigation on the River Indus

The first steam boat on the River Indus was the ‘Indus’ in 1835, followed by ‘Planet’ and ‘Satellite’ in 1843. They took part in the Sind Campaign in 1842-43 and were maintained at Kotri under the command of the Indian Navy. From 1852 these three vessels operated a fortnightly postal mail service between Karachi and Multan [3]

The Oriental Inland Steam Company was established in 1856 and obtained an annual subsidy of Rs50,000 from the Government for the purpose of navigating main rivers of India with “steam trains” consisting of trains of barges drawn by powerful steamers but this company collapsed due to mismanagement and all its fleet was sold by 1869. It was reported that the current in the Indus River proved too strong for the lightly built steamers [3] .

Cargo coming into Indian subcontinent was first unloaded at Karachi’s Kimari harbour and then loaded onto small boats. These boats then used to take a circuitous route through several channels of Indus River Delta to a terminal on the banks of Indus at Jhirk (Jerruck) - about 18 miles downstream from Kotri) and transported to Indus Flotilla steamers, which took it upstream to Multan and Kalabagh in Northern Punjab[3] .

The Indus Flotilla was formed in 1856 and was based on shallow-draft steam vessels supplied from England (see section below). The Engineer-in-charge was John Brunton, who was also the Chief Engineer of the ‘Scinde Railway’ from Karachi to Kotri

The river journey between Karachi and Multan used to take up to 40 days [4]

With the opening of the ‘Scinde Railway’ from Karachi to Kotri in 1858, the steamer service operated upstream from Kotri , where the operating base of the ‘Indus Flotilla’ was established. In 1861 the Karachi-Kotri railway link opened and cargo was brought by train to the bank of the Indus at Kotri for shipment upstream. By 1862 the steamer service was running up the Indus to Makhad, about 750miles(1200km) upstream from Kotri. The northern portion of the line was often referred to as the ‘Punjab Flotilla’ [4]

Steam Vessels in use on the River Indus

A research article “The High Hopes and Sad Demise of the Indus Flotilla” [5] provides a very detailed account of many of the steamers in use on the River Indus. The following are listed as playing an helpful role in the Sind Campaign in 1842-43 by carrying troops, shelling the enemy on the banks and preventing them from crossing the river :- ‘Planet’ and ‘Satellite’ , 350 tons; ‘Napier’ and ‘Meteor’; ’Comet’ and’ Meanee’; ‘Conqueror’, ‘Satellite’, ‘Asyria’ and ‘Nimrod’ .

Indus Flotilla Steam Vessels The shallow-draft steam vessels were supplied from England , the following have been identified:-

  • The ‘Indus Flotilla’ Chief Engineer John Brunton records that the first vessel as “the ‘Pioneer’ boat was sent out, built by Scott Russell, in pieces – I had to put her together and try her on the River Indus. I laid down ‘ways’ at Kiamari to lauch her ’broadside on’ – a novelty in India ... “[1]. Scott Russell shipyard was in Millwall, London [6]. It is not known if this was the only vessel purchased from Scott Russell but certainly Brunton was not impressed with its performance “As to the steamer I had always protested against the ‘lines’ on which she was built, as being anything but correct for a river steamer to make passages against a 3 knot current”.
  • ‘Richardson, Duck and Co’ of Thornaby-on-Tees and Whitby, shipbuilders, built six shallow draught steam vessels for the Indus Flotilla Co, established by the Scinde, Punjab and Delhi Railway. The engines were by Kitson and Hewitson [7]
  • ‘Matthew Pearse and Co’, of North Shore yard, Stockton-on-Tees in 1861 built a troopship for the Indus Flotilla Co. At the time it was the largest vessel to sail on the Indus, at 377 ft long, 46 ft over the paddle boxes, and a draught of just 2 ft. The vessel made 12 mph in trials. It was scrapped after over 20 years service [8]

Later Developments

In 1870 the ‘Indus Flotilla’ was merged with the ‘Scinde Railway’, the ‘Punjaub Railway’ and the ‘Delhi Railway’ to form the ‘Scinde, Punjaub & Delhi Railway’ and its management was transferred to Lahore

In 1878 the ‘Indus Valley State Railway’ was completed and Karachi was connected to Lahore via railways; hence the ‘Indus Flotilla’ lost its importance as the essential means of communication. The railway linked flotilla was abolished in 1882-83 but the steamers of ‘Indus Flotilla’ continued to work for many years after that with diminished business [3].
The reason for the delay until 1878 in completing this vital railway link is fully explored on the 'Indus Valley State Railway' page

In 1886, the contracts expired and responsibility for the railway was transferred entirely to the Government of India(GoI). The GoI merged the ‘Scinde, Punjaub & Delhi Railway’ with other smaller state-owned railways to create the ‘North Western Railway’.


Refer to FIBIS Fact File #4: “Research sources for Indian Railways, 1845-1947” - available from the Fibis shop. This Fact File contains invaluable advice on 'Researching ancestors in the UK records of Indian Railways' with particular reference to the India Office Records (IOR) held at the British Library

An on-line search of the IOR records relating to this railway [9] gives 36 references. The most important being:-

  • L /AG/46/17/14-18 “ Indus Steam Flotilla; 1858-1870” ( part of IOR/L/AG/46/17 “Records of the Scinde, Punjab, Delhi Railway Company 1855-1886”)

Further Information

See Scinde Railway Company
and Scinde Railway, Punjaub Railway and Delhi Railway
and Scinde, Punjaub & Delhi Railway following amalgamation in 1870 until 1886

External Links