Know Your City: A colonial ship named ‘City of Poona’ and how it met with a tragedy


In July 1852, British explorer William Parker Snow decided to sail to Australia from London, looking to start his next expedition that intended to cross the Bering Strait. His previous, and rather ambitious, undertaking to locate Sir John Franklin’s lost expedition (that led to the death of all 129 crew members, including Franklin) had failed.

For the Melbourne journey, Snow booked a cabin aboard the sailor ship ‘City of Poonah’ that made regular trips from London to Madras, Calcutta and Mumbai, via Melbourne. Named after the former capital of the Maratha empire, the ship was meant primarily for trade but also carried passengers.

The first advertisement about the arrival/departure of ‘City of Poonah’ is published in a London newspaper in October 1838, suggesting that it may have been pressed into service around that time. The ship – described in the newspaper notices as a “splendid teak built ship”, “coppered and copper-fastened”, and “having good and specious accommodations” – was built by shipbuilding firm Messers Green of Backwall, owned by John Green, who built ships mainly for the East India Company.

A London newspaper advertisement from September 1839 for ‘City of Poonah’ sailing for Bombay.

“The ship in which I had taken my passage was one of Green’s, and called the ‘City of Poonah’, after a city of India, so named. She was teak built, – of 900 tons register, and had already been on several voyages in the Eastern trade. Roomy and strong, she, like all her sisters in the same employ and belonging to the same owners presented, to all appearance, a good opportunity for making the voyage in comfort…,” Snow wrote in his diary.

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It is not known why the firm named the ship after ‘Poonah’, an archaic English spelling of Poona, as Green is not known to have travelled to India at all. The convention at that time was to name ships after mythical figures, cities, or royalties. The ship, obviously, never came to Poona – now Pune – as the city is not connected to the sea, although it is known to have travelled to ports in Bombay, Calcutta and Madras.

Indian indentured labourers prepare to board a ship to be taken to their destinations. (Illustration: Radio Times Hulton Picture Library)

‘City of Poonah’ is wrecked

Starting from around the late 1830s, the ship was a popular vessel for ‘Eastern trade’ and passage, until 1853 when it was damaged and abandoned while on a return trip to London from Calcutta.

Snow, who had travelled from London to Melbourne on the ship, was not surprised that the ship did not complete her voyage back to London. He blamed the superstitious beliefs of the captain for the ship’s fate, a sample of which he had seen even before it departed from England, as the captain refused to sail off the Plymouth port despite having a good breeze as it was a Friday.

“Our Captain said he never sailed on a Friday; and his orders from the owners, he added, were to that effect. Consequently the whole of Friday we remained at anchor…However, to show the fallacy of putting any faith in such superstitious practices I have to add that the result was precisely the reverse of what is usually anticipated on such occasions. For, this very vessel, though not sailing on a Friday when she would otherwise have departed, was wrecked before she had completed her voyage back to her home port,” wrote Snow.

A news report in The Sidney Morning Herald in September 1853 noted that ‘City of Poonah’ was lost on June 12, 1853, at Saugor (Sagar island off Bay of Bengal) and its pilot (identified as Mr Porter) was put on trial for negligence.

The ship’s captain, Mr Triscot, defended the captain when put in the witness box, but blamed other officers who were responsible for keeping a watch.

“Nothing has occurred since to lead me to suppose the ship could have been saved (from the accident). The only cause I can assign for the ship driving was that we had split a shackle, but the weather was so fine, that had there been any body (a sailor) awake the driving of the ship must have been observed,” the report quotes Triscot as saying.

More ‘Poonah’ ships, cholera and Indian indentured labourers

Nine years after Green’s ‘City of Poonah’ was lost, another British shipping firm, the Peninsular And Oriental Steam Navigation Company (P&O), built and inducted in its fleet an iron-bodied steamer named ‘City Of Poonah’. At 431 feet, the ship was the longest that the company possessed at the time.

In June 1866, it was ‘City of Poona’ which was said to have brought cholera to Southampton in England while coming there from Alexandria. “Up to June 10, 1866, Southampton had enjoyed a singular immunity from disease of every kind, and diarrhoea was unknown in the place. On that day the steamship Poona arrived, having lost a man from cholera on the previous day. On the 11th, 12th, and 13th, several cases of diarrhoea occurred among the crew and soon after symptoms of cholera emerged in several of them. By within a month and a half, 66 people had died due to Cholera,” a local government report from the time reads.

Another ship, simply named ‘Poonah’, used to sail at this time. It was a three-masted sailing ship owned by Tyser and Haviside which had commissioned it in 1867. This ship occasionally was used to take Indian indentured workers to destinations in other European colonies.

This ship made news in June 1883 for being one of the four vessels blamed for introducing cholera to Fiji. As per news reports from the time, the ‘Poonah’ had left Calcutta in April 1883 with 495 indentured labourers and vessel staff, of which 54 persons developed symptoms of cholera soon after the departure from India.

“There have been 26 deaths from the time of departure until that of arrival, the majority of which have been from cholera… As a matter of course, the vessel is in quarantine,” Suva Times reported.

The name continued to be popular in the 20th century with two more ships being named ‘Poona’. In 1912, Ellerman City Lines launched its twin-screw passenger ship ‘City of Poona’. It remained in service until 1935 when it was scrapped and broken up in Kobe, Japan.

In 1946, the same shipping film launched a cargo ship ‘City of Poona’, a purely cargo ship. In 1968, it was renamed ‘Benarkle’ and in 1976, scrapped and broken up at Kaohsiung, Taiwan.


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