A Chinese steamer in East Africa

Reading John Bruce Cairnie’s war diary, I was struck at the mention of a Chinese steamer, the Kwong-Sang transporting men between Dar-es-Salaam and Kilwa in 1918.
I know Chinese labour served in East Africa as part of the war effort, but I’d not come across the ship before.
The SS Kwong-Sang was a cargo steamship built in 1902 at Newcastle by Wigham-Richardson and Co, with a tonnage of 2283 grt, and was 88.4 x 12.8 x 4.6 m able to travel at 12.1 knots. She sank on 10 August 1931 after running aground during a typhoon off Fuhyan Island near Santuao. Three of the 51 people on board survived and were in the hands of pirates at the time of the news report (Shanghai, 20 August 1931).
The Kwong-Sang was owned by the Indo-China Steam Navigation Company, registered in London (wrecksite.eu).

How the steamer came to be working on the East African coast during the war can only be surmised at this stage – either the steamer was commissioned at the time of the Chinese labour negotiations or the route to India – Calcutta – was extended to Africa because of the number of Indian troops serving in East Africa.

What is known from Cairnie’s diary is that he and his 130 5/4 King’s African Rifles boarded the steamer on 5 January 1918 at Dar es Salaam and that she was a small ship difficult to board at sea. He wrote:

The ascaris are very awkward about climbing & going up or sown stairs, especially if they are laden with a rifle, a bag full of water, a pair of boots slung round their necks, & full marching order in addition. If their boots are on their feet they are worse still. Water is going to be rather a problem on this boat so each man has brought a chagul & water-bottle full aboard, & we have done the same. We have also to look after our own feeding, & live entirely on deck.

On 24 January 1918, HMS Challenger reported seeing SS Kwong-Sang at 10.30 on Challenger’s route from Kilwa Kisiwani to Port Amelia. Later at 12.20pm the Kwong-Sang was noted to ‘have arrived’ presumably in the harbour at Port Amelia.

According to The Directory & Chronicle for China, Japan, Corea, Indo-China, Straits Settlements, Malay States, Sian, Netherlands India, Borneo, the Philippines etc, in 1909, the Captain was WP Baker and the Chief Engineer E Munsie.

A Board of Trade file for SS Kwong-Sang, official number: 115883, can be found at The National Archives, Kew reference BT 110/1651/26. It has not been possible to access this file to see what information may be held concerning the war years due to 2020 lockdown.

A brief history of the Indo-China Steam Navigation Company can be found here, while some of the company records can be found in Cambridge.

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