P&O's absorbing heritage collection tells the story of Britain's ties with Dubai

The 44,000 objects have been amassed over the course of the shipping company's almost 200 year-history

A painting of Dwarka, a passenger and cargo ship that used to operate an India/Gulf service from Bombay, calling at Karachi, Mina Qaboos, Dubai, Bahrain and Kuwait. Photo: P&O Heritage / DP World
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Among shipping company P&O's vast heritage collection sits a ceremonial dagger.

It is not the largest nor even the most expensive item among the 44,000 objects the company has amassed over its almost 200-year history.

But it is one of the most treasured.

Given to the first ship to enter Port Rashid in 1970 by Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed, former Ruler of Dubai, the dagger plays a key part in a collection documenting a changing company, life on the waves and enduring links between UK and Middle East.

“The collection itself is vast,” Susie Cox, senior curator of P&O's heritage collection, told The National on a tour of some of the items in London. The oldest artefacts date back to the company’s earliest days and include objects from P&O and 12 other shipping lines which it came to own.

“It is an important collection of national importance covering nearly 200 years of maritime history and global trade by sea,” said Ms Cox.

P&O's business archive is on show at London's National Maritime Museum, where anyone can access it.

Other notable items in the collection are sent out on loan, such as its silver, a selection of which is currently on show at Laing Art Gallery’s "Visions of Ancient Egypt" exhibition.

But much of the collection is kept behind closed doors, either in storage, or on display at its various offices around the world, including the Expo Pavilion and at DP World at Jebel Ali in Dubai.

The Khanjar Dagger was presented to Sirdhana by Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed, former Ruler of Dubai, in 1970. Photo: P&O Heritage / DP World

The London office of global ports giant DP World — which acquired P&O in 2006 — has 100 objects on display, including the ceremonial dagger, which tells a “lovely circular story”, said Ms Cox.

It was presented in 1970 to a British India Steam Navigation Company ship (BI), another giant of the British steamship companies, which was founded in 1856 and later merged with P&O.

Sheikh Rashid, the Ruler of Dubai at the time, handed it to the captain of the Sirdhana, a ship that was a regular visitor to Dubai from 1909 to 1969 delivering mail.

Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed presenting the ceremonial dagger to Captain Cunningham of the Sirdhana in 1970. Photo: P&O Heritage / DP World

“Because of that relationship, essentially a BI steamer was chosen to be the first ship to come into the new port at Port Rashid,” said Ms Cox.

“And I think that’s a really good story, because the opening of Port Rashid is a formative part of the DP World story."

The dagger stayed on the ship until it came out of service, when it was then added to the P&O collection.

“The fact we have got an object so related to that actual event, but has come back into, that for me is just a really nice circle. So we are thrilled to have that. And we are thrilled that we could display it,” she said.

“I know these are very common in the Arab states.

“As an object it won’t seem particularly unusual. But its survival in our collection and its meaning is really great. So many things were lost from the BI collection but funnily enough this one wasn’t.”

The P&O headquarters in Hong Kong. Photo: P&O Heritage / DP World

Other UAE-related items from the past on display in the company’s London office, in the heart of Victoria, include a painting of Dwarka, a passenger/cargo ship that used to operate an India/Gulf service from Bombay, calling at Karachi, Mina Qaboos, Dubai, Bahrain and Kuwait.

Dwarka was well known in Dubai and she finished that Gulf service in 1982. But also it is to kind of illustrate life before containerisation, which is hard to imagine now.

“Most ships at that time still had an onboard crane. But it was time consuming. So it just reminds us how enormous the change with containerisation has been. And P&O was very much at the forefront of that.”

P&O's Braganza off the English Coast. Skillett's painting depicts the ship flying an early version of the P&O house flag with the yellow and white quarters reversed. Photo: P&O Heritage / DP World

Some of the items are much older still. One of the earliest objects is an 1836 painting of a paddle steamer, which played a seminal role in the growth of P&O.

Called Braganza, after the House of Braganza in Portugal, the ship sailed the company’s first route in the Iberian peninsula, which was established due to its connections in Spain and Portugal.

“Two of the founding fathers had already charted ships to take cargo to Spain and Portugal,” said Ms Cox.

“Because they had such good relations with the Spanish and Portuguese, particularly their royal families, they were allowed to fly the royal colours of Spain and Portugal, which were at the time were not quite as they were now. But they were the Bourbons and Braganzas and that gave them the four colours of the P&O flag.”

Except the flag in the painting is depicted upside down compared to how it looks now. The heritage team’s three members are not sure if that was by accident or an earlier iteration of the flag. Their research into the subject continues, said Ms Cox.

A poster on show in DP World's London office. Photo: P&O Heritage / DP World

The objects in the collection, both those on display and in storage, each catalogue a comprehensive history of the company’s growth.

Mail contracts, the basis of trade, were key. Steam was expensive and mail contracts gave the company a reliable source of income.

“And once you had a mail contract it meant you would leave at a certain time and arrive at a certain time. So on the back of that you could attract passengers and cargo,” said Ms Cox.

“P&O’s growth is all about getting mail contracts. So they start with the Iberian peninsula. And then they get a mail contract for Egypt and then India, China, Japan and all the routes east of Suez.

“The P in P&O is because of the Iberian peninsula. Then in 1840, when they got that mail contract for Egypt, they add oriental to the name.

“And because they add oriental to the name, they need an insignia for oriental. So they come up with the rising sun in the east.”

A badge featuring the rising sun insignia from a lifeboat on the RMS Arabia, a P&O ocean liner that was sunk in 1916 by a German U-boat, is also on show in DP World’s London office.

“It was torpedoed when it was just carrying passengers on a normal voyage. The Germans said they mistook the dresses of the women passengers for the Chinese Army,” said Ms Cox.

A plaque from P&O's Arabia, which was torpedoed in1916. Photo: P&O Heritage / DP World

“This is one of these things in the collection that was donated. But it was taken off the lifeboats.”

The extensive heritage collection includes around 630 paintings, 219 ship models, 300 posters, 693 films and 12,430 x historic photographs, among many other objects, including an engine telegraph repeater, which is also on show in London.

“We have books, registers, logs. What you are not seeing but what we do have and currently it’s out on display but we have a silver collection as well, some amazing pieces of Egyptian silver,” said Ms Cox.

The objects came into DP World’s possession when it acquired P&O in 2006.

“They have been the most fantastic custodian of the collection. I came with the collection. So I have been through the transition and only have positive things to say about what we have been able to do with it.

“That in itself has been fantastic. We have been able to display more. We have been able to digitise more.

“We have gone a bit more modern.”

Updated: March 03, 2023, 6:00 PM