Mervyn Marciel

Nairobi-born Mervyn Marciel in this photo taken in London on October 2, 2023. He worked as an administrator in the colonial government and left Kenya for the United Kingdom in 1966.

| Pool

When a giant ship heading to Kenya was sunk

What you need to know:

  • Two hundred and eighty people died, among them the parents and three siblings of one Kenyan.
  • Mervyn Maciel wants the memory of ship sunk by Japanese submarine during World War II to be revived.

The world’s superpowers were at war and there were fears that something unexpected could happen to the ship, but it took everyone by surprise when their vessel was struck.

To those on board, the strike registered as a blood-freezing bang from the giant ship’s belly. We are talking about a ship carrying 958 people and 6,000 tonnes of cargo.

Later, it would be established that an underwater missile (torpedo) had been fired at the ship from a submarine lurking underneath. 

It was at night, and the hit from the torpedo stopped the ship suddenly. Like the Titanic did after hitting an iceberg, the ship started gradually sinking, starting with its head (deck), as passengers scrambled to get out.

Out of fears of an attack, several lifeboats had been stocked and they came in handy. It was a matter of jumping into the boat or waiting to sink with the ship.

A second missile was fired not too long afterwards and this accelerated the sinking. Two hundred and eighty people died, among them the parents and three siblings of one Kenyan. We will come to this Kenyan shortly.

Now, some specifics. The ship was called SS Tilawa. Never heard about it? Well, some people believe history conveniently forgot this tragedy that happened during World War II. Many times, including in a BBC documentary aired in May, SS Tilawa has been labelled the Indian Titanic. 

Why Indian? Because it had started its journey from Mumbai, India, and it was carrying mostly Indians on the Indian Ocean. It was set to dock in Mombasa, Maputo then Durban. 

Historians are unanimous that the strike came from a Japanese submarine. The submarine was codenamed I-29 and is believed to have been destroyed after its second secret mission.

Mervyn Marciel

Nairobi-born Mervyn Marciel during the launch of his book ‘Bwana Karani’ in the 1980s. He is with Mr Koo Ombati, then a press attache at the UK High Commission in London.

Photo credit: Pool

The other specifics applying to this tale are that the ship started its journey on November 20, 1942. She was torpedoed in the early hours of November 23. The 678 who survived were inside lifeboats on the raging waters of the ocean, braving rain and cantankerous weather until November 25 when other ships that had received a distress call reached the scene. The attack had happened near Seychelles. 

In 2017, an exploration company discovered the spot where the ship landed on the ocean floor. It also found the 60 tonnes of silver that formed part of the ship’s cargo. It was destined for South Africa where it was to be used to make currency. There is an existing dispute on whether it is the exploration company or South Africa that should own the silver whose value is estimated to be £32 million (Sh5.8 billion).

Another fact about the incident is that there was little done to have it remembered. It was only last year, on the 80th anniversary of the tragedy, that one Emile Solanki, a great-grandson of one of the people who sank in the tragedy, organised a memorial in Mumbai.

“Over 100 people attended. The location was fitting since the SS Tilawa last left this very port, and the survivors were brought back here on November 27, 1942. His Majesty’s British Deputy High Commissioner, Mr Alan Gemmell, was the chief guest and delivered a speech including a pledge for the commission to place a wreath each year in memory of the SS Tilawa incident and lives lost,” says a press release from, the online platform formed by the Solanki family to remind the world of the tragedy.

On November 23, another commemoration will be held in the UK, at the London Greenwich National Maritime Museum. It will be an invite-only event.

The Kenyan who was rendered an orphan by the tragedy, now aged 94, will be among those attending. His name is Mervyn Maciel.

Mr Maciel was born in Nairobi in 1929. Had he not been in secondary school in India in 1942, he would have died in the SS Tilawa tragedy. One fact about him is that, as a government employee, he was involved in censoring letters to and from prisoners during the State of Emergency in Kenya. The other fact is that one of his children is buried inside the Nyabururu Catholic parish in Kisii.

Mr Maciel had an interview with Lifestyle from his home in London. Below, he shares his story.

“I’m a British Goan, born in Nairobi on May 19, 1929. My parents came to Kenya because of the economic situation in Goa, my ancestral home. 

Most Goans moved to East Africa. There were no jobs and however qualified you were, you couldn’t get a good job. I think the British (colonial) government was very keen to recruit Goans because we are noted for our honesty and dependability and efficiency, plus dedication to our work. And that is how my father and many Goans came to Kenya. 

My two brothers were also born in Nairobi. The fourth brother died with my mother at childbirth in 1935. 

Currently, I live in a suburb of London called Sutton in Surrey, now for over 50 years. I arrived here from Kenya in May, 1966. We lived in a very modest house, which we call Manyatta. 

My most recent trip to Kenya was some 30 years ago when I organised the funeral of my younger brother, Wilfred, who was killed in a road accident on Thika Road. Wilfred, a Kenyan citizen, was an advertising executive by profession but also a freelance journalist who had the privilege of interviewing Mzee Jomo Kenyatta during his restriction in Maralal.

He was the chief executive, and marketing executive of Serena Lodges. He was also the advertising manager of East African Airways, and a good friend of the late well-known journalist, Hilary Ng’weno. 

It is 68 years since I got married but, sadly, I lost my wife to Covid three years ago. Years ago, we also lost our two-year-old son, who is buried in a missionary cemetery in Nyabururu in Kisii. He was born with a congenital heart. We knew nothing about it until a specialist in Nairobi told us about it.

He died a very painful death, and because of his short life, he is buried in the missionary plot at Nyabururu Catholic Mission in Kisii. I was working there when he died. We didn’t set up any tombstone for him. I think all the fathers or the missionaries had put up at that time was a cross. I don’t know if it still stands.

Besides the one we lost, I have two sons and two daughters. I also have eight grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. They’re all scattered in different parts of the world: some in Australia, some in England, some in Germany.

In the late 1980s, I wrote my first book of memoirs, ‘Bwana Karani’, which received rave reviews both in Kenya and in the foreign Press. Years later, I wrote my second book, ‘From Mtoto to Mzee’. The books record my life in India, Kenya, and the United Kingdom. 

Mervyn Marciel

Nairobi-born Mervyn Marciel (right) having a chat with a Rendille woman at  Archers Post in this undated photo.

Photo credit: Pool

I donated all the royalties of my books to the Catholic mission in Marsabit, to help the people of that area and the people of Kenya generally because that was my ambition: to always help the people who helped me. My heart is still in Kenya. I still keep in touch with my African friends there.

Both books are now out of print, but through the courtesy of the British Empire Library, the books are now available to read on the Internet. 

In 1942, that’s during the Second World War, a major tragedy occurred when SS Tilawa, which was carrying my parents and several other passengers from Bombay to East Africa and South Africa, was torpedoed by the Japanese a few days after it had left Bombay. Of the passengers and crew on board, some 280 people lost their lives, among them my entire family: my dad, my stepmother, and three very young infants aged three years, one year, and three months old. 

My two brothers and I, who were schooling in a town called Belgaum in what was British India at the time, became orphans overnight. It was customary in those days for parents who worked in East Africa to leave their children for secondary education in India, and that’s how my brothers and I landed in India at a quite famous Jesuit school, St Paul’s High School. 

In the few days following the ship incident, there were rumours that some passengers had been saved and landed in areas like Saigon, but we had no such luck. 

We later learnt from my dad’s cabin boy who survived that my entire family was swallowed up by the sea as my dad could not risk leaving the young family behind. 

We were supported by my maternal grandfather, without whose help I would not be here today. He paid for our education until we had completed secondary education. Later, my elder brother went on to become a Jesuit priest. I moved to Kenya and my younger brother, Wilfred, having completed his education, started working in Kenya. 

The Tilawa tragedy changed the whole course of my life. After I had matriculated from Bombay University, I applied to my father’s boss in Kenya and was fortunate enough to be offered a job in the secretariat in Nairobi, the very office where my father worked. 

I worked in various places in Kenya, initially as a district clerk and later as an executive officer. I enjoyed most of my postings in the northern frontier of Kenya where I got to love the people and the places, although they were very remote and isolated. 

Mervyn Marciel

Nairobi-born Mervyn Marciel in this photo taken in London on October 2, 2023. He worked as an administrator in the colonial government and left Kenya for the United Kingdom in 1966. PHOTO | POOL

Photo credit: Pool

After my post was Africanised when Kenya became independent, I moved with my family to the United Kingdom. The best years of my life, I must say, were spent in Kenya, and I shall never forget. 

I’m currently retired from my post as office manager of an international construction company in the UK.

Recently, I wrote a letter to King Charles III about the SS Tilawa tragedy. This is because there has been no interest shown by the British government over this tragedy. I asked him to support this cause and see that it is not forgotten. Just like the British High Commissioner in Bombay said that he will ensure that a wreath is placed every year in memory of those people, I hope the British government here in England will do the same.

On November 23, the actual date when the ship went down, we are having the very first commemoration in this country at the prestigious National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, which I will be attending with several others, including some of the survivors of the tragedy and their dependents. Quite a few of them will be attending. So, we hope it will be a wonderful occasion for everyone to join in and to remember this tragedy, to make sure that it is never, ever forgotten.

I have been following the broadcasts of King Charles’s visit to Kenya. I think the King and Queen were given a very good reception by your President and the people of Kenya. I’m now waiting to see whether King Charles will make that apology that everyone wants him to make for the past injustices and what happened.

Because I lived through the Emergency, I know exactly what it is. One of my jobs was to visit the political detainees who were held in places like Marsabit, and I used to visit them regularly — every week. I used to censor their letters, incoming and outgoing mail, on behalf of the DC (district commissioner). So, I have a lot of experience in that field.

And I remember politicians like Achieng Oneko, Bildad Kaggia, Mwangi Macharia. Mwangi Macharia became a very good friend of mine. He was a trade unionist restricted to Marsabit.

During the years of the Emergency, I was based in Kitale for some years. It wasn’t very dangerous to me as a civil servant, but there might have been some danger because that was an area that was affected. That applied to when I was at Njoro as well. But for the better part of the Emergency time, I was away in the northern frontier. 

Finally, here is my opinion on who should own the silver discovered in the shipwreck: Let the one who discovered it take it. He went deep down into the sea to retrieve some of the bullion that was there. And I think he won his case by illustrating that he found it. He risked his life to find it. So, that belongs to him.

So it’ll be good if you can highlight the forgotten Indian Titanic because that’s really what it is. We want people to understand that while there’s so much prominence given to the Titanic (which sank in 1912), nothing was said about the Tilawa. And I often wonder, do the lives of South East Asians not matter? That’s my question.”