Black Fellow’s Ship from Bombay for the British in Baltimore
A rare copy of the first edition of the lyrics and music of what became the US National Anthem has recently been auctioned for a record price of 500,000 dollars. As is well known the draft lyric was written by Francis Scott Key (1780-1843) on the night of 13-14 September 1814 while he was detained on a British ship.
Christie’s , who conducted the auction, do not identify the ship in their promotional write-up, except saying that it was a truce ship. Of course what mattered to Key was the view rather than the name of the ship he was forced to spend the night on. It has been suggested that the ship was HMS Minden. (The reference ( which I have not seen) is One Hundred Bombay Notes for general circulation containing extracts from different writers upon subjects connected with Bombay. (Edinburgh: T. & A. Constable, 1876), p. 79), It is a matter of historical curiosity that the 74-gun line-of-war ship Minden was built in Bombay by the Wadia shipbuilders in 1810 for the British Navy.
As the British commerce expanded requiring more and bigger ships, shipbuilding was shifted to Bombay for two reasons . Teak was a better material than oak, and the move would save British forests. Although the Wadias were well regarded in official circles and the British and the Parsis in general maintained good relations, racism did occasionally raise its ugly head. In 1781, the Master Builder was hit on a visiting English ship. His successor’s revenge against racial abuse and slurs was subtle.
In 1800 the Wadias built for the East India Company a frigate, Marquis Cornwallis, which four years later was purchased by the Royal Navy. When the ship, since renamed Ackbar, returned to Bombay many years later, the Master Builder drew attention to the words secretly carved on the keelson “This ship was built by a d…d Black Fellow A.D. 1800”.