Posts Tagged ‘Bombay’

Black Fellow’s Ship from Bombay for the British in Baltimore

Posted in Blogs (Articles) on December 5th, 2010 by Rajesh Kochhar – Be the first to comment

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”.


Posted in Blogs (Articles) on December 21st, 2008 by Rajesh Kochhar – Be the first to comment

Acquaintance with  steam technology under colonial auspices led to the introduction, by  Cursetjee’s descendents , of steam machinery in textile  through  the establishment of Bombay Dyeing and Manufacturing Mills and Century Mills in Bombay. See  R. Kochhar (2005)  Shipbuilding in India: Wadia shipbuilders. In: Encyclopedia of the History of Non-Western science (Ed.:  H. Selin) Springer.

The Royal Society : Notes Rec. R. Soc. Lond. 47(1), 33-47(1993)












 Modern science came to India in tow with the British, who needed it in the first place to cross the high seas. Once in India, the British put science to increasing use to further their commercial and political interests. The tasks before the British included: (i) learning about the land and the people; (ii) acquiring and protecting territory; (iii) reducing the distance between England and India by steam navigation; (iv) shrinking India, by telegraphs and railways; and (v) increasing revenue collection and maintaining law and order’.

 The British use of science brought Indians into contact with science. Just as the British needed science in India, they needed Indians also. India was a vast, thickly populated, culturally advanced country. Permanent white settlements were out of the question and, after the disastrous Portuguese experience, so was breeding a nation of half-castes. There was thus no option but to involve Indians themselves in running their country under British auspices. As the British grip on India tightened, as the British gained in self-assurance, and as the scientific content of the administration increased, the role assigned to the natives progressively increased, even if it remained peripheral throughout. In the beginning Indians were hired as informers to educate the foreigners about the lie of the land; they then became writers and calculators; and Finally graduated to being doctors and engineers.

 Ironically, inherent in the British rule was the preparation of Indians to eventually overthrow that rule. The physical conquest of an ancient fabled country was seen by the British as a proof of the superiority of their way of life and thinking. They therefore set out to impress their own values on the baboo class that they created from among the upper-class Hindus. In addition, in the process of empire building, the British discovered (not only for themselves but for Indians also) India’s glorious past. This restored the Indians’ long-lost sense of self-esteem which, coupled with their introduction to western thought and modern science, gave them the courage to look the empire in the eye and embark on self-assertion. Indians then set out to do science on their own initiative. This activity was seen as a part of India’s emerging nationalism, even though it made use of the infrastructure created by the Empire for its own use and depended on the Empire’s sense of noblesse oblige.

 To sum up,1 we can distinguish between three nested stages in the growth of modern science in India. First is the colonial-tool stage, in which the British used science to further their interests. Since the harnessing of science enriched India in the process of empire building, the country was added as a laboratory to world science. Second is the peripheral-tool stage, in which the natives were assigned the task of providing cheap labour to the state science machinery. And finally there is the Indian-response stage, in which Indians practised science for their own satisfaction.

 The Indian-response stage, which came into being by the beginning of this century, found reflection in the composition of the Royal Society of London. Thus the freak mathematical genius Srinivasa Ramanujan was elected F.R.S. in 1918 and was followed by others. It has often been assumed that Ramanujan is the first Indian F.R.S. He certainly fits in with the present image of the Royal Society as a club of distinguished scientists. But the Royal Society was not always like that. Up to the middle of the 19th century, it was also a club of gentlemen ‘curious in natural history’, ‘well acquainted with mathematics and engineering’ or ‘conversant in various branches of experimental philosophy’. The honour of being the first Indian Fellow of the Royal Society goes to Ardaseer Cursetjee (1808-77), marine engineer at Bombay, who was elected on 27 May 1841 (figure 1). Cursetjee clearly belongs to the colonial-tool stage of the development of science in India, even though there is an element of unexpectedness2 in his personal achievements.





 It is no coincidence that Cursetjee was a Parsi. The Parsis (literally Persians) are followers of Zarathustra and related by tics of blood and culture to the Vedic Aryans. Facing persecution in Islamized Iran in the 8th century AD, they fled their homeland and came to the west coast of India as refugees3 To increase their chances of acceptance, they highlighted the aspects of their rituals which were akin to those of Hindus by virtue of their common heritage. The Parsis were offered asylum on condition that (i) they carried no weapons; (ii) they accepted the local language; (iii) their womenfolk adopted local dress; and (iv) they followed the Hindu custom of performing their weddings at night. The conditions were not very severe, and in any case the refugees had no choice. The Parsis accepted the conditions, and India accepted the Parsis. Ever since then the Parsis have remained out of controversy and on the right side of the rulers, developing in the process an uncanny sense of recognizing opportunities even before they decide to knock.

 Parsis were good friends of the Portuguese. When in 1665 the Portuguese fortified Bombay against the British, it was a Parsi who contracted to supply men and materials. And when soon thereafter Bombay changed hands, the Parsis, attracted by the religious neutrality of the British and the business they offered, shifted their residence and loyalty to the British.

 Neither the Portuguese House of Braganza nor the bridegroom Charles D could have known the strategic importance of the tiny island of Bombay transferred according to the 11th article of the treaty of marriage between Charles and Catherine. Unwittingly, the Portuguese had introduced the navy as a parameter in India’s geo-political equations.  The 8-mile x 3-mile island of Bombay received as a reluctant gift became the naval fortress from which the British set out to build their Empire4.

 Cursetjee came from a family which had a long history of service to the British in the vital department of ship-building. The founder of the dynasty was Lowji Nusservanji5 (1700 or 1710-1774), who was a carpenter at the Surat dockyard when in 1736 he was brought to Bombay to build a dockyard. The post of Master Builder would remain in the family for 150 years6.

 The extreme profitability of the East India trade raised demand for big sturdy commercial ships. This increase in the number of ships and in tonnage led to a scarcity of timber, and in 1772 the East India Company was forbidden to build any new ships in England until its tonnage was reduced to 45000 tons. The Company could however build its vessels in India or the colonies. In 1795, the Company abolished custom on timber, imported or local, to facilitate ship-building.

 Indian teak was a better building material than oak. It was equally strong if not stronger, and was in addition decay-resistant. Bombay workmanship was excellent7 and ships came out cheaper in Bombay than in Europe. The Bombay dockyards built ships for the Company, for the Royal Navy and ‘for such friendly powers as the Imam of Muscat’, as well as for private buyers.

 Captain Robert Cogan, who was appointed Comptroller of the Dockyard in 1833, wrote, ‘An 84 gun ship similar to the Calcutta [a 2nd rate line-of-battleship of 2298 tons built for British Navy in 1831] could be built at a cost of £21 026 less than in England … It is universally admitted that a Bombay teak built ship is 50% superior to vessels built in Europe’. Cogan also stated that merchant ships could be built at Bombay Dockyard at a cost of £12 a ton.8

 Shipbuilding brought great prestige to the family, which was chosen as ‘head of their caste’. The government not only presented the family with silver rules, shawls and titles, but jagirs also. (The three imams issued in Bombay all went to the Lowjee family.) The prestige and the contacts came in handy for oilier members of the clan to establish themselves in business; they bought ships and traded with Europe and China. A grandson of Lowjee was rich and farsighted enough to loan money to the Bombay government in 1802. Another branch became marine agents for the French government and in 1839 received a medal from King Louis Philippe for ‘the interest you have taken in favour of our traders in Bombay and the zeal and generous disinterestedness with which you have received His Majesty’s men-of-war which visited Bombay’3.

 Figure 2 shows the family tree of the master-building branches of Lowjee’s family and the dates when they were master-builders (MB): the information is taken from the book by Wadia6.



Text Box: Figure 2. Family tree of the master-building branches of Lowjee’s family and the dates when they were master-builders (MB)

Text Box: 1.	Lowjee Nuservanjee (d.1774) MB 1736-1774    2a. Maneckjee Lowjee				2b. Bomanjee Lowjee (1720-92)	(1722-90) MB 1774-92					MB 1774-90  3a. Framjee Maneckjee	Rustomjee Maneckjee	3b. Jamsetjee Bomanjee 	(1749-1804)					(1754-1821) 	MB 1792-1804					MB 1792-1821   5. Cursetjee Rustomjee	Dhunjbhoy Rustomjee	4. Nowrjojee Jamsetjee 	(1788-1863)					(1744-1860) 	MB 1844-57					MB 1821-44 	  Ardaseer Cursetjee RFS	7. Jamsetjee Dhunjibhoy	6. Jahangir Nowrojee 	(1808-77)		(1829-93)		(1821-66) 				MB 1866-84		MB 1857-66   Rustomjee Ardaseer 	(1828-93)


 In 1806 an American engineer, Robert Fulton, completed an inland steam-boat, Clermont, which was a practical as well as a Financial success. About the same time another American, John Cox Stevens, became the First to take a steam-boat to sea. By 1821, there were no less than 300 steamers at work in America.

 In England it was not until 1812 that steam navigation was successfully brought into practical use when Henry Ball started a 3.5 horse-power steam-boat, Comet, on the Clyde. The first sea-going steamer in Britain was the Rob Roy, a 90 ton, 30 horse-power vessel, that began commercial running between Glasgow and Belfast in 1815. Finally, in 1819 the British Navy acquired its first steamer.9

 In the meantime, the trading monopoly of the East India Company was ended in 1813, so that British traders and manufacturers were now free to trade with India. And in 1818, with the crushing of the Marathas, the last opposition to the British hegemony was vanquished10.

 At the same time steam engines started arriving in India. Curiously, the first use of a steam-vessel in India was for decorative purposes. In 1818 the Nawab of the rich north Indian state of Oudh (correctly, Avadh) at the instigation of the British declared his independence from the tottering emperor of Delhi and pronounced himself King. As if to mark the occasion and displaying a magpie-like fascination for novelties, Ghazi Haider-ud-Din got himself a steam-boat. Powered by an 8 horse-power engine that gave the 50 ft vessel a speed of 7-8 miles an hour, it was built at Calcutta, with design and engine brought from England. The Indian India was not yet ready for science. The steam-boat was no more than an expensive toy, meant to be shown off. When the Governor General, Lord Auckland, visited Lucknow the boat was decked up for his inspection! 11

 While the commercial interests looked forward to profits from steam navigation on the placid North Indian waters, the impetus came from the Government for reasons of warfare. The Burmese annexed Assam in 1821-22 and threatened Bengal. This led to the first Anglo-Burmese war (1824-26), and to the acquisition of steamers by the Bengal Government.

 In 1817 or 1818 an 8 HP engine with an iron boiler and suitable for a river boat was brought to Calcutta by a Company engineer. Left unused, it was purchased by the Government for fitting into a dredging boat (later named Pluto). When the Burmese war broke out, the boat was remodelled as a floating battery. “Though her speed was only 4 knots much benefit was derived from her in the passage of troops over creeks and estuaries of that coast’.6

 In June 1822 there arrived in Calcutta a pair of 16 HP engines with a copper boiler and other requisites for a fast vessel of about 110 tons, sent out in frame. The package was offered for Rs 65000 to the Government, who declined. The offer was taken up by a group of merchants who found the English oak frame to be unsuitable and substituted it with teak at an additional cost of Rs 10000. The ship, named Diana, was launched on 12 July 1824. In April 1824, it was purchased by the Government for Rs 80000 for the Burmese war.

 In 1822 a company was formed in England with the bold idea of establishing steam communication with India by what was known as the overland route. The 166 km-long Suez Canal connecting Alexandria and Suez would be dug in 1859-69. The Red Sea, because of its rocky coast, was dangerous for sailing ships, but steam ships could safely move in the middle. Accordingly, a steam vessel, Enterprise, left England on 16 August 1825 and reached the Diamond Harbour, Bengal, on 7 December 1825. This three-masted 500 ton tugger powered by two 60 HP engines with copper boiler covered the 13700 mile distance in 113 days. The venture was not a commercial success, but the Burmese War again came to the rescue. The Bengal Government bought the ship for £40000 so that the promoters did not lose any money in the venture.9

 The initial support that the Bengal Government extended, for its own reasons, was a great help in promoting the general cause of steam communication between England and India. It was, however, not Calcutta but Bombay that strongly canvassed for an overland steam route. Calcutta was the political and commercial capital of India while all Bombay had was the Company’s navy. An overland route would cut the distance to England by 1000 miles and be good for Bombay business, whose interests the local government always protected. Finally in 1829 two 80 HP engines were brought from London and Fitted to a ship built at Bombay by the Wadias. (The ship was very wisely named High Lindsay after the Company’s chairman.)6




 Ardaseer Cursetjee’12 was born on 6 October 1808.6,13 His father was at the time assistant builder; he rose to become the master builder in 1844. Cursetjee was, as he says,14 ‘brought up and educated in the Hon. Company’s service’. Following the family tradition, he joined the dockyard at the age of 14, and after six years of training was in 1828 placed in charge of the supplementary shipyard at Mazagaon, where ‘he designed and superintended the construction of several fine vessels’.

 Cursetjee was, however, more interested in steam machinery than ship-building. Fortunately, Cursetjee’s interest coincided with the Company’s need. He had come of age at the right time. No wonder then that the Company welcomed Cursetjee’s interest in steam machinery and readily agreed to his request ‘about the year 1831’ to transfer him to the charge of Capt. F. McGillvray, the Mint engineer, ‘for the purpose of devoting myself to the study of steam machinery, and the foundry business’. In spite of the transfer, Cursetjee continued to draw his salary from the dockyard. He soon showed his worth by building a one-HP engine and installing it at his premises for pumping water from a well ‘sufficient to supply a small I fountain’. This was the first engine built in India and was still working 10 years later.

 In August 1833, Cursetjee obtained from England a 10 HP marine engine and installed it in a vessel named Indus, both the engine and the vessel being paid for by his father. Indus was the second steamer built at Bombay, after High Lindsay, and was subsequently purchased by the Bombay Government.

 Cursetjee’s achievements did not go unnoticed. In October 1833 he was made Assistant Builder at Mazagaon, ‘the office being expressly established for him on the recommendation of the Superintendent of Marine Capt [John] Crawford’.

 The next engineering feat of Cursetjee was the installation of gas lighting. On 10 March 1834 he lighted his bungalow and gardens at Mazagaon, using gas. The Governor of Bombay, the Earl of Clare, visited Cursetjee’s residence and presented him with a dress of honour. Additionally, the Governor brought this to the notice of the Court of Directors. For his engineering activities, Cursetjee maintained a small private foundry at his residence, which no doubt was profitable also. He made ‘great many wrought-iron tanks for different ships, among which were several holding upwards of five thousand galons’. He ‘had a good deal to do with steam boats’, having assisted in building two of them at Bombay.

 Very soon, the newly established Elphinstone Institution requisitioned Cursetjee’s part-time services. The Institution had a British ‘Professor of mathematics, astronomy, and all branches of natural philosophy’ (Robert F. Orlebar), but there was none to teach practical sciences. Accordingly, Orlebar, ‘cognizant of his [Cursetjee’s] anxiety to improve the countrymen, as well as of his acquaintance with practical mechanics’ got the government’s permission so that Cursetjee could ‘assist him in instructing the natives, especially in mechanical and chemical science’. In 1837, Cursetjee was elected a non-resident member of the Royal Asiatic Society of England.

 The colonial government’s patronizing attitude towards Cursetjee was matched by his own self-consciousness. Cursetjee was the Empire’s show boy, a good example of how western education could uplift a native. For his part, Cursetjee used the same idiom for his countrymen as the British used for him. In his letters to the Company, he talks about ‘native workmen, under my instruction and superintendence’ and ‘this faithful native [who] has worked the boat upwards of Five years without a single accident or injury to the engine’.

 Cursetjee now decided, with the government’s permission, to spend a year in England ‘to perfect myself as much as possible in the construction and repair of marine steam engines’ … ‘it being my greatest ambition to instruct my countrymen in that useful art, and thereby raise my name in the estimation of the Indian Government, in respect to that science as my ancestors have for the last century in the art of ship-building’.

 His departure from Bombay took longer than planned. He applied to the Governor, the Earl of Clare, to allow him to accompany His Excellency to England. Apparently, Cursetjee’s assessment of the mutual relationship was not shared by His Excellency, who politely declined, and Cursetjee instead went to China to get over the snub.

 Next, in 1838, he was offered passage money of Rs 600 to travel by the Government steamer, but sudden illness prevented his departure. It was not until a year later, on 13 September 1839, that he left Bombay by the same vessel, S.S. Berenice, now paying 1000 rupees for the passage.

 Travelling by the overland route, lie visited the Alexandria dockyards. ‘He was offered a Government tout to visit the Egyptian Fleet and on reaching the First ship of the line, he was received on board with a military guard and band’. He landed at Blackwall on 3 December 1839.

 Since the Parsis were ordained to take food cooked by Parsis only and not to dine with non-Parsis at the same table, Cursetjee took along servants from his community. On reaching England he appealed ‘to the liberality of their Hon. Court to enable me to meet those various expenses of my residence in England, … which are indispensable to my respectability, and to obtain that information which, should God spare me, will, I trust, be amply repaid through my services to the Hon. Court, on my return to India.14

 He was accordingly given a subsistence allowance of £1 per day for a year in addition to his Bombay salary of Rs 79 a month, or £95 per annum.

 Cursetjee recorded his memoirs of his stay in England in a book14 published in 1840, which provides valuable information on his life and times. During his one-year stay, Cursetjee had a number of social engagements. The First person he visited was ‘that great friend of India, Sir Charles Forbes, Bart’. He was introduced to the Chairman and to the Secretary of the East India Company and to a number of other eminent persons including the President of the Royal Society, the Marquis of Northampton, who invited him to a Soiree. He ‘was fortunate enough to be present on the occasion of the marriage of Queen Victoria on 10 February 1840’, and was presented to the Queen at a Levee on I July 1840.

 Cursetjee was summoned to attend a committee of the House of Commons to give evidence on the opium question. He spoke against the opium policy of the East India Company. Cursetjee recorded with satisfaction that his evidence had the approval of Sir Charles Forbes.

 ‘During his stay in England he never took Ins meals cooked by non-Parsis and on this account on more than one occasion he refused invitations to dinner from his European friends’. Thus he declined invitations for dinner from the Deputy Chairman of the East India Company and from the President of the Board of Control. When Mr Walter, the proprietor of The Times, invited him to spend some days as his guest, Cursetjee took his servants along to cook his own food.6

 In matters of religion, Cursetjee was a traditionalist. He did not approve when lie met in London a young Parsi boy who was ‘talking without a cap [on]’. Ironically, the boy defied tradition even in his death. He died in 1851 and became the First Parsi whose body was subjected to a post-mortem.6

 Cursetjee’s comments on life in London make interesting reading. He found the Royal Mint to be much inferior to the Mint at Bombay. He considered the cab drivers to be ‘an imposing and insolent set of men’. ‘Another nuisance of London is the dirty state of roads compared with those of Bombay’. His impression of shopkeepers and tradesmen was also negative: 1 cannot help remarking that they have generally an unfair practice of speaking against one another in the same line of business which is the cause of great embarrassment to foreigners as they cannot have confidence in dealing with them.’

 He made full professional use of his stay in England. He made arrangements to work at the engineering shops of Messrs John & Samuel Seaward & Capel at Limehouse and visited the varunis Royal Dockyards of Great Britain and private foundries.

 An important aspect of Cursetjee’s stay was his interest in the activities of the Institution of Civil Engineers, whose meetings he regularly and punctually attended, having been elected an Associate on 24 March 1840. He even addressed communication to the Institution on the engines of the .steam tug Alice, along with a drawing of the engines on board the steam-boat Staadt Frankfort. He was elected a member of the Society of Arts on 6 May 1840. and in September was appointed a member of the mechanical section of the British Association.

 On 10 July 1840, The Times carried an advertisement for the post of ‘Chief Engineer and Inspector of Machinery in the Company’s steam factory and foundry’ at Bombay. The applicants were asked to ‘either give reference for testimonials of character, conduct, and qualifications or enclose certificates of competence in mathematics, accounts, drawing, theory and practical construction of the steam engines, manufacture and repairs of boilers and steam machinery in general, casting of metals, welding of iron, and modelling as applicable to marine steam engines and iron boat building’.

 Cursetjee applied for the post, getting favourable testimonials’ from all with whom, he had been professionally associated. Mr Seaward wrote after seven months of interaction with him, ‘He has been most assiduous in his attention to every branch of our business … We lately entrusted him to superintend the erecting of a ten-horse engine, and a quantity of machinery in our new boiler establishment, in which he exhibited great intelligence and information, and acquitted himself highly to our satisfaction’, adding that this would not have been possible ‘had he not devoted much time, study, labour, and attention to the business for many years before he came to this country’.

 Other testimonials were obtained from Peter Ewart, Inspector of Machinery at Her Majesty’s Dockyard, Woolwich; R. Taplin, Chief Engineer and R.J.S. Blake, Master Shipwright of the Dockyard at Portsmouth; and from R. Napier of Glasgow. Proceeding thoughtfully, Cursetjee also asked for a testimonial from Messrs Maudslay, Sons and Field, ‘as they are preparing the machinery intended for the Bombay Dockyard’, who while supporting his application added, ‘we also think, that with these qualifications, his being a native, would be of further advantage, as his abilities to instruct the native workmen, joined to his influence over them, would, we have no doubt, be greater than any European [sic]’.

 Cursetjee also got a testimonial from James Walker, the President of the Institution of Civil Engineers who suitably impressed the Company on Cursetjee’s behalf by saying, ‘[we] are now assisting in his certificate to become a fellow of the Royal Society, which I have reason to think would be signed by almost every gentlemen who knows him, including Capt Beaufort and Sir Edward Parry’.

 All the testimonials were with the Court of Directors within 20 days of the advertisement. On 19 August 1840 the Court of Directors 15 ‘Resolved by the Ballot unanimously that having considered the applications of the several candidates… and referring to the anxiety which the Court have repeatedly expressed to encourage the employment of Natives of India, and to the desirableness [sic] in every point of view of substituting as far as possible natives for European mechanics, an object more likely to be promoted under native than under European Instructions and Superintendence, Ardaseer Cursetjee whose testimonials are not inferior to those of any other candidate, be appointed …’. The post carried a salary of 600 rupees a month, more than seven times Cursetjee’s then salary as an assistant builder.

 The last act of Cursetjee in England was to ask for and get £40 from the Company so that he could take with him ‘a few diagrams of steam engines and a few small tools’. He left England in November 1840, going as advised via the Cape. He reached Bombay in the beginning of 1841 and took his new charge on I April 1841.

 As had been promised by James Walker, the Royal Society elected Cursetjee a Fellow on 27 May 1841. His certificate of nomination16 conveys the English perception about a native gentleman of science, and deserves to be reproduced in full:

Ardaseer Cursetjee Esquire Ship Builder of Bombay lately in England having undertaken the journey to this country at his own expense in order to prepare himself in the knowledge of the Steam Engine as applicable to Navigation and to acquaint himself with the arts and manufactures of Europe with the view of improving his own country and his countrymen, a Gentleman well versed in the theory and practice of Naval Architecture and devoted to scientific pursuits, having introduced Lighting by Gas into Bombay where he perfected a small Gas establishment aided exclusively by Native workmen; having also at his own charge built a Vessel of sixty Tons to which he adapted a Steam Engine sent out from this country, and manufactured and fitted every other part of the Machinery and navigated the vessel entirely with native workmen and Engine men, chiefly instructed and trained by himself; and having otherwise promoted Science and the useful arts in his own country to which he has just returned, having while in England obtained the appointment of principal Inspector of Steam Machinery to the East India Company,


being desirous of becoming a fellow of the Royal Society ….And we beg to recommend him from his peculiar situation, and (lie proofs he has given of his desire to extend natural knowledge in India. Dated this twenty seventh day of March 1841.


 It was signed from personal knowledge by James Walker, William Cubitt, John Macneil, James Home, Joshua Field, and Lt-Col William Henry Sykes. Those who signed from general knowledge include John Barrow, Capt. Francis Beaufort, and Edward Sabine. The list is indeed impressive. Walker was then the President of the Institution of Civil Engineers; Cubitt and Field held the post later. Sykes had been at Bombay and later became the Chairman of the East India Company. Of the general signatories Barrow was the secretary to the Admiralty, Beaufort the Hydrographer, and Sabine rose to become President of the Royal Society in 1861.

 Apparently, it was thought that the fact of Cursetjee’s having paid his own passage would make a good impression on the Fellows. The fact of the matter is that he called this expense unfortunate and used it as an argument for getting financial assistance from the Company during his stay in England.

 In terms of directions issued in 1839, Cursetjee would have been classified as ‘a distinguished engineer’ and as ‘one who is attached to science, and anxious to promote its progress’. Cursetjee’s fellowship of the Royal Society remained a strictly private honour. It did not advance his professional career in any way, nor did it impress his countrymen. The Bombay Times was critical of his appointment: ‘We doubt the competency of a native, however able or educated to take charge of such an establishment as the Bombay Steam Factory with a body of Englishmen to be directed, superintended and controlled’. In contrast, the Bombay Gazette welcomed the appointment: It is no small honour to the native community that the merits and abilities of this gentleman should have enabled him to carry off the prize from the multitude of competitors’.

 Cursetjee was the first native to be placed over Europeans. His staff consisted of ‘one chief assistant, four European foremen, one hundred European engineers and boiler makers, and about two hundred native artificers’. ‘No doubt his path was not one of roses for a long time, but his natural kindness soon made him a favourite with all those placed under him, as he meted out justice to all irrespective of colour and creed!’ It is mildly amusing to see the expression ‘colour and creed’ applied to a native officer in relation to his European staff.

 In 1843 a repair shop was added to the steam factory, and the workforce under Cursetjee was further augmented. The same year, when the Freemason’s Lodge was established in Bombay, Cursetjee joined it. In 1850, he was elected vice-President of the Bombay Mechanics Institute. On 16 February 1851 he launched an 80-ton steamer, the Lowjee Family, built by his son Rustomjee Ardaseer at Mazagaon Dock. It is significant that all the parts for it were fabricated at the foundry Cursetjee had at his residence.

 The same year he was struck by paralysis; but he recovered and in September 1851 he made another trip to England. He was allowed by the Court of Directors to visit various cities to see ‘improvements in machinery’, his great hobby being to introduce novelties into Bombay.

 He also visited America and selected various wood-cutting machines, which lie sent to Bombay. He was the First to introduce the sewing machine, winch had been patented by Elias Howe a few years previously, in 1846, and was foremost in introducing photography and electroplating into Bombay. Cursetjee returned to Bombay in 1852. He was elected a Justice of the Peace in 1855.

 Cursetjee retired on 1 August 1857. As a special case, the Court of Directors sanctioned him a pension of Rs 400 a month (that is, two thirds of his salary). He visited England for the third time in 1859.

 In 1861, he took up the appointment of superintending engineer of the Indus Flotilla Company, and took charge of the Company’s steam branch and workshops at Kotree in Sind. The Flotilla was at that time under the Indian Navy, which was disbanded in 1863. Consequently, the Flotilla was broken up.  Cursetjee resigned his post in 1863 and went to England, settling down at Richmond, where he died on 16 November 1877.

 Interestingly, at one time there were three generations of his family working at the dockyards.6 His Father was the Master Builder; he himself was the Inspector of Machinery, while his two sons were employed in the Builders’ Department as juniors, one of whom, Rustomjee Ardaseer, rose to become the Assistant Builder and retired in 1883.




 The British were very happy to patronize Cursetjee for ‘trying to improve his country and countrymen’, ‘for promoting Science and useful arts in his own country’ and ‘for the proofs he has given to extend natural knowledge in India’. Ironically, his own country was not impressed and ignored him completely.

 This is rather hard to explain. No doubt, it was too early for the Indians to appreciate his technical skills or he impressed by his Royal Society connection. But the fact remains that he came from a well-known and respected family, and held an unusually high position in the colonial government’s hierarchy. He even published his memoir’14 in 1840.

 For all this, Cursetjee may not have existed at all. It is not surprising that his obituary in a London-based technical journal ‘ went unnoticed. But even a two-volume history3 of this own community, published in 1884, let him down. It devotes 17 pages to his family and takes note of his two cousins who visited England at about the same time, but it makes no mention of Cursetjee.

 It was in his own lifetime that Indian efforts to respond to modern science started taking shape. But he did not become a role model for his countrymen. Cursetjee was at the time leading a retired life in far-off England. Moreover, the centre of the new scientific activity was the capital city of Calcutta, which took no deep interest in the colonial science at Bombay.

 It was not until 1955 that his life-sketch appeared in a book devoted exclusively to the Wadia master-builders and written by a clansman. Although now in its second edition, this privately published book has failed to bring posthumous recognition to him.17 History has been unkind to Cursetjee. This first modem engineer of India was denied any role in the growth of science in his country. As if this were not bad enough, even his name has been obliterated. His life throws interesting light on the use of science in the early days of colonial consolidation. And it sets the record straight on India’s association with the Royal Society.




 I thank Mr Nusli N. Wadia for presenting me with a copy of R.A. Wadia’s book; Professor Prem Krishna for his help; Mr P.D. Hingley for useful conversations; and Dr R.W. Home for helpful correspondence. I greatly appreciate help from the library staff of the Royal Society (especially Ms Sheila Edwards), Indian Institute of Astrophysics (Ms A. Vagiswari), Raman Research Institute (Mr A. Ratnakar), and India Office Library. Part of this work was done during a study tour of UK co-sponsored by the British Council Charles Wallis India Trust, and the Indian Institute of Astrophysics.




1.       R.K. Kochhar (1991) Economic & Political Weekly [Bombay]. Vol 26, No. 33 (17 Aug), 1927.

2.       R.W. Home (1991) in International Science and National Scientific Identity (eds: R.W. Home & S.G. Kohlstedt) Kluwer, p. 151.

3.       D.F. Karaka, C.S.I. (1884) History of Parsis, 2 Vols., London.

4.       James Douglas (1893), Bombay and Western India, 2 vols. London, laments ‘In the Diary of John Evelyn one of the most accomplished men of his day, and who was in the thick of politics, 1660-1705, that is during the reigns of Charles II, James II and William III, and which embraces every notable event of his time, there is no mention of Bombay, and yet this was the time during which were laid the foundations of our domination in Western India (Vol ii, p. 372), Evelyn was however fully aware of the profitability of the East India Company.  He notes in his Diary that (in 1657) he invested £250 in the stock of East India Company, which doubled by the issue of a bonus (in 1682).  He sold the entire stock for £750 to the newly founded Royal Society, of which he was an original member.  The Society continued to hold the stock till at least 1750.  See Cambridge History of India, Vol 5, p. 96; and the Record of the Royal Society of London, 4th ed. London, 1940.

5.       Lowarjee is a distortion of the common Parsi name Nowrojee.  Usservanji is his father’s personal name, the omitted family name being Wadia.  Incidentally, later master-builders continued to sign as Lowjee, even if the Government address them by their own name.

6.       R.A.Wadia (1955) The Bombay Dockyard and the Wadia Master-Builders, Bombay, 2nd ed. 1957.  All references here are to the 1983 reprint.

7.       A private protest against racism was subtly made by the Master-Builder, Jamsetjee Bomanji, who was the first one to be entrusted by the Lords of Admiralty with the building of men-of-war in India.  In the year 1800, Jamsetjee built a 1363-ton, 56-gun frigate Marquis Cornwallis, which was in 1804 purchased by the Royal Navy and Renamed Ackbar. Proud of his work and stung by the expression ‘Black fellow’ not infrequently used by the Europeans to refer to the Indians, Jamsetjee carved on the kelson of the ship: ‘This ship was built by a d-d Black Fellow A.D. 1800.  This protest was carved in such a manner as not to be noticeable.  The words were pointed out many yeas later by Jamsetjee himself to his friends when the ship returned to the docks.  On his retirement Jamsetjee was given a jagir with an annual income of Rs. 6000 (£600) (see note 6).

8.       C.R. Low, History of Indian Navy (1613-1863), 2 vols, London (1877).

9.       Martin Samuelson (1864)Q.J. Sci. 1, 235.

10.   The British Indian territory extended up to River Satlaj in the west.  Sind was annexed in 1843, and Punjab in 1849.

11.   William Carey, The Good Old Days of the Hon. John Company, 2 vols., Calcutta (1906).

12.   We shall use Cursetjee as his last name, even though it is his father’s name.  Incidentally, the spellings are anglicized: the phonetically correct way would be to write Ardshir Khurshid-ji.

13.   Proc. Instn. Civil Engnrs. (1878) 51,271. Curiously, this does not mention his being an F.R.S.

14.   Aradseer Cursetjee, Diary of an Overland Journey from Bombay to England and of a Year’s Residence in Great Britain, London (1840).

15.   I O L R L/MAR/C/58, p. 267.

16.   Royal Society Certificates IX.57.

17.   According to R.A. Wadia (note 6, p 340)’It was only in 1944 that Prof. A.V. Hill, the Secretary of the Royal Society, stated that the first Indian to achieve this great distinction [i.e. election to the Royal Society] was Ardaseer Cursetjee’.  Hill held a special meeting of the Royal Society on 3 January 1944 at the 31st session of the Indian Science Congress at Delhi, where he ‘obtained the signatures of some of the Fellows of the Society, who could not sign in the Charter Book of the Society in London’.  At the Science Congress, Hill presided over the section on physiology and participated in a symposium on ‘Science and its place in Indian education’.  This information is given in Proc. Of the 31st Indian Science Congress, which however does not say anything about Cursetjee.//




Shipbuilding at Bombay

Posted in Blogs (Articles) on December 20th, 2008 by Rajesh Kochhar – Be the first to comment

Also see a later version: R. Kochhar (2005) Shipbuilding in India: Wadia shipbuilders. In: Encyclopedia of the History of Non-Western science (Ed.: H. Selin) Springer.

Current Science, 66, 965-969, 1994

Shipbuilding at Bombay

R.K. Kochhar

The arrival of the Portuguese by sea in 1498 introduced navy as a new parameter in the Indian

geopolitical equations, placing the Indian rulers at a disadvantage for all times to come. The

Portuguese and the Dutch success in East Indies as brought home by the capture of their ships

brought the British to the Indian shores in 1608. The trade was extremely lucrative despite the

risks. During the third voyage cloves were purchased at Moluccas for £2948, which on return to

England fetched £36,287. The first 11 years of trading with East Indies (including India) ‘gave

clear profits, seldom below one hundred, and often more than two hundred, per cent, on the

capital invested on the voyage1. The Portuguese violently opposed the British presence in what

they considered to be their own zone of influence. The British decided to meet force with force

and inflicted a crushing defeat on the Portuguese on sea in 1612. The chain of events that

culminated in the 1757 battle of P1assey in Bengal had its beginning in this sea skirmish. The

naval prowess and the religious neutrality of the British greatly impressed the Mughal emperors

who though powerful on land like the elephant were helpless on sea which was infested with

European crocodiles. The British were asked to contain the fanatically anti-Muslim Portuguese,

who were particularly severe on the Haj pilgrims. In return the English merchants received

attractive business concessions. (Another factor in favour of the British was the expertise of its

ships’ doctors, which was made available to the Mughal umra, that is nobility.)2

To protect its trade from the Portuguese and the pirates, the English merchants at Surat locally

established, in 1613, east India company’s marine. The small naval service consisted of coastal

boats, known as grabs and gallivats, on which were mounted two to six guns and which were

manned by volunteers from the company’s ships who fought as well as traded. This service

developed first into Bombay marine and finally into Indian navy3 (see Table I). Generally

speaking, marine was meant to protect the coastal area, whereas the navy could cast its net wider.

It is said that at one time when Lord Nelson, ‘the future victor of Nile and Trafalgar was in

embarrassed circumstances, he was a candidate for the appointment of the superintendent of the

Bombay marine’4.

The seaport of Surat was located some 12 miles to the west at a village called Swally. The

British repaired their old ships here and in course of time started building new ones. Surat had a

long tradition of shipbuilding and even the Mughal emperors got their ships built here. (Figure I

shows a traditional boat that was used on the eastern waters.) Once the British shifted from Surat

to Bombay, shipbuilding activity was also transferred. The first Europeans to touch Bombay

were the Portuguese who arrived at Mahim in 1509 and took over the island in 1534. In 1538 (or

1541) Bombay was rented in perpetuity to Garcia d’Orta, a physician and professor of Lisbon

(and said to be a converted Jew). He paid a yearly quit rent of about £85. In 1563 he wrote a

book ‘Dialogues on simples and drugs’ where he mentions the island under the names of

Bombaim and Mombaim. D’Orta lived in India from 1534 to 1572 (ref. 5).


While Portugal and Britain were engaged in bitter rivalry in India, they entered into a royal

marriage contract which had far reaching consequences6. The English king Charles II married

princess Infanta Catherine of the House of Braganza of Portugal. According to the 11th article of

the treaty of marriage,


Table 1. The evolution of Indian navy 1612-1950

1613-1686 East India company’s marine

1686-1830 Bombay marine

1830-1863 Her majesty’s Indian navy

1863-1877 Bombay marine

1877-1892 Her majesty’s Indian marine

1892-1950 Royal Indian navy

1950- Indian navy


dated 23 June 1661, her dowry included ‘the Port and Island of Bombay in the East Indies,

together with all the rights, profits, territories, and appurtenances thereof whatsoever’. The small

island, some eight miles long and three miles wide, no doubt mattered little to the king of

Portugal. But it enclosed a land- locked bay and its natural harbour could shelter a large fleet.

When the news reached India, the Portuguese circles in India were dismayed and immediately

pointed out the disadvantages of making such a gift. An attempt was made to purchase the island

back from England, but Charles II wanted such 1arge sums ‘that they reach to millions’. The

island of Bombay was finally transferred to England on 8 February 1665, without any trace of

grace or pleasantness that one normally associates with a bride’s dowry. The king’s governor of

Figure 1. ‘Decca Pulwar’, of 17 ton burden, used on the eastern branches and upper channels

of the deltas of Ganga and Brahmaputra. The bottom of the boat resembles the immersed

portion of the nautilus shell. ‘These are well-built boats of hard wood, and use square sails.’

(Henderson A., British Association for the Advancement of Science Report for 1858, p. 272.)

Bombay soon discovered that the island cost more to govern than it yielded as revenue. By a

charter dated 23 March 1668, Charles II granted the port and island of Bombay to the East India

Company ‘to be held to the said Company… in perpetuity and in free and common soccage at a

fee farm rent of £10 payable on the 30th of September yearly at the Custom-house’. The island of

Bombay was formally handed over to the east India company on 23 September 1668,

While opposing the inclusion of Bombay in the dowry, the Portuguese viceroy of Goa [Antonio

de Mellow de Castro] had written7, ‘I foresee that India will be lost the same day on which the

English Nation is settled in Bombay.’ These words were prophetic indeed. The British shifted

their capital from Surat to Bombay in 1686. The little island became the naval fortress from

where Britain went ahead to build a vast overseas colonial empire.


Bombay had taken to shipbuilding in the Portuguese time itself. In 1625 when the English and

the Dutch jointly raided Bombay they found two boats under construction which they promptly

put to flames. As soon as Bombay passed into the British hands, repairs and shipbuilding were

started under the new auspices. The British repaired their merchant ships. In addition they built

new ones to deal with the menace of piracy from Indian and foreign adventures as well as to

meet the threat from their European competitors. There were problems, though. The Portuguese

obstructed the supply of timber, and the Mughal authorities did not permit good carpenters to

leave Surat. Most of the carpenters at Surat were Parsis. A letter from Bombay to Surat dated 10

January 1736 states that ‘We have intention to build a new grab but we are in want of a good

carpenter. We are told that there is one in Surat named Lowjee. If he will come hither he shall

have all fitting encouragement’. Lowjee Nusserwanjee [Wadia] arrived in Bombay from Surat in

March 1736, accompanied by ten other carpenters. The salary demanded by them was pretty

high, but the Bombay government hoped that ‘they would deserve it by their performance’. (The

hope was certainly fulfilled. Lowjee was designated master builder in 1740. The post remained

with his descendants till 1884 when the dockyard was transferred from the Bombay government

to the Indian governments. Figure 2 shows Lowjee or Lowji’s son and successor Maneckji Lowji.

The surname Wadia was not appended in official correspondence.)

This was the time when the British were engaged in a bitter fight against the piracy of the

Angrias, which lasted more than 40 years from about 1707 to 1751. Connajee or Kanhojee

[Kanha-ji] Angria was a common seaman in Shivaji’s fleet, but rose to command a fleet of his

own. ‘Animated by a lust for plunder, there now flocked to his standard numerous adventurers,

including renegade Christians, mostly Dutch and Portuguese, Arabs, Mussulmen and Negroes, a

most daring and desperate band9. (Note the selective use of the adjective renegade.) Kanha-jee:

Angria died in about 1731 and was succeeded by his son Sambhajee. He was finally defeated by

the British in 1751. During the period Bombay built a number of coastal boats apart from

repairing merchant ships. In 1745 two boats were made for the viceroy of Goa for use against his

enemies. This was done as the ‘same will be the means of keeping a number of workmen upon

the Island and be otherwise beneficial’. In addition to meeting its own requirements on the west

coast, Bombay also built ships for Calcutta and Madras. Construction of a dry dock was taken up

in 1749. This first dry dock to be built in India is still in use, now known as the upper old

Bombay dock. Others were built in the following years.

In the first phase of shipbuilding the emphasis had been on repairs and construction of coastal

boats for protection. The things however soon changed. Increasing prosperity of the east India

company meant building of bigger and larger number of ships in England. This and the marine

rivalry in Europe resulted in large scale felling of oak trees in Britain. Accordingly in 1772 the

company was prohibited from building any large ships. They were asked instead to either build

their vessels in India or colonies or to charter vessels built there. Preservation of British oak

forests was one reason. Superiority of teak over oak was another. Oak contains lignic acid ‘which

corrodes and consumes the very metal (iron) which is employed to unite and secure it in the

various forms into which it is converted for the purposes of naval architecture’. In contrast teak

‘abounds with oleaginous particles, the best and certain defence of iron from corrosion by the

action of the acid’. In addition ‘teak was not disposed to splinter to the same extent as oak’ and

thus ‘the effect of shot upon teak is far less dangerous than upon oak10.

The shipbuilders in Britain were not impressed by these arguments. Their main concern was loss

of business. As a sop to them, the British parliament ordered that the crew and the captain of

Indian ships should be Englishmen. The British Indian government chipped in by levying 15%

duty on goods imported into India in India-built ships but only half this amount on goods brought

in British-built ships. In addition, it was stipulated that only British ships could import goods

‘from south and east of the Cape of Good Hope’.

Figure 2. Maneckji Lowji Wadia (1720-92),the second master builder of Bombaydockyards 1774-92 (picture courtesy: Neville N. Wadia).

Ship-building industry in Bombay under the leadership of the Lowjee family now entered its

golden age 11. The frigate ‘Cornwallis’ built for the company in 1800 by Jamsetjee Bomanjee was

found to be so beautifully constructed and of such great strength, that it was purchased by the

admiralty. Jamsetjee took a private revenge for the racial insults that were the order of the day.

On the kelson of this ship, he carved the words ‘this ship was built by a d-d Black Fellow A.D.

1800’. Attention was drawn to this by Jamsetjee himself when the ship, renamed Ackbar by the

admiralty, returned to the Bombay docks many years laterl2.

In 1810, Bombay built a 74 gun vessel ‘Minden’ for the British navy. It was the first line of ship

of the admiralty built outside UK 13. At about the same time ‘a similar vessel was subscribed by

the inhabitants of Calcutta, built at Kidderpore, and presented to the Admiralty’14. The admiralty

however was not impressed and ‘did not oblige by placing a further order for a vessel of that size

with the Calcutta shipwrights’15.

An 18 gun ship ‘Clive’ built at Bombay in 1826 lends itself to a brief mention of the prevalent

slave trade and the patronage it received16. Commander of the ship, John Croft Hawkins, was

asked in 1830 ‘to proceed to the coast of Africa and islands in its vicinity’ and ‘to adopt the best

means of entering for the service as many able-bodied lads as you can, in age from twelve to

eighteen, free from all disease and bodily infirmity, and of that compact symmetry best

calculated for seamen.’ On his return Hawkins was tried for slave trade. It became certain that

there were other secret instructions that were never brought on record. Hawkins in fact did not

permit his lawyer to address the court lest the lawyer compromise for the sake of his client the

navy superintendent or the government. It was implied. that the case was brought to trial not

because of the illegality involved but because the judge of the high court wished to embarrass the

Bombay governor (Sir John Malcolm) and his brother, the navy superintendent (Sir Charles


The court pronounced Hawkins guilty of slave trade and condemned him to ‘be transported to the

east coast of New South Wales for the term of seven years.’ The sentence was however

subverted. Hawkins was put in a navy ship with clear instructions that he be treated as an officer

and a gentleman. When the ship touched Madras, Hawkins and the ship commander ‘were feted

for three days by the community’. At Batavia [Jakarata], the commander decided with a straight

face that his ship could not proceed to Sydney. It must be diverted to England to deliver some

important despatches that had accumulated at Batavia. In London, the president of the company

obtained an interview with the king who pardoned Hawkins and ‘graciously commanded that he

should appear at the next levee.’ ‘Commander Hawkins obeyed the royal mandate, when His

Majesty received him with great kindness, and conversed with him.’ Hawkins was paid his back

wages as well as lawyer’s fees and reappointed to the command of his old ship ‘Clive’. He rose to

become the superintendent of Indian navy.

Steam navigation

Although a patent had been obtained as early as 1736 (by Jonathan Hull) for applying steam

engines to propel ships, it was not till the steam engine was perfected by James Watt that steam

navigation could show signs of success. The lead came from USA, which did not have roads but

had large tree-lined rivers. The first steam vessel that was a practical success and remunerated its

owners was a river boat ‘Clermont’ that in 1807 ran the 146 mile distance between New York city


and Albany. It was almost immediately followed by the first sea-going vessel17. In Britain steam

navigation was established in 1817 with a small 3.5 HP steam boat ‘Comet’ on river Clyde. The

first regular sea-going steamer, ‘Bob Ray’, with a 30 HP engine commenced operation in 1815

between Glasgow and Belfast. In 1819, the British navy acquired its first steamer, named


Britain was now an industrial nation, and captive India was the best thing happening to it. In the

year 1793, England sent out cotton goods worth £156 to India. In the year 1802 the figure was

£27,876, while 10 years later it had gone up to £108,824. In 1813, the British parliament

abolished the trade monopoly of the company, so that the British manufacturers and traders were

now free to enter the huge Indian market. During the 16 years after 1813, the company’s annual

trade averaged £ 1 ,882,718 whereas private trade was three times higher at £5,451,452 (ref. 18).

(In 1833 the company ceased to be a trader altogether. It became administrator and ruler of India,

deriving its dividend from the revenues from the country. Control of India passed to the crown in

1858, and the company was wound up in 1874.)

The merchants were keen to introduce steam navigation on three routes: on the placid north

Indian rivers, in the opium- tea trade with China, and for steam communication between Calcutta

and England. Early steam machinery was rather daunting. It used coal voraciously and was

extremely complex for easy maintenance. Merchants neither had the capital nor the patience to

see it through the developmental stages. The company, no longer the monopolist it once was, had

no intention of sinking its money into steam for trade, but it had wars to win. What saw the

steam navigation through was the Burmese war 1824-26 (refs 19, 20).

Captain Charles James Collie Davidson of Bengal engineers and son of a Calcutta merchant

brought an 8 HP engine with an iron boiler and meant for a river boat. It was the first steam

engine in India. It was left to rust till the company bought it in 1822 for use in a dredging boat.

When the Burmese war broke out it was converted into a pedal boat and fitted out as a floating

battery. ‘Though her speed was only 4 knots, much benefit was derived from her in the passage

of troops over creeks and estuaries of that [Arakan] coast’.

Incidentally, the first steam-propelled vessel in India does not belong to the realm of

compulsions of history, but to the romance of history, as exemplified by the idiosyncracies of a

nawab. Displaying a magpie like fascination for novelties and probably as a commemoration of

declaration of ‘independence’ from the titualar emperor of Delhi, nawab Ghazi-ud-Din Haider of

the rich north Indian state of Oudh (correctly Avadh) got a river boat built for himself at

Calcutta, in 1819. It has an 8 HP butterfly engine which gave the boat a speed of 7-8 miles an

hour. The boat was a toy; when the governor- general of India visited Lucknow, the boat was

decked up for inspection. (The nawab, who had a European wife, also built a short-lived modern

observatory at Lucknow.21

The economics of early steam navigation can be seen from Calcutta’s first steamer, ‘Diana’. A

member of the company’s factory at Canton ordered a pair of 16 HP engines with a copper boiler

and the whole frame with a view to getting a river steamer built for service on the Canton river.

Unable to go ahead with his scheme, he reshipped the whole thing to Calcutta and offered it to

the government for Rs 65,000, which was however refused. A group of merchants bought it and

spent another Rs 10,000 to replace the original oakwood frame with the sturdier one of teak. The

steamer was launched in 1823. The next year, luckily for the owners, the government bought it

for Rs 80,000 for the Burmese war22. ‘Diana’, unaffected by the south-west monsoons, was the

‘star of the war’. Called ‘fire devil’ by the Burmese, it easily brought about British victory which

secured Assam and added the provinces of Arakan and Tenesserim to the Company’s fold23.

The river steamers were no substitute for steam link between Calcutta and England, for which

both the government and merchants worked. A steam fund of Rs 69,903 was collected at

Calcutta and offered as a prize to anyone whose steamship could make four consecutive voyages

between Bengal and England at an average of 70 days per trip (via the cape of good hope).

Towards this fund Rs 20,000 came from the governor- general, Rs 2,000 from the nawab of

Oudh, and the rest from various businessmen of Calcutta24. The investors in England made a

gallant attempt to rise to the occasion by building Britain’s first sea-going ship propelled by

steam25. Aptly named ‘Enterprize’, it was a ship of 500 ton powered by two 60 HP engines, with

copper boilers extending across the ship, and seven furnaces, each seven feet in length. Carrying

passengers and 30 tons of coal, ‘Enterprize’ left England in August 1825, and took as many as

115 days to reach Calcutta under steam and sail. The performance was declared unsatisfactory by

the mercantile community, because a splendid sailing ship could cover the same distance in 90

days. Steam enthusiasts were disappointed but not the investors. On its arrival at Calcutta,

‘Enterprize’ was purchased by the government for £40,000, and sent to Rangoon. It was put to

use for towing ships between Calcutta and the newly acquired territories.

It was not only Calcutta that was interested in a steam link to England. Bombay was interested

even more. Monsoon winds made it easier for a sailing ship to reach Calcutta than Bombay.

Steam would give Bombay the benefit of shorter distance to Europe. The Bombay governor,

Mounstart Elphinstone, made ‘a distinct official proposition’ in 1823 to the court of directors for

the establishment of steam communication between Bombay and England, via the Red sea. (In

the pre- Suez canal days this involved an overland journey across Egypt to reach the

Mediterranean sea.) The proposal was renewed in 1826, ‘but the Court were unwilling to act

upon the suggestion’. Elphinstone’s successor, Sir John Malcolm, decided to go ahead on his

own. A steamer was built at the Wadia dockyard and ironically named ‘Hugh Lindsay’ after the

sceptical company chairman. ‘Hugh Lindsay’ was a small ship of only 411 tonnes, with two 80

HP engines. It left Bombay in March 1830 on its experimental voyage of 3000 miles, to Suez. It

had to carry sufficient coal to reach Aden, 1641 miles away. Before ‘Hugh Lindsay’ left, a collier

brig, laden with 600 tonnes of coal, was dispatched so that coal could be stored at Aden, Jiddah

and Suez. ‘Hugh Lindsay’ itself carried as much coal as it could, filling with coal more than two

thirds of the space meant for passengers. The voyage was a spectacular success. The ship could

reach Aden in 11 days under steam alone. The journey to Suez took a total of 32 days consisting

of 21 days of actual journey and 11 for stoppages. ‘Hugh Lindsay’ made a total of five voyages to

Suez till 1833, all heavily subsidized. The average expense of coal per voyage was Rs 46,250

while receipts from passengers and letters averaged only Rs 14,225 (ref. 26). Finally in 1834, the

parliamentary committee resolved that ‘it is expedient that measures should be immediately taken

for the regular establishment of steam communication27 with India by the Red sea’, asking at the

same time that ‘the expenses may be materially reduced’.

Steam navigation had far-reaching consequences. First, Bombay became gateway to India. It has

continued since then as the business capital of India. Secondly, the Red sea and the Persian gulf

area was scientifically surveyed. Finally, all the countries en route lost their independence28. To

provide ‘Hugh Lindsay’ with fuel, the small island of Socotra, off the horn of Africa, was needed

as a coaling station. Accordingly it was taken over by the British in 1835. Soon, it was realized

that Aden was a better choice; it was taken by force in 1839. The only bottleneck in the Red sea

route was the 10-day long arduous journey across Egypt. Suez canal was dug in 1869. Ironically,

it was dug with French capital, even though the biggest beneficiaries were the British interests.

The first ship to pay the toll on the Suez canal was British. Egypt was added to the British

colonial empire in 1882.

Introduction of steam navigation did not mean immediate end of sailing ships. Early steamships

were so unprofitable that they had to depend on government subsidies. The commercial viability

of steam came only when engines were greatly improved and ships were made of iron and then

of steel. This effectively brought teak-ship building at Bombay to a close, bringing to an end a

chapter in the colonial history. From 1736 to 1884, the Wadias built a total of 334 vessels for a

variety of owners: East India company, private merchants, Nizam of Hyderabad, Imam of

Muscat, and the British navy. Out of these 334, 39 were either specifically built or subsequently

acquired by the British navy during the period 1777- 1849. A frigate Trincomalee built in 1817

for the British navy is still afloat under the name ‘Foudroyant’. The Wadia vessels were put to a

wide variety of use, from carrying coal to the Bombay governor himself. For completeness it

may be added that from 1885 to 1936 another 46 vessels were built at the Bombay dockyards29.

Britain owed its colonial empire to its sea power. The Bombay dockyard under the Wadias was

an important, though small, contributor towards efficient and low-cost maintenance of that


a detailed account of events 1613- 1863.]

2. A ship’s doctor [Gabriel Boughton] visited Shah Jahan’s court at Agra in

1645 and later served as a surgeon to the emperor’s son Shah Shuja who was

the viceroy of Bengal. Then in 1716, the company’s embassy to Delhi included a surgeon

[William Hamilton] who cured the emperor of a painful disease that had delayed his marriage. In

both cases, medical services were reciprocated with handsome gifts and trading concessions.

See Crawford, D. G., A History of the Indian Medical Service, 1914, vol. I, pp. 51, 113.

3.”Wadia, R. A., The Bombay Dockyard and the Wadia Master Builders, Bombay, 1957 (Reprint

1983), 2nd edn, see p. 20.

4. Ref. I, p. 525.

5. Douglas, James, Glimpses of Old Bombay and Western India, 1893, vol. I, p. 249.

6. Ref. I, p. 54.

7. da Cunha, Garson, Origin of Bombay, pp. 247, 258; cited in ref. 3, p. 9.

8. The Wadias received three grants of Inam land in Bombay; they were the only ones ever

granted. The first was in 1783, the second was in two instalments in 1821 and 1849, whereas the

third was in 1884 on the retirement of the last master builder (ref. 3, pp. 167, 251, 319). In

addition, there were a number of presents of medals, rulers and shawls. The prestige earned by

the shipbuilding Wadias helped other branches of the clan in establishing themselves in various

lines of business.

9. Ref. I, p. 97.

10. Ref. 3, ch. 6.


II. This ended the golden age of the Malabar-teak forests. Finally, in 1847

when iron was replacing teak as the material for building ships, a conservator of forests [Dr

Alexander Gibson] was appointed at Bombay.

12. Ref. 3;p. 191.

13. The national anthem of USA, ‘star- spangled banner’, was composed by Francis Kay on board

the ‘Minden’ when it was in Baltimore. Ref. 3, p.208.

14. This was ‘Hastings’, the 74 gun, solitary, line-of-war ship built at Kidderpore near Calcutta in

1818. The dockyard was established in 1780 by Henry Watson (1737-86) of Bengal engineers,

on a piece of land obtained as a grant from the government. In 1781 he launched the 36 gun

frigate ‘Nonsuch’. In 1788 he launched another frigate, the ‘Surprize’, of 32 guns. ‘But his

resources were by this time exhausted; after having sunk ten lakh rupees in his dockyard, he was

obliged to relinquish it’. The major activity at Kidderpore was in the hands of the two Kyd

brothers James (1786-1836) and Robert (d. 1825) sons of Lt. Gen. Alexander Kyd, the surveyor

general of Bengal 1788-94. The two brothers were trained in shipbuilding in England. Returning

to Calcutta in 1800, they were apprenticed to Waddell, the company’s master builder. On his

retirement in 1807, they purchased the Kidderpore dockyard, with James Kyd becoming master

builder to the company. A total

of 25 ships were built at his dockyard including Hastings. ‘Diana’ the first

steamer on river Hughli, was built in

1823. On James Kyd’s death in 1836, the dockyard was purchased by the

government. See Buckland, C. E.,

Dictionary of Indian Biography, 1906, pp. 442, 239; Phillimore, R. H.,

Historical Records of the Survey of India, 1945, vol. 1, p. 394.

15. Ref.3,p.212.

16. Ref. 1, p. 505.

17. Since Robert Fulton, the owner of ‘Clermont’, had obtained the exclusive right of navigating

the waters of the state of New York, John Cox Stevens boldly conveyed his ship from New York

city to Delaware by sea. ‘. Samuelson, Martin, Q. J. Sci., 1864, 1, 239.

18. Dutt, Romesh, The Economic History of India, 1906, 2nd edn, vol. 1, pp. 183. 209.

19. Ref. 1, pp. 520-532; Ref. 3, ch. 12.

20. Headrick, D. R., The Tools of Empire, Oxford Univ. Press, 1981. ch. 1.

21. Kochhar, R. K., Vistas in Astronomy. 1991,34,69.

22. Ref. 3, p. 288.

23. Ref. 20, p. 21; also see ref. 19.

24. Ref. 20, p. 134.

25. Ref. 19,20.

26. Ref. 1, p. 532.


27. Much to its humiliation, Indian navy was asked to run a steam service for post and

passengers from 1838 to 1854 when the service was handed over to the private Peninsular and

Oriental Steam Navigation Co. See ref. 20, p. 138.

28. Ref. 20, pp. 136, 156.

29. Ref. 3, App. B & C.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT. I thank Mr Neville N. Wadia for his help in collecting material for

this article.

R. K. Kochhar is in the Indian Institute of Astrophysics, Koramangala, Bangalore 560 034,

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