This coloured engracving (which I biought in 1986 in London) is quite similar to, but not identical with, the engravings in British Library and British Museum. Because of the similarity, this one must also be attributed to Jan van Ryne.
This coloured engracving (which I biought in 1986 in London) is quite similar to, but not identical with, the engravings in British Library and British Museum. Because of the similarity, this one must also be attributed to Jan van Ryne.
(Source: ‘Discoveries, Missionary Expansion and Asian Cultures’, edited by Teotonio R. de Souza ( New Delhi :Concept Publishing Company) 1994, pp.175-183)
The arrival of St. Francis Xavier at Goa on 6th May. 1542, is an even of singular importance. He was the first Jesuit in India, and man others were to follow him for the next two hundred years. Although the spread of the Christian faith was the most important plan of the Jesuits, their activities had a scientific dimension about them also, being the First European men of learning in India. In this paper I will describe their scientific activities and discuss their impact on later political developments.’
The Portuguese arrived in India even before the Mughals did While the latter entered through the traditional north-western landgate, the former came by sea and settled on the west coast. The Portuguese introduced a new parameter, navy, in India’s geopolitical equations, placing the Mughals at a permanent disadvantage for a limes to come. The year of Xavier’s arrival in India was also the yea of Akbar’s birth. The latter’s fascination for elephants was legendary We can compare the Mughal empire itself loan elephant, which powerful on land. The Portuguese were the crocodile which control led the waters. Because of his interest in comparative theology an probably also due to his apprehension about the Portuguese sea borne power. Akbar invited in 1580, a Jesuit mission to his court. This led to the establishment of a church and a Jesuit mission at Agra which continued till 1803.
As long as the Mughal empire was powerful, the European remained confined lo the coastal regions, outside imperial zone of influence and minded their business. They did take an interest in botany. This is natural, because after all it was the lure of the culinary plants that had brought them to these parts in the First place. Interest in plants was beneficial and profitable, because of their medicinal, commercial, and curiosity value in Europe. While the European traders had a good idea about India’s coast-line, they were ignorant about the country’s interior, having had no reason to venture there, nor being equipped for the task. Geographical exploration was left to the Jesuits, who had the training, the lime, and the opportunity to criss-cross the country. They had also the necessary discipline to make careful observations, to record them faithfully, and to transmit them regularly. In Europe, these reports were dutifully preserved, yet ignored. Europe was not as yet ready for India.
In the eighteenth century, the collapse of the Mughal empire produced a political vacuum. The European vaishya outfits developed kshatriya ambitions, and knowing post-Plassey India became a paying proposition. Jesuit data were now dug up and put to use. Colonial geographers avidly scanned the 34 Jesuit volumes of Lettres Edifiantes el Curieuses. Interestingly, an abridged translation in two volumes was edited in London in 1743 by John Lockman entitled, Travels of the Jesuits into Various Parts of the world. He deleted accounts of conversions and miracles, as being ‘quite insipid or ridiculous lo most English readers, and indeed to all persons of understanding and taste’. English readers were interested undoubtedly only in those parts of the work which furthered their overseas interests. A fresh edition was published in Paris between 1780 and 1783 in 26 volumes by Ouerbocuft, who conveniently arranged the letters in geographical order. Volumes I0 lo 15 give information about India. This compilation is however largely devoted to the French missionaries, with the Mughal Mission being very poorly represented.
Traditionally, the conquerors entered India from the north-west and moved eastwards, leaving the southern part alone. (Aurungzeb brought an end to the Mughal power by needlessly trying to subdue the south, and the Marathas ruined themselves by trying to extend their hold right up to Delhi). In contrast, the Europeans, coming as they did by sea. were First interested in south India, and later in the eastern, central and northern parts. This is therefore the order in which geographical information about India was sought and incorporated into the main body of European knowledge, irrespective of the order in which this information was First obtained.
Fr. Anthony Monserrate (1536-1600)
Chronologically speaking, the first Jesuit geographer in India was Fr. Anthony Monserrate even though his work was unnoticed for 200 years.3 Born at Vie de Ozona, 30 miles from Monserrate in Catalonia (Spain), he joined the Order in 1558 and left for India in 1574. He was chosen lo be a member of the first Jesuit mission to Akbar’s court and was asked by his superiors at Goa to keep a diary. This he did most faithfully, adding greatly to its value by his geographical and astronomical observations. On his journey from Surat to Fatehpur Sikri in 1580, .he made a survey and took observations for latitude. When in 1581, Akbar marched to Kabul against his half-brother Mirza Muhammad Hakim, he took him along for continuing the tuition of his second son Murad (1570-99). He encouraged Monserrate to take observations en route, which he did as far as Jalalabad.
Akbar however did not seem to have shown any interest in the data collected by Monserrate, who kepi it with himself when he returned from the mission.
On the basis of his observations, Monserrate prepared in about 1590 a small map.5½” X 41/8” in size. This little map was a tremendous improvement on all previous efforts. It was based on actual observations rather than on travellers’ tales. It gave a better idea of the Himalayas and of the upper course of the Punjab rivers than Rennell had done nearly 200 years later. Expectedly, Monserrate did not have any knowledge about regions east of the Yamuna. Studied today, one notices that he had placed Surat east of Goa instead of west of Goa, and that the map is four degrees too far to the east. But keeping in mind the limes when it was first prepared and when it was first used, its value cannot be under-estimated4.
Monserrate’s geographical endeavour belongs lo the category of historical romance rather than to that of historical compulsion. The Jesuit Mughal Mission operated under the Portuguese patronage, but the latter soon became redundant in the European power-game. Indeed, ironically. Monserrate’s work done when the Jesuit mission was established, came to light only when the mission ended.
The French who were the last of the Europeans lo arrive in India and became semi-finalists in the power-game, acted as patrons to the French Jesuits. Thanks to the Jesuits, French were more successful on the scientific front than on the colonial.
Fr. Jean-Venant Bouchet (1655-1732)
The first dependable map of the interior of the southern peninsula was due lo the efforts of Fr. Jean-Venant Bouchet who had the distinction of arriving in India from the east rather than from the west.5 Born at Fontenay-le-Comte in France, he joined the Society in 1670 and was a member of the expedition sent to Siam in 1687 by king Louis XIV. There were 14 Jesuits in all, formally designated as The Mathematicians of the King’. They arrived in Siam in 1688, but were expelled the same year as a result of a revolution that overthrew the king. The missionaries left for India, but only three survived the or- deal and reached Pondicherry on 17th February, 1689, two of them being Fr. Bouchet and Fr. Jean Richaud. It is not clear who the third Jesuit was. On arrival in India, Bouchet joined the Madura Mission, but left it in 1702 to set up the Carnatic Mission.
Bouchet covered the Coromandel coast on foot, made astronomical observations at Pondicherry, and prepared maps and sketches. In 1719 Bouchet sent to France his map of Madurai and the neighboring kingdoms, extending it to slightly north of latitude 14° N. Obviously there was some sort of coordination between the Jesuit data collectors on the one hand, and the French commercial and political interests, on the other. Because of the map being drawn by a small scale of not quite an inch to one degree of latitude and consequently not capable of giving the countries in any considerable detail, the Jesuits sent over several manuscript charts, and other materials, from which D’Anville composed a new map. It was drawn by a scale nearly twice as large as the former, and was a great deal more particular as well as accurate, and extended further north.6 D’Anville published his map of the southern Peninsula in 1737 and followed it by his famous Carte de Linde in 1752. An important feature of this map was that he left blank very conscientiously those parts of India, about which he did not have authentic knowledge. The significance of D’Anvillc’s efforts can be judged from the fact that his Memoirs were translated, annotated, and published with a reprint of his map in London in 1754 rind 1759.7
Bouchet’s companion Fr. Richaud discovered in 1689 that the bright southern star Alpha Centauri was in fact a double slur. This was the second binary ever discovered. Earlier in 1685 Jesuit, Fr. Fontenay, had discovered from the Cape of Good Hope the First binary Alpha Crucis. Richaud’s was the first credited astronomical discovery from India.
Fr. Claude Stanislaus Boudier (1686-1757)
The next stage was the geographical exploration of Hindustan (North India) undertaken by Fr. Claude Stanislaus Boudier. Born at Sens in France, Boudier left France for Chandernagore in Bengal in 1718. His chance to traverse north India came about as a result of astronomical pursuits of Raja Jai Singh Sawai of Jaipur, who wanted the Jesuit lo visit him for scientific consultations. Accordingly, Boudier and another Jesuit, Pons, set out from Chandernagore on 6th January, 1734. ‘On their arrival they seem unfortunately to have wasted much time in disputing with the local Brahmins as to the extent to which Indian astronomy was indebted to the ancient Greeks’. The two Jesuits worked at Jaipur during August and September 1734 and returned to Chandernagore about a year later.8
The Jesuit mission was no doubt a failure from Jai Singh Sawai’s point of view. But seen from the colonial angle it was a huge success. During his journeys to and fro, Boudier Fixed the longitude and latitude of many important places, and kept a survey of his route between Agra and Allahabad. His Memoir gave ‘the description of places on this road (between Agra and Bengal)… With the computed distance of each from the course of the Gernne (Jamna) and the Ganges’. Boudiers’ work was used extensively by D’Anville and by his British counterpart, Rennell. D’Anville used Boudier’s value for the latitude of Madras in preference to any other. Rennell depended on Boudier for his 1774 general map of Bengal, and used his values as late as 1793.9
Fr. Joseph Tieffenthaler (1710-1785)
A rather pathetic Figure was Fr. Joseph Tieffenthalere who survived the dissolution of the Society of Jesus in 1773 by working under the British auspices.10 Born at Bolzana in the Austrian Tyrol, he joined the Order in 1729, and left Germany for Spain in 1740. In 1742 he sailed from Lisbon for Goa by way of the Philippines. He reached (Goa in 1743, He was apparently intended originally for the Jaipur Observatory, but Raja Jai Singh’s death in 1743 cut short these plans. He was accordingly sent to Agra to work at the Jesuit College there. Shortly afterwards, he began his wanderings to Mathura, Delhi, Narwar, Goa, Surat, Jodhpur, Ajmer, Jaipur, Gwalior, and to innumerable other places. In 1747, he commenced service as a priest at the Bourbon Colony at Narwar, where he remained for about eighteen years.
Meanwhile, in 1759 the king of Portugal had banished all Jesuits from Portuguese dominions. Consequently, the Jesuit presence at Goa ceased, and with this the Mughal Mission as a Jesuit enterprise ‘may be said lo have come to an end.’ Tieffenthaler found himself in such Financial straits that in 1756 he boldly decided to appeal for financial help lo the ‘famous English nation so well known for their humanity, liberality and charity to the poor’. He travelled to Calcutta keeping surveys of the way. Apparently he found the help he needed and settled in Oudh for the rest of his life, making Lucknow his head-quarters. Till 1771 he was continually on the move making astronomical observations and surveys, employing also one or more local assistants ‘versed in geography’, whom he sent lo explore the sources of the Ganga and the Gogra.
Tieffenthaler was a tireless explorer. ‘Next to the salvation of souls, and their conquest for God, nothing has afforded me greater pleasure than the study of the geographical position of places, the variations of winds, the nature of the soil, and the character and manners of the regions through which I am travelling’. The publication history of his works makes interesting reading. In 1772 or 1773 he sent a voluminous collection of his works in Latin to a Prof. Krat Zenstein through the agency of a Dutch doctor, whom he had met in India. He sent other material lo the French orientalist Anquetil Duperron, who was in India between 1755 and 1764, three of which he had spent at Surat collecting Parsi manuscripts.
In 1771 Duperron published the First European translation of Zend Avesta.11 In 1759, when he was at Surat and Tieffenthaler at Narwar. the two were in correspondence with each other. Suddenly in 1776, Duperron received from Tieffenthaler (then at Faizabad) a packet of maps (including a 15-ft long map of Ganga) and some loose papers. Duperron very promptly prepared a treatise on these maps and in 1776 itself published it in the. Journal des Savants making it a point to mention Tieffenthaler’s unattended Copenhagen works. This publication spurred the German astronomer and mathematician Joseph Bernoulli, at the lime professor at Berlin. He obtained Tieffenthaler’s geographical work Descriptio Indiae from Copenhagen, and collaborated with Duperron on its translation and publication along with that of an expanded version of Duperron’s treatise.. The work was published in three volumes in German (1785-87) as well as in French (1786-89). Bernoulli’s publication reached Rennell in England in time for Tieffenthaler’s work to be incorporated into his map of 1788.
Thomas Call in India had already received copies from Tieffenthaler himself. Call’s Atlas of India embodies Routes taken between Goa and Agra by Padri Tieffenthaler; A Survey of the country N.W. of Delhi by Padries Windell and Tieffenthaler.
Fr. Francis Xavier Wendel (d. 1803)
The sad state of the last days of the Moghul Mission is best epitomised by the rather shadowy Fr. Francis Xavier Wendel who along with Tieffenthaler survived the mission. He came to India in 1751 and resided at Agra and Lucknow for the greater part of his life. Though many of his flock were French, he was pro-British in his leanings to the extent that the Commandant at Chandernagore wrote to the Minister in Paris accusing him of being a British agent.12
Wendel was closely associated with Tieffenthaler in geographical pursuits. In 1764, he sent Duperron a map showing the strategic position of the Mughal and British armies at the time of the battle of Buscar. He was the author of A Memoir on the Land of the Rajputs and other Provinces lo the South and South West of Agra, with a map which, he drew up in 1779, and presented to Rennell, who was much indebted to Wendal in the preparation of his own great map of Hindustan. In 1780, Wendel met a Russian named Czernichef who had travelled from Bukhara through Kashmir to Lucknow, and communicated his diary to Col. Francis Wilford at Benares.
Wendel died on 20th March, 1803, and like Tieffenthaler was buried at Agra. With his death, the last links with the Mughal Mission were snapped.
In the very early years of the nineteenth century, more than 200 years after its completion, Monserrate’s work was dusted out of the archival shelves and incorporated into the corpus of geographical knowledge. The time was not fortuitous. The struggle for territorial control over India was almost over, and the British were Finally at Delhi. The territory west of Delhi was now of strategic importance. In 1804 Francis Wilford of the Bengal Engineers brought out a valuable Map of the Countries West of Delhi. This map was a tremendous improvement on any thing that had been produced before. It stretched as far as Sukkur and Dera Ghazi Khan on the south-west, Kabul on the west, and to Chitral and Gilgit in the north. For the collection of the material he employed a surveyor, Mirza Mogul Beg between 1786 and 1796, and made use of Fr. Monserrate’s manuscript.13
It is reasonably certain that a copy of Monserrate’s manuscript journal was kept at the Jesuit college at Agra, from where it was taken by Tieffenthaler, who may have passed it on to Wilford in 1784 one year before his own death. Monserrate’s work thus neatly brackets the Mughal history. It was prepared when the Mughal empire was first established. It was made use of by the British when they reached the Mughal capital and formally deprived the titular emperor of his sovereignty.
The eighteenth century saw a bitter struggle between the two European powers, Britain and France, for territorial control of India. The European military might could have been of decisive use against the native kings only if the lay of the land was known to the foreigners. Accurate geographical information of the country came from the Jesuits who had the training, time, and the opportunity to criss-cros: the country. The French were more successful on the geographica front than on the colonial. The first reliable map of India was the work of D’Anville, achieved no doubt because of his easy access to the meticulous field-work done by the Jesuits.
Interestingly, the history of the Agra-based Jesuit Mughal Mission tells us much about the history of the increasing European involvement in India. In 1579 when Akbar invited Jesuits to his court from Goa, there were apprehensions that he, incensed at Portuguese affrontry on the sea, might hold the Jesuits as hostages. Two hundred years later in 1765 Tieffenthaler, already disowned by Portugal and soon to be disowned by the Pope, successfully appealed to the British at Calcutta for financial help for his geographical and exploratory pursuits. And finally Wendel, the last remnant of the mission, was openly accused by the demoralized French of being a British agent.
We have seen that the geographical work done by the Jesuits ii India was of great value to the French and British colonial interests It will be interesting lo Find out whether these interests directly or in directly influenced the Jesuit aims in India and whether the Jesuits perceived the use lo which their work was being put to.
1. R K. Kochhar, “Science in British India”. I. Colonial tool, Current Science, 1992, pp. 63,689.
2. E. Maclagan, The Jesuits and the Great Mogul, London, 1932, p. 15.
4. R. H. Phillimore, Historical Records of the Survey of India, Vol. I, Dehra Dun,1945.
5. Kochhar, “French Astronomers in India during the 17th-19th Centuries,” J. Br.Astr. Assoc., 1991, pp. 95, 101.
6. Phillimore, op. cit., p. 238.
8. Maclagan, op. cit., p. 134; Phillimore, op. cit., p. 314.
9. Ibid.,p. 314.
10. Ibid., p. 137; Phillimore, op. cit., p. 388; Noti; S.. Joseph Tieffenthaler, S.J., Bombay, 1906.
11. Sacred Books of the East, Vol. 4, p. xv.
12. Maclagan, op. cit., p. 141; Pbillimore, op. cit., p. 395.
13. Phillimore, op. cit., p. 395.
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. http://oesys.spriger.de/hnws
Current Science, 66, 965-969, 1994
Shipbuilding at Bombay
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
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.
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
From Current Science HISTORICAL COMMENTARY AND NOTES
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.
From Current Science HISTORICAL COMMENTARY AND NOTES
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.
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.
From Current Science HISTORICAL COMMENTARY AND NOTES
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
R. K. Kochhar is in the Indian Institute of Astrophysics, Koramangala, Bangalore 560 034,