Monday, March 28, 2011

The Rise of Bombay

Surat, Parsi, West Coast, British, East India Company, Master Ship Builder, Wadia, Bombay, Zoroastrian, Persian,  What do these words make together?  A remarkable piece of History not too many would know.  The following article reveals a lot of interesting things.  It shows pivotal role The Wadias played during the mid 17th to early 19th century in the making of Bombay dockyard and thus Bombay (Mumbai) as we know of today.  Although, this did take a little limelight away from Surat, since the Wadias were forced (due to many reasons as mentioned below) to move to Bombay and develop the Ship building industry there.  Surat felt a big void due to this at the time.  Also big Thanks to Shivaji, the British, the Portuguese and some.  Surat, even before the Persians (Parsis / Wadias) arrived, was a major port and a  business center where the trade of Precious Stones (Diamonds), Textiles and Spices was very prominent.  This was all possible because of the Dockyard and the Ship building industry at the port of Surat.  

Wadia Saga of Shipbuilding - A Peek into History

1. With waves lapping the shores on three sides of the sub – continent, it is only logical that Indian history is filled and flavoured with lore of the mariners and tales of the seas. The ship building heritage of India dates back 5000 years during Harappa culture and has evolved through the Vedic age, the Mauryan period and the later times. The records are plenty and reports innumerable which indicate and substantiate the existence of a flourishing ship building industry at various places since times immemorial. Amidst this stands the eponymous epoch referred as Wadia Saga of Shipbuilding attributed to the Parsi dynasty hailing from Surat. The Wadia era lasted for 150 years and spanned seven generations. During this period, the family operated from Bombay Dockyard building ships of unmatched robustness that plied the near seas and distant oceans.

2. The earliest reference to shipbuilding at Bombay was under the Portuguese in 1625. The island was passed on to the English under the treaty of marriage in 1662. Thereafter, the potential of developing Bombay harbour as a formidable ship – building centre was realised and reported by many. The tides made it possible to operate a wide range of ships, the anchorages were close to the coast, the place was protected against the monsoon and the site was sheltered against the sea. Above all, the cost and effort of establishing ship – building and repair facilities was envisaged to be minimal. These advantages evoked interest in the British. As time passed and proposals traded, the strategic importance and commercial interests of creating a ship building yard in an all season harbour of Bombay became paramount. The directives and deliberations were interspersed with construction activities, which then were undertaken at a leisurely pace. During this period, the geo – physical decadence of Surat port, which hitherto was the ship – building hub on the west coast, coupled with blockades by Portuguese and raids by Shivaji compelled the British to look for a better base for operations. This gave the necessary fillip to creation of Bombay Dockyard. The first mud basin or slip was constructed by 1693 – 94 and other infrastructure set up in subsequent years. The yard was deemed fully operational circa 1735.

3. Having set up the facilities, it was imperative to infuse life into the yard. The expertise and knowledge had to come from without for which the British turned towards Surat for its proximity and fame. It was response to this call that Lowji Nusserwanji Wadia arrived in Bombay and opened a glorious chapter in the history of the island. It was this prodigious youth with craftsmanship flowing in his veins who laid the foundation of a legacy nonpareil in the realm of ship building.

4. To understand the ingenuity of this clan, it would be pertinent to delve into the past. The Zoroastrians indulged in ship building under the Achaemenian king Darius and honed their skills under the tutelage of seafaring Phoenicians. When compelled to leave their land of origin, they sailed to reach the coast of India; an odyssey that instilled in the community an instinct to survive, courage to venture, wisdom to adapt and entrepreneurship to prosper. The boldness, enterprise and humility which are intrinsic to the unique character stem from Irani – Zarathushti heritage, socio – cultural adaptations and acceptance of British education along with its temporal values. Thus it can be inferred that a combination of genetic pool, circumstances and evolution contributed inParsis carving a niche in shipbuilding industry of those times. The excellence of Muslim Vadhas and prominence of Hindu Bhandaris as shipwrights was paled by the luminescence of Parsi families of Sabavora and Wadia in the field.

5. The saga of Wadia started in March 1736 when Lowji Nusserwanji Wadia disembarked Cowan along with 12 carpenters to set foot on the soil of Bombay. Bombay Dockyard had at that time Robert Baldry as the Head Builder under whom Lowji started his innings and set upon constructing the two grabs immediately required by the Bombay Council. He worked directly under Robert Baldry until his demise in 1740. From 1740 until 1764, Lowjee in various records was referred to and occupied the position as `Master Carpenter’. After 1764, the term `Master Builder’ or ‘Head Ship Builder’ was used interchangeably. The first grab built under supervision of Lowjee was `Restoration’ launched on 12 Jul 1740. By 1742, Lowjee’s commitment and competence had earned him a reputation enjoyed by few. It is because of impeccable workmanship ensured by him that the orders flowed constantly from the Councils of Surat, Madras and Calcutta. During his tenure as Master Builder, Lowjee saw to the building of 46 grabs, schooners, ketch, cutters, sloops and ships. The sheer number and variety underlines his versatility and virtuosity. Lowjee died in 1774 and was succeeded to the post of Master Builder by his eldest son Maneckjee Lowjee while Bomanjee the younger son worked as the first foreman. This august and important post devolved for the next five generations on members of Wadia family. This was more earned than endowed because the younger generation was always inducted into the yard and nurtured to master the vocation which by then had become the family’s identity. The ship building activity in Bombay Dockyard reached its zenith during the third and the fourth generations. The seventh and the last Master Builder was Jamsetjee Dhunjibhoy who retired in January of 1885. His departure brought the curtains down on the connexion between Lowjee family and the post of Master Builder in Bombay Dockyard; a designation graced and monopolised by the family for 150 years.

6. The success of the yard and the family was largely dependent on the frenetic ship building activity that lasted till about 1857. The ships were built of Malabar Teak, which till then was abundant along the west coast. The orders that flooded the yard were primarily meant to maintain the force levels of East India Company for coastal defence of the entire country. Concomitantly, the maritime campaigns and conquests of the British Empire needed bigger ships, which were also sourced from Bombay Dockyard for their quality, cost and sturdiness. The properties of Malabar Teak were far superior to those of any other wood including the English Oak. The overriding consideration was the fact that vessels built at Bombay were superior to those built elsewhere; a reality exploited by all, realised by many, accepted by few but acknowledged by none.

7. Paradoxically, the factors that shaped and strengthened the sovereignty of Wadias caused their decline in the later half of nineteenth century. The political scene had undergone a mutation. The East India Company had ceased to exist. The defence of India along with naval services required in Red Sea and eastern coast of African continent was taken over by Royal Navy. The change in role was accompanied with depletion of fleet and attenuation of orders for new ships. The forests were shone of teak as the rate of felling far exceeded the growth. The ship – building department was reduced by one – third. At about the same time the advent of steam heralded the change in propulsion from sail to paddle and then to screw. The steel hull came into vogue. Whilst the vibrant patronage given to the ship building industry by the government withered, the authorities were inclined towards getting Europeans as Master Builders. The lucre of trade and growing opulence of the city inhibited the later generations of Wadias from training family members in the art of shipbuilding. Thus, an admixture of political, industrial, economic and ethnic reasons resulted in disassociating Lowjee family from ship building industry.

8. During their dominance, the Wadias with their skill and proficiency, ardour and exertions etched an indelible mark in the field of shipbuilding. In the century and a half at helm, the family contributed in constructing 170 war vessels for the East India Company, 34 warships for the Royal Navy and 87 other ships for private firms. The spectrum is bedecked with paragons of excellence; Foudroyant epitomising durability, Ferooz exemplifying sturdiness and Punjab personifying speed.  Credits :

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