Thursday 1 February 2024



We all know that as the greatest colonial power on earth, the British once emerged as the 'Empire on which the sun never set' due to their supremacy over the high seas- with their fantastic ships, admirals and sailors. Being an Indian, this I had learnt repeatedly right from the the days I started reading as a toddler to this very day.But what I didn't know or learn was that one of the biggest contributions for the British to attain this status rivaling Spain,Portugal or France was colonial India itself! 

More than  India's rich resources being stolen by them- traders turned as masters- systematically, an Indian shipbuilder at Bombay, exclusively built indigenously using Indian craftsmen, skilled workers and raw materials including Malabar Teak , world class ships on orders of British Navy! Not just one or two but 363 of them- enabling the British merchant and naval gunships and others trotting the whole globe covering and mastering all the seven continents in the 17th,18th and 19th  centuries!! Such a fleet which were products of exclusive Indian brains, skills and technology contains HMS Minden,HMS Trincomalee and HMS Cornwallis ! The name of the great shipbuilder was Jamsetjee Bomanjee and family of  Wadia Shipbuilders !!

More than what you have already read above, it is believed to have been on  board  this Indian made Royal Naval ship HMS Minden, that the great American lawyer poet wrote the US National Anthem 'Star- Spangled Banner ' while on the coast of US near Baltimore in  1814!  The poet Francis Scott Key was a prisoner in the ship held by  British Navy who also coined and gave America its motto:In God we trust! Again it was on board  HMS Cornwallis built by Indians in 1842 that the Treaty of Nanking was signed that ceded Hong Kong to the British! Then the record of the oldest ship afloat goes to HMS Trincomalee, another one!!

Hard to believe? Incredible? But be rest assured that this is absolutely true.It is high time that we learn from our own history - our strengths and weaknesses- more than who invaded or colonised and looted us.....It is high time that we tell about ourselves to the world than waiting for others to do that which they limit to 'extreme poverty or casteism' only for their interests! 

HMS Trincomalee is kept at National Museum of Royal Navy,England. Figurehead                  of the ship is modelled on its builder Jamsetjee Bomanjee.                                                                                                                                                     

How I ran to this....

Two months back I could see a magnificent telefilm video produced  by the Indian Navy on themselves. Impressive it was but I wished that they could add our ancient past too as ancient Indian port at Lothal was  one of the oldest dry docks in the world, if not the oldest. Subsequently, my interest in digging the past on the subject hit a gold mine of historical information on our own naval history - of reasonably recent past than ancient ones.That's how I could write this article which I am sure will make many eyebrows raise like I did. 

The background

The Mughals who were ruling India were a bit relieved to see the British East India Company(EIC) in the early 16th century defeating the Portuguese, predominantly because while the later were Christian fanatics against Islamic fanaticism, British were not , which went on tune with Mughal's interests in India initially. The Mughals eagerly made concessions to EIC to accommodate them as emperor Jahangir gave them permission to trade within their territory followed by commencement of the first British factory at Surat in 1613. Bombay was just a sleepy fishing village then.That status continued till 1662, when Catherine of Braganza of Portugal  was given Bombay village as a dowry to wed Charles II of Britain!

At the end of the Napoleonic war against France, after Battle of Trafalgar in 1815,British Royal Navy felt the need to replenish lost or ageing  fleet of theirs.At that time there was a shortage of availability of quality Oak wood for the purpose of ship building.But soon the British knew about the availability of quality Malabar Teak wood of India which was even better than Oak as being more denser for building ships. Than bringing the bulky cargo of teak wood to Britain taking time, they focused on the fame of a master shipbuilder at Surat in India-Jamet Bomanjee of Wadia Shipbuilders! The British decided to 'outsource' the engineering skill of shipbuilding to an Indian which was just a tip of an iceberg of events of naval history of the world to follow. 

Portrait of Jamsetjee Bomanjee in British naval archives.A divider in one hand while the drawings of  HMS Minden on the other. One can also see the progress of construction of the very ship with 74 guns which was launched in 1810- also through the window!Interestingly this portrait is available in US historical archives also for reason as explained in the article

Wadia family ...the illustrious shipbuilding family of the world..

The Wadia Parsi family hails from Surat in Gujarat.The very name 'Wadia' means carpenter/shipbuilder in Gujarati language. Jamset Bomanjee's  firm which was named Surti Ship Builders(later known as Wadia Shipbuilders) secured initial contracts for building ships with EIC from 1736. He himself was the master shipbuilder. 

Bombay Dry Docks was built by his brother Lovji Nusserwanjee in 1750 on the British request as EIC headquartered to Bombay from Surat. Incredibly between 1735 and 1899, seven generations of Wadias built 363 ships of world class quality for the British and others ,which sailed all over the seven high seas ! The Indian Parsi shipwrights exclusively produced 39 vessels on orders of  British Royal Navy- 16 ships of the line, 13 frigates, 9 sloops and 1 schooner! Some of them remained the finest creations of it's class for decades which followed! The British, the US and the west have officially chronicled this info but we, Indians are yet to add in our curriculum for our children, it seems!

Bombay Dock , the oldest in Asia is functioning even today as the Naval Dockyard.The northern part of the erstwhile dockyard is today's Mazagon Dock, India's premier Ship Building Centre.

HMS Minden and birth of US national anthem 'Star-Spangled Banner' 

This 74 gun frigate had set off for the maiden sail on 8 Feb 1811 from Bombay Dockyard after the customary 'breaking the bottle' ceremony performed by the then British Governor Jonathan Duncan.HMS Minden was the handiwork of Jamshedji for which the order was received from Royal Navy ten years earlier. This was the first British Royal Navy ship of the line built out of 'Great' Britain.

Indian made teak 74 gun ship HMS Minden and actual remains of the US flag preserved at National Museum of American History,Smithsonian Institute's National Museum of American History.

On 3rd Sept 1814 many Royal Navy ships including INS Minden were about to attack US Fort McHenry near Chesapeake Bay , outside Baltimore as they were enemies then. On the advise of the US President James Madison , two of his representatives Francis Scott Key and John Stuart Skimmer had set sail on a US boat flying a flag of truce and reached INS Minden. Their aim was peaceful negotiations for surrender with the British. What the British did was not only agreeing to the discussions but kept the two American reps as captives! In the night the royal Naval ships bombarded the fort the whole night to the astonishment of the American captives. In the early morning, expecting a complete devastation of the US fort, as they looked out they could see almost a miracle -the fort was standing loud and clear with a fluttering US flag atop!!They believed that God had intervened!

Key was a poet too. As he saw the US flag with 15 stars and 18 stripes on the fort , he scribbled down a poem while still as a captive in the ship...the fragile faded flag remains the holiest icon of American life.

                 Francis Scott Key               original scribbling of the poem  

It was recognized as a patriotic song immediately but it took more than 100 years. On 3rd March 1931 it was declared as US National Anthem. 

The last years of HMS Minden was in Hong Kong where it was used as a hospital before being scrapped in 1861!

 HMS Trincomalee and HMS Cornwallis

HMS Trincomalee was launched on 12th October 1987 at Bombay. A 46 gun frigate it served many occasions for Royal Navy including Crimean war in 1897 and even WWII (1939-1945). It also served as a training ship under the name Foudroyant.To this day it floats at a British Museum and attracts around 60000 visitors a day!

Guns in HMS Trincomalee

                                  Signing the treaty of Nanking in HMS Cornwallis

14 gun ship HMS Cornwallis was built in 1813 for Royal British Navy and served till 1957!  The treaty of Nanking by which Hong Kong was ceded to Britain was signed in this Indian made ship.

The technical prowess and skills of Indians in shipbuilding for the last three centuries is recognized in maritime world history very much. I am neither a professional  historian nor a naval architect or expert but anyone can find out these facts from historical chronicles. Am I wrong in suggesting that the subject is to be inducted immediately in Indian school curriculum as I find this a 'must' ,the whole of India and world should know?


Monday 1 January 2024


Happy new year to all my readers .... worldwide! Let me kick off the new edition of the new year with a hardly known historical fact about India.

It is a fact that in spite of our resources and local demand, India doesn't make a lot of consumer goods of Indian origin.Most of the FMCG items we manufacture and use are international brands though made in India. But steadily the scenario is getting changed I notice, but next ten years India could change the current speed of it,I am sure.

In the field of cosmetics and perfumes now we are nowhere though the consumption rate has gone high.Parisian brands are the most sought after here too for those who can afford it.I have read somewhere that the famous Indian brand in that field 'Lakme' was started by Tata's Unilever at the request of our first Prime Minister Nehru to JRD Tata to go for an Indian brand which our women could afford.JRD earnestly took the request, ending up in the creation of the brand 'Lakme'.But many of us may not be aware that 'Lakme' is a French rendition of the Sanskrit word 'Lakshmi'  who is the Goddess of wealth and beauty in Hinduism. Though Lakme created in 1952 has become a premier brand in India and even exported to 70 countries or so, now House of Tatas represent and just distribute a lot of imported international brands in India through their enterprise Tata Luxury even online! May be good for the organization  for profits but definitely not for the country. Just an observation and nothing more since, I am not an expert in the field. It is comparable to our computer hardware field where our own brands are much less, though we claim ourselves to be software giants!

But here I am to share a hardly known information among us that India has  one of the richest history in own fragrances and perfumes which is yet to be commercially tapped.Here I am writing about Agarwood or Aloes or Oud, a fragrance of Indian origin that mastered the fragrance world since 1400 BC about which shamefully I came to know first from Arabs only, while in Qatar.

Oud shops of Mumbai....
It was Mr. Sherida Al Kaabi, Chairman of the business group 'Al Balagh' where I had been working in Qatar, who told me first that among the Oud wood the best and costliest comes from India! I specifically remember that he told me so while we were strolling Mumbai Fort area looking for some specific shops selling them! We were on a business trip .To be very honest and frank, when I had landed in Qatar in 1984, I was so ignorant about perfumes and fragrances that I did not know the difference between an eau de cologne, eau de toilette and eau de parfum! I didn't know about Oud wood chips either. I think many of the educated Indians could  still  be in that state even now.

But let us be awake fellow Indians...We have introduced the first most popular fragrance to the  rest  of the world centuries back. Let it be in ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome, Middle East or else where...India has done it historically making it the 'favourite fragrance of the Gods' whether it is Hinduism,Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism or Islam as it is mentioned in seminal texts!

As spiritual history rolls out....
Agarwood of Assam, India and its mystifying fragrance was first mentioned in the Sanskrit epic 'Mahabharata' in 1500 BC. There it is mentioned as a welcome aroma as 'Agaru'.The earliest recorded use of this plant aromatics is found in the four vedas of ancient India written between 1500-1000 BC . So also in Arthasastra of 320 BC it is clearly mentioned that the aromatics originates from resin infused infected wood in the stem of the Agar tree or even artificially done so!Agarwood was in use as an ingredient of perfumery in India along with sandalwood,musk, camphor from olden times.From time immemorial Hindus burn incense stick in puja rooms and elsewhere. It is known as 'Agarbatti' which is derived from 'Agar bathi' in Hindi- incense stick made from Agarwood!

In the Old Testament of the Bible, Aloe (Agaru) is specifically mentioned many times may be because it was in use in Jewish traditions.Even in the New Testament as per the Gospel of John 19:39-40 it is stated that Jesus's body was anointed with a mixture of Myrrh and Aloes following His crucifixion!

In 'Nirvana Sutra Buddhism' when Buddha was about to enter the state of Nirvana, about Aloe aromatics there is a mention.Buddhist text 'Jataka Tales' of 4th century BC also mentions about Aloe categorically!

Pre Islamic Arabian tribes were trading in Aloeswood/Agarwood of India.In the Quran there is a mention of many fragrant plants. In several Hadiths, Oud (Agarwood) is referred to as an Indian Incense for rituals as burning of incense wood, which is being practiced in many Islamic  countries to this day.

As I am not an expert on holy books all as these references are made from  historical records available and any wrong interpretations be taken in that spirit.

Black Gold.....

Botanically when an Agar tree - Aquilaria Malaccensis- becomes infected by a mould -Phialophora Parasitica- the tree produces a dark, dense and fragrant resin to protect itself.It is this resin which becomes embedded in the tree which is the source of Oud! As in the case of pearl, artificially also such a resin can be produced.Originally discovered in India in  Assam locally known as Xasi,the ' info and technique' of Agarwood was later passed on to Tibet (a-ga-ru), China (Chen Xiang),Thailand (Mai Krishna), South East Asia and Middle East where it was known as Oud.

As the neo rich of the Arabian Gulf states likes the fragrances and perfumes, the area became a big market for this costly oil-- more than $ 12000 per kg! International brands of perfumes of Paris and London fight with each other for their market share with neo fragrances in neo bottles with neo prices each season- the highest ever perfume created for a human nose so far !From Tom Ford, to Christian Dior to Armani or Yves Saint Laurent ......But this fragrance is not popular among westerners is another fact. 

It all started with India centuries back...It is high time that Indians take a note of it! Not only we have to teach others but we have to learn also from others- what we don't know or not good at...It is difficult to believe that now India makes one of the best whiskies in the world out beating even renowned scotch brands - 'Amrut' single malt.And the best cheese in the world out classing all the best European brands-'Eleftheria Brunost' is from Bombay!I am sure that among perfumes also we are capable of competing Paris- just a matter of time.

I don't find any mention of this history in Indian textbooks!I wish that I am wrong!!


Dr.Rajan Varghese, Ex Principal UC College has shared the following postal stamps of India on the subject.His comments are given in appropriate column.