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?



  1. Very informative and interesting. Happy to know that the management concept of ‘outsourcing’ and offshore activities were practiced without realising the current context of the words. I’m sure there would have been business negotiations by Wadias and EIC


  3. I am sure that readers,like me , will be captivated and spellbound by the revelations about our ship building skills and prowess of yester years and that the "sun never sets empire " should gratefully acknowledge that it is due to the Indian shipbuilder that they could conquer the world.As it happens ,they enslaved us using our own skills, what a paradox!.
    Undoubtedly ,this is one of the best blogs ,as so much research and effort has been put in by the author. I very well agree to his suggestion that our authorities should bring out these facts to inspire , educate and enthuse our students and public, of the past glory and skills to leap forward to make the country great again.Kudos..

  4. Sir, great piece. Most are unaware of this deep history. I wonder how you tumble upon such nuance historic topics. I never realized your passion for history until started seeing your blogs - has been a contrast from your professional life. AJO

  5. Impressive and much informative. Thank you Jaison

  6. Dr. Balachandran:Thank you for sharing the articles. Extensively researched and well scrutinized are the information given. One only wish the past glory of India and treasure of knowledge we had is made aware of to all Indians right from the school level. Proud to be an Indian πŸ‡ͺπŸ‡ΉπŸ‡ͺπŸ‡ΉπŸ™πŸ™



    I lived many years next to these old British ships gallery next to Royal Naval College, Greenwich on the banks of river Thames. Also HMS Victory - the oldest ship built by Britain is on display there.
    So I know it all Jaison.

    Your facts are correct.
    But many also know about the illustrious Vadia builders of India.

    During the 250 years of celebrations of Naval Dockyard Bombay in 1979 , when I am GM , Of the 10000 workers Dockyard ( most difficult time of my life.!!), Admiral Lynsay Bryson- the first SeaLord of Royal Navy came to give the Keynote address. He said during the second world war , Naval dockyard technicians could build the war damaged portions of the bow & stern of the RN ships with out even a drawing.!!! Such was their knowledge - I vividly recall.

    During the Napoleonic wars, the ships built from Indian teak wood from Dandeli forests of north Karnataka had a unique quality of teak wood oil oozing from the teak wood always even in Marine atmosphere - thus the steel nails used for connecting the wooden planks don't rust -- thus prevent the ships from breaking during near explosions- a very common experience of ships breaking & sinking during wars. Ships built from English Oke don't have this oil oozing quality - as a result they break due to the rusted steel nails in Marine environment & sink the RN ships.

    British won the Napoleonic wars mainly due this fact & also RN ships were built from Bombay & hence they could be deployed immediately behind the Napoleon's French Navy by Admiral Nelson of RN. Napoleon was looking west to search & destroy RN ships but RN ships built from Bombay appeared from east - behind the French Navy as a master stroke deployed by Lord Nelson of RN.

    Jaison these are all historically recorded facts displayed in the RN museums around Greenwich, where I spend many years of my life as a student & as a Diplomat.
    Yes, our school books never highlight the Maritime history of our ancestors. Far more the Shivaji ( who had a small Navy created only to harness the Mughals & EIC), far far greater Navy was in existence by Pallavas of Tamil Desam for centuries. Their Navy was for protection of seafaring merchants ships of India travelling for trade & commerce to the entire East up to far end of China. How do you think Hinduism, & Buddhism spread so effectively to far far East ?? It was only due to the the seafaring capabilities of Pallavas.
    For three hundred years from the Buddha period through Mauryan empire & to Emperor Asoka's time - for 300 years- South Indian Pallavas had the control of the Seas around India - Jaison.
    A fact not well known to many sadly.!!!

    Good luck Jaison.

  8. George Illampallil:Intersting read as usual.Well done.Awesome I always thought Wadias connected to Bombay Dyeing.

  9. N O RAJAN:Great going and a fine reading.The history revealed!!

  10. Very very Informative to me & lots of other followers πŸ‘ŒπŸ‘πŸ‘πŸ‘

  11. Mohd.Shareef: I have gone through Jaison's article.It gives historical information, which is not known to many.As a naval architect, I appreciate Jaison's efforts to dig out historical truths of wooden war ships in the past!

  12. JOMY JOSEPH:It is sad that as Indians, we are not proud of our achievements, and it's a pity that we have to learn about all of these from other sources.At least our younger generations should be made aware of our proud history.

  13. Sujesh Nair
    Very informative Sir. Thankyou

  14. Very interesting and informative facts. The name Wadia reminiscences Wadia Group of companies.

  15. Joshi Puthur
    Excellent information/narration, Jaisonchettan.
    I expect another write up on Beypore Uru/Dhow making too soon

    1. Jaison Chacko
      Joshi Puthur Thank you.I have done a blog on dhows about 5 years back.Uru or dhows are much smaller in size and purpose was purely commercial and that restricted to mostly Indian Ocean only. These were war ships on seven seas including fit out of guns as big as 84!

  16. Abdul Rahiman Moopan
    Very informative, excellent narration. Expect more episod. Best wishe

  17. Rajesh V Pillai
    Informative, thanks

  18. Francis John Britto
    Very informative Dear JaisonπŸ‘πŸ‘ŒπŸ‘πŸ‘πŸ‘πŸ‘

  19. AVM NAIR:


    It is praiseworthy and plausible, your brilliant mind with technical prowess coupled with dexterity. and ingenuity excavated the glorious past of Indian ship building for the last three centuries. You have lucidly and succinctly explained the vicissitudes like a professional historian and naval architect revelling the ship building skill of our country. It is really dismaying to know that India could conquer the world and we should be grateful then for their incalculable effort in establishing supremacy in the field. This is an inspiring article and the past glory is to be known to the present and future generation. As a whole this article is informative and impressive. Your fortitude to unearth the esoteric facts by removing complexities is laudable.

    Your arduous passion for historical research is unique. Congratulations.

  20. Very informative and worth sharing as usual

  21. Gabrial Ka
    Wonderful narration of historical information and we Indians are not aware of this information. These facts should be included in our curriculum of education.
    Congratulations Jaison Sir, you are very busy to explore and express the valuable and hidden facts of our great country,
    India. Thanks and best regards, Stephen Gabrial.



Writing about the end of own life, that too after knowing that it could happen any time is hard to write for anyone. I am not an exception. ...