Some of Britain’s finest sailing men-of-war were built in India from 1777 to 1849 by the Wadia family of master builders, at the Bombay Dockyard—shown above as it appeared some time after 1860. The 14-gun ship Cornwallis, right, was built in 1813 and survived in one capacity or another until 1957.
Few American naval and merchant marine officers who visit the bustling port of Bombay, India, are aware that this port, in the days of sail, produced some of the finest ships in the world, and the Bombay shipwrights enjoyed an international reputation for excellence. These shipwrights all belonged to the Parsi religious sect, a development of Zoroastrianism.
Inextricably interwoven with the history of the Bombay Dockyard is the story of the remarkable Parsi family of Lowjee Wadia. This illustrious, though humble, family provided nine successive master builders for the Bombay Dockyard, over a period extending from 1736 to 1884; and this unbroken succession came about not through any hereditary right, but through proven worth and ability.
The Wadia master builders left a tradition of long and faithful service, devotion to duty, loyalty, and pride of workmanship. Their skill in shipbuilding was as delicate, exacting, and as fascinating as the time-honored skill of the Swiss watchmaker. Perhaps the most illustrious of the Wadias was Jamsetjee Bomanjee Wadia, who was born in 1756 and was Master Builder the Bombay Dockyard from 1792 to 1821.
It should be noted these Parsi master builders were not contractors who reaped fat profits from the ships they constructed. They were salaried employees of the Bombay Dockyard, and their salaries, at times, were not particularly munificent. In a country and an era in which corruption and bribery were almost a way of life, the Lowjee Wadias established a high repute for scrupulous integrity in handling funds and in procuring only the highest quality materials for their ships.
After years of constructing first-class merchantmen of all classes, their honors were climaxed by the construction of great sailing men-of-war whose strength, power, fighting form, and sailing qualities were the equal of ships built anywhere in the West. This was undoubtedly the zenith of Bombay shipbuilding.
Between 1777 and 1849, the Dockyard and its Parsi shipwrights produced 16 ships of the line, 13 frigates, nine sloops, and one schooner for the Royal Navy. These figures include seven vessels built for other interests and subsequently purchased by the Admiralty. All of these ships attracted great admiration in the Service and wherever they went in the world.
During the Napoleonic Wars, Great Britain was hard pressed for ships of all sorts; the British were also gravely concerned by a growing shortage of oak. Various officers had reported favorably on the performance of teak-built ships in action, the latter vessels having a far lower percentage of splinter wounds, when under enemy fire, than an oaken vessel. Accordingly, a contract was let, and HMS Salsette, frigate, 36 guns, was built by Jamsetjee Bomanjee and his Parsi compatriots in the Bombay Dockyard. Completed in 1807, she was followed in 1810 by HMS Minden, 74.
The Minden was greatly admired; in fact, there is overwhelming evidence these Bombay ships were superior to anything built in England. A very professional comparison of the Minden with HMS Russell, a well-liked British 74, was made by one Captain S. W. Hoare, Royal Navy. It appeared in Observations on the Expediency of Shipbuilding in Bombay, by W. T. Money, and is reprinted here verbatim:
In smooth water with all sail set, on a wind will go from five to eight knots but not stiff.
With top-gallant sails and much sea, will go from three to five knots, according to the swell; she plunges a great deal, and carries her helm a turn to weather.
Under her topsails behaves much the same, will stay under them in smooth water, and veers and stays well.
With the wind from one point, free to abeam, will go from seven to eight knots. Her best sailing is with the wind abaft the beam, she will go eight or nine knots. Before the wind she rolls easy; she carries her lower deck ports badly.
Height of ports when stowed for 6 months.
In smooth water with all sail set, on a wind will go from seven to nine knots, and does not complain with this sail.
Under top-gallant sails, and with much sea, will go from five to seven knots, according to the swell, and very easy, she carries her helm half a turn aweather.
Under her topsails behaves much the same, will stay under them in smooth water, and veers and stays well. Her best sailing is before the wind; she will then go nine or ten knots; she rolls easy, and carries her lower deck ports well.
Height of ports when stowed for 6 months.
Such illustrious names in British naval history as Admirals Troubridge, Rainier, and Pellew, were warm personal friends of the humble Parsi shipbuilder, Jamsetjee Bomanjee, and in their correspondence they eulogize him and his ships. The redoubtable Sir Edward Pellew, of Indefatigable fame, later Lord Exmouth, was one of the strongest advocates of building men-of-war in Bombay. The Minden was with him during the bombardment of Algiers in 1816.
The Minden was followed by HMS Cornwallis, 74, in 1813, and here we find an interesting link with our own early naval history. An account follows of an episode in the closing days of the War of 1812:
“On 28th April 1815, the U. S. Sloop ‘Hornet’ whilst on patrol sighted what she took to be a deeply laden East Indiaman, but on getting closer identified the vessel to be a ship of the line and an enemy and immediately put about to escape from the danger she had unwittingly exposed herself to. Captain James Biddle in command of the ‘Hornet’ reporting the episode in his letter dated 10th June 1815, from San Salvador wrote: ‘By sundown I had perceived that the enemy sailed remarkably fast and was very weatherly.’
“In his efforts to escape, Captain Biddle jettisoned first his sheet anchor, followed by his spare spars and rigging, scuttled the wardroom deck, but by seven the next morning despite all his efforts to lighten the ship, the seventy-four, now identified as the ‘Cornwallis’ was in closer pursuit and displayed her colours at the peak and a Rear-Admiral’s flag at the mizzen top-gallant head. Captain Biddle cut away the remainder of his anchors, broke up his launch and after throwing over the capstan—no mean feat—began on the guns and jettisoned them. Meanwhile the ‘Cornwallis’ commenced firing, but apart from a few harmless hits, the result of four hours’ fire and bad marksmanship produced no results. Meanwhile the Americans continued to jettison everything they could spare, moveable or immoveable and trimmed their ship in the fashion of a yacht. The lightened ship and a change of wind enabled the ‘Hornet’ to draw ahead and she succeeded after her gallant efforts in escaping. The ‘Cornwallis’ by this action fired the last shot in the American War of 1812, and, it is to be hoped, the last shot ever to be fired between the American and British Nations.”
The tone of Captain Biddle’s correspondence, with regard to this episode, clearly indicates that he was amazed that any ship-of-the-line could give close pursuit to his speedy Hornet.
The Bombay-built Cornwallis had a long career in the Royal Navy, and from 1865 onwards she served as a jetty at Sheerness, was used as a boat landing, and was finally broken up in 1957.
Following the Cornwallis, Bomanjee built another four ships-of-the-line, three frigates, and four brig-sloops in the next eight years, for the Royal Navy, all highly successful and greatly admired ships.
One of Bomanjee’s famous men-of-war was HMS Trincomalee, 46-gun frigate, 1817. This vessel, after a long naval career, was purchased for a schoolship in England, renamed Foudroyant, and was still afloat and in service some 150 years later. These teak-built ships had amazing longevity.
There is one further link between the Parsi-built Bombay ships and our early American history. It was on the quarterdeck of HMS Minden, during the bombardment of Fort McHenry at Baltimore, that Francis Scott Key wrote “The Star Spangled Banner.” Bomanjee’s last great warship was HMS Ganges, 84, which was completed after his death in 1821. She was, in 1861, the last of Britain’s seagoing sailing flagships. The gifted Wadias and Bombay Dockyard continue to turn out distinguished merchantmen and men-of-war for many years. One of them, HMS Asia, 84, was flagship at the battle of Navarino in 1827; however, with the advent of steam engines, and iron or steel hulls, they could not meet the onrush of Western technology and so lost their pre-eminent position among world ship builders. They left behind a record worthy of the highest regard by the world’s seafaring community.