Behind the rise of British power
British ascent as the prime military power started with the eclipse of Spain during The Seven Years War (1756-1763). Earlier we had seen the importance of Indian saltpetre production to the British empire
The treaty of Paris of 1763 not only established Britain as a leading power, it also confirmed its control over Bengal saltpetre. This was the major source of the main ingredient of gunpowder in the world, and a commodity whose contribution to the maintenance and extension of Britain’s empire has hitherto been neglected. (from Gunpowder, explosives and the state: a technological history By Brenda J. Buchanan.).
Four elements were essential for this rise to happen.
- British naval power
- British access to gunpowder
- British access to financial liquidity
- Increase in British industrial production.
British naval power was based on numerical superiority and less on technical. Ability to commission, pay for and take delivery of warships needed high levels of financial liquidity. British liquidity was built on: -
One – Piracy – with Spanish ships being a prime target.
Two – Later, to piracy, add a huge trans-Atlantic slave trade, where Britain was again the world-leader in slave trading.
Three – Britain’s sugar colonies, based on slave labour in the West Indies, though smaller than French and later Spanish sugar colonies, were always the second-largest in the world. Sugar production was a passport to liquidity and profits in the 18th and 19th century.
Britain’s establishment of an industrial base was itself subject to vast financial investments and easy availability to raw materials – where again India played a major role.
What stopped the others
Since 17th-18th century Britain was not the industrial or technology leader that it later became, this begs a logical question. Why could other countries not compete with Britain?
Some 400 ships were made in the Mumbai boat-yards alone. It is this huge industrial ship-building capacity in India gave the British Navy a significant edge. Contemporary writers wrote how
By the close of the Napoleonic Wars, the Royal Navy had come to rely heavily on the potential of India as a source for shipbuilding facilities and material, especially teak, a wood that is resistant to marine borers and seasons (from Warships of the world to 1900 By Lincoln P. Paine; page 13)
The British East India Company, in about 1675, established a shipyard in Bombay, India, for the construction of ships of Indian teak, considered to be the best ship timber to be found anywhere (from To harness the wind: a short history of the development of sails By Leo Block.).
By the time of the First World War, teak was well established as one of the most valuable timbers that the world has ever known. (from Consuming space: placing consumption in perspective By Michael K. Goodman, David Goodman, Michael Redclift).
Why Indian Teak-wood?
teak ships are very strong, as the several pieces of which they are composed always retain their bulk and remain in contact ; its strength compared with English oak, may be considered in the proportion of nine to seven. The ships belonging to the British navy, built at Bombay, are constructed of Teak, its durability is great, as there are several instances of vessels built of this timber, the frames of which are sound, after a service of one hundred years. Tar of an excellent quality is to be obtained from teak, and in such abundance that the chips arising from the conversion of the timber requisite for the construction of the ship, are sufficient to afford a plentiful supply, not only for the purposes required on the hull, but also for the rigging. A small quantity of teak tar has been imported into this country, and found to have the best effects in preserving cordage and adding to its strength. (from An inquiry into the means which have been taken to preserve the British navy, from the earliest period to the present time, particularly from that species of decay, now denominated dry-rot By John Knowles; Published 1821; page 41.)
Made in India, with Indian technology, with Indian teak, this British warship is now some 200 years old. On the other side modern steel-warships, multi-billion dollars worth, have a life of less than 50 years. British ships made of oak wood had an even worse life span.
To us who are accustomed to hear of the durability of ships built with Teak, the rapidity with which those constructed of Oak are said to decay, will appear almost incredible ; and yet the respectable author … tells us, that according to the present mode of ship-building, that noble structure a first-rate man of war, becomes useless from premature decay in five or six years; … Suppose we take somewhere about the medium of these authorities and allow ten years,— the whole British navy, said to consist of about 800,000 tons, to be renewed once every ten years! This, particularly when the scarcity of Oak timber is considered, is by no means a bright prospect; and is the source of a most serious expence to the nation. To us in this part of the world, nothing would appear so likely to remedy this evil as building the navy of Teak…
The following taken from a late publication, are some examples of the durability, of Teak built ships. The Turkish flag ship at Bussorah was built by Nadir Shah more than 70 years ago; this ship was not long since in dock; when all her timbers were ascertained to be perfectly sound. The Hercules, built in 1763, and constantly employed till 1805, when she was captured by the French, sound as when launched. The Milford of 679 tons, after constant employment to China and Europe for ii years, was then examined, but it wan not found necessary to shift a single timber; and the whole of her repairs did not cost £1000. Prejudices, it seems .were entertained in England against Teak timber: it was said to be heavier than Oak; but this is proved to be unfounded, as one description of Teak has been found to be lighter than Oak, and another about the same weight It was also thought to splinter more than Oak; an idea equally erroneous with the former; indeed, Teak is supposed to have the advantage in this respect, and to splinter less than Oak. It a well known that Teak has an oil in it which preserves iron, and destroys the worm; while the acid of the Oak corrodes iron, and appears peculiarly grateful to the taste of the worm. Nor is Teak, we believe, subject to that incurable cause of rapid decay in Oak, called the dry rot.
Having thus cleared the way in favour of Teak, we shall presume that Ships can be built in this country at the same price per ton as in England, which under economical and proper arrangement we believe to be the case, and we will also suppose that a plan was adopted, by which a proportion of the navy should be built in India, and the remainder in England, from timbers sent from this country.
From the foregoing examples, and others that might be cited, we may also presume, that a Teak built ship, having the same sum laid out for repairs as a modern ship, (during her date of 10 years) built of Oak, will be fit for service, for at least half a century: thereby giving her an advantage in point of durability over the Oak ship, of 40 years. (from The Literary panorama and national register, Volume 1 edited by Charles Taylor; INTERESTING INTELLIGENCE FROM THE BRITISH SETTLEMENTS IN INDIA – published 1814,).
British access to India’s huge ship-building capacity, raw-material sources, technicians, shipwright, gave them a decisive edge – considering that Britain controlled Chittagaon (colonial Chittagong), Surat and Mumbai (colonial Bombay), Chennai (colonial Madras), Northern Sircars (modern Andhra Coast) – all famous Indian ship-building centres. Based on this experience, British further expanded teak sources to include Burma by the middle of 19th century. Just before steel started to take over from teak.
Ancient Indian Shipbuilding
Ancient Meluha (Saraswati-Indus complex) traded using sea-routes with Egypt, Tyre, Dilmun (modern Bahrain-Oman), Mesopotamia et al. Remember Greek accounts of how Alexander commissioned in India, an entire flotilla to carry his retreating armies. Zheng He, the great Chinese admiral in his 14th century voyages, had his ships repaired at Chittagaon and Kerala’s shipyards. A contemporary British traveller, Abraham Parsons in 1775 wrote of a Mumbai shipbuilding in
a dock-yard, large and well contrived, with all kind of naval stores deposited in proper warehouses, together with great quantities of timber and planks for repairing and building ships, and forges for making of anchors, as well as every kind of smaller smiths’ work. It boasts such a dry dock, as, perhaps, is not to be seen in any part of Europe, either for size or convenient situation. It has three divisions, and three pair of strong gates, so as to be capable of receiving and repairing three ships of the line, at the same or at separate times; as the outermost ship can warp out, and another be admitted in her place every spring tide, without any interruption of the work doing to the second and innermost ships; or both the outermost and the second ship can go out, and two. others be received in their places, without hindrance to the workmen employed on the third or innermost ship. Near the dock is a convenient place to grave several ships at once, which is done as well, and with as great expedition, as in any dock in England. Near the dock-yard is a rope walk, which for length, situation, and conveniency, equals any in England, that in the king’s yard at Portsmouth only excepted, and, like that, it has a covering to shelter the workmen from the inclemency of the weather in all seasons. Here are made cables and all sorts of lesser cordage, both for the royal navy, the company’s marine, and the merchant, ships which trade to these parts of India. Besides cordage made of hemp, cables, hawsers, and all kinds of smaller ropes, are made of the external fibres of the cocoa-nut, which they have in such abundance in India, as to make a great article of trade among the natives of this place and those along the coasts, between Bombay and Cape Comorin. The yarn made of these fibres is mostly manufactured in the towns and villages, on or near the sea coast of Malabar : many vessels belonging to the natives are laden entirely with this yarn, which they always find a quick sale for at Bombay and Surat, let the quantity be ever so great, as it is the only cordage made use of amongst the small trading vessels of the country: large ships use much of it, made into cables, hawsers, and smaller ropes ; it is called kyah. Ships built at Bombay are not only as strong, but as handsome, are as well finished as ships built in any part of Europe; the timber and plank, of which they are built, so far exceeds any in Europe for durability that it is usual for ships to last fifty or sixty years; as a proof of which I am imformed, that the ship called the Bombay grab, of twenty-four guns, (the second in size belonging to the Company’s marine) has been built more than sixty years, and is now a good and strong ship. This timber and plank arc peculiar to India only; the best on this side of India grows to the north of Bombay; what grows to the south, on the coast of. Malabar, is, however, very good, and great quantities of it are, brought to Bombay; it is called tiek, and will last in a-hot climate longer than any wood whatever. (from Travels in Asia and Africa: including a journey from Scanderoon to Aleppo … By Abraham Parsons – Published 1808.).
British access to financial liquidity was a result initially of organized piracy on high seas – targeting Spanish merchant shipping. British ‘celebration’ of Drake’s fugitive flight from Spanish ships has been credited by no less than Keynes himself as the turning point in British fortunes. Drake apart, there were other similar ‘celebrated’ British pirates.
Using slave labour, Britain gained from sugar Caribbean colonies – especially after the fall of Haiti.
50 years before Independence, a 100 years ago, India was one of the largest ship building countries in the world. Indian shipbuilding was centered along the Western Coast in Kalyan, Bhivandi and Mumbai, in South India at Narsapurpeta (near Masulipatnam) and in Bengal at Chittagong and Hooghly.
The “modern era” began with the building of a dry dock at Mumbai (then Bombay) about 1750; a second was erected in Kolkatta about 1780. During the 19th century, the industry was in a period of expansion and prosperity. However, for the last 100 years, the yards have been in a general decline.
During Shivaji’s reign, as per estimates, more than 300 ships of 300 tons capacity were launched. The Wadias alone built more than 350 ships – during 1735-1863 170 war vessels for the East India Company, 34 man-of-war defence vessels for the British Navy, 87 merchant vessels for private firms, and three vessels for the Queen of Muscat at Bombay docks.
After the Bombay Port Trust was formed in 1870, the shipbuilding on the Western Coast moved to Mumbai. In 1872, Jamshedji Wadia, from a Parsi ship-building family, constructed the “Cornwallis”, a frigate with 50 guns, bought by the East India Company. This led to several orders from the British Navy.
Bengal was the other major port where ship building was for global markets. Chittagong was the center for shipbuilding (now in Bangladesh). The Turkish Navy (a major world power till WWI) was a major customer.
The Mughal and British navies were the other significant defence customers. Merchants cargo ships were in significant demand. Ma Huan, the famous chronicler and interpreter of Zheng He (also called Cheng Ho) voyages, during the Ming dynasty, studied boat building in Bengal during the early 15th century (1400-1410).
The third major center for ship building was Narsapurpeta (near Masulipatnam) port – which was a major center of exports of steel, diamonds, saltpetre (potassium nitrate, for gunpowder, to kill Indians, ‘Negroes’, Aborigines and ‘Red Indians’ with) from the Deccan plateau.
These buyers preferred Indian ships, because of better jointing technology and elimination of metal sheeting. Indian shipbuilders had a special system where wood was seasoned in partial vacuum, with oils for timber improvement. British shipbuilders, colonialists ensured through tariff and other barriers, that Indian shipbuilding “was prevented from continuing to develop, even though it had a proven ability to adapt to changing technological needs” – and thus finally killing it. British naval superiority rested on Indian ships – and paid for by exploitation of Indian resources.
In 1498, Vasco da Gama’s ocean-going ship, the Sao Gabriel came to India. The Portuguese caravels are well-known. But what do the Portuguese call their ocean-going ships?
Yes, nau as in Hindi, for boat. Few of these Indian built ships have been recovered in various parts of the world. British naval superiority, of 200 years, built on Indian shipbuilding capacities was first challenged by Germany.
The new German empire owned no colonies but had the world’s third-largest merchant marine and thus needed cruising warships to show the flag overseas. … the naval-industrial complex that helped make Germany a first-class naval power in the years before the First World War. After the Kaiser and the Deutschland, all German battleships were built in German shipyards; aside from Zieten and some torpedo biseoats constructed in Britain, all smaller warships likew were built in Germany. Stosch also took steps. (from Naval warfare, 1815-1914 By Lawrence Sondhaus.).
Indian shipbuilding expertise ruled the world – till colonialism killed it. The Mumbai dockyard was used till 1932 for shipbuilding. Another 40 years later, British shipbuilding was wiped by the Japanese.
What about modern India itself. This shipbuilding and sailing tradition continues. Thousands of small Indian boats criss-cross the Indian Ocean. Carrying scarce material to Somalia, smuggling gold into India earlier – and sometimes hijacked by terrorists, like the 26/11 attacks on Mumbai.
Is it then surprising that the British Crown gave up America, allowing them to focus their war efforts against wars raging across India, against British expansion.
- Sir John Hawkins (socyberty.com)
- Sheldon Filger: Kiss the Royal Navy Goodbye: UK Economic Crisis Sinks the Fleet (huffingtonpost.com)
- Britain’s Defense Cuts: Grim Portent for U.S. Military? (time.com)
- The Revolutionary War (socyberty.com)
- You: Pirates and private navies (search.japantimes.co.jp)
- ‘British Raj was not a vampire empire’ (quicktake.wordpress.com)
- Starving India to India Starring (behind2ndlook.wordpress.com)
- Jeremy Paxman on the British Empire: where men went to run wild (telegraph.co.uk)
- How the US Planned to Destroy Britain Just a Few Years Before World War II [Military] (gizmodo.com)
- Victory over Japanese at Kohima named Britain’s greatest battle (historychannelfromthewar.wordpress.com)