Indian Ships – British Navy

Posted in British Raj, Business, History, India by Anuraag Sanghi on October 27, 2010

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.

  1. British naval power
  2. British access to gunpowder
  3. British access to financial liquidity
  4. Increase in British industrial production.
Francis Drake calling for pirate hands. ©Copyright 2009 The Way Network.

Francis Drake calling for pirate hands. ©Copyright 2009 The Way Network. Click for larger image

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?

An answer can be found in a recent new reports. Celebrating British naval power, was the refurbishing of a 200-year old British warship – a small news item that appeared in some Indian newspapers.

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.).

Calico Jack Rackham with his two pirate wives - Mary Read and Anne Bonney.

Calico Jack Rackham with his two pirate wives – Mary Read and Anne Bonney.

Many ships were built at the ‘British naval dockyard in Bombay, India, which produced a steady flow of ships for the Royal Navy’. Why India?  The answer was Indian teak.

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.

Model Of Vasco Da Gamas  nau

Model Of Vasco Da Gama’s nau


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.

Sixteenth century painting of the Calicut port - showing  shipbuilding yards. (Courtesy - www.saudiaramcoworld.com; BRAUN AND  HOGENBERG, CIVITATES ORBIS TERRARUM, 1572 (2)) Click for larger image.

Sixteenth century painting of the Calicut port – showing shipbuilding yards. (Courtesy – http://www.saudiaramcoworld.com; BRAUN AND HOGENBERG, CIVITATES ORBIS TERRARUM, 1572 (2)) Click for larger image.

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.

It was finally, Indian saltpetre (for gunpowder), the loot from India and Indian shipbuilding, which allowed the British to become a world power.

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.

6 Responses

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  1. Ramkumaran said, on October 27, 2010 at 11:05 pm

    One more wonderful work.

    South Indian, especially Tamil Rulers had an extensive navy around 10-11th centuries. Commerce flourished and the Cholas ruled as far as Indonesia. The island town of Singapore derives it name from tamil. These show a mastery of indian navy

  2. Ike Jakson said, on October 28, 2010 at 2:10 am

    I found this a very good Post because I do some private research on the Colonial Period for a book that I hope to publish.

    Good luck with your work.

  3. Sourabh Subramaniam said, on October 28, 2010 at 1:35 pm

    what do you think of this?

    please see!!!!

    what if the mughal empire had survived to the present day?


    A world without clive


  4. masculineffort said, on February 24, 2014 at 2:50 pm

    Aaah! The Brits, So lucky! I think we were so exhausted fighting the Islamic expansion for about 1100 years that by the time the Brits got here, we just could not ………… You know after Nadal and Djokovic had the 2012 final at the australian open, they were both so exhausted, they could barely stand. At that time, I could have beaten them. I think the Brits walked in at a similar time in Indian history. Lucky Bastards (feel free to edit, but I must vent my frustration….I feel better now)!
    Think about the Brits and Afghans. The Sikhs had far greater success against the Afghans than did the Brits. In fact in 4 wars with the Afghans, the Sikhs thrashed them in each one even taking over NWFP. What did the Brits do? They got soundly beaten by the Afghans in one war and were stalemated in two others. So how did the Brits take Punjab? I sincerely feel, supernatural forces wanted the Brits to rule India. A series of tragedies occurred after Ranjit singh passed away. One was that his able son Kahark singh died in a freak accident.
    Finally, you also probably know why Siraj-ud-daula lost to Clive. It was because he forgot to pack tarpaulin and it rained the night before the battle. By morning rain had ruined all his gunpowder and there was not enough to fire a pistol, let alone a cannon. How could Siraj win after that? The Mir-Jafar narrative in history books is …………. irritating!
    I think we are due for some luck! We all need some luck from time to time.

  5. Kaushik Saha said, on May 11, 2016 at 5:45 am

    Dear sir,
    Please accept my thanks for your article, for which you have obviously done much research . I have the following observations which you may care to kindly address:
    1) The end of the 18th century saw the invention of steam powered propulsion of ships by Robert Fulton. This changed techniques of shipbuilding forever. Timber was no longer a material with sufficient strength to bear the additional stresses caused by new keel load patterns because of the engine+boiler and higher speeds. To add to this, there were needs of tough armour on ships which could withstand bombardment in naval warfare. This brought about great changes in shipbuilding methods, utilising steam engines and metal hulls and keels. I would like to infer that the Indian shipyards were unable to adapt to these new methods and the English and European shipyards gained in prominence, building both in warships and merchant vessels.
    2) Despite India’s past glory in metallurgy and metal working, I contend that we were unable to produce iron / steel economically in the large volumes necessary for ship building. For example, the production process of the famous Wootz steel of south India was very labour intensive and required greenstick wood as a reducing agent. This would have produced high grade steel but in quantities of a few hundredweights per batch, clearly not enough for making a ship of the lin, at a high cost per ton. Henry Bessemer’s process reduced this cost by almost two orders of magnitude and made steel available in large volumes. Thus, we were left behind in practical metallurgy.
    3) Even if we were building fine ships, how were we getting around on the high seas? Europe, especially the English and the Dutch invested much effort in cartography and navigation. Therefore, by the end of the 18th century, they had accurate maps made possible by mathematical methods e.g. Mercator’s projection and most important of all, a method to determine longitude while at sea. The latter was made possible by a marvel of precision mechanical engineering, the chronometer, by John Harrison. This excellence in mechanical engineering, which we have always lacked, enabled the English to control the sea lanes across the globe. Of course, they were pirates and slave traders, but they developed excellent tools for their trade.
    4) Navis in latin, naus in greek, nava in sanskrit are all derived from the proto indo European root nehus. There nau in Portuguese is probably derived from Latin, like nave in Italian, navire in French, navio in Spanish.
    I would appreciate it if we could discuss the above observations of mine.

    • Rohan Kokane said, on December 16, 2018 at 8:38 am

      Your comment is knowledgeable.
      While I accept that I do not know about specific points you raised,it is argued that Indian industries of steel making and shipbuilding were NOT ALLOWED to develop further-high tariff,effects of famine,outright violence etc killed it.
      There was even a ban on manufacturing steel if I remember correctly.
      So,a thousand year old industries COULD have developed,learnt from others to compete,but they could not because of essential nature of colonialism.
      Regarding your 3rd point,here goes-

      It is a misconception that it was only after invention of chronometre that longitude at sea could be measured-it is a manifestly false statement.
      Bhaskara 1st(circa 600CE in his laghu bhaskariya) who was an astronomer and mathematician had explained in minute detail various techniques to measure not only latitude but also longitude at sea.
      These techniques were quite accurate and India had most precise trigonometric values(needed for latitude/longitude determination) in each century lasting till 17th century.
      Vateshwar’s(circa 900 CE) values were accurate to 2nd sexagesimal(about 5 places after decimal point) minute while Madhava’s values(circa 1300 CE) were accurate to 3rd sexagesimal minute(about 7 places after decimal point)
      I want to emphasize that From aryabhata to Madhava,We had most accurate trigonometric values+techniques to calculate latitude/longitudes at sea+accurate estimate of size of earth+accurate calendar which is needed for calculating latitude/longitude.
      We can surely ask that why Europeans had longitude AND latitude problems,as evident from various European prizes issued to specifically tackle these problems(remember that during columbus and vasco,they could not even determine latitude)?
      it is due to following reasons-
      1. Lack of knowledge of algorithmic mathematics based on decimal place value system to carry out complex calculations.
      2. Lack of reliable estimate of size of earth.
      3. Lack of accurate calendar.
      European navigation problems must be seen in THIS context.
      Europeans could not use available Indian methods because they faced above 3 problems.
      But in the time,gregorian reform made the julian calendar accurate and it is highly probable that trigonometric values travalled to Europe from India.
      Another Point-Mercator’s projection essentially highlights WEAKNESS of European navigation because earlier they were used to sailing in straight line(which posed no problem since they were essentially navigating only to mediterrenian sea) but earth’s sphericity posed great problem to them.
      Hence mercator converted these maps such that Europeans could continue to sail in straight line even for longer voyages.
      So invention of chronometre and accurate maps(mercator’s projection) is not some ‘legendary event’ in the history of navigation-Indians and arabs had absolutely no problem of determining longitude and latitude at sea before.
      Also remember,Indians traded with africa,arabia before and no one ever complained about ‘latitude and longitude’
      I suggest you read some works on this issue by Prof CK raju(who helped us build our first supercomputer and proposed corrections to theory of relativity)

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