Excellence in shipbuilding skills and seafaring abilities of our seamen date back to the Harappan civilization which operated the world’s first tidal dock at Lothal (present day Mangrol off Gujarat coast) in 2300 BC. This inheritance continues to inspire following generations of Indians to continue the maritime tradition with vigour and resoluteness.
The British East India Company preferred Bombay as a suitable location as it was a convenient midway point between Middle East waters and Far East, its tidal conditions permitted operations of a wide range of ships, due to feasibility of anchorage very close to the shore line, utility of natural coastal indentations for landing jetties and ease in creating ship building and repair yards.
After many naval endeavours to seize the islands, the British obtained their coveted prize through the alliance treaty in 1662 following the marriage between King Charles II with Infanta Catherine of Braganza, whereby the King of Portugal granted full sovereignty of Bombay to the King of England. British took possession of Bombay on 18 February 1665 and rented it to the East India Company for a princely sum of £10 per annum on 23 September 1668.
Birth of the Marine Dockyard (1735) Work on building the Marine Dockyard soon began. The development of infrastructure was a very slow process as all financial sanctions were to be accorded by the Court of Directors in London and mail communication by sea took approximately two months. Notwithstanding that, by 1735, the dockyard, in addition to its mud basin, had covered marine store houses, carpenter’s shed, smithy shop, offices of marine yard, officers and seamen quarters. With this, the Yard had become a wholesome facility and this historic milestone signifies the birth of the Marine Dockyard in 1735.
The Gorse plan named after an East India Company writer of Bombay in 1750 shown in the illustration below indicates the plan of Marine Dockyard in 1735. At inception, the Marine Yard catered to both the merchant men and the men of war and its organisational structure had a mix of naval and civilian officers.
The work shops were concentrated in the area around the present ‘Bombay Dry Dock’. The location of the Marine Yard which was a small portion of its present size (indicated in the figure as ‘Docks’), which was, at inception of the Marine Yard, a mud slip. The entrance to the dockyard was under the present clock tower. The office and residence of the Marine Superintendent is located adjacent to the Company House. The ‘Bunder Pier’ (located near the present ‘Customs House’) was the official landing point and the wet dock for berthing of ships was located between the Bunder Pier and the Fort (now INS Angre)
Ship Building Activities at Bombay Yard (1735-1864) In the early half of the 18th century, Schooner, Grab, Sloop, Ketch, Brig and Brigantine types of vessels up to 200 tons, with a maximum of 24 guns, were built at the rate of one/two ships per year, mostly for the East India Company. A few ships were also built for the Bengal Pilot Service and private merchants. Teak wood from the Western coast of India (Malabar) was found to be most suitable, as it met the criteria for strength and longevity of the hull.
From building smaller ships, the Yard progressively developed the capability to build ships of larger displacement and better fighting capabilities. The first ship weighing in excess of 1000 tons was built in 1792 and was named ‘Born’. The turning point came in the year 1800 when the first frigate ‘Cornwallis’, fitted with 56 guns was commissioned. This was followed by commissioning of HMS Bombay, Asia, Ganges and Calcutta between 1821 to1831. Each of these ships had a displacement of 2298 tons and had 84 guns. The largest ship built by the Yard was the, 2591 tons, HMS Madras (later renamed HMS Meanee) which was built with 80 guns in 1848. A total of 275 ships were built during the 100 year period between 1761 and 1860, of which 39 ships were acquired by the Royal Navy. Apart from hectic ship building activities for the British authorities, the Yard continued with ship repairs and ship building for private merchantmen, thereby earning considerable revenue.
Bombay Dockyard was the finest ship building Yard in the country in the 18th and 19th centuries. The design and construction was undertaken by the Ship Building department, which was headed by a highly skilled artisan, who was referred to as “Master Builder”. All the ships were built on broad specifications and no technical support in terms of even preliminary drawings was needed from England. Complete design details including hydrodynamics, size and shape of sails, number of decks, holds, bunks etc. and the ship building drawings were made by the “Master Builder” who belonged to the famous ‘Wadia’ family of ship builders. Not only did the Wadia family distinguish themselves as ship builders, but also as brilliant mechanical engineers.
Growth of Marine Dockyard Facilities Since its inception in 1735, the Yard’s facilities were progressively augmented over the next 125 years. Bombay Dry Dock was constructed from 1750-1765 and Duncan Dry Dock was constructed from 1807-1810. In addition, a Breakwater and three slip ways were added in the period 1830 to 1846. Inner breakwater equipped with cranes and services for water and electric supply points was subsequently constructed in Nov 1906. Many of these facilities are still in use, some of them, more than 200 years after they were originally built. The Duncan Dock was reported as a work of superior excellence and the Dock Committee in London styled it as one of the grandest works of public utility that human labour can produce. Though designed by British, the labour which executed the construction was totally Indian. The dock, is a testimony to the quality of work by Indian labour, continues to be in use till date primarily for docking frigates, patrol vessels and submarines.
Transition to Naval Dockyard
After India became a republic, the “RIN Dockyard” was re-designated as “Naval Dockyard”. The Yard layout then covered only 39 acres with a few berths in Wet Basin and Inner Break Water. Shore supply was limited and there was no provision of compressed air or fire main. The Bombay, Duncan and Torpedo Docks were also inadequate to meet the increasing requirements of the Fleet.
In consultation with the British Admiralty, The Indian Government appointed Sir Alexander Gibb and Partners, UK as consultants, who, after detailed study submitted their report in May 50 and recommended reclamation to augment the land area from 39 acres to 123 acres. The initial plan included construction of two cruiser graving docks, however, construction of the present day Cruiser Graving Dry Dock commenced in 1955 and was commissioned by the then Defence Minister Shri Krishna Menon in 1962. During the construction stage, the shore end of the CG Dock was elongated, giving it a ‘protruding nose’ at the head to accommodate the forecastle end of the aircraft carrier ex- INS Vikrant. The Dock sides were also modified to accommodate its overhanging sponsons. The first docking of ex-INS Vikrant was successfully undertaken on 22 Mar 63 despite minimal clearances.
Concurrent with the growth of Dry Docking and berthing facilities, a comprehensive plan was prepared over five years by National Industrial Development Corporation (NIDC), which in 1972-73, recommended modernization in three phases to meet immediate, intermediate and future requirements.
In 1975, the Government accepted the recommendation for creation of four out of the nine workshops in the ‘immediate’ category at a cost of Rs.13 Cr and also approved a Project team called ‘Modernisation of Naval Dockyard, Bombay’. Subsequently, in 1978, the Project team was merged with ‘Director General Naval Dockyard Expansion Scheme’ and the new organisation was re-designated as ‘Director General Naval Projects (Bombay)’. This led to a spurt of new workshop buildings in the Dockyard which aided to create new facilities for the expanding IN and continue to support ships and submarines of Indian Navy.
The Mark of Excellence
Ships built by the Yard have left an indelible mark in the maritime history. The performance of the ships has been impressive in every aspect. HMS Trincomalee built in 1817 is a living example of durability, being the second oldest ship still afloat (the oldest being USS “Constitution” built in 1797). In terms of speed, “Punjab”, later renamed as “Tweed”, is reputed as one of the fastest sailing ships built to-date. In 1863, she completed the passage from London to Melborne in 83 days, logging as many as 300 miles a day, a record, which has not been bettered by any sail ship till date. That “Ferooz” came out unscathed after being aground for six days from dangerous quicksands “James” and “Mary” of Hoogly river and that “Salsette” remained undamaged after being trapped in ice for nine days in the North Baltic sea in 1808-09, when all other ships of the British Fleet built elsewhere suffered, is a t e s t i m o n y to the strength and sturdiness of ships built by the Bombay Dockyard.
A combination of political, financial and technological factors, particularly, the transformation from Sail to Steam and Wood to Steel in the mid 19th century resulted in the decline of ship-building as the Yard was denied the wherewithal to infuse these technologies. The Yard perforce had a role change from ship building to ship repairs.The present day Dockyard is proud to support the ever expanding fleet of IN ships and submarines. The ship building role of Dockyard continues in the form of Mid Life Upgrades of warships,which is a major technological challenge and in many ways is akin to construction of a new vessel.