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Engineering a City #thread
Having spent my entire childhood in #Kochi (#Cochin ), it feels criminal to not know the story of how the city came to be the #metropolis it is today. Putting together a thread to trace the journey of the city which has been so endearingly mine (1)
Part 1: The #Malabar Mud-Banks
The story of Cochin is not just about how an engineering marvel can change social fabric, but also of many tenets of #British #Colonialism in India which is often taken for granted, passed off lazily as exploitation, missing nuance (2)
As with any coastal town, the cultural and economic history of Kochi is intertwined with maritime trade routes since the time of the Early Romans and Arabs. Thanks to the #biennale , most of us would now be familiar with the term #Muzuris (3)
#Muziris is the ancient name of the natural harbour at Crangannur (now Kodungallur), just north of Kochi. The port of call for #Romans upon crossing #Suez in Egypt was Eudaemon (now Aden in Yemen). These were days when there was no Suez Canal and sailing from Europe was tough (4)
Popular Indian #History (before @UnamPillai’s writing) associated invaders with advent of #Abrahamic religions in the subcontinent - #Islam from the #Sultans and #Christianity through #European colonisers, but both these religions had reached Kerala hundreds of years earlier (5)
A direct sea route existed between #Aden and #Muziris as early as the first century AD, which served as the gateway to not just trade, but also religions - first #Christianity through #Syrians (100-300 AD) and then #Islam through #Arabs, during the Prophet’s lifetime (6)
Surprisingly, the season considered best for sailing across the #ArabianSea was during the peak of the #monsoon, when the weather was usually rough. One reason for this was favourable wind directions, but the second, more important one made Muziris a preferred port of call (7)
#Muziris lay at the point where the #Periyar river touched the sea. The river carried large amounts of #laterite soil collected across its flow from the mountains, and the sloping topography of Kerala (from the #WesternGhats towards the #ArabianSea), accelerated it (8)
#Lateritic soils are in semi solid form, and when this river effluent touches the sea, it meets an opposite force from the mighty #ArabianSea. This collision forces the soil to settle down at the ocean bed, forming a semi-brick wall, which was known as the #Malabar #Mudbanks (9)
At the peak of the #monsoon, the rough seas disturb the #mudbank at the ocean bed, but the viscous nature of the soil keeps it suspended in water like a brick-structure, thus making it a strong wall that tranquillises sea water around it (10)
Thus, the #Malabar #mudbank creates a calm bank of water just beside a rough sea. The rougher the sea outside, stronger the #mudbank suspension, and calmer the sea inside. Similar mudbanks existed near Beypore (Calicut) Tellichery (Kannur) and Quilon (Kollam) as well (11)
This is the birth of a natural harbour, where ships could dock in peace even during monsoons with a rough sea around it and engage in trade with the #Kerala coastline. The #Romans, #Arabs and many early traders knew this well, thus choosing the monsoon for their expeditions (12)
This is why partly Kerala’s biggest festival, #Onam, is celebrated right after the #monsoons in August/September, unlike #harvest festivals of other neighbouring states like #Pongal, #Ugadi or #Sankaranti which fall in January (13)
However, information on mudbanks were never documented, and major flooding of the #Periyar in the 14th century destroyed the thriving Muziris port. The mud banks moved with tide and wind, and Cochin remained one amount many small ports in #Kerala, until the 19th century (14)
In 1859/1860, the monsoons had been particularly rough. The #BritishCrown had just taken over control of India formally from the #EastIndiaCompany and the Raj established. Captain Castor, a meticulous young officer of the #MadrasPresidency was then Port Officer at Cochin (15)
While #shipping during monsoons was considered dangerous due to the heavy storm, Captain Castor heard that a large ship had anchored safely in calm waters just near Cochin coast. Startled, he decided to check it out himself. That night he saw, a sight to behold, (16)
A large ship resting calmly in serene waters, while the rough waves of the #monsoon sea could be seen right across it a little further. Castor had rediscovered the secret of mud-banks! This particular one was called the #Njarakkal mud-bank (in present day #Vypin Islands) (17)
The #Njarakkal Mudbank helped monsoon docking of vessels in Kochi. Ten years from Captain Castor’s discovery, the #SuezCanal was opened in #Egypt. The growth of a port of call in India’s west coast was imminent as ships began sailing directly from #Europe to the #FarEast (18)
The #Merchants of Cochin saw this as an opportunity, and Mr. J #Aspinwall, representing the Cochin Chamber of Commerce, put a representation to the #MadrasPresidency seeking development of a harbour port at Cochin, citing natural phenomenons global shipping patterns (19)
Yet, governments being governments, it took another half a century before the efforts of the merchants took shape, and in 1918, a #consulting group, Sir John Wolfe Barry and Partners of Westminster, was engaged for a comprehensive study to build a modern #port at Cochin (20)
In early 1920, an #Admiralty Harbour Engineering, Robert Bristow, having served in ports of #Malta and #Portsmouth and worked in #Suez, was transferred to India for ‘harbour duties’ at the Madras Presidency. Thus begins the story of Cochin’s transformation to a modern port (21)
Part 2: The Port Standing on Sea
Robert Bristow was 39 when he made his first voyage to India. He was a stickler for sharp documentation, having corrected his appointment letter, which said ‘a #civil #engineer for #harbour works’ to ‘the civil engineer for harbour works’ (22)
When he first met #LordWillingdon, the then Governor of Madras, all he was told was to build a modern port at the natural harbour at Cochin. Bristow soon saw the challenge. The political challenges upon him were more daunting than the engineering ones in dredging a harbour (23)
Cochin port at that time was not fully in #BritishIndia. It was shared, between the Madras Presidency (under British Raj), the Cochin State (under the King of Cochin) and #Travancore Kingdom. Any modern port would be incomplete with just a deep water wharf for ships to dock (24)
It needed #road and #rail connectivity, for which Bristow would need to aid of the Cochin State and the Travancore Kingdom.
Bristow began by setting up an ad-hoc committee, with representatives from all interested parties (25)
It included #GovtofIndia, the Madras Presidency, princely states of Cochin and Travancore and the #ChamberOfCommerce, At an early meeting, Bristow also stressed the importance of the city from a #naval standpoint, foreseeing the possibility of a major #war within 30 years (26)
After budgeting and agreements on how revenues would be shared between different parties, preliminary sanctions to start dredging the sea bed to build a modern harbour were given, the cost to be shared by all governments. But three independent events stood in Bristow’s way (27)
First was the #FinanceMinister at the Madras Presidency, who preferred another port for development - #Tuticorin, in present day Tamil Nadu. Second was a retired Admiral from London who came to Madras representing a dredging company... (28)
The Admiral planted the idea of #Rameswaram near #Kanyakumari as the ideal location for a port. Third was the South Indian #Railway Company who saw the port as a threat which would cannibalise its rail cargo service if cheaper sea routes and harbours came up (29)
Though many political skirmishes and real estate interests drove the choice towards Tuticorin and Rameswaram which were ‘wholly’ in British India while Cochin was ‘shared’, the Governor, #LordWillingdon, seemed to see Cochin as apt for the port (30)
The sanctions for the port from the committee of governments came when Robert Bristow was in London, on leave for eight months after half a decade in India. He married meanwhile and spent time at home, before heading back to India, this time for execution (31)
In May 1926, the #dredger that would transform Cochin arrived in its shore. It was called Lord Willingdon, though the governors term at the Madras Presidency was over then. The next two years were challenging for Bristow. Him and his wife were nearly poisoned to death once (32)
A local chemist while mixing their regular medicines accidentally added an excess amount of #Arsenic. A near fatal fire spread at the harbour, averted in the nick of time by a vigilant junior engineer, and a major #scandal involving ports (Black Bay Scandal of Bombay) broke (33)
At the end of the turmoil, a rainbow appeared on the Cochin sky in May 1928. Captain Bullen commanded his vessel #Padma into the #CochinHarbour, and a turning point in the city’s history was recorded. (34)
The most interesting part of the new harbour was a marked deviation Bristow made from the report submitted by the consulting engineerings, Sir John Wolfe Barry and Partners of Westminster ten years ago. (35)
While the report suggested #acquiring land along the coast to build a harbour, Bristow realised that large amounts of soil would be pumped out from the seabed anyway during dredging, which could be used to #reclaim land around the Venduruthy Island (36)
Government would have full ownership over areclaimed land, thus avoiding any cost or trouble of #acquisition from private land owners. In the years after the harbours deep water wharf could welcome huge vessels, #development of port infrastructure grew in importance (37)
Bristow was given permission to build a home on this reclaimed land. He built a two storied structure, his residence and his office. Around then, he spoke to #BBC in #London, describing the view from the first floor of his house as ‘the finest #harbour of the East’ (38)
By then, Lord Willingdon was back to India, this time in higher capacity as the #Viceroy. In 1933, the #Maharaja of Cochin expressed publicly his gratitude to the Lord for support on port project, and announced that he would name the reclaimed piece of land after the Viceroy (39)
Thus was born what later grew to me the most important strip of land in the city, #WillingdonIsland. The Port, on this reclaimed land, literally stood on the sea it served. (40)
(To be continued) In Part 3: The Old Bristow City #cities #urbanplanning #urban #industries #trade
Part 3: The Old #Bristow City
The impact of singular structures like ports on the social fabric of a city is often overrated, but in the case of Cochin, it has been rather overlooked. The harbour at Cochin is what brought together various states which claimed ownership to it (41)
Though it was agreed initially that the princely states of Cochin and #Travancore would take one third of #customs remittances at the new harbour in exchange for their initial investment towards its construction, the #BritishRaj found itself at odds. (42)
The original agreement of revenue sharing was drafted when there were no #tariffs imposed on #imports. But as the Raj changed tax structures and trade at Cochin grew exponentially, the share princely states got was exceedingly high when compared to their original investment (43)
The excess trade at Cochin was, after all, at the loss of other ‘wholly British’ ports in the coastline, including #Bombay. Further, jurisdiction of the port became a challenge as #lawmakers in #Madras, #Cochin and #Travancore had different courts. (44)
The Raj banked on Bristow again to engineer this, this time as Harbour Chief. He drafted a committee that was the forerunner to water later became a trust, now known as the #CochinPortTrust. Each of the states would be paid an amount more than what they already earned (45)
However, the earnings would becapped at an upper limit. A clause for a #bonus payment in the event of windfall gains was added. Jurisdiction of the port fell under the Trust, comprising of an Administrator from the #GovtofIndia, and an advisory committee representing states (46)
The laws of Cochin and Travancore states were amended in accordance with those of Madras for smooth administration of the port. This largely set stage for the future #Unification of Cochin and Travancore, an important step towards the birth of #Kerala (47)
In 1935, the first passenger line to Cochin was opened. Bibby Lines droped anchor, and a hostel was set up on the island to house sailors. This hostel later came to be known as the #Malabar Hotel. Today, the most expensive hotel property in Cochin stands as the #TajMalabar (48)
By 1939, just two decades after Bristow’s prediction of war at a committee meeting, World War II had broken out in Europe. By then, a #NavalBase and an #aerodrome had already found its way to Willingdon Island. (49)
Bristow, being the most important man on the island, was asked by the #RoyalIndianMarine (precursor to The #IndianNavy) to be the Commander of Naval forces in Cochin. He declined the offer citing his lack of expertise (50)
Yet, Bristow remained closely involved in making Cochin a major naval command station during the war, vital during the siege that saw the fall of #Singapore and the fight back at #Japanese while they launched attacks on #Colombo. (51)
Bristow’s dedication trumped challenges that the subcontinent’s climate posed to his health. In between, he had to return to England for 18 months, including 3 months of unpaid leave, as he battled with #neurasthenia. He came back after treatment and served until retirement (52)
An unknown facet of his contribution to Cochin is him being among the founders the #LotusClub, which was the first ‘#interracial’ club in India. Clubbing was restricted among Europeans, and most clubs in India prior to Independence were ‘white-only’. (53)
Bristow was a #liberal in the modern sense of the world. He was appreciative of his Indian staff, calling out their talent and #workmanship. He wrote against the idea #partition, insisting that we needed emphasise on #unity, lest they wanted to go back to days of infighting. (54)
His wife served as the president of the #LotusClub and was instrumental in setting up the #MalabarGirlGuides, supported by the Maharaja of Cochin. In 1941, Bristow retired and handed over the mantle of the port to his longtime assistant, A.G Milne. (55)
His two decade career in India had build the foundation for a port city which would later spearhead #industrialisation and services for #Kerala as its #commercial hub. (56)
During COVID period of the last few months, #CochinPort handled 23% of the total crew changes done in India, including 3 of the biggest ships to ever enter Indian Waters (57)
In 1957, Robert Bristow penned a rather melancholy epilogue to his autobiography, referring a press report about the #CochinHarbour from a newspaper in #Somerset, complete with a misquote from an administrative officer and conspicuous absence of his name, anywhere at all.
Engineering a City

‘Cochin Saga’ - Memoirs of Robert Bristow
Kerala History and it’s Makers - Sreedhara Menon
A Club from the British Raj turns 75 -…
Cochin Harbour and Willingdon Island -…
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