History of cotton textile industry in India – Bombay dying 100 years
History of cotton textile industry in India – Bombay dying Mill
A late 19th century portrait of Nowrosjee N. Wadia, founder of Bombay Dyeing, reveals a man in the full
vigour of life. The nose is straight and partician and descends into a carefully brushed, luxuriant black mous-
tache and beard, which the passing years have tinged with grey. Beneath even brows, the wideset eyes appear
to be focused on infinity. They suggest introspection and great distance, as if the subject’s thoughts were
turned to the past or looking ahead into the future. Perhaps both. For it is clear that this man is the product
of two cultures and two worlds.
His dress provides a clue. One of these two worlds vanishes into the mists of prehistory, into long millennia
of the Parsis, that tiny but impressive minority, refugees from ancient Persia, which was to exert on India an
influence out of all proportion to its number. In the picture, Mr. Wadia has paid his respects to the past by
wearing the Parsi paghri, which rises majestically above his forehead, its glossy fabric polka-dotted in the tradi-
tional style. Except for the turban, however, his garments are strictly European: a dark coat cut in the English style
of the period with wide lapels, a stiff white collar and a silk cravat. They speak for the new world that has
overwhelmed India and that has led this Parsi to establish the textile works which he and successive generations
of Wadias will expand into one of the greatest and most progressive in the country.
Uncounted and uncountable centuries went into the making of this man. The historical context is important
to any catalogue of the achievements of his brief lifetime, which covers a mere half century. It begins with the
arrival of the first Parsis on India’s west coast, an event of which the date cannot be accurately fixed but which
probably occurred nearly 1,300 years ago. The Parsis, numbering fewer than 100,000 today in a land of 650
million, pride themselves on being the descendants of a benevolent and powerful people who ruled Persia
centuries before Christ. At one time their land equalled half modern Europe in area and touched the waters of
seven seas: the Mediterranean, the Aegean, the Black, the Caspian, the Indian, the Persian and the Red. Under
Darius Hystaspes (sixth century BC), one of the greatest of the Persian kings, the Parsi empire spread down into
the Punjab and the whole valley of the Indus. The very name Parsi invokes that empire, which was known as
Pars or Fars (later corrupted into Persia). ( History of cotton textile industry in India )
Their prophet, Zoroaster, lived in the 14th century BC and committed to writing two million verses which
became the Parsis’ holy scripture, the Zend Avasta. Contrary to popular belief, they do not worship fire.
Fire to them, like mithra the sun, is only a symbol of Ahura Mazda, their divinity, the quintessential light
from which all things, good and evil, flow.
In 641 AD, at the battle of Navahand, Persia fell to the Arabian Khalifs, and the Parsis, whose faith was pro-
scribed by their Islamic conquerors, were forced to flee, taking with them the sacred fire. more than 100
years they wandered, until at last a small fleet of their ships beached on the west coast of India, near Sanjan,
100 kms northeast of Bombay. Some historians give the year as 716 AD. Very likely it was not the first Parsi
landfall on the Indian subcontinent. According to the writings of a Zoroastrian priest, recorded in 1600, they
first arrived at Diu, a little island on the Gulf of Cambay, south of the Kathiawar coast. There they remained for
some 20 years, picking up the habits and the customs of the people. From Diu they migrated south to Gujarat
until reaching Sanjan.
The Parsis anticipated a cordial welcome from Sanjan’s ruler, Jadav Rana. Already they had assimilated some
of the culture, the language and the ways of the Hindus, and they not only knew that Jadav Rana came from the
same Aryan stock as they, and was therefore predisposed in their favour, but also that he was a man renowned
for his religious tolerance.
In this expectation the Parsis were correct. The refugees were warmly received, and lived in harmony and peace
for the next 300 years. It is not surprising that the Hindus accepted these amiable travellers from an alien shore.
They showed great enterprise. The Parsi religion enjoins its adherents to be liberal in good works and charities
and to look up all men as brothers. A Parsi proverb reads: “Our neighbours are like our fathers and
mothers.” Such beliefs surely earned the outsiders a respected place in their adopted community, as did the
Parsis themselves, a remarkably industrious, far-sighted and adaptable people.
With the overthrow of the Hindus by the Muslims c 1305, the Parsis had to flee again. Three centuries passed
before they re-established themselves in Surat, accom- panied, as always, by the sacred fire whose flames have
never ebbed (if one credits the legend) since they first danced more than 4,000 years ago. Surat was a fateful
conjunction. It was there that the Parsis were exposed to two important historical forces that, in their interplay,
were destined to enrich both the Parsis and India. One was shipbuilding, a craft nearly as old as the Indus
civilisation; at the time, Surat was the centre of India’s Ibat in maritime construction. The other was the Parsis’
encounter with the Europeans Portuguese, French, Dutch and English – who in successive waves had been
disturbing India’s peace for hundreds of years. ( History of cotton textile industry in India )
India was building great seagoing vessels as early as the fourth century BC and carrying on a lively sea trade
with Arabia, Egypt, Africa and Rome; some of their ships may have touched the west shore of Mexico. Writes
one present-day historian: “Ships were made in India and manned and navigated by Indian sailors and were
sailing the Indian and Pacific Oceans in the centuries when the very existence of the country was almost
legendary in the Western hemisphere.” It is probable that among the cargo these ships bore were fine home-
spun cottons from Calicut, wool shawls from Kashmir and silks and muslins from Dacca so delicately
made that an entire sari could be drawn through a woman’s ring.
By the 14th century, Indian-built ships capable of carrying 700 passengers were ploughing the waves. In the
early 17th century, when England, then the greatest sea power in the West, was building ships of 300 to 350 tons,
the dockyards at Surat and also at Dabhol were floating craft four times that weight.
The 16th century arrival of Parsis in the port of Surat coincided with the last chapter of India’s distinguished
history as a maritime power. They came in time, however, to lend considerable substance to that final chapter.
They took to marine construction as if they had been born to it – as possibly they were. enough, their
reputation had spread 400 kilo metres south to Bombay. ?”
Portugal had beat England to India by a century and had seized large parts
of it, including Bombay, which was then a scatter of seven small islands called the Kolis after the fishing folk
who first settled there. (From one of the seven islands, Mumba Aai, named by the Kolis after their patron
goddess Mumba Devi, the city of Bombay took its name.) England first acquired Bombay as a gift of the
Portuguese, part of the Portuguese princess Catherine of Braganza’s dowry in her marriage to Charles II of
England in 1662, but thought so little of it that it was leased to the East India Company for £10 a year. The
city did not formally pass to British control until 1665.
Concerned with developing Bombay into a shipbuilding centre the equal of Surat, the Bombay Council, in a
letter dated 10 January 1736, requested of Surat the services of a number of journeymen carpenters and
shipbuilders. The letter specifically asked for one Lowji Nusserwanji, a Parsi, whose reputation had preceded
him to Bombay. Two months later, Lowji arrived in Bombay accompanied by ten Parsi ship’s carpenters –
among them five Wadias, including a younger brother. With his arrival began the dynasty of Parsi shipbuilders
that was to endure for the next 150 years, well into the age of steam and that, more important to this history,
was also to direct one of Lowji’s descendants, Nowrosjee Wadia, into another field of endeavour entirely. Wadia
is a corruption of the Gujarathi word for shipbuilder, vadia, but it was not until 1774 that this Parsi family
adopted it as its surname. Nowrosjee Wadia’s ancestry can be traced directly, through six generations, to the
first master shipbuilder: he was, in fact, Lowji Nusser – wanjee’s great-great-great-great-great grandson.
Lowji was the first Wadia to be honoured by appointment to the post of “master shipbuilder” in Bombay’s dock-
yards. The British Government in India was to bestow it on six more. Among them they designed and built
some 335 ships, including 16 men of war the first ships of the line constructed for the British Navy outside
England. More than a few of the Wadia vessels sailed into legend. Built of Malabar teak,
be stouter than British oak, they “so far exceed any in Europe for durability that it is usual for (Wadia) ships
to last 50 or 60 years.” The statement comes from an 18th century English visitor to Bombay, one Abraham
Parsons. A Wadia frigate, the Salsette, built by Jamsetjee Wadia in the late 18th century, withstood undamaged
nine ice-locked weeks in the north Baltic Sea in 1809; every other sister vessel on that hazardous voyage was
crushed and foundered. ( History of cotton textile industry in India )
It was on another Wadia ship, the Cornwallis (74 guns, 1,809 tons, crew of 590), that the Chinese signed the
Treaty of Nanking in 1842, ceding Hong Kong to England.
in the American-British War of 1812 as the flagship of the British fleet.* In 1815 she fired the last sea cannon in
that conflict. So fast was the Cornwallis that her target,the American sloop Hornet, was forced to jettison her
cargo, her anchor, the ship’s launch and her guns in order to escape. Fitted with a steam engine and a screw,
the Cornwallis saw action in the 1855 Baltic campaign against the Russians and was one of the ships which
successfully reduced the Sandham Forts at Sveaborg. In 1865 the Cornwallis sailed to England on her last,
somewhat ignominious mission: to form a part of the landing jetty at the Sheerness Dockyard in Portsmouth.
At the advanced age of 144 years she was broken up in 1957 — and found to be as tight and seaworthy as the
day of her launching in 1813. Her name lives on to this day in Bombay’s Cornwallis Fleet Canteen, established
by Sir Ness Wadia during the second world war for Indian Navy seamen. Wadia ship, the HMS
Trincomalee, built in 1817, is still afloat. Re-named the Foudroyant, she serves as a training vessel for British
Navy cadets in Gosport, England.
Such was the Wadia-built ships’ reputation for speed that John Willis, owner of the British clipper Cutty
– Sark, added two of them to his fleet. One was the Punjab, of 1,745 tons, which had been constructed in 1854 by
Nowrosjee Wadia’s great-grandfather, Cursetjee. Under her second name, the Tweed — she was also known as
Willis’s Wonder this vessel made the London- Melbourne passage in 83 days, a record unbroken to
this day by any sailing ship of her class. In Surat, and later in Bombay, the adaptable Parsis
proved to be indispensable middlemen in the already- flourishing commerce between India and the West.
Highly literate, free of the cast prejudices that bound their foster land then as now, quick to learn the curious
manners and tongues imported by the first rapacious sails from Europe, energetic and eager, they were in
every way well suited to the role. In a short time they were filling it, with fine disregard for the overtones of
colonialism implied by serving foreign masters. Are not all men brothers?
“Either the Parsis had the knack of ingratiating them- selve in the favour of the Europeans or they were selected
by them for their intelligence, business habits and integrity,” writes Dosabhai Framji Karaka, himself
At least one other Wadia man-of-war, the Minden, launched in 1810, fought in that war. It was on her deck that the American
poet Francis Scott Key, as a guest of the British during the shelling of Charleston, West Virginia, composed what later became the
American national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner.” a Parsi, in his two-volume History of The Parsis,
published in London in 1884. “The Portuguese, French, Dutch and English factories all employed Parsis as their
chief brokers; and without them it may be said that they found it almost impossible to conduct their trading and
banking operations.” ( History of cotton textile industry in India )
Their contact with Europeans “opened up an unexpected field for the energy, industry and enterprise of the
Parsis,” adds Historian Karaka. Just as the Wadia family had installed themselves as master builders in the dock-
yards of Surat and Bombay, so now, with the same success, other Parsis fanned out through every facet of
colonial Indian life generally from the top. The record of Parsi accomplishment is too long for inclusion here
and is best suggested by a few of the more notable achievements:
The first type-founder in a vernacular tongue, the first compositor in English, the first Indian to become
manager of an English newspaper, and one of the pro- prietors of the Times of India (founded in 1838) were
The first Indians to be entrusted with a State mint were Parsis, the Merjis — possibly the only family, Indian or
European, ever to engrave its initials on national coin. One such silver coin, struck in the mid-19th century,
bore the initials of Pestanji Merji and became widely known as the Pestan shai.
A Parsi, Jijibhai Dadabhai, introduced steam navigation for commercial and passenger traffic along India’s
A Parsi, Jamshedji Dorabji, ranks among the charter promoters of the Indian railway system and by the mid-
19th century employed a force of 17,000.
The first Indian Fellow of the Royal Society of London (1841) was a Parsi and a Wadia: Ardeseer Cursetjee,
son of a Wadia master builder and Nowrosjee’s grandfather. A gifted engineer, he designed and built in his
youth a one-hp steam engine that actually worked. He also introduced gas lighting to Bombay. In March 1834,
his bungalow and gardens at Mazagaon were so brilliantly lit for a visit by the Earl of Clare, Governor of Bombay,
that the Earl’s carriage was delayed for hours by the crowds of the curious that blocked its route. Among
the sights illuminated for the guest was a garden fountain whose graceful spray was produced by a steam pump
built by the host.
The first Indian to be knighted was a Parsi: Sir Jamshedji Jijibhoi, upon whom the title was bestowed
by the Empress Victoria in 1842. This same distinguished gentleman, of whom Karaka writes that he “shed the
greatest lustre on the Parsi race in India,” was also raised to a baronetcy shortly before his death in 1859 — also
the first Indian to receive this honour. In passing, it should be noted that Sir Jamshedji was the great-great
grandfather of Bai Jerbai Wadia, wife of the founder of Bombay Dyeing.
The first Indian appointed to India’s High Court – then the country’s supreme authority
was a Parsi and a Wadia: Khurshedji Rustomji, a first cousin of Bombay Dyeing’s founder and a man of great inde-
pendence of spirit. At a time when capital punishment was commonly meted out by the High Court, Khurshedji,
whose humanity rejected this sentence, so consistently refused to pronounce it that the British Government
all but commanded him to do so. Instead of compromising his principles by obeying, he resigned his office.
The first Indian to open a paper mill was a Parsi Sorabji Framji, who erected his factory in 1854.
No record of illustrious Parsis would be complete without the name of Rustomji Dorabji, whose insur-
passable contribution to India was to rescue Bombay. In 1692 the city was stricken by a plague so severe that
the Sidis of Janjira, taking advantage of this circum-stance, organized bands of pirates along the Malabar
Coast and wrested the city from the British. On his own initiative, this bold Parsi mustered a militia from the
local fishermen and drove out the invaders. For this singular feat, Rustomji Dorabji was granted the here-
ditary title of Patel (lord or chief) of Bombay.
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